Henry David Thoreau

What does it mean to live deliberately? Have you ever sought refuge in the wildness of nature? These are questions that American poet, author, philosopher, and naturalist Henry David Thoreau sought the answer to in his lifetime. With his famous works, including books such as Walden, or Life in the Woods (1854) and poems such as 'Sic Vita' (1841), Thoreau is a firmly established titan of American naturalism and transcendental literature.

Henry David Thoreau Henry David Thoreau

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Contents
Table of contents

    Biography of Henry David Thoreau

    Henry David Thoreau was born in 1817 in Concord, Massachusetts, where he would spend the majority of his childhood. While he didn’t particularly care for the town of Concord, he was enchanted by the woods, rivers, and meadows that made up the surrounding natural landscape. Thoreau’s connection with the natural world that he fostered during his childhood would endure throughout his lifetime and have a monumental impact on his written work and philosophy.

    Thoreau grew up with his three siblings and, at the age of 16, he enrolled in Harvard College. Thoreau studied various disciplines while attending school, including classics, philosophy, and science. He is famous for his refusal to pay the five-dollar fee to receive his diploma; as a result, Thoreau never took possession of his Harvard graduation diploma. Upon graduation, Thoreau began to teach in Massachusetts for a few years.

    After quitting his teaching job for his refusal to administer physical punishment to his students, Thoreau and his brother John opened their own school, called the Concord Academy. The school model of Concord Academy implemented many of the ideals that Thoreau would be known for; the importance of nature was impressed upon the students and the value of community. The school closed a few years later following the illness and subsequent death of John.

    Thoreau was introduced to Ralph Waldo Emerson and upon his return to Concord, Emerson would become a lifelong mentor to Thoreau. Emerson introduced him to a number of important literary and philosophical figures in New England in the realm of transcendentalism, a philosophy that Thoreau adopted at the time. Thoreau began to publish his first few pieces of writing, many taken directly from his journal.

    Transcendentalism is a philosophy that developed in New England around the 1830s. Its philosophy surrounds the inherent divinity of nature and people, and the need for harmony and integration between the two.

    Thoreau spent time living with the Emerson family, tutoring their children. In the 1840s, he returned to Concord and worked in the pencil factory owned by his family. Following his time back in Concord, Thoreau embarked on what would be a formative experience in his life: he moved to a small cabin in the woods to practice ‘simple living’. He lived in this cabin for two years, two months, and two days. It was located on 14 acres of land on Emerson’s property near Walden Pond.

    During his time at the cabin, Thoreau was arrested for failure to pay the poll tax for the preceding six years, having opposed many of the United States’ actions, such as involvement in the Mexican-American War and the continued presence of slavery.

    Thoreau was jailed and released when an unknown person (rumors say it was his aunt) paid the tax. This experience led him to give a public lecture and subsequently transcribe the lecture into an essay, what would come to be known as "Civil Disobedience," (1849) one of Thoreau’s most famous pieces of writing.

    When Thoreau moved out of the cabin after his two years, two months, and two days, he wrote a book about his experiences and his spiritual philosophies, known as Walden, or Life in the Woods (1854). At the time, Walden was not incredibly popular with the public or with critics, but it has since come to be one of the most important works in the American literary canon.

    Later in life, Thoreau would continue to work occasionally for his family’s pencil factory while also working as a surveyor. This allowed him to continue his studies in nature; in his maturity, much of his observation of the natural world became more scientific, with Thoreau recording his observations meticulously in a journal. He continued to publish essays on the natural world, as well as those political in nature, along with his more creative writings, such as poetry.

    Henry David Thoreau, Portrait of Henry David Thoreau, StudySmarterPortrait of Henry David Thoreau, wikimedia

    Henry David Thoreau’s Cause of Death

    In 1835, Thoreau contracted tuberculosis. The disease would flare up and hamper him on various occasions throughout his lifetime, but in 1860 he also contracted bronchitis after counting tree rings during a storm. His health worsened, and in his final two years, in which he was aware that he was dying, he continued fervently writing new work and editing his older, unpublished essays. In May of 1862, Thoreau died at the age of 44.

