Henry David Thoreau (1817 – 1862) was an American philosopher, naturalist, writer and political activist of the early Modern period. He was involved with the 19th Century American Transcendentalism movement of his friend and mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Although relatively unknown to the general public during his own lifetime, the influence of his philosophy of civil disobedience and non-violent resistance has been specifically credited by such later figures as Leo Tolstoy, Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. He adhered to no recognizable political position, but his work to some extent influenced later generations of Anarchists, Marxists and Existentialiststs.
Likewise, it was only many years after his death that he came to be regarded as one of the foremost American writers, both for the modern clarity of his prose style and for his prescient of his views on nature and politics. His writings on natural history anticipated the methods and findings of modern ecology and environmentalism.
Thoreau (pronounced THUR-ow) was born on 12 July 1817 in Concord, Massachusetts. He was christened David Henry Thoreau; he only became known as “Henry David” after college. His father was John Thoreau, the owner of a pencil factory in Concord; his mother was Cynthia Dunbar (her father, Asa Dunbar, was known for leading Harvard’s 1766 “Butter Rebellion”, the first recorded student protest in the United States). He had two older siblings, Helen and John Jr., and a younger sister, Sophia. He was usually described as plain to the point of ugly, with a long nose, misshapen mouth and wild neck-beard, and with “uncouth and rustic, though courteous” manners.
He studied at Concord Academy from 1828 to 1833, and then at Harvard University from 1833 to 1837, taking courses in rhetoric, classics, philosophy, mathematics and science. During a leave of absence from Harvard in 1835, he taught at a school in Canton, Massachusetts, awakening an interest in education. After graduating in 1837, he briefly joined the faculty of Concord Academy, but the school board soon dismissed him when he refused to administer corporal punishment. He and his brother John then opened a grammar school in Concord in 1838, where they introduced several progressive concepts, including nature walks and visits to local shops and businesses. The school closed when John became fatally ill from tetanus in 1842. He worked at his family’s pencil factory at various times throughout his adult life, helping to create the modern pencil by introducing clay into the manufacture of graphite (pencil “lead”), and later converting the factory to produce ink for typesetting machines. He also worked as a land surveyorfor a time.
During the early years after graduating, Thoreau met Ralph Waldo Emerson (whose essay “Nature” he had read while at Harvard), which proved to be a decisive turning point in Thoreau’s life. Emerson took a paternal (and at times patronizing) interest in Thoreau, advising the young man and introducing him to a circle of local writersand thinkers, including Ellery Channing (1818 – 1901), Margaret Fuller (1810 – 1850), Bronson Alcott(1799 – 1888), Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804 – 1864) and Julian Hawthorne (1846 – 1934). Several of these were members of Emerson’s Transcendentalism philosophical movement, and Thoreau became a convert of Transcendentalism (albeit not a hugely active one), which fitted well with his spiritual and intuitive bent and his interest in Nature.
From 1841 to 1844, Thoreau moved into Emerson’s house, where he served as children’s tutor, editorial assistant, repair man and gardener. For a few months in 1843, he moved to the home of Emerson’s brother, William, on Staten Island, tutoring his children while also writing for New York periodicals, aided in part by his future literary representative, Horace Greeley (1811 – 1872).
He went through a restless period in the mid-1840s, and often talked of buying or leasing a farm to give him the means of support and the solitude to write a book. He finally embarked on his two-year experiment in simple living in July of 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, just a couple of miles from his family home. In 1854, seven years after moving out of his Walden Pond house (and after seven full drafts and re-writes), he published “Walden, or Life in the Woods”, his famous account of the two years, two months and two days he had spent at Walden Pond. Part memoir and part spiritual quest, “Walden” (which includes his famous lines, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation” and “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer” among many other well-known quotations) 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.
Soon after moving to Walden Pond in 1845, he was arrested on account of six years of unpaid tax, spending a night in jail before his aunt paid his arrears for him. He used the tax issue to protest his opposition to the Mexican-American War and to slavery, and his small first act of civil disobedence had a profound effect on him. He began to lecture on the relation of the individual to the State, and produced an influential essay entitled “Resistance to Civil Government” (also known as “Civil Disobedience”), which was eventually published in 1849.
In 1847, he self-published a book called “A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers”, an elegy to his brother, John, on Emerson’s advice (and using Emerson’s own publisher). The book failed badly, and put Thoreau into a debt that took years to pay off. Emerson’s flawed advice caused a schism between the friends that never entirely healed.
