Henry David Thoreau

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Henry David Thoreau

Birthplace: Concord, Middlesex County, Massachusetts, United States
Death: May 06, 1862 (44)
Concord, Middlesex County, Massachusetts, United States (tuberculosis)
Place of Burial: Concord, Middlesex County, Massachusetts, United States
Immediate Family:

Son of John Thoreau and Cynthia Thoreau
Brother of Helen Louisa Thoman; John Thoreau, Jr. and Sophia Elizabeth Thoreau

Occupation: American Author, Naturalist, Transcendentalist, etc., Famous writer/philosopher., Author, Naturalist & Transcendentalist
Managed by: Ivy Jo Smith
Last Updated:

About Henry David Thoreau

Quote from Henry David

With every child begins the world again.

A descendant of Mayflower passenger, Richard Warren.

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.

Henry David Thoreau was born 12 July 1817 in Concord, Massachusetts and died 6 May 6 1862 in Concord, Massachusetts. His birth name was David Henry Thoreau. He never married and died with no known children.

Parents: John Thoreau (1787-1859) (a pencil maker) and Cynthia Dunbar (1787-1872). (see more under "Family Notes" section, below.)

Brief Biography

Henry David Thoreau was an American author, poet, naturalist, tax resister, development critic, surveyor, historian, philosopher, and leading transcendentalist. He's best known for his book "Walden, a reflection upon simple living in natural surroundings, and his essay, Civil Disobedience, an argument for individual resistance to civil government in moral opposition to an unjust state.

Thoreau's books, articles, essays, journals, and poetry total over 20 volumes. Among his lasting contributions were his writings on natural history and philosophy, where he anticipated the methods and findings of ecology and environmental history, two sources of modern day environmentalism. His literary style interweaves close natural observation, personal experience, poignant rhetoric, symbolic meanings, and historical lore; while displaying a poetic sensibility, philosophical austerity, and "Yankee" love of practical detail. He was also deeply interested in the idea of survival in the face of hostile elements, historical change, and natural decay; at the same time imploring one to abandon waste and illusion in order to discover life's true essential needs.

He was a lifelong abolitionist, delivering lectures that attacked the Fugitive Slave Law while praising the writings of Wendell Phillips and defending abolitionist John Brown. Thoreau's philosophy of civil disobedience influenced the political thoughts and actions of such later figures as Leo Tolstoy, Mahatma Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Thoreau is sometimes cited as an individualist anarchist. Though Civil Disobedience calls for improving rather than abolishing government – "I ask for, not at once no government, but at once a better government" – the direction of this improvement aims at anarchism: "'That government is best which governs not at all;' and when men are prepared for it, that will be the kind of government which they will have."

Family Notes

Thoreau was the son of John Thoreau (a pencil maker) and Cynthia (Dunbar) Thoreau; grandson of John and Jane (Burns) Thoreau (of French origin and was born in Jersey[6]); grandson of Asa and Mary (Jones) Dunbar (Asa Dunbar, led Harvard's 1766 student "Butter Rebellion",[7] the first recorded student protest in the Colonies[8]); and great-grandson of Philip and Marie (le Galais) Thoreau, of ——— and Sarah (Orrok) Burns, and of Elisha Jones.

David Henry was named after a recently deceased paternal uncle, David Thoreau. He did not become "Henry David" until after college, although he never petitioned to make a legal name change.[9] He had two older siblings, Helen and John Jr., and a younger sister, Sophia.[10] Thoreau's birthplace still exists on Virginia Road in Concord and is currently the focus of preservation efforts. The house is original, but it now stands about 100 yards away from its first site.

Ugly As Sin

Amos Bronson Alcott and Thoreau's aunt each wrote that "Thoreau" is pronounced like the word "thorough", whose standard American pronunciation rhymes with "furrow".[11] Edward Emerson wrote that the name should be pronounced "Thó-row, the h sounded, and accent on the first syllable."[12] In appearance he was homely, with a nose that he called "my most prominent feature."[13] Of his face, Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote: "[Thoreau] is as ugly as sin, long-nosed, queer-mouthed, and with uncouth and rustic, though courteous manners, corresponding very well with such an exterior. But his ugliness is of an honest and agreeable fashion, and becomes him much better than beauty."[14] Thoreau also wore a neck-beard for many years, which he insisted many women found attractive.[15] However, Louisa May Alcott mentioned to Ralph Waldo Emerson that Thoreau's facial hair "will most assuredly deflect amorous advances and preserve the man's virtue in perpetuity."[15]

But Well Behaved

"The greater part of what my neighbors call good I believe in my soul to be bad, and if I repent of anything, it is very likely to be my good behavior. What demon possessed me that I behaved so well?"


More Biographical Notes

THOREAU, Henry David, author, was born in Concord, Mass., July 12, 1817; son of John and Cynthia (Dunbar) Thoreau; grandson of John and Jane (Burns) Thoreau, and of Asa and Mary (Jones) Dunbar, and great-grandson of Philip and Marie (le Galais) Thoreau, of ——— and Sarah (Orrok) Burns, and of Elisha Jones. John Thoreau, the grandfather of Henry David. emigrated from Jersey to Boston, and removed thence to Concord, settling in Chelmsford, Massachusetts, in 1818, returning in 1821 to Boston, and in 1823 to Concord, where he died in 1859.

