Henry David Thoreau

Henry David Thoreau
Specialty Transcendental idealism
Born July 12, 1817
Concord, Massachusetts
Died May 6, 1862 (aged 44)
Concord, Massachusetts
Nationality American

Henry David Thoreau is among the most deeply appreciated and uniquely American philosophers to have emerged among a group of early 19th Century intellectuals. They formulated ideas that continue to have an impact on the culture of the United States today.

The ideals of Thoreau are central to modern environmentalism, ecology, and the love of nature. Also, his thoughts about the value of living a simple, stripped down lifestyle have been extremely influential and central to many people of the United States.

Thoreau’s Early Years

Henry David Thoreau was born as “David Henry Thoreau” in 1817. He only began using “Henry” as his first name later in life, although he never legally changed it. His place of birth was Concord, Massachusetts. His family is described as one of “modest means.” His father, John Thoreau, owned a pencil factory. His mother was Cynthia Dunbar. Henry was the third of four children.

Thoreau was accepted to study at Harvard in 1833. He earned a liberal arts degree in 1837, graduating 19th out of the 44 students in his class. After graduation, he took a teaching job in a Concord public school, but resigned a short time later after he refused to administer corporal punishment to students, which was common practice at the time.

Instead, Thoreau convinced his brother John to establish their own school, which they did in 1838. The school, called the Concord Academy, lasted only until 1842, however, when John Thoreau, Jr. died suddenly of tetanus.

Thoreau’s Major Influence

One of the most significant events in the life of Thoreau was meeting writer, poet, and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emerson became a mentor and guide for the younger Thoreau.

It was Emerson who introduced Thoreau to the ideas of Transcendentalism, a philosophy which taught that all nature and humanity are derived from a higher divine order. It was influenced by the ideas of Plato, who also held that the physical world is only a shadow of a “higher order” realm that exists beyond our physical plane. The Transcendentalists also held progressive views on feminism and communal living.

It was also Emerson who encouraged Thoreau to begin keeping a journal and to submit articles to various publications of the day. Emerson also introduced Thoreau to other intellectuals, such as Nathaniel Hawthorne, Margaret Fuller, and Ellery Channing. These people and others formed a unique society and they enjoyed developing their advanced ideas about how human beings should live in harmony with nature and form idyllic communities.

Struggles and Life of Thoreau

Henry David Thoreau earned his primary living by working in his father’s pencil factory for most of his adult life. He took over the operation of the facility after his father died. In fact, Thoreau is credited with the invention of our modern version of the lead pencil.

However, and at the same time, Thoreau was restless and felt a higher calling to do something more with his life. He especially felt a need to concentrate on his writing. This prompted the famous “Walden Years,” wherein Thoreau attempted to live an extremely simple and stripped-down lifestyle in a tiny cabin situated in a woody area near a small lake called Walden Pond.

The small cabin and the land where he lived was owned by Emerson. However, shortly after he moved in, Thoreau was accosted by a tax collector who said that several years of unpaid property taxes were due immediately.

Civil Disobedience

thoreau2Thoreau refused to pay the taxes. As a result, he was arrested and spent a night in jail. He was released when his aunt paid the tax bill against his wishes. The event prompted Thoreau to pen one of the most famous and influential American essays, Civil Disobedience. The essay argued that there were times when citizens of the United States should disobey the law if those laws were unfair, morally wrong, or corrupt.

Thoreau objected to his government spending money on efforts such as the Mexican-American War and its support of slavery. Civil Disobedience was frequently quoted by those who resisted the draft during the Vietnam War.

Thoreau’s two years in his humble cabin eventually produced his most famous book, Walden. In it, Thoreau describes what it is like to lead an extremely simple life and the virtues of that kind of existence. The book includes long tracts extolling the beauty of nature. He also speaks of the joy of reading books and forming friendships with other people, even in the midst of living an isolated existence.

Later Years and Death

Thoreau suffered from tuberculosis, which he contracted in 1835. It left him in generally poor health for the rest of his life, although he grew much worse only in his later years. He died in his hometown of Concord in 1862 when he was just 44. His last words were, “Now comes good sailing.”