Authors: Henry David Thoreau

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2018

American nature writer and poet

July 12, 1817

Concord, Massachusetts

May 6, 1862

Concord, Massachusetts


Henry David Thoreau (thuh-ROH), defier of labels, was born before his time. If written thirty or forty years later, Walden might have surged to success on the tide of nature interest which benefited such writers as John Burroughs and John Muir. As it was, Thoreau was largely ignored by his own generation, which dismissed him as an impractical reformer. It was only later that he was recognized as one of the most original thinkers and one of the best prose writers of his time. {$I[AN]9810000340} {$I[A]Thoreau, Henry David} {$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Thoreau, Henry David} {$I[tim]1817;Thoreau, Henry David}

Henry David Thoreau.

By Benjamin D. Maxham, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Along with Ralph Waldo Emerson and Nathaniel Hawthorne, Thoreau is often referred to as a member of the “Concord Group”; of this trio, however, Thoreau alone could claim the town as his birthplace. The second son of John and Cynthia (Dunbar) Thoreau, he grew up in Concord village, attending the local school—apparently an excellent one—in preparation for Harvard, which he entered at the age of sixteen. Despite financial difficulties during the next four years, he graduated in 1837, well versed in languages and skilled in writing. Already a nonconformist, during his Harvard days he disregarded honors, neglected unappealing studies, and deplored the necessity of spending five dollars for a diploma.

Unlike his literary contemporaries, Thoreau never prepared for a profession. After graduation from college, he taught school in Concord for a time, together with his brother John, with whom he made a trip on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers in 1839. John, to whom Thoreau was devoted, died of tetanus in 1842. John was ill with tuberculosis at the time, a disease that took their father and, finally, Thoreau himself.

It was about 1840 that Thoreau decided to become a writer. The decision made no change in his simple manner of life. Intermittently, he worked at lead pencil making (his father’s business), did surveying, or made gardens. It was in the capacity of gardener that he became a member of Emerson’s household in 1841, though his services came to include helping Emerson to edit the Transcendentalist journal The Dial. Despite critic James Russell Lowell’s contention that Thoreau was the imitator of his employer, it seems equally likely that Emerson’s interest in nature and nature lore was gained, at least in part, from Thoreau.

The independence and fearlessness of Thoreau’s nature led him to speak out actively against whatever he found reason to regard as wrong. He strongly championed John Brown and the Abolitionists, for example, at a time when such a stand was highly unpopular. In 1845, following the example of Bronson Alcott, he went to jail rather than pay poll tax to a government that, as Thoreau saw it, countenanced war and slavery. He provided a living embodiment of Emerson’s doctrines of self-reliance and nonconformity, but it is notable that he did so without forfeiting the love and respect of those who knew him best.

Perhaps the most important activity of Thoreau’s life began in 1845, when he retired to a little hut at Walden Pond near Concord. There he lived for more than two years, cultivating a small plot of ground and attempting to prove that people need not go beyond their own resources for sustenance and enjoyment. The literary result of this experiment was Walden, his best-known work. Published in 1854, this book provided the first and best example of that literary product especially identified with the United States, the “nature book.”

Aside from Walden, the only other of Thoreau’s books published during his lifetime was A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, of which the public took little notice, only two hundred or so copies being sold. It was not until after his death that the bulk of Thoreau’s writing was published, although some articles and addresses had made their appearances in contemporary periodicals, chiefly in The Dial and Putnam’s Magazine. Since his death, his complete journal has been published and hailed as a masterpiece; even though his total writing output is slim in comparison with that of some of his fellow New Englanders, it is sufficient to give him belated recognition as one of the truly original and vigorous writers of the century.

The nineteenth-century neglect of Thoreau, which continued for a decade or two after his death, was partly the result of the inaccurate estimates of his worth made by such respected critics as Lowell. The nature school, arising at the end of the nineteenth century, played a part in his literary revival; nevertheless, Thoreau’s essential value as a writer depends only partly on his subject matter. Clarity of expression, shrewdness, and occasional humor combine to form an individual prose style of compelling charm. His integrity shines through his work, and his positive views on nature and government constitute a continuing challenge to a civilization bowed down by frustrations and complexities.

