Henry David Thoreau Life and Background of Thoreau


Although an author's biography is always to some degree relevant to the study of his or her writings, a remarkable unity existed between Henry David Thoreau's life and his work. Thoreau's deliberately lived life and his writings were dual expressions of the same underlying principles and aspirations.

One of the major authors of American Transcendentalism, lecturer, naturalist, student of Native American artifacts and life, land surveyor, pencil-maker, active opponent of slavery, social critic, and almost life-long resident of Concord, Massachusetts, Thoreau was born David Henry Thoreau on July 12, 1817, in his grandmother's house on Virginia Road in Concord, which is close to Boston and Cambridge. In 1635 it was the first inland settlement in Massachusetts. The scene of the first armed resistance of the American Revolution on April 19, 1775, Concord was, in 1817, a vigorous place, home to the courts of Middlesex County, a beehive of artisan activity, trade, and politics as well as a farming community. Thoreau was baptized in the First Parish — the church in which as an adult he would decline membership — on October 12, 1817.

His father, John Thoreau (1787–1859), storekeeper and pencil-maker, was of French Protestant descent. Jean (John) Thoreau (1754–1801), Henry's grandfather, born on the Isle of Jersey, came to America in 1773 and became a successful merchant in Boston. He married Jane Burns in 1781. In 1799, he bought part of what is now the Colonial Inn building in Concord and moved his large family there in 1800.

Henry's mother, Cynthia Dunbar Thoreau (1787–1872), was born in Keene, New Hampshire. On her mother's side, she descended from the Loyalist Jones family of Weston, Massachusetts. Her mother, Mary Jones, married the Reverend Asa Dunbar in 1772, was widowed, and married Captain Jonas Minott — who owned the farm where Thoreau was later born — in 1798.

Cynthia Dunbar and John Thoreau were married on May 11, 1812. They had four children: Helen (1812–1849); John (1815–1842); Henry (1817–1862); and Sophia (1819–1876). John Thoreau suffered business difficulties and found it necessary to move his young family several times, from Concord to Chelmsford, Massachusetts (in 1818), from Chelmsford back to Concord briefly (in 1821), then to Boston (in 1821), and finally back to Concord permanently (in 1823). After returning to Concord, John Thoreau rented a succession of houses before he could afford to build a home of his own (on Texas Street, now Belknap Street) in 1844. In 1849, John Thoreau bought and renovated a larger home on Main Street (the "Yellow House"), into which the family moved in 1850 and where Henry died in 1862.

Despite their early financial hardships, the Thoreau family shared a vital and sustaining home life that meant much to all of them — Henry included — as long as they lived. John and Cynthia Thoreau differed significantly from one another in temperament. John was quiet, obliging, patient, fond of reading and music (he played the flute, and passed along this love to Henry), observant, and a storehouse of information about those who populated the community around him. Cynthia, an intelligent woman, was far more outgoing, voluble, unafraid to speak her mind even at the risk of offending. Widely acknowledged as a good homemaker, she was generous in inviting those in need into her home for meals. She played an active part in the Concord Female Charitable Society (a volunteer social service organization) and participated in the abolition movement through membership in the Ladies' Anti-Slavery Society of Concord and involvement in the Underground Railroad. She took in boarders to supplement the family income. The Thoreau children were influenced not only by their parents but also by members of the extended family. Mrs. Thoreau's brother Charles Dunbar, along with Mrs. Thoreau, helped instill in the children a love of outdoor expeditions and an appreciation of the fact that they did not have to go far from home to enjoy nature. The children's aunts Louisa Dunbar and Maria, Jane, Sarah, and Elizabeth Thoreau also influenced the children (Sarah and Elizabeth lived and ran a boarding house in the Concord home that their father had bought in 1799).