In the 1850s, Thoreau became increasingly fascinated with natural history and travel narratives. He kept increasingly detailed natural history observations on his local area in a huge continuous journal covering many years. He also travelled widely in eastern and mid-western America, writing all the while. In 1859, he wrote an uncompromising defence of the radical abolitionist John Brown (1800 – 1859) after Brown’s contentious raid at Harpers Ferry in 1859, and Thoreau’s speech proved persuasive as the abolitionist movement began to accept Brown as a martyrby the time of the American Civil War (immortalized in the song “John Brown’s Body”).
Thoreau had first contracted tuberculosis in 1835 and suffered from it sporadically throughout his life. In 1859, following a late night excursion during a rain storm, he became ill with bronchitis, and his health declined over the next three years with brief periods of remission, until he eventually became bedridden. Although he seemed to accept his imminent death with tranquillity, he nevertheless spent his final months frantically editing his travel books (including “The Maine Woods”and “Excursions”) for publication.
He died in Concord on 6 May 1862 at age 44. Emerson wrote the eulogy spoken at his funeral, and Thoreau’s remains were eventually moved to Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord. It was only many years later that he came to be 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, and his memory is now honoured by the international Thoreau Society among other institutions.
Although Thoreau never managed to earn a living by his writings, his works fill 20 volumes. By far the most famous is “Walden” (subtitled “Life in the Woods”), published in 1854, his account of the two years he spent living the simple life in the woods at Walden Pond. His travel books, “The Maine Woods” and “Excursions”, were published after his death. His most influential essay was the 1849 “Resistance to Civil Government” (often reprinted with the title “Civil Disobedience”), in which he recommended disobeying unjust laws. His huge “Journal”, accumulated over 24 years, was published in 14 volumes in 1906.
Along with his friend and mentor, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and others in the group of American Transcendentalists who formed around Emerson, Thoreau dedicated his life, skills and classical learning to the call for the creation of an original American literature and philosophy, in an era when “writer” was not yet a specialized profession. Thoreau and the Transcendentalists believed that there was more to reality than what a person could experience with their senses, and more knowledge than what a person could discover through human reason. They encouraged intuition, self-examination, individualism and exploration of the beauty of nature and humankind.
Contrary to popular opinion, Thoreau neither rejected civilization nor fully embraced wilderness. Instead, he sought a middle ground, the pastoral realm that integrates both nature and culture. He dedicated much of his life to the exploration of nature, not just as a backdrop to human activity but as a living, integrated system of which humanity is simply a part. His “nature writing” progressed from the poetic symbolism of “Walden” to the scientific method in his later journals (involving observation and information-gathering, the stating of a hypothesis, and the verification of the hypothesis by testing), anticipating many of the methods and findings of modern ecology and environmentalism.
His essay “Civil Disobedience” of 1849 has been perhaps the most influential of his works because of its overt political implications. He boldly asserted that “the only obligation which I have a right to assume is to do at any time what I think right”. He believed that radical social reforms (such as the abolition of slavery, for example) could be effected only when each right-minded individual takes direct action on his own part. This form of “peaceful revolution” could be achieved by an individual withdrawing his allegiance “in person and property” from the government that supports or permits the abuse in question (such as, for example, refusing to pay taxes). This philosophy of civil disobedience and non-violent resistance has been specifically credited by such later figures as Leo Tolstoy, Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.
Thoreau was a committed anti-slavery activist and, despite his deep-rooted Individualism, he was readily moved to activism against injustice. The well-known essay “Civil Disobedience” was not Thoreau’s final word on resistance against injustice and oppression: his strongest critiques of American society lay in his later public addresses, “Slavery in Massachusetts”, “Life Without Principle” and “A Plea for Captain John Brown”.
Like Karl Marx, he sought to some extent to dismantle existing institutions in an attempt to provide full human satisfaction. Yet, like Søren Kierkegaard, he insisted on maintaining the uniqueness of the individual as the ultimate source of value. Thus, he did not advocate revolution, but he was an influence on Marxism; he would not have claimed to be an Existentialism (had such a concept even been known in his day), but his insistence on Individualism carried weight with later Existentialists; he was not an out-and-out Anarchist, but he opposed the strictures of government and influenced later figures with Anarchist sympathies.