Henry David Thoreau was born on July 12, 1817, of rather ordinary parents in Concord, outside of Boston, Massachusetts. His childhood and adolescence, from what little is known about these periods of his life, appear to have been typical for the time. Thoreau attended the Concord Academy as an undistinguished student, and when he was sixteen, his father, a pencil manufacturer, had saved enough money to send him to Harvard. There he read a great deal and thus philosophically and literarily prepared himself to become a spokesman for the transcendentalist movement; again, however, his career as a student was unspectacular.
When Thoreau graduated from Harvard in 1837, he had been educated for four possible professions: law, the clergy, business, or teaching. He was really interested in none of these professions for which he had been prepared, but he tried teaching for a short while. He was given a position in Concord, but soon resigned when he discovered that he was expected to teach by conscientiously beating the ABC's into his students with a rod. He decided that he would rather make pencils with his father and do some occasional surveying. (The latter activity would later come to be one of the main bread-and-butter occupations of his life.) Needless to say, the townspeople were surprised that a Harvard man should turn out so disappointingly. This was to be the first of many ways in which Thoreau would rebel against society's expectations for him.
Yet, while the townspeople were looking upon him as a loafer, Thoreau was then, in the late 1830s and early 1840s, mapping out his strategy to become as famous and influential a transcendentalist writer and lecturer as Emerson. He tried teaching again in 1838 with his brother John, and they conducted what today would still be considered a progressive school. But this was only a tangential interest for him; he had already decided what his primary vocation would be. In 1837, he had begun his journal, the workbook to which he would practically devote his life and in which he would perfect his art. Until his death in 1862, Thoreau religiously worked day in and day out at this occupation of which the scoffing townspeople were ignorant. To realize the intense seriousness with which he pursued it, one can profitably read through his journal of 1838. There one finds the anxiety of the struggling, would-be master craftsman whose work does not yet meet his own standards of excellence:
But what does all this scribbling amount to? What is now scribbled in the heat of the moment one can contemplate with somewhat of satisfaction, but alas! tomorrow — aye, tonight — it is stale, flat and unprofitable — in fine, is not; only its shell remains like some red parboiled lobster shell which, kicked aside ever so often, still stares at you in the path.
In short, Thoreau was deadly serious when he took up his pen — so serious that, as was usual with Thoreau, he probably revised and polished the above complaint several times before he entered it in his journal.
During the time that Thoreau and his brother were conducting their academy, they went on a boat trip (1839) that was to provide the raw material which Thoreau would work into his first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1849). It was ten years between the actual river voyage and when his highly idealistic celebration of it was published. During that time, Thoreau read, wrote, and worked at whatever jobs he could find. He surveyed, made pencils with his father, and did odd jobs when he needed the money — thus leaving him plenty of time for his journal. In 1841, Thoreau moved into the Emerson household as the family's handyman. He made much use of Emerson's library, and a warm relationship grew between them as they daily conversed and as Thoreau began to submit poems and essays to the Dial, the transcendentalist journal that Emerson edited. (Most of these poems and essays were later included in A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers.) Emerson came to admire Thoreau so much that he allowed him to edit the entire April 1843 issue.
Emerson had high ambitions for his young friend and, in 1843, he arranged for Thoreau to stay with his brother, William Emerson, on Staten Island so that he might make contacts with New York publishers. Unfortunately, this attempt to find publication was a failure, and Thoreau soon returned to Concord and resumed work on his journal. Then in March 1845, he initiated what was to be the most significant event of his life: he borrowed an ax and began to construct a cabin on Emerson's land by the north shore of Walden Pond.
He moved into his cabin on July 4, 1845, and, as Walden indicates, he attempted to reduce his needs to the barest essentials of life and to establish an intimate, spiritual relationship with nature.