Thoreau was educated in Concord at Miss Phoebe Wheeler's school, in the public school on what is now Monument Square, and under the tutelage of Phineas Allen at the Concord Academy. His schoolmates at the Academy, which he attended from 1828 until 1833, included Ebenezer Rockwood Hoar, who went on to become Attorney General of the United States in the cabinet of President Ulysses S. Grant; Rockwood's brother George Frisbie Hoar, later a United States senator; John Shepard Keyes, lawyer, United States marshal, judge, and Massachusetts senator; and William Whiting, Solicitor General for the War Department during the Civil War. Classmate Charles Stearns Wheeler was a special friend of Thoreau and later his college roommate. Thoreau was a member of the Concord Academic Debating Society while in school. In general, however, he preferred wandering in the open air to indoor activities.

In 1833, Thoreau entered Harvard College. Far from well-off, the Thoreaus made a concerted effort to raise money for the tuition. Henry's sister Helen and brother John contributed some of what they earned as teachers, and his aunts contributed as well. Thoreau held a scholarship that also helped. In 1835, he took a temporary leave from his classes to teach school in Canton, Massachusetts, under the supervision of Orestes Brownson, with whom he studied German during his absence from Harvard. Thoreau performed creditably at Harvard, although he was not ranked near the top of his class. He read avidly in his spare time. His professors included Edward Tyrrell Channing, under whom he applied the basics of English composition in writing essays; Cornelius Felton, who taught Greek; and Francis Bowen, who taught philosophy. In addition to English, Greek, and philosophy, Thoreau studied Latin, mathematics, history, astronomy, theology, Italian, French, German, and Spanish. He was a member of the Institute of 1770, a Harvard lecture, debate and literary society.

Thoreau graduated from Harvard in 1837 and returned to Concord. Without explanation, he reversed the order of his first and middle names, signing himself "Henry David" instead of "David Henry" for the rest of his life. He taught public school for a short time (two weeks) in 1837. His disinclination to use physical punishment did not sit well with the Concord School Committee. Disgusted, Thoreau arbitrarily applied the rod to six students and promptly resigned. Unable to find another teaching job, he devoted himself to his father's pencil-making business.

In October of 1837, Thoreau began to keep a journal in which he made regular entries, recording his daily experiences, thoughts, observations of nature and of life, and reactions to reading. His journals, which he kept until 1861, became the source of much of his published writing. In a real sense, they form his magnum opus. Moreover, on April 11, 1838, Thoreau delivered his first lecture before the Concord Lyceum (the lecture "Society," based on journal entries that he had made in March of 1838). The lecture platform provided Thoreau with another means of expressing his developing thoughts prior to their reworking for publication. In Thoreau's writing, as in Emerson's, there is frequently a close relationship between journal, lecture, and published word.

In 1838, still unable to find work as a teacher, Thoreau opened a private school, running it first in his family's house, then in the Concord Academy building, which he rented when the Academy lost its schoolmaster. Thoreau took over the existing name as well as the building. The school was open to boarding and day students, the boarding students staying in the Thoreau family home. As the enrollment increased, Thoreau added his brother John to the teaching staff of one. Most of the pupils were from Concord and the immediate vicinity. A few, like Edmund Sewall of Scituate, Massachusetts, came from farther away. The curriculum included English, Latin, Greek, French, mathematics, physics, and natural history. The students engaged in hands-on learning, made frequent field trips, and focused considerable attention on nature. The Thoreau brothers shunned physical punishment. Successful though the school was, John's declining health forced its closing in 1841.

In 1839, while teaching school together, Henry and John Thoreau made a boat trip down the Concord River and up the Merrimack as far as Hooksett, New Hampshire, from there continuing by land to Concord and Plymouth, New Hampshire. This journey later provided the raw material for Thoreau's first published work, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (published in 1849). Also during the period when they were teaching colleagues, Henry and John fell in love with the same girl, Ellen Sewall of Scituate, older sister of their pupil Edmund Sewall. Both proposed marriage — John in July of 1840, Henry later that year. Neither won Ellen's hand. Ellen later married the Reverend Joseph Osgood. None of John and Cynthia Thoreau's four children ever married. Although he did not marry, Henry valued the friendship and mutual respect of several women — Lidian Emerson (the wife of Ralph Waldo Emerson), Lucy Jackson Brown (Mrs. Emerson's sister), and Mary Moody Emerson (Emerson's strong-minded, forthright, and eccentric aunt).

