Thoreau's books, articles, essays, journals, and poetry total over 20 volumes. Among his lasting contributions were his writings on natural history and philosophy, where he anticipated the methods and findings of ecology and environmental history, two sources of modern day environmentalism.
He was a lifelong abolitionist, delivering lectures that attacked the Fugitive Slave Law while praising the writings of Wendell Phillips and defending abolitionist John Brown. Thoreau’s philosophy of nonviolent resistance influenced the political thoughts and actions of such later figures as Leo Tolstoy, Mahatma Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, Jr.
Thoreau is sometimes cited as an individualist anarchist as well as an inspiration to anarchists. Though Civil Disobedience calls for improving rather than abolishing government — "I ask for, not at once no government, but at once a better government" — the direction of this improvement aims at anarchism: “‘That government is best which governs not at all;’ and when men are prepared for it, that will be the kind of government which they will have.”
He was born David Henry Thoreau in Concord, Massachusetts to John Thoreau (a pencil maker) and Cynthia Dunbar. His paternal grandfather was of French origin and was born in Jersey. His maternal grandfather, Asa Dunbar, was known for leading Harvard's 1766 student "Butter Rebellion the first recorded student protest in the United States. David Henry was named after a recently deceased paternal uncle, David Thoreau. He did not become “Henry David” until after college, although he never petitioned to make a legal name change. He had two older siblings, Helen and John Jr., and a younger sister, Sophia. Thoreau’s birthplace still exists on Virginia Road in Concord and is currently the focus of preservation efforts. The house is original, but it now stands about 100 yards away from its first site.
Bronson Alcott and Thoreau's aunt both wrote that “Thoreau” is pronounced like the word “thorough”, whose standard American pronunciation rhymes with “furrow”. In appearance he was homely, with a nose that he called “my most prominent feature.” Of his face, Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote: "[Thoreau] is as ugly as sin, long-nosed, queer-mouthed, and with uncouth and rustic, though courteous manners, corresponding very well with such an exterior. But his ugliness is of an honest and agreeable fashion, and becomes him much better than beauty. Thoreau also wore a neck-beard for many years, which he insisted many women found attractive. However, Louisa May Alcott reportedly mentioned to Ralph Waldo Emerson that Thoreau's facial hair "will most assuredly deflect amorous advances and preserve the man's virtue in perpetuity.
Thoreau studied at Harvard University between 1833 and 1837. He lived in Hollis Hall and took courses in rhetoric, classics, philosophy, mathematics, and science. Legend states that Thoreau refused to pay the five-dollar fee for a Harvard diploma. In fact, the master's degree he declined to purchase had no academic merit: Harvard College offered it to graduates "who proved their physical worth by being alive three years after graduating, and their saving, earning, or inheriting quality or condition by having Five Dollars to give the college. His comment was: "Let every sheep keep its own skin", presumably a reference to the tradition of diplomas being written on vellum, a paper made from sheepskin.
Upon graduation Thoreau returned home to Concord, where he met Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emerson took a paternal and at times patronizing interest in Thoreau, advising the young man and introducing him to a circle of local writers and thinkers, including Ellery Channing, Margaret Fuller, Bronson Alcott, Nathaniel Hawthorne and his son Julian Hawthorne, who was a boy at the time.
Emerson constantly urged Thoreau to contribute essays and poems to a quarterly periodical, The Dial, and Emerson lobbied with editor Margaret Fuller to publish those writings. Thoreau’s first essay published there was Aulus Persius Flaccus; a very difficult to follow essay on the playwright of the same name, published in The Dial in July of 1840. It consisted of revised passages from his journal, which he had begun keeping at Emerson’s suggestion. The first entry on October 22, 1837, reads, "‘What are you doing now?’ he asked. ‘Do you keep a journal?’ So I make my first entry today."
Thoreau was a philosopher of nature and its relation to the human condition. In his early years he followed Transcendentalism, a loose and eclectic idealist philosophy advocated by Emerson, Fuller, and Alcott. They held that an ideal spiritual state transcends, or goes beyond, the physical and empirical, and that one achieves that insight via personal intuition rather than religious doctrine. In their view, Nature is the outward sign of inward spirit, expressing the “radical correspondence of visible things and human thoughts,” as Emerson wrote in Nature (1836).
On April 18, 1841, Thoreau moved into the Emerson house. There, from 1841-1844, he served as the children’s tutor, editorial assistant, and repair man/gardener. For a few months in 1843, he moved to the home of William Emerson on Staten Island, tutoring the family sons while writing for New York periodicals, aided in part by his future literary representative Horace Greeley.