    Henry David Thoreau's Famous Works

    Throughout his lifetime, Thoreau wrote many books, essays, and poems; he also frequently gave speeches from where he lived that he often recorded and published as essays. Here is a selection of some of Thoreau's books and poetry:

    Books by Henry David Thoreau

    Thoreau wrote many prose pieces and books throughout his lifetime. His essays, many of which have been collected and anthologized after his death, include works such as "Civil Disobedience" (1849) in which he advocated for the rights of an individual to oppose the government. This essay was later part of the collection A Yankee in Canada, with Anti-Slavery and Reform Papers (1866), a collection of Thoreau’s essays published by his sister four years after his death.

    The collection also includes some of his anti-slavery essays on abolition such as "A Plea for Captain John Brown" (1860), in which Thoreau expresses his support for John Brown, an American abolitionist known for leading anti-slavery battles, and his condemnation of the United States’ plans to execute Brown.

    In 1859, John Brown led a raid on the United States armory at Harper's Ferry, Virginia. He had planned to raid the armory and arm slaves in order to lead a slave revolt in the Southern United States. Brown's men were defeated by the U.S. Marines—10 of his 22 men were killed, 5 escaped, and 7 were tried and executed, including John Brown himself. The highly-publicized aftermath of the raid and the trial of John Brown are seen as the "tragic prelude" to the American Civil War. Thoreau's writing helped bring Brown's cause to the public eye and enshrine him as a martyr for the abolitionist cause.

    In addition to these works, Thoreau’s most famous book is Walden, or Life in the Woods, which he published in 1854 after spending two years, two months, and two days living in a cabin in the woods. Walden is a difficult-to-describe book, as it includes the personal experiences of Thoreau during that time in the woods interspersed with philosophical musings, spiritual inquiries, and satirical elements. It is considered Thoreau’s great masterpiece.

    Poems by Henry David Thoreau

    In addition to his works of prose and nonfiction, Thoreau also penned many poems throughout his lifetime. Much of his poetry was originally published in a transcendentalist magazine known as The Dial. Many of his poems, such as 'Sic Vita' (1841) deal directly with his fascination with the natural world; this poem is a meditation on a bunch of cut flowers that also serves as a metaphor for his own personal journey in life. His book Walden also includes many poems throughout. These poems touch on the same themes of Walden as a whole.

    Image of Walden Pond, Henry David Thoreau, StudySmarterImage of Walden Pond, where Thoreau lived during his two years, two months, and two days of woodland isolation, wikimedia

    Henry David Thoreau’s Philosophy

    While Thoreau is associated with naturalism and transcendentalism, his life’s philosophy extended into the political as well. He was aligned with transcendental beliefs that valued nature, individualism, and the importance of listening to one’s intuition. His approach to the natural world wasn’t that he believed humanity should completely submit to the natural world, but rather that humans should seek to integrate themselves with nature.

    In the years since his death, Thoreau’s more overtly political writings have become important texts in the foundation of different political philosophies such as existentialism, anarchism, and libertarianism. Thoreau believed in nonviolent civil disobedience; he was of the mindset that all people must act in a way that aligns with their own moral judgment.

    If these actions are not aligned with that of their government, then citizens should disavow themselves from this government by, for example, not paying taxes. Thoreau was an active abolitionist and took political stances such as opposing the Mexican-American War.

    Thoreau's philosophical and political stances are hard to define by just one movement because he explored nuance in all of his stances. While he advocated for nonviolent civil disobedience, he also supported certain instances of violent resistance, such as John Brown’s revolt at Harper’s Ferry.

    Thoreau supported not paying taxes as a form of resistance, but also believed that the masses should be taxed in order to fund public works and allow access to public education in the form of schools.

    Overall, Thoreau took an idealistic and reverent approach to nature, and his experiences living by Walden Pond helped him develop many of the naturalistic philosophies that would form the basis of his philosophical outlook. He was involved with many other transcendentalists in his lifetime, such as Ralph Waldo Emerson. Thoreau’s philosophies are best articulated in the numerous pieces of writing that he produced throughout his lifetime.

