Henry David Thoreau
The Great Conservationist, Visionary, and Humanist
He spent his life in voluntary poverty, enthralled by the study
of nature. Two years, in the prime of his life, were spent living in a
shack in the woods near a pond. Who would choose a life like this?
Henry David Thoreau did, and he enjoyed it. Who was Henry David Thoreau,
what did he do, and what did others think of his work?
Henry David Thoreau was born in Concord, Massachusetts on July
12, 1817 (“Thoreau” 96), on his grandmother’s farm. Thoreau, who was of
French-Huguenot and Scottish-Quaker ancestry, was baptized as David Henry
Thoreau, but at the age of twenty he legally changed his name to Henry
David. Thoreau was raised with his older sister Helen, older brother
John, and younger sister Sophia (Derleth 1) in genteel poverty (The 1995
Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia 1). It quickly became evident that
Thoreau was interested in literature and writing. At a young age he began
to show interest writing, and he wrote his first essay, “The Seasons,” at
the tender age of ten, while attending Concord Academy (Derleth 4).
In 1833, at the age of sixteen, Henry David was accepted to
Harvard University, but his parents could not afford the cost of tuition
so his sister, Helen, who had begun to teach, and his aunts offered to
help. With the assistance of his family and the beneficiary funds of
Harvard he went to Cambridge in August 1833 and entered Harvard on
September first. “He [Thoreau] stood close to the top of his class, but
he went his own way too much to reach the top” (5).
In December 1835, Thoreau decided to leave Harvard and attempt to
earn a living by teaching, but that only lasted about a month and a half
(8). He returned to college in the fall of 1836 and graduated on August
16, 1837 (12). Thoreau’s years at Harvard University gave him one great
gift, an introduction to the world of books.
Upon his return from college, Thoreau’s family found him to be
less likely to accept opinions as facts, more argumentative, and
inordinately prone to shock people with his own independent and
unconventional opinions. During this time he discovered his secret
desire to be a poet (Derleth 14), but most of all he wanted to live with
freedom to think and act as he wished.
Immediately after graduation from Harvard, Henry David applied
for a teaching position at the public school in Concord and was
accepted. However, he refused to flog children as punishment. He opted
instead to deliver moral lectures. This was looked down upon by the
community, and a committee was asked to review the situation. They
decided that the lectures were not ample punishment, so they ordered
Thoreau to flog recalcitrant students. With utter contempt he lined up
six children after school that day, flogged them, and handed in his
resignation, because he felt that physical punishment should have no part
in education (Derleth 15).
In 1837 Henry David began to write his Journal (16). It started
out as a literary notebook, but later developed into a work of art. In
it Thoreau record his thoughts and discoveries about nature (The 1995
Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia 1).
Later that same year, his sister, Helen, introduced him to Lucy
Jackson Brown, who just happened to be Ralph Waldo Emerson’s
sister-in-law. She read his Journal, and seeing many of the same
thoughts as Emerson himself had expressed, she told Emerson of Thoreau.
Emerson asked that Thoreau be brought to his home for a meeting, and they
quickly became friends (Derleth 18). On April 11, 1838, not long after
their first meeting Thoreau, with Emerson’s help, delivered his first
lecture, “Society” (21).
Ralph Waldo Emerson was probably the single most portentous
person in Henry David Thoreau’s life. From 1841 to 1843 and again
between 1847 and 1848 Thoreau lived as a member of Emerson’s household,
and during this time he came to know Bronson Alcott, Margaret Fuller, and
many other members of the “Transcendental Club” (“Thoreau” 696).
On August 31, 1839 Henry David and his elder brother, John, left
Concord on a boat trip down the Concord River, onto the Middlesex Canal,
into the Merrimack River and into the state of
New Hampshire. Out of this trip came Thoreau’s first book, A Week on the
Concord and Merrimack Rivers (25).
Early in 1841, John Thoreau, Henry’s beloved older brother,
became very ill, most likely with tuberculosis, and in early May a poor
and distraught Henry