Study Guide

Henry David Thoreau Biography

  • 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."

  • Childhood & Education

    David Henry Thoreau (you read that correctly - he switched the order of his first and middle names later) was born 12 July 1817 in Concord, Massachusetts, a small town about twenty miles outside of Boston. He was the third of four children of John and Cynthia Dunbar Thoreau. When Thoreau was about a year old the family moved to the nearby town of Chelmsford so that his father could open a grocery store. When the store failed, they moved to Boston where John Thoreau taught school. In 1823, the Thoreaus returned to Concord, where John Thoreau took over his in-laws' pencil factory. Though he sometimes traveled outside of it, for the rest of his life Thoreau made Concord his home.

    Thoreau was a serious little boy from the beginning, with such a grave demeanor that people jokingly called him "Judge." In 1828, he and his brother John Jr. enrolled at Concord Academy, a progressive prep school. In 1833, with various relatives chipping in to pay his tuition and fees, Thoreau set off for Harvard College. Thoreau was dismissive of his university experience in later years, arguing that colleges produce graduates armed with lots of useless factoids and no practical knowledge about how to live. "Those things for which the most money is demanded are never the things which the student most wants," Thoreau wrote in first journal entry on 22 October 1837. Thoreau kept up the habit all his life, and his journals are an important insight into his philosophies. Also around this time, he changed his name to Henry David.

    Thoreau returned to Concord and briefly taught at the public school, though he quit over a disagreement on the school's use of corporal punishment. Instead, he and his brother John Jr. took over leadership of their alma mater, Concord Academy. The academy they led was an intellectually rigorous and philosophically progressive school. Local transcendentalist thinker and educator Bronson Alcott sent his children there, including his daughter and later Little Women author Louisa May Alcott.

    In 1839, Thoreau fell in love with Ellen Sewall, a relative of one of his students. He proposed, but on her father's advice she turned him down. (His brother John also fell in love with her; she rejected him, too.) Thoreau made remarks later in his life that Sewall was the only woman he had ever loved; he never married. Thoreau's love life has been the source of some speculation. Many biographers believe that Thoreau was gay, and that his single-minded focus on nature was a way of suppressing or ignoring an attraction to men. In any case, he never seems to have had a romantic relationship with anyone, man or woman. Nature was always his first love.

  • Friendship & Tragedy

    Thoreau was part of a group called the Transcendentalist Club, a group of like-minded thinkers including Margaret Fuller, Bronson Alcott and Emerson, who met occasionally at Emerson's home. In 1840, the group founded a journal called The Dial. In the four years of the journal's existence, Thoreau contributed dozens of essays, poems and translations. In 1841 Thoreau moved into Ralph Waldo Emerson's home. He earned his keep by gardening, doing handyman work around the house and looking after the Emerson children while their father was on one of his many lectures tours around the U.S. and abroad.

    On New Year's Day 1842, John Thoreau Jr. nicked his finger with his razor while shaving. It was a tiny, minor cut, but in the days before the tetanus vaccine it was deadly. The cut became infected, and within a week the tissue had turned black and stiff. John Jr. suffered lockjaw, an agonizingly painful condition. On 11 January, 27-year-old John Jr. died of tetanus in his brother Henry David's arms. John Jr. was Thoreau's best friend and his elder brother by two years. He was so devastated by his death that he developed psychosomatic symptoms of lockjaw himself, though he recovered in a few days. He closed Concord Academy.

    Thoreau spent the next few years working at his family's pencil factory, taking on odd jobs and hiking around the lush New England woods. (On one such hike, he accidentally started a forest fire that consumed about 100 acres of Concord's Walden Woods. Oops.) He found sanctuary and peace in nature that town life could not offer him. Then in 1845, Emerson proposed that Thoreau replant trees on some property he owned on Walden Pond. Walden was sort of an urban forest, with lots of activity from local people, and many of the native trees had been cut down. Emerson's suggestion would change Thoreau's life.

  • Writing Walden

    Emerson's invitation gave Thoreau a chance to act on some ideas he had been mulling over. He was mystified by the modern world's urgent rush to consume and industrialize. Why did people insist on buying new clothes every year when the old ones were perfectly good? Why were people so eager for new roads and trains, when they didn't even need to get anywhere? "Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious things," he wrote. "We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine to Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate."

    Thoreau also wrote prolifically while he was living on the pond. He had started a book called A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, an account of a boating trip he and his late brother took in 1839. He also began penning the memoir of his experiment on the pond. In 1847 Thoreau moved out of the cabin and into Emerson's house, where he took up handyman duties. The cabin was later dismantled and its boards carted away to be used for a shed.

  • "Civil Disobedience"

    Thoreau had some serious problems with the way the United States was run. He was an outspoken opponent of slavery and bitterly opposed the Mexican-American War, which he viewed as an act of American aggression. In protest, Thoreau refused to pay his poll taxes. He spent a night in jail for this offense in 1848, and was released the next morning when a friend (against his wishes) paid the tax for him. The following year his essay on the topic, "Civil Disobedience," was published.

    Thoreau was not an anarchist; he did not believe that there should be no government, only a more just one than currently existed. If the government would not improve itself, he argued, it was a just man's duty to refuse to support it. "It is not a man's duty, as a matter of course, to devote himself to the eradication of any, even the most enormous wrong," Thoreau wrote, "but it is his duty, at least, to wash his hands of it, and, if he gives it no thought longer, not to give it practically his support."

  • Death

    Walden was published in 1854. The book was a success, earning Thoreau praise and followers. Thoreau continued to speak out on the things that he felt passionate about. In October 1859, the abolitionist zealot John Brown led a raid on the U.S. arsenal at Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, in the hopes of sparking a slave rebellion. The rebellion was quashed and Brown was imprisoned and later hanged. Thoreau wrote both a speech and an essay supporting Brown, despite the fact that the raid had been largely unpopular. That was just Thoreau. "No opposition or ridicule had any weight with him," Emerson wrote. "He coldly and fully stated his opinion without affecting to believe that it was the opinion of the company. It was of no consequence, if every one present held the opposite opinion."

    • Family

      Father: John Thoreau (1787-1858)
      Mother: Cynthia Dunbar Thoreau (1787-1872)
      Sister: Helen Thoreau (1812-1849)
      Brother: John Thoreau, Jr. (1815-1842)
      Sister: Sophia Thoreau (1819-1876)

    • Education

      Harvard College (1833-1837)

    • Work Experience

      Teacher (1835)
      Teacher (1837)
      Teacher and Headmaster, Concord Academy (1838-1842)
      Tutor/Handyman, Emerson family (1841-1844)
      Pencil Manufacturer (1844-c. 1860)
      Land Surveyor (c. 1850-c. 1860)

    • Major Works

      A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1849)
      "Civil Disobedience" (1849)
      "Slavery in Massachusetts" (1854)
      Walden (1854)
      A Plea for Captain John Brown (1859)
      "Walking" (1861)
      The Maine Woods (1864)
      Cape Cod (1865)