He was a pencil-maker, and taught his trade to all his children, both sons and daughters. Henry D. Thoreau first attended school in Boston, concluding his preparation for college in Concord, and matriculating at Harvard College in 1833. During his college course he won no distinction, puzzling [p.148] and vexing the faculty by his utter indifference to the prizes and other artificial incentives to study.

At this time began his friendship with Emerson, the attention of the latter having been attracted to him by the discovery of a common friend that a note in Thoreau's diary contained the same kernel of thought as one of Emerson's early lectures. Thoreau was graduated from Harvard, A.B., in 1837, but declined a diploma to save the additional five dollars.

In 1838, bearing recommendations from Ezra Ripley, Emerson and President Josiah Quincy of Harvard, he went to Maine with the intention of teaching school, but was unsuccessful in his quest for a position. For a short time he taught in Concord, but later engaged in pencil making, surveying, and other occupations.

Thoreau became deeply interested in transcendentalism, in the movement for the abolition of slavery, and in other social and political reforms. Later his home became a station on the "Underground Railway," and his uncompromising attitude toward slavery was further evidenced by his memorable address to the citizens of Concord on behalf of John Brown at the time of the latter's arrest in 1859.

Thoreau succeeded in earning a fair living by making pencils, but when he had attained such skill in this work that financial success seemed assured, he announced that he should never make another pencil, for he could never make a better, and the only time he did resort to this means of making money was when some dependent relative stood in need of aid. He was a true student of nature; being ever more at home in the open than under cover.

His woodcraft was marvelous, enabling him to follow a trail by the tread, after dark. He was strong, long-limbed, and of a nervous, untiring nature;— apt at all kinds of manual labor, often surveying for his neighbors, farming for himself, and building for any one wishing a new house. He said, "I found that the occupation of a day laborer was the most independent of any, especially as it requires only thirty or forty days in the year to support one." Love of liberty and love of truth were Thoreau's most conspicuous traits of character.

In 1836 his theories led him to renounce the church and decline to pay its tax; and in 1846 he renounced the state and refused to pay his taxes, preferring to go to jail rather than contribute to the support of what seemed to him an evil. When Emerson visited him in his cell and asked him why he was there, Thoreau replied," And why are you not here ?"

In March, 1845, he built with his own hands a little cabin. in which he lived and wrote for two years. The cabin was situated on a piece of land owned by Bronson Alcott on the shore of Lake Walden. Thoreau did not live there as a hermit, as is sometimes supposed; on the contrary he mingled with his fellow men as usual, and frequently spent a day or a night at home. While at Walden he edited his Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, chapters of which had begun to appear in the Dial in 1840.

In 1846 he sent his essay on Carlyle to Horace Greeley, who had it published in Graham's Magazine. In the same year he visited a relative in Bangor, Maine, and traveled with him to the headwaters of the Penobscot river and to the summit of Mount Ktaadn, a region at that time unexplored. He returned to Concord in 1847, having sold his hut on the lake. In the same year he sent to Agassiz specimens which be had gathered in the woods, some of which were entirely new to the scientist, who tried, but without success, to cultivate the acquaintance of the careful observer. Greeley purchased his Ktaadn and Maine Woods in 1848, and in 1849 the Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers was published and favorably received by such critics as George Ripley and James Russell Lowell, but the sale did not pay the expense of printing, and to free himself from debt Thoreau took up surveying once more. Greeley was almost insistent in his requests that Thoreau should write frequent short articles, such as essays on Emerson and other Concord contemporaries, but Thoreau knew no way but his own.

A Yankee in Canada, a journal of his journey with Ellery Channing in French Canada in 1850, was accepted by Putnam's Magazine in 1852, but was not published there because of a disagreement between Putnam and Thoreau. Walden, or Life in the Woods (1854) and the Week were the only volumes published during the life of the author. Thoreau was stricken with pulmonary consumption, an inherited disease, and died after a long illness. Unlike his friend Emerson he did not grasp the Divine as a personality, but like the Indians he so closely resembled, he saw Him in the clouds and beheld Him in the wind.

When on his deathbed he was questioned by Parker Pillsbury regarding his belief in the future he replied," One world at a time." A cairn marks the spot on the shores of Walden where his trot stood. The portrait from which the accompanying illustration was made is seldom seen, but is said to resemble Thoreau during the greater part [p.149] of his active life. His writings frequently appeared in such periodicals as the Dial, Atlantic, Putnam's and Graham's.

His poems are of uneven merit, some of them reaching a high plane. Following is a list of his published books: A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1849); Walden; or, Life lathe Woods (1854); Excursions (1863 and 1866); The Maine Woods (1864); Cape Cod (1864); Early Spring in Massachusetts (1881); Summer (1884), Winter (1887), and Autumn (1892), all from the journal of Henry David Thoreau, edited by H. G. O. Blake. For biographies of Thoreau, see life by F. B. Sanborn in American Men of Letters series (1882); sketch by R. W. Emerson in the Riverside Edition of Thoreau's works (1893); life by W. E. Channing under the title "The Poet-Naturalist" (1873); life by H. A. Page (1877); and sketch by R. L. Stevenson in "Familiar Studies of Men and Books." His name in Class A, Authors and Editors, received three votes for a place in the Hall of Fame for Great Americans, New York university, in October, 1900. Thoreau died in Concord, Mass., May 6, 1862.

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Henry David Thoreau's Timeline

July 12, 1817
Concord, Middlesex County, Massachusetts, United States
May 6, 1862
Age 44
Concord, Middlesex County, Massachusetts, United States
Age 44
Authors' Ridge, Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, Concord, Middlesex County, Massachusetts, United States