Having closed his Concord Academy, Thoreau accepted an invitation to move into the Emerson household as a live-in handyman. He stayed with the Emersons from 1841 to 1843. Emerson, fourteen years older than Thoreau, had moved to Concord in 1834, while Thoreau was a student at Harvard. After Thoreau's graduation from Harvard and his return to Concord in 1837, a close bond had developed between the two. Because Emerson was older, published, and already a leader among Transcendental thinkers, he filled the roles of teacher and patron as well as friend to Thoreau. As time went on, the master/pupil aspect of the relationship became less appropriate and less satisfactory. But in the early 1840s, it suited both men.

Under Emerson's influence, Thoreau increasingly turned his thoughts to writing. While living in the Emerson home, he enjoyed the benefits of Emerson's encouragement, support, and advice. He also benefited from access to Emerson's library, which included important works of Oriental literature of great interest to Thoreau, books not readily available elsewhere. Members of the Transcendental Club came to Concord to converse with Emerson, and Thoreau was welcome among them. Thoreau contributed to The Dial during this period, and edited the April 1843 issue for Emerson, who became editor of the periodical after Margaret Fuller's resignation in 1842. Thoreau and Emerson also shared the common bond of grief from January of 1842, when Thoreau's brother John died of lockjaw and Emerson's first child Waldo died of scarlet fever.

Thoreau would again live in the Emerson household from 1847 to 1848, while Emerson was in Europe. By 1850, however, the friendship was strained. Despite their respect for one another, Emerson's sense of Thoreau's promise and Thoreau's idealization of Emerson did not quite fit the reality of how each conducted his life. Thoreau did not vigorously pursue the visible success as a writer of which Emerson thought him capable. Emerson increasingly became a man of the world and traveled in literary and social circles that Thoreau disdained. When Thoreau died in 1862, Emerson delivered the eulogy at the First Parish in Concord; it was later expanded for publication in the August 1862 issue of Atlantic Monthly. The piece, titled "Thoreau," clearly conveys Emerson's disappointment in what Thoreau had achieved.

In 1843, through Emerson's influence, Thoreau left Concord to tutor the children of Emerson's brother William on Staten Island, New York. He delighted in observing the local plant life, so different from that of his native town; he enjoyed the ocean; he visited New York City; he read and was able to take books out of the New York Society Library; he met Horace Greeley, founder of the New York Tribune, who helped him to publish some of his work in magazines. But Thoreau was unable to sell as many of his pieces as he had hoped he might. Moreover, he did not feel much intellectual kinship with the William Emersons, and he missed Concord. By the end of 1843, Thoreau was ready to return to the landscape and the community that formed such a large part of his identity.

Thoreau once again applied himself to the family pencil-making business, so improving the product that it was widely acknowledged as superior. (He remained involved with the pencil business to one degree or another until the end of his life, taking it over with his sister Sophia after their father's death in 1859.) Thoreau also renewed his association with the Concord Lyceum, both as lecturer and as curator for the 1843–1844 season. Although he also lectured outside Concord, Thoreau was never one of those popular lecturers who were solidly booked and who spoke to packed halls on the lyceum circuit.

Thoreau's friends and associates ranged from philosophers and authors to local farmers, whose ingenuity and simplicity he admired, to the outcast Irish who came to town to build the Fitchburg Railroad in the early 1840s. Concord at the time was home not only to Emerson, but also to Bronson Alcott; the poet (William) Ellery Channing (nephew and namesake of the liberal minister who had been so important in establishing American Unitarianism); and Nathaniel Hawthorne (who lived in the Old Manse from 1842 to 1845, while it was vacant following the death of Ezra Ripley). This community of thinkers and writers was extended by the many visitors — Margaret Fuller, Elizabeth Peabody, and Theodore Parker, for example — who visited Emerson. As his journals indicate, Thoreau enjoyed the company of farmers George Minott and Edmund Hosmer and of Edward Sherman Hoar — brother of Ebenezer Rockwood, George Frisbie, and Elizabeth Hoar (a learned woman, the fiancée of Emerson's brother Charles, who died in 1836, and an intimate of the Emerson family). Thoreau and Edward Hoar accidentally set fire to the woods near Concord's Fairhaven Bay in April of 1844, an event described in detail in Thoreau's journal.