Author Works Nonfiction: “Civil Disobedience,” 1849 (also known as “Resistance to Civil Government”) A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, 1849 Walden: Or, Life in the Woods, 1854 Excursions, 1863 The Maine Woods, 1864 Cape Cod, 1865 Letters to Various Persons, 1865 (Ralph Waldo Emerson, editor) A Yankee in Canada, with Anti-Slavery and Reform Papers, 1866 Early Spring in Massachusetts, 1881 Summer, 1884 Winter, 1888 Autumn, 1892 Familiar Letters of Henry David Thoreau, 1894 (F. B. Sanborn, editor) Journal, 1981–2002 (7 volumes) Letters to a Spiritual Seeker, 2004 (Bradley P. Dean, editors) Poetry: Poems of Nature, 1895 Collected Poems of Henry Thoreau, 1943 (first critical edition) Miscellaneous: The Writings of Henry David Thoreau, 1906 Collected Essays and Poems, 2001 Bibliography Cain, William E. A Historical Guide to Henry David Thoreau. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. Historical and biographical context and treatment of Thoreau. Hahn, Stephen. On Thoreau. Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth, 2000. A concise study intended to assist a beginning student in understanding Thoreau’s philosophy and thinking. Includes bibliographical references. Harding, Walter. The Days of Henry Thoreau. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1965. This fine scholarly biography remains useful. Harding places the poetry insightfully in the pattern of Thoreau’s life. Includes illustrations, a bibliographical note, and an index. Harding, Walter, and Michael Meyer. The New Thoreau Handbook. New York: New York University Press, 1980. This standard basic reference on Thoreau is generally the first source to be consulted for help. Contains a considerable amount of factual information about the writings and the writer, arranged for easy access. Includes chronologies, indexes, and cross-references. Howarth, William. The Book of Concord: Thoreau’s Life as a Writer. New York: Viking Press, 1982. Howarth presents a writer’s biography, paying particular attention to the relationship between the life and the writings and showing exactly how the work evolved. Includes a list of sources, an index, notes, and a number of drawings. Myerson, Joel, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Henry David Thoreau. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995. A guide to the works and to the biographical, historical, and literary contexts. Includes a chronology and further readings. Richardson, Robert D. Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986. This study focuses primarily on the development of Thoreau’s leading themes and the formulation of his working philosophy. Richardson offers clear accounts of some of the writer’s complex theories. Provides notes, a bibliography, and an index. Salt, Henry S. Life of Henry David Thoreau. Reprint. Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1968. Written by a former master of Eton who wrote the first biography of Thoreau, in 1890, this is the 1908 (third) version, valuable for the insight it offers into both a late nineteenth century figure and some of his contemporaries, including anecdotes and facts gathered from Samuel Arthur Jones, F. B. Sanborn, Ernest W. Vickers, Raymond Adams, Fred Hosmer, and Mohandas K. Gandhi. Schneider, Richard J., ed. Thoreau’s Sense of Place: Essays in American Environmental Writing. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2000. A collection of essays that address a central question in Thoreau studies: How immersed in a sense of place was Thoreau really, and how has this sense of place affected the tradition of nature writing in the United States? Shugard, Alan. American Poetry: The Puritans Through Walt Whitman. Boston: Twayne, 1988. Contains both informative introductory sketches and a running account of the evolution of American poetry. Shugard’s account of Thoreau is brief but just. Includes extensive notes, references, and a useful bibliography. Tauber, Alfred I. Henry David Thoreau and the Moral Agency of Knowing. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001. Tauber shows how Thoreau’s metaphysics of self-knowing informed all that this multifaceted writer, thinker, and scientist did. A clear presentation of the man in the context of social and intellectual history. Thoreau, Henry David. I to Myself: An Annotated Selection from the Journal of Henry D. Thoreau. Edited by Jeffrey S. Cramer. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2007. This work offers selections from Thorough’s journals from 1837–61. Includes comprehensive annotations that uncover allusions, provide biographical information, and offer word definitions. Waggoner, Hyatt H. American Poets: From the Puritans to the Present. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1968. This volume is a comprehensive and detailed history of American poetry. Waggoner gives Thoreau appropriate space and a sympathetic treatment. An appendix, detailed notes, an extensive bibliography, and a good index supplement the volume.

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