Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862), American Transcendentalist, philosopher, abolitionist, naturalist, essayist, and poet wrote Walden; or, Life in the Woods (1854);
The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation. .... A stereotyped but unconscious despair is concealed even under what are called the games and amusements of mankind.--Ch. 1
Writing on such varied topics as Economy, Reading, Winter Animals, and Solitude, Thoreau spent just over two years in a cabin he built on the edge of Walden Pond on the property of Ralph Waldo Emerson. It was a place for him to find solitude while he wrote, but for his ever-questioning mind it was also an experiment in self-reliance and living close to nature. Thoreau did not assert that others should live the same way, for Walden is the definitive text on Thoreau's own philosophy of life, what he believed in and how he lived it. But many have now come to see the importance of what Thoreau did, and see the significance of his message; that man's spiritual quest to find harmony within himself should also reflect directly on his social, political, and cultural surroundings. In his Biographical Sketch to Thoreau's Excursions (1863) Emerson writes;
He was bred to no profession; he never married; he lived alone; he never went to church; he never voted; he refused to pay a tax to the State: he ate no flesh, he drank no wine, he never knew the use of tobacco; and, though a naturalist, he used neither trap nor gun. He chose, wisely, no doubt, for himself, to be the bachelor of thought and Nature. He had no talent for wealth, and knew how to be poor without the least hint of squalor or inelegance. .... Thoreau was sincerity itself ...
In his most famous essay "On the Duty of Civil Disobedience" (1849) Thoreau states "That government is best which governs least"; and I should like to see it acted up to more rapidly and systematically." He spoke publicly on many political issues at the Concord Lyceum, many of his speeches later published including "Paradise (to be) Regained" (1843), "Slavery in Massachusetts" (1854), and his controversial "A Plea For Captain John Brown" (1859). He researched, supported, and wrote about many social and political causes for reform in his lifetime including civil rights and nature conservancy. In 1846 he was jailed for tax evasion, disagreeing with how public money was spent and on what, including war and the spread of slavery, but was soon released when thereafter friends and family paid his taxes for him. Through his actions and writings, Thoreau has inspired countless individuals including Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. who have also taken up the causes he so emphatically believed in. There are many groups now founded in honour of Thoreau including The Thoreau Society and The Walden Woods Project at the Thoreau Institute in Lincoln, Massachusetts. Thoreau was friends with many influential thinkers and writers of his time including Bronson Alcott, father of Louisa May Alcott, Ellery Channing, Margaret Fuller, and Nathaniel Hawthorne and his son Julian Hawthorne. Many authors and poets including Leo Tolstoy, Willa Cather, and William Butler Yeats have sung his praises and believed that, like Emerson, "The country knows not yet, or in the least part, how great a son it has lost."
Henry David Thoreau was born at what is now the Thoreau Farm Trust in Concord, Massachusetts on 12 July 1817 to Cynthia (1787-1872) and John Thoreau (1787-1859), pencil maker. He had two sisters and one brother; Helen, Sophia, and John. While he lived the majority of his life in Concord, Henry travelled to a few other States including New York and Maine, which inspired many essays and The Maine Woods (1864). He also went to Canada and wrote An Excursion to Canada in 1853. Thoreau attended Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts where he studied the classics as well as science and math, graduating in 1837. From then on Nature became his hall of study; he returned to his beloved Concord and worked in his father's pencil factory. He also did some tutoring and began to write for periodicals. Some of his earliest writings include "A Natural History of Massachusetts" (1842), "Sir Walter Raleigh" (1843), and "Thomas Carlyle and His Works" (1847).
In the 1850's Thoreau became a land surveyor, an occupation which afforded him much time to go for long walks where he could immerse himself in his natural surroundings and gather information to further write about. He kept lengthy and detailed journal accounts of his travels; A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1849) is based on a trip he took with his brother "I had often stood on the banks of the Concord, .... and at last I resolved to launch myself on its bosom and float whither it would bear me." His essay "Walking" (1861) was followed by Cape Cod in 1865, based on a series of excursions he took to the Atlantic sea-side town to study her people and the Cape's and flora and fauna. Thoreau wrote on myriad topics, often including poetry and anecdotes. A supporter of Charles Darwin's Theory of Evolution, some of his writings include detailed observation and analysis of botanical, meteorological, and geographical elements including "The Succession of Forest Trees" (1860), "Autumnal Tints" and "Wild Apples: The History of the Apple Tree" (1862).
Henry David Thoreau died of tuberculosis on 6 May 1862 and now rests in the Thoreau family plot of the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord, Massachusetts.
Why should we be in such desperate haste to succeed and in such desperate enterprises? If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away. It is not important that he should mature as soon as an apple tree or an oak. Shall he turn his spring into summer?--Ch. 18, Walden
Biography written by C. D. Merriman for Jalic Inc. Copyright Jalic Inc. 2008. All Rights Reserved.
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