For Thoreau, living at Walden Pond was a noble experiment in three ways. First, Thoreau was intent upon resisting the debilitating effects of the industrial revolution (division of labor, the mind-dulling repetition of factory work, and a materialist vision of life). The Walden experiment allowed him to "turn back the clock" to the simpler, agrarian way of life that was quickly disappearing in New England. Second, by reducing his expenditures, he reduced the time necessary to support himself, and thus he could devote more time to the perfection of his art. While at the pond, he was able to write most of A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. And third, he and Emerson had asserted that one can most easily experience the Ideal, or the Divine, through nature; at Walden Pond, Thoreau was able to test continually the validity of this theory by living closely, day-to-day, with nature.
Thoreau left the pond in 1847, and when Emerson went to England in the fall of that year, Thoreau once again joined the household to look after the family's needs. Upon Emerson's return in 1848, Thoreau moved back to his parents' home, where he remained until his death.
Between 1847 and 1854, Thoreau spent his time walking through the countryside, making pencils, surveying, and devoting himself to a new passion: the composition of Walden. The work went through many painstaking revisions during those seven years; yet when it appeared, the product of those years of labor was not well received. While it was not so great a failure as A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (275 sold; 75 given away), and while it did receive some good reviews, it hardly fulfilled Thoreau's dream of becoming a major spokesman for the transcendentalist movement. He did not complain about the poor reception given to Walden, but it must have been a major psychological setback. Viewed today, its publication marked the high point of his career, and his contemporaries virtually ignored it.
Thoreau's later years were characterized by an increased interest in the cause of abolition and the scientific study of nature. In 1844, he wrote an essay entitled "Herald of Freedom," which praised abolitionist Wendell Phillips, and in 1849 he published "Civil Disobedience," which also dealt with the subject of slavery in America. In neither piece did Thoreau protest loudly, but in 1854, his indignation began to grow when he delivered a speech entitled "Slavery in Massachusetts." He became more involved with the abolitionist movement, and in 1859 delivered his fiery "Plea for Captain John Brown," wherein he praised the morality of Brown's violent resistance to slavery and sternly denounced the federal government for sanctioning the institution of slavery. This speech was soon followed by another entitled "The Last Days of John Brown." In 1844, Thoreau had advocated non-violent, passive resistance to slavery, but as it became more and more a central concern of his life, he gradually came to advocate armed revolt, even civil war, as a valid means of destroying an immoral system.
In his abolitionist speeches and essays, Thoreau revealed a turbulent sense of outrage. That was one side of his personality. The other side, as seen when he was in the presence of nature, also remained strong during his later years. And as he grew weaker after his bouts with tuberculosis in 1851 and 1855, he turned to nature in order to regain his health — but not with the transcendentalist fervor that characterized his youth. During this period of decline, his journal reveals a growing interest in natural history accompanied by a more "scientific," less transcendental, approach to nature. Although the latter part of his journal does contain many imaginative descriptions of nature similar to those found in Walden, there is an increasing number of entries like the following of 1860:
It rained hard on the twentieth and part of the following night — two and one eighth inches of rain in all, there being no drought — raising the river from some two or three inches above summer level to seven and a half inches above the summer level at 7 A.M. of the twenty-first.
Such entries have led some scholars to think that Thoreau gradually "decayed" as a transcendentalist during the late 1850s and early 1860s.
On May 6, 1862, Thoreau died in his parents' home in Concord. A man of admirable spirit, he passed out of the world with typical Thoreauvian humor: when a friend asked him if he had made amends with God, Thoreau quipped, "I did not know that we had ever quarreled."
When Thoreau died, scarcely anyone in America noticed, and the few that did mourn his passing would have been surprised to learn that, a century later, he would be unanimously acknowledged as one of America's greatest literary artists. George W. Curtis did not understate the matter when he wrote in Thoreau's obituary that "the name of Henry Thoreau is known to very few persons beyond those who personally knew him." Thoreau had fervently devoted himself to the pursuit of a literary career in the late 1830s, but after thirty years of intense effort in his art, he died a failure by contemporary standards of success. In his eulogy at Thoreau's funeral, Emerson declared that "the country knows not yet, or in the least part, how great a son it has lost," and it was not until the twentieth century was well under way that Thoreau came to be recognized as the genius that he was.
