Henry David Thoreau was born to John and Cynthia Thoreau on July 12, 1817 at his maternal grandmother’s house in Concord, Massachusetts. He was the third of four children. He received his education at the public school in Concord and at the private Concord Academy. Proving to be a better scholar than his older brother John, he was sent to Harvard College in 1834. He did well there and, despite having to drop out for several months for financial and health reasons, graduated in the top half of his class in 1837. He was 20 years old. He was hired as the teacher of the Concord public school, but resigned after only two weeks because of a dispute with his superintendent over how to discipline the children. For a while he and his brother John considered seeking their fortunes in Kentucky, but at last he fell back onto working with his father, who was a pencil maker. In 1838, Thoreau and his brother started their own school in Concord.
In September 1839, Henry and John spent a memorable week together on a boating trip up the Concord and Merrimack rivers to Mount Washington in New Hampshire. About the same time both brothers became romantically interested in Ellen Sewall, a frequent visitor to Concord from Cape Cod. In the fall of the next year, both brothers–first John and then Henry–proposed marriage to Ellen. Due to her father’s objections to the Thoreau family’s “Transcendental” views, she rejected both proposals.
The brothers’ school closed in 1841 because John was suffering from the early stages of tuberculosis. Henry returned to work in the pencil factory but was soon invited to work as a live-in handyman in the home of his mentor, neighbor, and friend, Ralph Waldo Emerson, whom he’d met on his return from Harvard in 1837. By 1841 Emerson was already one of the most famous thinkers and men of letters in America and he and the younger Thoreau (Emerson was 14 years older) became close friends. It was through Emerson that Thoreau became well acquainted with many of the leading thinkers and writers of the day, including Bronson Alcott, Theodore Parker, Margaret Fuller and Nathaniel Hawthorne.
Thoreau became even more deeply infused with Transcendentalism during his two years at the Emerson home, though he would modify it over the years it to suit his own temperament. During his stay, Thoreau developed ambitions of becoming a writer and got help from Emerson in getting some poems and essays published in the Transcendental journal, The Dial. He would move back into his family’s home in 1843.
Living in his parents’ home held problems for the young writer. His brother John had died in January 1842 from lockjaw. Work in his father’s pencil shop was tedious and tiring, and, since his mother took in boarders, there was little quiet or privacy in the Thoreau house. Remembering a summer visit to the retreat cabin of a college friend while at Harvard, Thoreau developed a plan to build such a house for himself where he could find privacy to write.
In 1845, Thoreau received permission from Emerson to build a house on a piece of land that Emerson owned on the shore of Walden Pond. He bought building supplies and an old shanty belonging to an Irish laborer and built himself a small 10’ x 15’ house there, moving in on Independence Day 1845. He had two main purposes in moving to the Pond: to write his first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, as a tribute to his late brother John; and to conduct experiment to see if it were possible to live simply and economically. He would stay in the house at Walden Pond for two years, two months and two days, from July 4, 1845 to September 6, 1847. It was during these two years that Thoreau spent one night in jail, an incident which occurred in the summer of 1846 and which became the subject of his essay “Resistance to Civil Government”, first published in 1849 and later known as “Civil Disobedience”. That same year he also took a trip to Maine to see and climb Mount Katahdin, a place with a much wilder nature than he could find around his hometown of Concord.
In 1847 Thoreau returned to the Emerson home and lived there for one year while Emerson was on a lecture tour in Europe. He returned to his family’s home in 1848 and would live there for the rest of his life. He made his living by doing odd jobs as well as working in the pencil factory and by doing land surveying. Thoreau would occasionally lecture and publish essays in newspapers and journals, but widespread fame eluded him. This never seemed to bother him and his main concerns were his daily afternoon walks in the Concord woods, the keeping of a private journal of his nature observations and ideas, and the writing and revision of essays for publication.
Thoreau published only two books in his lifetime; A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers in 1849 and Walden; or, Life in the Woods in 1854. The first book sold poorly, leading Thoreau to hold off publication of Walden for several years so that he could revise it extensively to avoid the rhetorical problems (such as looseness of structure and a preaching tone) that had put readers off in the first book. Walden was a modest success: it brought Thoreau good reviews, satisfactory sales, and a small following of fans. Today, of course, it is considered Thoreau’s masterpiece and has influenced people all around the world.
Thoreau was an ardent and outspoken abolitionist, as were his mother and sisters. It is known that he helped escaped slaves make their way to Canada on the Underground Railroad and he wrote and delivered a strongly-worded attack on the Fugitive Slave Law with “Slavery in Massachusetts” in 1854. He met the radical Abolitionist John Brown in 1857 and admired him greatly. Thoreau was a vocal supporter of Brown’s raid on the Federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia in 1859.
His trips to Maine and to Cape Cod provided material for travel essays, first published in various periodicals and journals throughout the 1850’s. These were eventually collected into posthumous books. The Maine Woods would be published in 1864 and Cape Cod in 1865. While he “travelled a great deal in Concord” other excursions took Thoreau to Canada and, near the end of his life, to Minnesota.
Thoreau died of tuberculosis on May 6, 1862 at the family home on Main Street in Concord. He was 44 years old. He left behind several unfinished projects, including a comprehensive, day-by-day “calendar” of natural phenomena around Concord, as well as extensive commonplace books of excerpts from his readings on American Indians and nearly two million words in his journal. He was buried in the New Hill Burying Ground, next to his father, his brother John and his sister Helen. At his funeral, Thoreau’s friend Emerson said, “The country knows not yet, or in the least part, how great a son it has lost. … His soul was made for the noblest society; he had in a short life exhausted the capabilities of this world; wherever there is knowledge, wherever there is virtue, wherever there is beauty, he will find a home.”