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Henry David Thoreau  

The author of "Walden" and "Civil Disobedience" as well as other works, Henry D. Thoreau is one of America's most respected writers-an eccentric individualist whose essays and books are widely read today.
Last Updated: Sep 30, 2016 URL: Print Guide RSS Updates

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Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862)


Walden Pond


Thoreau's Grave


Brief Biography


Born on July 12, 1817 in Concord, Massachusetts, Henry David Thoreau lived most of his life in the small town, about 20 miles west of Boston.  His father was a pencil maker.  The family business produced the best pencils in New England-perhaps in the entire United States- and Henry often worked with his father.   The young Thoreau was educated in the local public school and a private academy.   He proved to be a good student and enrolled in Harvard College where he graduated in the top of his class in 1837.  At the time, there were few professions open to college graduates.  The law, ministry, medicine and teaching were the usual professions graduates pursued.  Thoreau was not suited, he believed for the first three.  Teaching was the only profession that interested him.   He was hired as a teacher in the Concord public school, but resigned after only two weeks because he refused to use corporal punishment on his young pupils.  He and his brother, John, opened their own school in 1838 but they closed it when John fell seriously ill and Henry could not run it on his own.  For a time, Henry worked with his father making quality pencils. In 1839, Henry and John spent an enjoyable  two weeks boating on the Concord and Merrimack rivers to Mount Washington in New Hampshire.   This trip formed the basis of Thoreau's book "A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers" published in 1849.  In 1842, John died a painful death due to lockjaw.  The death deeply affected Henry as he was close to his more carefree brother.  It was during this time that Henry lived with his mentor, Ralph Waldo Emerson.  He worked as a caretaker and handyman. He also absorbed and was affected by the Transcendental ideas of Emerson and others.  Transcendentalism, to put it very simply, was a philosophical movement in America, especially in New England, which was a reaction to rationalism.  It was influenced by romanticism and Platonism .  Transcendentalists believed that divinity pervades all of nature and humanity.

From 1845 to 1847 Thoreau lived in a small cabin he built by himself along Walden Pond, a 62 acre body of water near Concord.  This experience led to his most famous book "Walden" published in 1854.  In 1846, he took a break from living in his cabin to climb to the top of Mount Katahdin, Maine's highest mountain.  This treak into the interior of Maine would be the basis for his book "The Maine Woods."   Also in 1846 he spent a night in jail for refusing to pay his poll tax.  This experience led to his famous essay  "Civil Disobedience."  He stayed with Emerson again for a short time, finally returning to his family's home in 1848, where he rented a room.  He lived there for the rest of his short life.   He did not remain home: he made the first of four trips to Cape Cod in 1849. He also went to Quebec in 1850.  His lectures about his experiences there and in Cape Cod  were published as books.   In 1856 he traveled to Perth Amboy, New Jersey to survey a large estate.  ( he was an expert surveyor)  While there he visited Walt Whitman who was living in Brooklyn.   He made more trips to Maine and the White Mountains.  In 1859 he spoke and wrote in defence of John Brown, the ardent abolitionist.  In 1860 he lectured on forest trees and his "Succession of Forest Trees" was published and then republished.   It assured his reputation as a naturalist.

Thoreau, who contracted tuberculosis while a young man, became ill with bronchitis while in the woods in December, 1860.  The illness left him housebound for many weeks.   During the summer of 1861 he went to Minnesota in an effort to regain his health.  The trip did not help him and realizing his time was short, he calmly put his affairs in order and prepared his lectures for publication.    He died peacefully, in his family's home on May 6, 1862.  He was 44 years old.   He is buried in his family's  plot in Concord's Sleepy Hollow Cemetery.  With him are Emerson, Hawthorne and other notables.

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