The third of four children born to John and Cynthia, Thoreau entered the world on July 12, 1817, in Concord, Massachusetts. Growing up with countryside around him, Thoreau took a deep interest in nature, and at age twelve, he collected samples and specimens for Louis Agassiz's research. Thoreau attended Concord Academy, and because he was deemed the more academic of the two boys, he was chosen to apply to Harvard College. This decision almost proved embarrassing when Thoreau barely passed the entrance exams. However, he redeemed himself. He won scholarships, studied philosophy, mathematics, science, rhetoric, modern language, and the classics, and graduated ninth in his class.
After graduation, Thoreau, who had been born as David Henry, changed his name to Henry David and became a teacher at the Concord Academy. His philosophy didn't suit the needs of the school, and Thoreau refused to issue corporal punishment, so he was dismissed. Venturing out with his brother, the two opened a school of their own in 1838. Basing their educational concepts on the theories of Amos Bronson Alcott, Louisa May Alcott's father, the Thoreaus emphasized field trips to local sights, stores, and businesses as well as walks through the woods. They did not administer corporal punishment, believing instead in the art of persuasion.
The school grew is size and popularity. During the summer the brothers took a boat trip, appreciating the nature around them. For Thoreau, this trip proved extremely important because it allowed him pleasurable time with John, with whom he was very close. John's health declined over the next couple of years as he suffered from tuberculosis, and they chose to close the school. Thoreau then worked for a while at the pencil factory his father owned, designing machinery and growing the business.
During this time Thoreau had made friends with Ralph Waldo Emerson who encouraged him to keep a journal of his thoughts and observations. Emerson also suggested that Thoreau submit his poetry and essays to a magazine that he'd helped co-found called The Dial
. Thoreau's work began seeing publication, and he began assisting at the magazine while also giving lectures at the Concord Lyceum. Emerson and Alcott's belief in transcendentalism, finding reality through spiritual discernment and downplaying the use of intellect, influenced Thoreau to the extent that he joined the Transcendental Club and used transcendentalism to explain the natural world.
At the request of Emerson, Thoreau left the pencil factory and joined the Emerson household as a tutor for the children and a handyman. This job of relative comfort gave Thoreau the opportunity to write, think, and read. However, John's death in early 1842 from tetanus deeply affected Thoreau, and Emerson's son also died, leaving the family bereaved by both losses. Thoreau only left the Emersons to travel to New York where he served as tutor to Emerson's brother's children. Fortunately for him, he also met Horace Greeley who later became his literary agent and publicist.
When Thoreau returned home to Concord he again worked at the pencil factory and took up the job of surveyor. Only later did he become recognized for his highly accurate, excellent work. Most people saw Thoreau as odd, a Harvard graduate who wandered around, not working much. Their impression didn't improve when Thoreau and a friend set a fire they didn't completely extinguish during a fishing trip which burned 300 acres of woods. He then gave the townsfolk more to talk about when on July 4, 1845, he built his own structure and took up residence on land owned by Emerson near Walden Pond.
Thoreau took this time to write in his journal about living the simple life and pen the book A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers
which retold his journey with his brother. For over two years Thoreau lived in his hut. But one day while meandering into Concord, he was arrested and jailed for his failure to pay taxes. Thoreau had refused to pay based on his opposition to the Mexican-American War and the country's support of slavery. His night in jail spurred him to write a lecture explaining his beliefs, and this he later turned into an essay also known as Civil Disobedience.
In debt from self-publishing his book, Thoreau left Walden Pond. Working to pay his debts and revising a manuscript about his life in the woods, Thoreau spent more and more of his time studying botany. His detailed observations he recorded in his journal, which eventually became a 2 million word piece he'd contributed to for 24 years. Thoreau also kept notebooks full of information he later used for natural history essays and articles. When Thoreau eventually found a publisher for his book called Walden
, it wasn't received well. It garnered him little success, but he nonetheless continued to write, lecture, read, travel, and take notes on weather, geography, history, philosophy, nature, ecology, conservation, and how people related to the world around them. Though much of his later life's work centers more on natural science than transcendentalism with nature assuming a role close to godliness, Thoreau wouldn't consider himself a true scientist. He even turned down an invitation to join the Association for the Advancement of Science.
Toward the end of his life and six years after Walden
saw publication, Thoreau contracted tuberculosis in 1860. By this time Thoreau was the chief surveyor in the town and employed at the pencil factory, making him financially independent. His illness worsened when he took a trip to Minnesota and eventually he took to his bed unable to leave it. This forced confinement allowed Thoreau to edit his writings and revise unpublished works. On May 6, 1862, Thoreau passed away surrounded by his mother, his sister, and his aunt.
It was after his death that much of Thoreau's work was published by his sister and his friends. They then went for decades relatively ignored. When his writings resurfaced, they came to have a large impact on societies. The Civil Disobedience
essay influenced later leaders such as Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., and Walden
became a classic of American literature. Thoreau's views and findings in nature led to words such as ecology and environmentalism. His works have been translated into many languages; he was inducted into the Hall of Fame; and, to honor him, a postage stamp was issued.
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