Thoreau returned to Concord and worked in his family's pencil factory, which he continued to do for most of his adult life. He rediscovered the process to make a good pencil out of inferior graphite by using clay as the binder; this invention improved upon graphite found in New Hampshire in 1821 by Charles Dunbar. (The process of mixing graphite and clay, known as the Conté process, was patented by Nicolas-Jacques Conté in 1795.) Later, Thoreau converted the factory to produce plumbago (graphite), used to ink typesetting machines.
Once back in Concord, Thoreau went through a restless period. In April 1844 he and his friend Edward Hoar accidentally set a fire that consumed of Walden Woods. He spoke often of finding a farm to buy or lease, which he felt would give him a means to support himself while also providing enough solitude to write his first book.
Thoreau embarked on a two-year experiment in simple living on July 4, 1845, when he moved to a small self-built house on land owned by Emerson in a second-growth forest around the shores of Walden Pond. The house was not in wilderness but at the edge of town, 1.5 miles (2.4 km) from his family home.
On July 24 or July 25, 1846, Thoreau ran into the local tax collector, Sam Staples, who asked him to pay six years of delinquent poll taxes. Thoreau refused because of his opposition to the Mexican-American War and slavery, and he spent a night in jail because of this refusal. (The next day Thoreau was freed, over his protests, when his aunt paid his taxes.) The experience had a strong impact on Thoreau. In January and February 1848, he delivered lectures on "The Rights and Duties of the Individual in relation to Government explaining his tax resistance at the Concord Lyceum. Bronson Alcott attended the lecture; who wrote in his journal on January 26,
Heard Thoreau’s lecture before the Lyceum on the relation of the individual to the State — an admirable statement of the rights of the individual to self-government, and an attentive audience. His allusions to the Mexican War, to Mr. Hoar’s expulsion from Carolina, his own imprisonment in Concord Jail for refusal to pay his tax, Mr. Hoar’s payment of mine when taken to prison for a similar refusal, were all pertinent, well considered, and reasoned. I took great pleasure in this deed of Thoreau’s.
Thoreau is frequently quoted as espousing that the true place for a just man is in prison. He in fact actually writes in Civil Disobedience, "Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison.
At Walden Pond, he completed a first draft of A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, an elegy to his brother, John, that described their 1839 trip to the White Mountains. Thoreau did not find a publisher for this book and instead printed 1,000 copies at his own expense, though fewer than 300 sold. Thoreau self-published on the advice of Emerson, using Emerson’s own publisher Munroe, who did little to publicize the book. Its failure put Thoreau into debt that took years to pay off, and Emerson’s flawed advice caused a schism between the friends that never entirely healed.
Thoreau left Walden Pond on September 6, 1847. Over several years, he worked to pay off his debts and also continuously revised his manuscript. In 1854, he published Walden, or Life in the Woods, recounting the two years, two months, and two days he had spent at Walden Pond. The book compresses that time into a single calendar year, using the passage of four seasons to symbolize human development. Part memoir and part spiritual quest, Walden at first won few admirers, but today critics regard it as a classic American book that explores natural simplicity, harmony, and beauty as models for just social and cultural conditions.
In 1851, Thoreau became increasingly fascinated with natural history and travel/expedition narratives. He read avidly on botany and often wrote observations on this topic into his journal. He greatly admired William Bartram and Charles Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle. He kept detailed observations on Concord's nature lore, recording everything from how the fruit ripened over time to the fluctuating depths of Walden Pond and the days certain birds migrated. The point of this task was to “anticipate” the seasons of nature, in his words.
He became a land surveyor and continued to write increasingly detailed natural history observations about the 26 square mile (67 km²) township in his journal, a two-million word document he kept for 24 years. He also kept a series of separate notebooks, and these observations became the source for Thoreau's late natural history writings, such as Autumnal Tints, The Succession of Trees, and Wild Apples, an essay bemoaning the destruction of indigenous and wild apple species.
Until the 1970s, Thoreau’s late pursuits were dismissed by literary critics as amateur science and philosophy. With the rise of environmental history and ecocriticism, several new readings of this matter began to emerge, showing Thoreau to be both a philosopher and an analyst of ecological patterns in fields and woodlots. For instance, his late essay, "The Succession of Forest Trees," shows that he used experimentation and analysis to explain how forests regenerate after fire or human destruction, through dispersal by seed-bearing winds or animals.