    Image of Walden Pond, Signature of Henry David Thoreau, StudySmarterThoreau's famous signature, wikimedia

    Henry David Thoreau’s Writing Style

    Thoreau was a meticulous writer; he firmly believed that his writing was a physical embodiment of his being, what he wrote had to accurately and precisely encompass his spiritual, philosophical, and physical outlook. His style of writing, thus, tended to favor the quality of his content over flowery prose or a preoccupation with his style.

    His writing is notable for being direct, concise, and economical in its language. He sought to get to the point, and portray things as they were while avoiding sensational description. He did make use of allusion in many of his writings, to older writers or to mythology. Thoreau wrote with a sense of urgency about the words that he was putting to paper and the importance that they held.

    Take a look at Thoreau's 1849 essay "On the Duty of Civil Disobedience" (often called "Civil Disobedience"). Which of these characteristics can you find in his writing?

    Quotes by Henry David Thoreau

    I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, 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.1

    This quotation, from Thoreau’s masterpiece Walden, outlines his motivations for living isolated in the woods at Walden Pond. It exemplifies his belief that there is truth to be found and necessary experiences to be had that one can only find and experience in nature.

    We need the tonic of wildness.1

    Here, again, Thoreau explains his philosophy pertaining to the importance of nature in our lives. He likens "wildness", the purity and untouched essence of nature, to a "tonic", a medicine that we need in our lives.

    Henry David Thoreau - Key Takeaways

    • Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) was an American poet, author, naturalist, and philosopher.
    • Thoreau grew up in Concord, Massachusetts, where he first discovered his love and respect for the natural world.
    • Thoreau as an adult spent two years, two months, and two days living isolated in a cabin in the woods in order to experience a way of living in harmony with nature. This would inspire his masterpiece, Walden, or Life in the Woods (1854).
    • Thoreau is associated with many philosophical outlooks such as transcendentalism and individualism, and he believed in the value of nature and of a higher power that transcended our world.
    • Thoreau’s writing was notable for its economical use of language and its directness; he wrote with an urgency that spoke to the importance he saw in his message.

    1. Henry David Thoreau, Walden, or Life in the Woods, 1854.

    Frequently Asked Questions about Henry David Thoreau

    What was Henry David Thoreau's philosophy?

    Thoreau is associated with philosophical movements such as transcendentalism, individualism, and existentialism. His own life philosophy aligns with transcendentalism in that he believed in the value of nature and the need for a life integrated with the natural world. He also believed in the existence of a higher truth in the universe that existed beyond our world.

    Who was Henry David Thoreau?

    Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) was an American philosopher, poet, author, and naturalist. He lived in New England for the entirety of his life, and spent his days writing essays on his philosophical outlook, poetry about nature, and making exact scientific observations about nature. His most famous piece of writing was his book Walden, or Life in the Woods (1854).

    What was Henry David Thoreau's message?

    Thoreau wanted people to appreciate nature to the extent that he did. His politics also included advocating for the abolition of slavery, individual rights, and the protection of nature and ecological diversity. He believed it was important to live a life in harmony with nature.

    What did Henry David Thoreau reform?

    Thoreau advocated for many reforms throughout his lifetime; most notably, Thoreau was an outspoken advocate for the abolition of slavery. An example of this opinion is found in his essay "A Plea for Captain John Brown" (1860), which was derived from a speech in 1859.

    What is Henry David Thoreau known for?

    Thoreau is known for being a prominent figure in American transcendental history. He was a writer of both philosophy and poetry. His work on the importance of nature and his experiences at Walden Pond, composed in Walden, remains one of the most influential pieces of naturalist writing in the United States.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    In what part of America did Thoreau live?

    What philosophical movement is Thoreau most closely associated with?

    True or False: Thoreau wrote in a style that included very flowery language, excess use of vocabulary, and indirect prose.

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