Thoreau’s Life | The Thoreau Society | Outreach. Education. Advocacy
the life of thoreau
by Richard J. Schneider
Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) was born and lived most of his life in Concord, Massachusetts, a small town about twenty miles west of Boston. He received his education at Concordia Public School and at Concordia Private Academy. Proving himself to be a better scholar than his older brother, his more popular and fun-loving John was sent to Harvard. he did well there and, despite having to drop out for several months for health and financial reasons, he graduated at the top of his class in 1837.
Thoreau’s graduation came at an inauspicious time. In 1837, the United States was experiencing an economic depression and jobs were scarce. Additionally, Thoreau found himself temperamentally unsuitable for three of the four regular professions open to Harvard graduates: ministry, law, and medicine. The fourth, teaching, was one he was comfortable with, since his two older siblings, Helen and John, were already teachers. he was hired as a teacher at the concord public school, but quit after just two weeks due to a dispute with his superintendent over how to discipline the children. For a time, he and John considered seeking their fortunes in Kentucky, but eventually he returned to work at his father’s pencil factory.
Thoreau’s family participated in the “silent despair” of commerce and industry through the pencil factory his father owned and operated. Produced behind the family home on Main Street, the Thoreau family pencils were generally recognized as America’s finest pencils, largely due to Henry’s research into German pencil-making techniques.
in 1838, he decided to open his own school in concord and eventually asked john to help him. the two brothers worked well together and vacationed together during the holidays. In September 1839, they spent a memorable week together boating down the Concord and Merrimack rivers to Mount Washington in New Hampshire. Around the same time, both brothers became romantically interested in Ellen Sewall, a frequent visitor to Cape Cod in Concord. In the fall of the following year, both brothers, first John and then Henry, proposed to her. But due to her father’s objections to the Thoreaus’ liberal religious views, Ellen rejected both proposals.
When John endured a long illness in 1841, the school became too much for Henry to run alone, so he closed it. He went back to work at the pencil factory, but was soon invited to work as an in-house handyman at the home of his mentor, neighbor, and friend, Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Emerson was by then one of America’s most famous philosophers and men of letters. Since Thoreau graduated from Harvard, he had become a protégé of his famous neighbor and an informal student of Emerson’s transcendental ideas. Transcendentalism was an American version of Romantic Idealism, a dualistic Neoplatonic vision of the world divided into the material and the spiritual. For Emerson, “the mind is the only reality, of which all other natures are better or worse reflectors. nature, literature, history, are only subjective phenomena. for the transcendentalist, the secret to a successful life was to stay above material concerns as much as possible and focus on the spiritual. Thoreau must have absorbed transcendentalism from almost every pore during the two years he lived with Emerson, though he would modify it to suit his own temperament, granting nature more reality than Emerson gave him.
during his stay with emerson, thoreau developed an ambition to become a writer and enlisted emerson’s help to publish some poems and essays in the transcendental magazine the dial. but life in his parents’ house brought trouble for the budding writer. work in the pencil factory was tedious and exhausting, and since his mother took in boarders, there was little quiet or privacy in the house. Recalling a summer visit to the retirement cabin of a college friend, Charles Stearns Wheeler, Thoreau developed a plan to build a house for himself where he could find privacy to write.
in 1845, he received permission from emerson to use land emerson owned on the shore of walden pond. he bought building materials and a chicken coop (for the boards), and built himself a little house there, which he moved into on the Fourth of July. 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 He; and carry out an economic experiment to see if it was possible to live working one day and devoting the other six to more momentous concerns, thus reversing the Yankee custom of working six days and resting one. her nature study and walden writing would develop later during his stay at the pond. He began writing Walden in 1846 as a lecture in response to questions from townspeople who were curious about what he was doing at the pond, but his notes soon became his second book. p>
Thoreau stayed at the Walden Pond house for two years, from July 1845 to September 1847. Walden condensed the experiences of those two years into one year for the artistic unit. during these two years he also spent a night in jail, an incident which occurred in the summer of 1846 and which became the subject of his essay “Resistance to Civil Government” (later known as “Civil Disobedience”). That same year he also took a trip to Maine to see and climb Mount Katahdin, a place with much more wilderness than he could find around Concord.
in the years after he left walden pond, thoreau published a week on the concord and merrimack (1849) and walden (1854) rivers. One week it sold poorly, prompting Thoreau to postpone Walden’s publication, so that he could revise it at length and avoid the problems, such as a lack of structure and a preachy tone unmitigated by humor, that had turned off readers in the past. the first book. walden was a modest success: it brought thoreau good reviews, good sales, and a small following.
Thoreau returned to Emerson’s home and lived there for two years, while Emerson was on a speaking tour in Europe. for much of her remaining years, she rented a room in her parents’ house. he earned his living working in the pencil factory, surveying, giving occasional lectures, and publishing essays in newspapers and magazines. His income, however, was always very modest, and his main concerns were his daily afternoon walks in the woods of Concord, the keeping of a private journal of his observations and ideas about nature, and the writing and revising of essays for his study. publication.
Thoreau was a fervent and outspoken abolitionist, serving as a conductor on the Underground Railroad to help runaway slaves reach Canada. He wrote strong attacks on the Fugitive Slave Law (“Massachusetts Slavery”) and on the execution of John Brown.
His travels into the Maine wilderness and Cape Cod provided material for travel essays first published in magazines; these were eventually collected into posthumous books. Other excursions took him to Canada and, near the end of his life, to Minnesota.
In May 1862, Thoreau died of the tuberculosis that had plagued him periodically since his college years. He left major projects unfinished, including a complete record of natural phenomena around Concord, extensive notes on the American Indians, and many volumes of his journal entries. At his funeral, his friend Emerson said: “The country still does not know, not in the slightest, what a great son it has lost. … His soul was made for the noblest society; he had exhausted in a short life the capacities of this world; where there is knowledge, where there is virtue, where there is beauty, he will find a home.”