Henry David Thoreau spent over two years in his cabin on Walden Pond, but he was no reclusive hermit. He taught school, dabbled in botany, improved the art of pencil-making, made public speeches, supported the Underground Railroad, and shared his bountiful data and philosophy with the world.
Where there is an observatory and a telescope, we expect that any eyes will see new worlds at once.
Henry David Thoreau
David Henry Thoreau was born on July 12, 1817, in Concord, Massachusetts, to John Thoreau and Cynthia Dunber. His father was a pencil maker. He had one brother, John, Jr., and two sisters, Helen and Sophia.
In 1828 his parents sent him to Concord Academy, where he impressed the teachers. He entered Harvard College in 1833, where he studied Greek, Latin, and German. He didn't care at all about grades, however; he graduated in the middle of his class.
After graduation, David Henry Thoreau decided to transpose his first and middle names, becoming Henry David Thoreau instead, but he never made the name change official.
Thoreau did not pronounce his last name with the stress on the second syllable as is commonly thought - he pronounced it as if it were an adjective, "thorough." In fact, one of his friends addressed him as "Mr. Thorough" in his letters.
In 1837 Thoreau taught at his old grammar school in Concord, but after two weeks he resigned rather than administer corporal punishment to his students. For lack of anything else to do, he joined his father's pencil-making business.
In the following year, Thoreau and his brother John decided to open their own school, Concord Academy, with their own rules - long recesses, open windows, and no corporal punishment. They taught by conversation and took their students on field trips, including nature walks and visits to local businesses.
John Thoreau asked Ellen Sewall to marry him, but she turned him down. Henry David Thoreau was briefly engaged to the same woman, until her parents forced her to break it off. Thoreau would remain a bachelor for life.
During a 1939 canoe trip with John along the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, Thoreau decided that he should be a poet of nature. Sadly, the brothers' progressive school closed in 1942, after John cut himself shaving and died of tetanus.
Emerson and the Transcendentalists
Thoreau met Ralph Waldo Emerson in Concord, through a mutual friend. Emerson served as a mentor for Thoreau, encouraging him to pursue his poetic talent and sometimes giving him a place to live. Emerson arranged for Thoreau's works to be published in "The Dial," a Transcendentalist magazine. His early contributions included a poem, "Sympathy," and essays on Aulus Persius Flaccus and the natural history of Massachusetts.
Transcendentalism was one of the most significant literary movements of the nineteenth century, combining romanticism with reform. The Transcendentalists believed that the ideal human spirit transcends the physical world. They valued the individual over the masses, emotion over reason, and nature over man. They believed that reform should begin with the individual, not with a group or organization.
Emerson encouraged young Thoreau to start a personal journal, which he did in 1837. During his lifetime Thoreau wrote thousands of pages, including a final entry two months before his death.
From 1841 to 1843 Thoreau lived with the Emerson family and became a protector of Emerson's wife, Lidian. He also served as the family's handyman.
Wanting to try his luck in the big city, Thoreau joined the family of Emerson's brother, William, on Staten Island. Thoreau tutored the children in the household and spent his free time trying to find work as a freelance writer in New York. After being turned down by the "New Mirror," "New World," "The Knickerbocker," and other publications, Thoreau decided that big city life was not for him.
He returned to Concord, resolving to be content making pencils and grinding graphite. He even perfected a process of using clay as a binder to make soft graphite harder, more suitable for pencils. By the middle of the nineteenth century, the Thoreaus were selling pencils with varying degrees of hardness, numbered 1 through 4.
Despite his love of nature, Thoreau earned a reputation as a "Woodsburner" in 1844, when he and a friend accidentally started a forest fire which burned over 300 acres. They had built a fire in a dry stump during a drought, planning to cook some fish. Only the high social status of his friend's father kept the two men out of jail.
In 1845, at the age of twenty-five, Thoreau decided to duplicate a Harvard friend's adventure by building a waterside hut for reading and contemplation. He chose a spot on Walden Pond, a lake south of Concord, with land owned by his friend Emerson. He chopped down pine trees to create a foundation for his home. Friends eventually helped him raise the roof, thus completing his ten- by fifteen-foot cabin in the woods. He later wrote, "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."
While living in his cabin, Thoreau survived primarily on a diet of wild fruits and vegetables. He also planted beans. He spent his days fishing, gardening, rowing, and writing about nature. His unique way of life earned him a reputation for laziness, but Thoreau countered, "If a man walks in the woods for love of them half of each day, he is in danger of being regarded as a loafer. But if he spends his days as a speculator, shearing off those woods and making the earth bald before her time, he is deemed an industrious and enterprising citizen."