What little recognition Thoreau did receive during the latter half of the nineteenth century was strongly colored by some unfortunate remarks made by Emerson and James Russell Lowell, two very influential men in matters of literary taste. Both men published essays on Thoreau shortly after his death and virtually determined for quite some time what the public's attitude toward Thoreau would be. While supposedly eulogizing Thoreau, Emerson managed to emphasize every negative trait that he had found (or imagined) in Thoreau's personality. One sees in his portrait of Thoreau an almost inhuman ascetic and stoic ("He had no temptations to fight against — no appetites, no passions, no taste for elegant trifles") and a somewhat cranky, anti-social hermit ("Few lives contained so many renunciations. . . . It cost him nothing to say No; indeed, he found it much easier than to say Yes"). In this eulogy, Emerson also strongly emphasized Thoreau's abilities as a naturalist, and thus established the image of Thoreau-the-nature-lover (in the worst sense of the term) that was to obscure his primary significance as an artist for quite some time. Three years later, in 1865, James Russell Lowell published his essay on Thoreau, and reinforced Emerson's caricature of Thoreau as a cold, brittle, anti-social recluse. He wrote that Thoreau "seems to me to have been a man with so high a conceit of himself that he accepted without questioning, and insisted on accepting, his defects and weaknesses of character as virtues and powers peculiar to himself. . . . His mind strikes us as cold and wintry. This was a damning indictment, but even more detrimental to Thoreau's reputation was Lowell's assertion that Thoreau was merely a minor Emerson, an imitator of his mentor. In A Fable for Critics, Lowell depicted a Thoreau who trod "in Emerson's tracks with legs painfully short." In addition, he opened the essay on Thoreau with a similar gibe:
Among the pistillate plants kindled to fruitage by the Emersonian pollen, Thoreau is thus far the most remarkable; and it is something eminently fitting that his posthumous works should be offered us by Emerson, for they are strawberries from his own garden.
To realize the influence that Lowell's opinion carried in literary circles, one should note that as late as 1916, Mark Van Doren reiterated a similar misconception in his Henry David Thoreau. Van Doren wrote that "Thoreau is a specific Emerson" and that, philosophically, Thoreau's position was "almost identical with Emerson's."
To those familiar with Emerson's and Thoreau's writings, such a view of an "Emersonian Thoreau" is a gross misconception. Philosophically and aesthetically, they were often at odds, and one need only read Emerson's Nature and Thoreau's Walden to note the differences in personality and, most important, the differences in their art. Yet, the "Emersonian" tag hindered the recognition of Thoreau's unique greatness for over half a century, as did the popular conceptions of the effete "nature lover" and the cranky hermit. One finds, for example, Oliver Wendell Holmes treating Thoreau as a joke: "Thoreau, the nullifier of civilization . . . insisted on nibbling his asparagus at the wrong end." And Robert Louis Stevenson echoed Lowell by terming Thoreau "dry, priggish, and selfish," adding that "it was not inappropriate, surely, that he had much close relations with the fish."
The ill-founded jokes began to come to an end during the 1890s when serious scholars began to take a closer look at the basis of Thoreau's small reputation. The portraits of Thoreau by Emerson and Lowell were re-examined and most critics came to the conclusion that, as Charles C. Abbot wrote in 1895, "neither Emerson nor Lowell was fitted to the task they undertook." Emerson's journals revealed a basic misunderstanding of Thoreau's aims and accomplishments; Lowell, the "in-door, kid-glove critic," was obviously out of touch with the thorny world that Thoreau inhabited. Between the 1890s and the mid-twentieth century, the old misconceptions about Thoreau withered away, and as critics began examining Thoreau on his own ground — that is, his writings — his reputation grew rapidly. Today, his reputation as an artist is greater than Emerson's, and, ironically, virtually no one except specialists in American literature reads either Lowell's poetry or his literary criticism. As Wendell Glick has noted: "One of the most conspicuous nails in the coffin of Lowell's reputation is his maligning of Thoreau's genius." By the unanimous consent of literary critics, "genius" is the only word to describe the once unappreciated artist of a small town in Massachusetts.