Late in 1844, Emerson purchased land around Walden Pond. Thoreau had for some time been drawn to the idea of living with nature, away from town life. While in college, his friend Charles Stearns Wheeler had built a cabin on Sandy Pond in Lincoln (next to Concord). Thoreau himself had tried unsuccessfully to obtain permission to build a cabin on Sandy Pond. Emerson's purchase of land at Walden provided Thoreau with the opportunity he craved to live simply in nature and to devote himself to writing. He wanted to work the story of his 1839 journey with his brother John on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers into a book.

In March of 1845, Thoreau began cutting pines at Walden for lumber to build his cabin. The cabin was sufficiently finished to live in by July 4 of that year, when he moved in, although the chimney had not yet been built nor the shingling and plastering completed. Between the time he moved in and his departure from Walden on September 6, 1847, Thoreau lived self-sufficiently, as he wrote in the first paragraph of Walden "earning my living by the labor of my hands only." He fished and grew beans, potatoes, corn, peas, and turnips, selling what he did not need for his own use. He focused on the essentials only and spent the time that was not necessary for obtaining them on what was most important to him — observing the world around him and writing. Thoreau looked for the higher laws behind the facts of his existence. He did not, contrary to popular misconception in his own time and ours, live the life of a hermit or misanthrope. He visited family and friends in town often, and they returned the gesture. The experiment at Walden did what Thoreau had hoped and intended it would. He left Walden with the completed manuscript of A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers and with much material that would eventually form his Walden as well.

In 1845, as Thoreau was preparing to build his cabin at the pond, he became involved in a local controversy that resulted in his taking a public stand on the side of abolition. There was opposition within the Concord Lyceum to inviting abolitionist Wendell Phillips to speak, ending in an abrupt change of Lyceum management and in the extension of the invitation to Phillips. (Phillips had earlier spoken before the Concord Lyceum, to the discomfort of some of the more conservative members of the community.) Thoreau consequently wrote a letter to William Lloyd Garrison's The Liberator, defending Phillips' right to speak. The letter was published in the March 28, 1845, issue. Thoreau's stance was in keeping with his family's ardent abolitionism. His mother and sisters, active in the Concord Ladies' Anti-Slavery Society and the Middlesex County Anti-Slavery Society, applauded his outspokenness.

In July of 1845, while living at Walden, Thoreau was arrested and jailed for nonpayment of the poll tax, which he had refused to pay since 1842 in protest against government complicity in slavery. Although Thoreau's debt was paid by an anonymous benefactor, and he therefore spent only one night behind bars, the event was significant because it led directly to the preparation of one of his most influential writings. In 1848, Thoreau first lectured before the Concord Lyceum on "The Rights and Duties of the Individual in Relation to Government." In 1849, he submitted "Resistance to Civil Government" to Elizabeth Palmer Peabody for publication in the May 1849 issue — as it turned out, the sole issue — of her Aesthetic Papers. The piece was later published under the title Civil Disobedience.

A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers also appeared in May of 1849, under the imprint of Boston publisher James Munroe. Thoreau had had difficulty in arranging for the book's publication, and had finally had one thousand copies published at his own expense. Most of those copies remained unsold and eventually came back to him.

In the fall of 1847, Thoreau again took up residence in the Emerson home, where he remained until July of 1848, when he moved back into his parents' home and took odd jobs to earn money. In the late 1840s, he became proficient and sought-after as a land and property surveyor, a line of work that allowed him to spend time outdoors. He worked not only for private property owners, but also for the Town of Concord, assisting in laying out roads and walking the bounds in his capacity as "Civil Engineer." Most of his surveying was done in Concord and towns nearby, but occasionally he traveled farther afield, as when he surveyed Eagleswood in Perth Amboy, New Jersey, for Marcus Spring, in November of 1856. Thoreau's precision and accuracy as a surveyor were highly valued.