He traveled to Quebec once, Cape Cod four times, and Maine three times; these landscapes inspired his "excursion" books, A Yankee in Canada, Cape Cod, and The Maine Woods, in which travel itineraries frame his thoughts about geography, history and philosophy. Other travels took him southwest to Philadelphia and New York City in 1854, and west across the Great Lakes region in 1861, visiting Niagara Falls, Detroit, Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Mackinac Island.
After John Brown’s raid at Harpers Ferry, many prominent voices in the abolitionist movement distanced themselves from Brown, or damned him with faint praise. Thoreau was disgusted by this, and he composed a speech — A Plea for Captain John Brown — which was uncompromising in its defense of Brown and his actions. Thoreau’s speech proved persuasive: first the abolitionist movement began to accept Brown as a martyr, and by the time of the American Civil War entire armies of the North were literally singing Brown’s praises. As a contemporary biographer of John Brown put it: “If, as Alfred Kazin suggests, without John Brown there would have been no Civil War, we would add that without the Concord Transcendentalists, John Brown would have had little cultural impact.”
Thoreau first contracted tuberculosis in 1835 and suffered from it sporadically over his life. In 1859, following a late night excursion to count the rings of tree stumps during a rain storm, he became ill with bronchitis. His health declined over three years with brief periods of remission, until he eventually became bedridden. Recognizing the terminal nature of his disease, Thoreau spent his last years revising and editing his unpublished works, particularly The Maine Woods and Excursions, and petitioning publishers to print revised editions of A Week and Walden. He also wrote letters and journal entries until he became too weak to continue. His friends were alarmed at his diminished appearance and were fascinated by his tranquil acceptance of death. When his aunt Louisa asked him in his last weeks if he had made his peace with God, Thoreau responded quite simply: “I did not know we had ever quarreled.” Aware he was dying, Thoreau's last words were “Now comes good sailing,” followed by two lone words, “moose” and “Indian.” He died on 6 May 1862 at age 44.
Originally buried in the Dunbar family plot, he and members of his immediate family were eventually moved to Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord, Massachusetts. Emerson wrote the eulogy spoken at his funeral. Thoreau’s friend Ellery Channing published his first biography, Thoreau the Poet-Naturalist, in 1873, and Channing and another friend Harrison Blake edited some poems, essays, and journal entries for posthumous publication in the 1890s. Thoreau’s Journal, often mined but largely unpublished at his death, first appeared in 1906 and helped to build his modern reputation. A new and greatly expanded edition of the Journal is underway, published by Princeton University Press. Today, Thoreau is regarded as one of the foremost American writers, both for the modern clarity of his prose style and the prescience of his views on nature and politics. His memory is honored by the international Thoreau Society.
Thoreau was an early advocate of recreational hiking and canoeing, of conserving natural resources on private land, and of preserving wilderness as public land. Thoreau was also one of the first American supporters of Darwin's theory of evolution. He was not a strict vegetarian, though he said he preferred that diet and advocated it as a means of self-improvement. He wrote in Walden: "The practical objection to animal food in my case was its uncleanness; and besides, when I had caught and cleaned and cooked and eaten my fish, they seemed not to have fed me essentially. It was insignificant and unnecessary, and cost more than it came to. A little bread or a few potatoes would have done as well, with less trouble and filth."
Thoreau neither rejected civilization nor fully embraced wilderness. Instead he sought a middle ground, the pastoral realm that integrates both nature and culture. The wildness he enjoyed was the nearby swamp or forest, and he preferred “partially cultivated country.” His idea of being “far in the recesses of the wilderness” of Maine was to “travel the logger’s path and the Indian trail,” but he also hiked on pristine untouched land. In the essay "Henry David Thoreau, Philosopher" Roderick Nash writes: "Thoreau left Concord in 1846 for the first of three trips to northern Maine. His expectations were high because he hoped to find genuine, primeval America. But contact with real wilderness in Maine affected him far differently than had the idea of wilderness in Concord. Instead of coming out of the woods with a deepened appreciation of the wilds, Thoreau felt a greater respect for civilization and realized the necessity of balance."
On alcohol, Thoreau wrote: "I would fain keep sober always... I believe that water is the only drink for a wise man; wine is not so noble a liquor... Of all ebriosity, who does not prefer to be intoxicated by the air he breathes?"
