Select your language

Suggested languages for you:
Log In Start studying!
StudySmarter - The all-in-one study app.
4.8 • +11k Ratings
More than 3 Million Downloads
Free
|
|

All-in-one learning app

  • Flashcards
  • NotesNotes
  • ExplanationsExplanations
  • Study Planner
  • Textbook solutions
Start studying

Henry David Thoreau

Save Save
Print Print
Edit Edit
Sign up to use all features for free. Sign up now
English Literature

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.

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.

Henry David Thoreau

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.

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).

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.

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.

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.

Final Henry David Thoreau Quiz

Question

What was the name of the place where Thoreau lived during his woodland isolation?

Show answer

Answer

Walden Pond

Show question

Question

In what part of America did Thoreau live?

Show answer

Answer

Western United States

Show question

Question

Which other famous transcendentalist was an important mentor to Thoreau?

Show answer

Answer

Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emerson let Thoreau live with him and his family and was influential in introducing Thoreau to other transcendentalists and aided in the publication of his writing.

Show question

Question

What philosophical movement is Thoreau most closely associated with?

Show answer

Answer

Nihilism

Show question

Question

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

Show answer

Answer

True

Show question

Question

What was Henry David Thoreau's philosophy?


Show answer

Answer

Thoreau is associated with philosophical movements such as transcendentalism, individualism, and existentialism. His own life philosophy aligns with transcendentlaism 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.

Show question

Question

Who was Henry David Thoreau?


Show answer

Answer

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).

Show question

Question

What was Henry David Thoreau's message?


Show answer

Answer

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.

Show question

Question

What did Henry David Thoreau reform?


Show answer

Answer

Thoreau advocated for many reforms throughout his lifetime; most notably, Thoreau was an outspoken advocate for the abolition of slavery. His essays such as "A Plea for Captain John Brown" (1860) was derived from a speech that he had given during his lifetime.

Show question

Question

What is Henry David Thoreau known for?


Show answer

Answer

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.

Show question

Question

What school of philosophical thought is Thoreau associated with?

Show answer

Answer

Nihilism

Show question

Question

What are the important themes in Walden?

Show answer

Answer

The main themes of Walden are self-reliance and independence, Transcendentalism and spirituality, the importance of nature, and living a simple life. Each of these themes is elucidated by Thoreau and serve to underscore his ultimate message about how to live a meaningful life.

Show question

Question

How long did Thoreau spend at Walden Pond?

Show answer

Answer

One year, one month, and one day

Show question

Question

True or false: In Walden, or Life in the Woods Thoreau discusses the importance of relying on others for help.

Show answer

Answer

True

Show question

Question

What was the reason that Thoreau penned the essay "Civil Disobedience?"

Show answer

Answer

He was arrested on a visit to the village for not paying taxes. He argued that people should nonviolently resist the government when their individual values do not align.

Show question

Question

What is the main point of Walden?


Show answer

Answer

In Walden, Thoreau determined that a meaningful life is one where a person is self-reliant, spiritual and filled with solitude and simplicity. He determines that everything a person does must be done with conviction. Nature is of utmost importance in life.

Show question

Question

What is the meaning of Walden?


Show answer

Answer

Walden was an 1854 book by Henry David Thoreau. In it, he explores transcendentalist themes and spiritual ideas by recounting his time living relatively isolated in the woods. Living near Walden Pond, Thoreau ultimately determines that a meaningful life, and his conclusion from his time at Walden, is that life must be fully embraced in order to be lived properly.

Show question

Question

What is the Walden experiment?


Show answer

Answer

The Walden experiment was Henry David Thoreau’s living circumstances that inspired the 1854 book, Walden. He built a house at Walden Pond near Concord, Massachusetts on Ralph Waldo Emerson’s property. He lived there for two years, two months, and two days in pursuit of the core tenets of a meaningful life. 

Show question

Question

What is the story from Walden about?


Show answer

Answer

Walden is about Thoreau’s time living out at Walden Pond. He describes all the different facets of daily life at the Pond, including the economic aspects, the social aspects, and the spiritual aspects. He recorded his detailed observations about the natural wildlife he was surrounded with during his time at the Pond.

Show question

Question

What did Henry David Thoreau argue in Walden 1854?

Show answer

Answer

Thoreau argued that a meaningful life is one that is lived with solitude, spirituality, self-reliance, and simplicity. A person should strive to be an individual and reject the pressure to conform that is promulgated by society. Commune with nature is of the utmost importance to seeking spiritual fulfillment.

Show question

More about American Poetry
60%

of the users don't pass the Henry David Thoreau quiz! Will you pass the quiz?

Start Quiz

Discover the right content for your subjects

No need to cheat if you have everything you need to succeed! Packed into one app!

Study Plan

Be perfectly prepared on time with an individual plan.

Quizzes

Test your knowledge with gamified quizzes.

Flashcards

Create and find flashcards in record time.

Notes

Create beautiful notes faster than ever before.

Study Sets

Have all your study materials in one place.

Documents

Upload unlimited documents and save them online.

Study Analytics

Identify your study strength and weaknesses.

Weekly Goals

Set individual study goals and earn points reaching them.

Smart Reminders

Stop procrastinating with our study reminders.

Rewards

Earn points, unlock badges and level up while studying.

Magic Marker

Create flashcards in notes completely automatically.

Smart Formatting

Create the most beautiful study materials using our templates.

Sign up to highlight and take notes. It’s 100% free.