In the period after he returned from Walden, Thoreau reveled in tramping about the woods and fields of Concord, sometimes with the Emerson children and other young companions, and explored in his journal what Concord meant to him. He wrote repeatedly of the place as a sufficient microcosm of the world, at least as hospitable to individual development and self-realization as any larger, older, or more cosmopolitan place. In his journal entry for March 11, 1856, for example, he wrote:

If these fields and streams and woods, the phenomena of nature here, and the simple occupations of the inhabitants should cease to interest and inspire me, no culture or wealth would atone for the loss. . . . At best, Paris could only be a school in which to learn to live here, a stepping stone to Concord, a school in which to fit for this university. I wish so to live ever as to derive my satisfactions and inspirations from the commonest events . . . so that what my senses hourly perceive . . . may inspire me, and I may dream of no heaven but that which lies about me. . . .

As deeply as Thoreau loved Concord, there was undeniably a certain philosophical detachment in his appreciation of it. The search for transcendent truth outweighed the attractions of specific locality for him. The simplification of and deliberate approach to life had been the crucial aspects of his experiment at Walden. Others, he knew, could find meaning in Waldens of their own, without ever setting foot in Concord.

During the late 1840s and the 1850s, Thoreau made a number of excursions beyond Concord — to Maine (first visited by Thoreau in 1846, while he lived at Walden) in 1853 and 1857; to Cape Cod in 1849, 1850, 1855, and 1857; to Quebec in 1850; to Mount Monadnock in southern New Hampshire (which he visited repeatedly over the years) in 1852 and 1858; and to the White Mountains (to which he first journeyed in 1839 with his brother John) in 1858. In July of 1850, Thoreau made a somber trip to Fire Island, off New York, to search for the body of Margaret Fuller, who had died in a shipwreck on her return to America with her Italian husband and their young child. Thoreau sometimes took companions when he traveled, among them Ellery Channing and Edward Sherman Hoar. His journeys provided the raw material for several posthumously published books — The Maine Woods (1864), Cape Cod (1865), and A Yankee in Canada (1866).

Thoreau's trips to Maine afforded him the chance to observe Native Americans. Since boyhood, Thoreau had been fascinated by Indians. There were Indians in Concord even in the 1850s, but their culture had long since lost its integrity. In Maine, Indians were still to a degree able to live "free and unconstrained in Nature." Thoreau used Indian guides on his Maine trips in order to learn what he could of their wisdom and their ways. He wrote about Joe Polis, his guide in 1857, in The Maine Woods. In Concord, Thoreau was a collector of arrowheads and other artifacts, highly skilled at finding them in places where others never suspected they might lay. He also kept volumes of research notes on the Indians, intending but ultimately unable to write a book on the subject.

For seven years after Thoreau's return from Walden Pond in 1847, he worked and reworked his material about his sojourn there, extensively and repeatedly revising what he had produced. The book was published in August of 1854 by the Boston company of Ticknor and Fields, publishers of a number of major authors of the American Renaissance. Walden was more widely and better reviewed than A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers had been, and it sold well.

Thoreau found fellowship with others after the cooling of his relationship with Emerson. Ellery Channing — who accompanied him on walks around Concord — was chief among them. With the publication of his Thoreau, the Poet-Naturalist in 1873, Channing later became the first biographer of Thoreau. In 1848, Harrison Gray Otis Blake of Worcester, Massachusetts, began a correspondence with Thoreau. Thoreau sometimes visited Blake in Worcester, and the two hiked in Concord and elsewhere. Blake inherited Thoreau's manuscripts (except for his surveys, which went to the Concord Free Public Library) from Sophia Thoreau, who died in 1876. He subsequently edited journal material for the volumes Early Spring in Massachusetts (1881), Summer (1884), Winter (1888), and Autumn (1892). Theophilus Brown was another Worcester friend. Thoreau visited Daniel Ricketson in New Bedford, and corresponded with Calvin Greene of Rochester, Michigan. He met Englishman Thomas Cholmondeley in Concord in 1854. On his return to England, Cholmondeley corresponded with Thoreau and sent him a rich and much appreciated collection of Oriental books.

