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Henry David Thoreau

Henry David Thoreau

Henry David Thoreau: Biography

"I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately," wrote Henry David Thoreau in Walden, his memoir of two years living in the Concord woods, "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."2

This was the mission statement of Henry David Thoreau, environmentalist, transcendentalist and unabashed individual. In his essays, memoirs and journals, Thoreau put forth theories that have played a major role in how Americans see themselves today. His writings on civil disobedience influenced reformers like Martin Luther King, Jr. His environmentalism convinced naturalist John Muir to found the national parks system. And Walden's do-it-yourself, live-off-the-land simplicity has inspired generations of environmentalists, pioneers and iconoclastic figures. As the American sage John Updike wrote, "Of the American classics densely arisen in the middle of the 19th century . . . Walden has contributed most to America's present sense of itself."3

Not everyone supported his work. Several people thought his experiment in rural living was self-indulgent and silly, or saw hypocrisy in his boasting about self-sufficiency. (As Updike pointed out, "Not everyone is offered free land to squat on for a personal experiment nor can draw so freely on the society of a nearby village."4) Others thought Thoreau was shirking his manly duties by not pursuing a more robust career. One of Thoreau's most marked characteristics, however, was that he didn't care what anyone else thought. He died in Concord in 1862 with a peaceful heart, knowing he had lived an honest life. "His soul was made for the noblest society;" his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote after his death, "he had in a short life exhausted the capabilities of this world; wherever there is knowledge, wherever there is virtue, wherever there is beauty, he will find a home."5

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