Henry David Thoreau–pronounced THOHR-oh, like “thorough” or rhyming with “furrow”– is most famous today as the author of such celebrated works as Walden and “Civil Disobedience.” If you asked him for a description of himself, however, he would have listed various other personas as well. Responding to a Harvard alumni questionnaire about his occupation and activities, Thoreau wrote, “I am a Schoolmaster–a Private Tutor, a Surveyor–a Gardener, a Farmer–a Painter, I mean a House Painter, a Carpenter, a Mason, a Day-Laborer, a Pencil-Maker, a Glass-paper Maker, a Writer, and sometimes a Poetaster [inferior poet]”(186).
Henry David Thoreau was born on July 12, 1817, in his grandmother’s farmhouse on the outskirts of Concord, Massachusetts, a small village of approximately 2,000 people. His father John, described as “amiable and loveable,” worked for some time as a shopkeeper and teacher before eventually finding success as a pencil maker. His mother Cynthia was dynamic and sociable as well as compassionate and charitable. Both parents maintained a love of nature, which they shared with their four children during frequent explorations around Concord.
Beginning in early childhood and continuing throughout his life, Thoreau spent his most peaceful, reflective and enjoyable times walking and carefully observing the outdoors, as well as collecting many botanical specimens. Ralph Waldo Emerson, a prominent author and lecturer, as well as friend and mentor to Thoreau, once described how Henry looked while walking around town:
There came Henry with music-book under his arm, to press flowers in; with telescope in his pocket, to see the birds, and microscope to count sta-mens; with a diary, jack-knife, and twine; in stout shoes, and strong grey trousers, ready to brave the shrub-oaks and smilax, and to climb the tree for a hawk’s nest. His strong legs, when he wades, were no insignificant part of his armour. (Emerson 45)
Thoreau held many roles in his time: a satirist of society, a staunch individualist, a social reformer, a Transcendentalist, an observer of the seasons and natural changes, an environmentalist, a naturalist and a conservationist.
Henry D. Thoreau is considered one of the most influential men of his era, a social reformer whose ideas written in “Civil Disobedience” inspired the twentieth century Civil Rights movements of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. He also holds great literary importance as the eloquent writer of the first modern American prose, Walden. Additionally, his promotion of conservation has led him to be revered as one of the most significant influences on the American environmental movement and wilderness preservation worldwide.
Thoreau, along with other transcendentalists, considered nature to be a spiritual entity. Adherents to this school of thought experienced nature as a way of ascending to untamed wilderness and connecting with the divine. The wildness of the environment offered them rejuvenation and fired their imaginations. Thoreau wrote in Walden, “Heaven is under our feet as well as over our heads” (313).
Henry also believed that humans needed nature to survive on a practical level. The wooded forest offered a withdrawn place for spiritual reflection and rest, but it also provided shelter and fuel for fire.
As local towns and farms developed around him, Henry encouraged his peers to preserve some of the natural woodlands. In the essay “Walking” Thoreau wrote,
A town is saved, not more by the righteous men in it, than by the woods and swamps that surround it. A township where one primitive forest waves above, while another primitive forest rots below-such a town is fitted to raise not only corn and potatoes, but poets and philosophers for the coming ages. (229)
Thoreau held his local environment in high regard and believed in a responsibility to one’s own community. “A man must generally get away some hundreds of thousands of miles from home before he can be said to begin his travels. Why not begin his travels at home? Would he not have to go far or look very closely to discover novelties”(376)?
Henry tried to inspire his fellow townspeople to appreciate, as he did, the wonders of nature that surrounded them. He mused on the many offices that the village supported, such as commissioners of trade and agriculture, and asked why there should not also be a commissioner of flowers, since observing nature was just as important an endeavor for the community.
What was Thoreau’s excursion?
Henry moved to Walden Pond on July 4, 1845, to exercise a new way of living. While many Americans were seeking fresh starts by moving west in the middle of the century, and some of his friends were trying out “Utopian communities” based on communal living, Thoreau sought to change his way of life on his own without leaving Concord. He would lead a solitary and independent life, but not a reclusive one. Thoreau kept three chairs in his house, “one for solitude, two for friendship, three for society”(155).
Thoreau wanted to test a daily existence based on simplifying down to the necessities of life. He would sustain himself on minimal possessions and work while spending a maximum amount of time enjoying nature and pursuing his writing. “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived”(Thoreau 100-01).
At his college graduation, Henry had spoken of an ideal lifestyle as consisting of working one day per week and resting for the remaining six. He put this idea of a simplified life into practice during his excursion, although on his days of “rest” he stayed busy observing nature and writing.
The most evident stimulus for Thoreau’s move to Walden Pond was to work on a book about the trip he and his beloved brother John had taken on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers six years earlier. In the solitude and quiet, he would have time to reflect and write while grieving for his brother who had died three years after that boating excursion and three years prior to his move to Walden Pond.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Journal. 21 May, 1856.
Thoreau, Henry David. The Correspondence of Henry David Thoreau, edited by Walter Harding and Carl Bode. New York University Press, 1958.
—. “The Pond in Winter.” The Writings of Henry D. Thoreau. Walden ed., Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1906.
—. “Walking.” The Writings of Henry D. Thoreau. Walden ed., Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1906.
—. “VII: AUGUST, 1851, Aug. 6.” The Writings of Henry D. Thoreau: Journal II, edited by Bradford Torrey. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1906.
—. “Visitors.” The Writings of Henry D. Thoreau. Walden ed., Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1906.
—. “Where I Lived and What I Lived For.” The Writings of Henry D. Thoreau. Walden ed., Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1906.