Thoreau practiced yoga and meditation during his time on Walden Pond, much to the dismay and confusion of most Concord residents. He had learned about these practices while browsing a book in Emerson's library, a Hindu text known as "Manusmirti." Thoreau wrote, "I cannot read a single word of the Hindoos without being elevated."
While on Walden Pond, Thoreau completed "A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers," an elegy to his brother, John. He paid to have this work published in 1849, but only 220 copies sold. The remaining 700-plus copies were left on Thoreau's doorstep by the publisher.
Thoreau once wrote, "I never found a companion that was so companionable as solitude." Nevertheless, Thoreau was not a hermit in his cabin. Visitors included Bronson Alcott, who came every Sunday, as well as Ellery Channing and Emerson himself. In addition, Thoreau frequently walked into town to purchase supplies and visit his family. He wrote, "Every day or two I strolled to the village, to hear some of the gossip which is incessantly going on there, circulating either from mouth to mouth, or from newspaper to newspaper, and which, taken in homeopathic doses, was really as refreshing in its way as the rustle of leaves and the peeping of frogs."
In September of 1847 Thoreau left his cabin on Walden Pond, after living there for two years and two months. He was satisfied with his spiritual progress and written words - he felt ready to move on. He explained, "I left the woods for as good a reason as I went there. Perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one."
In July of 1846, during his time on Walden Pond, Thoreau spent one night in jail. He had casually run into the constable and tax gatherer, Sam Staples, who asked him to pay his poll tax, which was in arrears several years. Thoreau declined and was immediately locked up. An unidentified woman, perhaps his Aunt Maria, paid the fine and Thoreau was released. This brief experience lit a fire within him, however, leading him to rebel against a government that supported slavery.
In 1849 Thoreau wrote his famous essay, "Civil Disobedience," inspired by his 1846 arrest. He wrote, "Disobedience is the true foundation of liberty. The obedient must be slaves." The essay received little attention until the twentieth century. Both Gandhi and Martin Luther King credited Thoreau's "Civil Disobedience" with inspiring them to practice nonviolent activism.
In 1854 Thoreau completed and published his masterwork, "Walden; or, Life in the Woods." For artistic reasons, he compressed his two-year adventure into a one-year story, highlighting the cyclical change of seasons. In the first five years following its publication, only 2,000 copies were sold.
Thoreau worked as a surveyor in his later years and, at the same time, he became an avid collector of natural specimens. He collected botanical samples for himself and reptilian ones for Harvard. He called his hat his "botany box," because he used it to carry his plant-based clippings. He had a deep love for all of nature's creatures. He once wrote, "The squirrel that you kill in jest, dies in earnest."
Thoreau observed bloom and leaf times for nearly 600 plants during the 1850s. "I often visited a particular plant four or five miles distant, half a dozen times within a fortnight," he wrote, "that I might know exactly when it opened." He planned to turn his botanical records into a book, but he died too soon.
After his death, his botanical charts were scattered among many libraries and collectors, until a diligent scholar, Bradley Dean, worked to compile them. Researchers have concluded from Thoreau's charts that some common plants were flowering one to three weeks later in his time than in the early twenty-first century.
Thoreau turned his attention to the abolitionist cause. He helped fleeing slaves via his local portion of the Underground Railroad. His 1859 speech, "A Plea for Captain John Brown," called for support of the radical abolitionist who led a raid on the federal arsenal in Harpers Ferry, prior to the Civil War. Brown was ultimately hanged; the disappointment and shock may have contributed to Thoreau's death.
In 1861 Thoreau went to Minnesota in an effort to restore his health from tuberculosis, which had been a chronic problem for him. The trip did little or nothing to restore his health. On May 6, 1862, Thoreau died in Concord, probably from tuberculosis.
Henry David Thoreau's gravestone, which simply reads "Henry," stands near the center of Concord. Visitors decorate it with pine boughs and pebbles.
Thoreau's cabin exists no more, but nine stone posts indicate where the walls once stood. Thoreau's admirers make the pilgrimage to the site and add stones to an ever-expanding cairn in his honor.
Thoreau lived life by his own rules, on his own plane. He truly lived the philosophy he expressed in these words: "It is better to have your head in the clouds, and know where you are... than to breathe the clearer atmosphere below them, and think that you are in paradise."