After the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law in 1850, Thoreau and certain other residents of Concord took an active part in the Underground Railroad. In the 1850s, Thoreau's mother concealed slaves on their way to freedom in her home. Thoreau escorted fugitives to the West Fitchburg railroad station, where they made connections for Canada. The prominent fugitive slave cases of Shadrach Minkins (who spent one night in February of 1851 at the house of the Mr. and Mrs. Francis Bigelow), Thomas Sims (1851), and Anthony Burns (1854) angered Thoreau. His speech "Slavery in Massachusetts," delivered at an abolition meeting in Framingham, Massachusetts, on July 4, 1854, was prepared in reaction to the return of the fugitive slave Burns to his Virginian master.

Thoreau admired radical abolitionist John Brown, in 1855 captain of a Kansas militia company determined to keep Kansas a free state, in 1859 leader of a raid on the federal arsenal at Harper's Ferry, West Virginia. Frank Sanborn of Concord was one of Brown's key supporters. In 1857, Brown visited Concord, lunched at Mrs. Thoreau's, and spoke publicly later in the day. He returned to Concord and spoke again in 1859. Following the raid at Harper's Ferry, Thoreau delivered "A Plea for Captain John Brown" in Concord, Boston, and Worcester. After Brown's execution, his "The Last Days of John Brown" was read at Brown's memorial service on July 4, 1860, in North Elba, New York. Thoreau also helped Francis Jackson Merriam, one of Brown's raiders at Harper's Ferry, escape to Canada.

Thoreau continued to make entries in his journal until November of 1861, six months before his death. He had always devoted considerable attention in his journals to recording his observations of the natural world. But the character of these observations changed over time. By the 1850s, Thoreau was aware that he had become more scientific, more attentive to detail and data. He took a measure with him on his walks, bought a spyglass, and systematically recorded the blooming dates of flowers and statistics of all kinds. Having supplied naturalist Louis Agassiz with animal specimens in his Walden days, Thoreau occasionally struggled with the urge to kill something in order to study it. He reminded himself in his journals that his ultimate purpose in immersing himself in nature — the search for broader meaning — would be subverted by too scientific an approach

Late in 1860, Thoreau caught a cold, which turned to bronchitis and aggravated the tuberculosis that had shadowed him since his college days. In an effort to regain his health, he journeyed to Minnesota with young naturalist Horace Mann, Jr. (son of educator Horace Mann) in the spring and summer of 1861. The trip did not stop the progress of his illness, however. Thoreau spent his final months in Concord editing and reworking his manuscripts. He died on May 6, 1862, at the age of forty-four. Originally buried in the New Hill Burying Ground, his body was later moved to Authors' Ridge in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery.

After Thoreau's death, over a period of years, Sophia Thoreau, Ellery Channing, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Harrison Gray Otis Blake edited Thoreau's unpublished writings. Some important pieces first appeared in periodical form. "Walking," "Wild Apples," and "Life Without Principle" were published in Atlantic Monthly. Sophia Thoreau and Emerson edited the collection Excursions, published in 1863. The Maine Woods, Cape Cod, and A Yankee in Canada, with Anti-Slavery and Reform Papers, edited by Sophia Thoreau and Ellery Channing, appeared in 1864, 1865, and 1866, respectively. Emerson edited letters (Letters to Various Persons, 1865); Blake edited the four volumes organized by season from the journals (1881–1892); and Frank Sanborn and Thoreau biographer Henry Stephens Salt edited poems (Poems of Nature, 1895).

Thoreau enjoyed, at best, a modest reputation during his lifetime. Only with the passage of time has the broad relevance of his work been appreciated and his place as one of the most original and profound of American authors been recognized.