Thoreau’s writings had far reaching influences on many public figures. Political leaders and reformers like Mahatma Gandhi, President John F. Kennedy, civil rights activist Martin Luther King, Jr., Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, and Russian author Leo Tolstoy all spoke of being strongly affected by Thoreau’s work, particularly Civil Disobedience. So did many artists and authors including Edward Abbey, Willa Cather, Marcel Proust, William Butler Yeats, Sinclair Lewis, Ernest Hemingway, E. B. White, and Frank Lloyd Wright and naturalists like John Burroughs, John Muir, E. O. Wilson, Edwin Way Teale, Joseph Wood Krutch , B. F. Skinner, and David Brower. Anarchist and feminist Emma Goldman also appreciated Thoreau and referred to him as “the greatest American anarchist.”
Mahatma Gandhi first read Walden in 1906 while working as a civil rights activist in Johannesburg, South Africa. He told American reporter Webb Miller, "[Thoreau's] ideas influenced me greatly. I adopted some of them and recommended the study of Thoreau to all of my friends who were helping me in the cause of Indian Independence. Why I actually took the name of my movement from Thoreau's essay 'On the Duty of Civil Disobedience,' written about 80 years ago.
Martin Luther King, Jr. noted in his autobiography that his first encounter with the idea of non-violent resistance was reading "On Civil Disobedience" in 1944 while attending Morehouse College. He wrote in his autobiography that it was
Here, in this courageous New Englander's refusal to pay his taxes and his choice of jail rather than support a war that would spread slavery's territory into Mexico, I made my first contact with the theory of nonviolent resistance. Fascinated by the idea of refusing to cooperate with an evil system, I was so deeply moved that I reread the work several times.
I became convinced that noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good. No other person has been more eloquent and passionate in getting this idea across than Henry David Thoreau. As a result of his writings and personal witness, we are the heirs of a legacy of creative protest. The teachings of Thoreau came alive in our civil rights movement; indeed, they are more alive than ever before. Whether expressed in a sit-in at lunch counters, a freedom ride into Mississippi, a peaceful protest in Albany, Georgia, a bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, these are outgrowths of Thoreau's insistence that evil must be resisted and that no moral man can patiently adjust to injustice.
The University of Michigan's New England Literature Program is an experiential literature and writing program run through the university's Department of English Language and Literature which was started in the 1970s by professors Alan Howes and Walter Clark. Howes and Clark called upon Thoreauvian ideals of nature, independence and community to create an academic program modeled after Thoreau's experiment at Walden Pond. Today, students at NELP study Thoreau's work — as well as that of several other New England writers from the 19th and 20th centuries — in relative isolation on Sebago Lake in Raymond, Maine.
American psychologist B. F. Skinner wrote that he carried a copy of Thoreau's Walden with him in his youth. and, in 1945, wrote Walden Two, a fictional utopia about 1,000 members of a community living together inspired by the life of Thoreau.
Thoreau inspired children's book author and illustrator D.B. Johnson to create a series of picture books based on Thoreau. The first book Henry Hikes to Fitchburg has become a bestseller.
…Thoreau’s content and ecstasy in living was, we may say, like a plant that he had watered and tended with womanish solicitude; for there is apt to be something unmanly, something almost dastardly, in a life that does not move with dash and freedom, and that fears the bracing contact of the world. In one word, Thoreau was a skulker. He did not wish virtue to go out of him among his fellow-men, but slunk into a corner to hoard it for himself. He left all for the sake of certain virtuous self-indulgences.
Richard Zacks pokes fun at Thoreau in An Underground Education : The Unauthorized and Outrageous Supplement to Everything You Thought You Knew About Art, Sex, Business, Crime, Science, Medicine, and Other Fields of Human Knowledge saying:
Thoreau's 'Walden, or Life in the Woods' deserves its status as a great American book but let it be known that Nature Boy went home on weekends to raid the family cookie jar. While living the simple life in the woods, Thoreau walked into nearby Concord, Mass., almost every day. And his mom, who lived less than two miles away, delivered goodie baskets filled with meals, pies and doughnuts every Saturday. The more one reads in Thoreau's unpolished journal of his stay in the woods, the more his sojourn resembles suburban boys going to their tree-house in the backyard and pretending they're camping in the heart of the jungle.
People — very wise in their own eyes — who would have every man’s life ordered according to a particular pattern, and who are intolerant of every existence the utility of which is not palpable to them, may pooh-pooh Mr. Thoreau and this episode in his history, as unpractical and dreamy.
Poet John Greenleaf Whittier had a conflicting reaction, saying that the message in Walden was that man should lower himself to the level of a woodchuck and walk on four legs. He said: "Thoreau's Walden is a capital reading, but very wicked and heathenish... After all, for me, I prefer walking on two legs.