Henry David Thoreau was born in 1817 in Concord, Massachusetts, during America’s turbulent mid-nineteenth century, which was marked by the transcendental and anti-slavery movements. He was an American philosopher, environmental scientist, educator, essayist and poet, whose most notable work was the book, Walden. The masterwork was the compilation of his deep, reflective meditations on the physical problems associated with living in the world as a human being. He conceived the idea that philosophy is a way of life and sought to convey his individualistic views through his writings. Thoreau represents one of the most genuine and non-conformist voices in philosophical thought and literature.
In Thoreau’s early years, his father, John, moved his family to Chelmsford and Boston for business opportunities in shop-keeping. In 1823, his family moved back to Concord and his mother, Cynthia Dunbar, took in boarders and his father created a pencil-making business, which brought much needed financial stability. His older siblings, Helen and John, Jr., were teachers. Thoreau attended Harvard College, as did his brother, where he studied Greek and Latin grammar, composition, English, history, mathematics and natural, mental and intellectual philosophy. He was displeased with the convention teaching methods he was exposed to during his education at Harvard. Therefore, following his graduation in 1837, he returned to Concord and became a teacher alongside his brother, at which time he began to realize his talents as a writer. In 1842, his brother, John, cut himself while shaving and died of lockjaw, which devastated him.
Henry David Thoreau was a highly complex man, with a multitude of talents. He worked as a surveyor, as well as in his family’s pencil-making business, where he used his engineering skills to improve the product’s lead and casing by inventing a machine. His invention resulted in his family’s pencils being the first American-made pencils to become equal in quality to those made in Germany, which up until that point, were the unrivaled standard for quality. Thoreau managed the family business until his father died in 1859.
Throughout Henry David Thoreau’s life, he worked diligently to transform his professional skills, as well as his literary prose. He found immense joy in life and perceived little difference between nature and work. He strived to convey his naturalist views through his contemplations and writing, which was influenced by Ralph Waldo Emerson’s book, Nature. Following his graduation from Harvard, he began a somewhat volatile friendship with Emerson, who invited him to live with him in 1841. They began meeting with an exclusive group, which was later given the name the Transcendentalist Club. The group included George Ripley, A. Bronson Alcott and Margaret Fuller.
Inspired to write his first book, he traveled to Walden Pond and built a cabin in 1845 on land owned by Emerson. During the two years he lived there he spent an inordinate amount of time in the forest chopping wood, planting a bean field and contemplating life while studying nature. He proclaimed his time spent in nature as the “Walden experiment,” which was intended to test his belief systems and enable him to rise above common awareness in order to gain a higher level of understanding on life. The “Walden experiment” resulted in the publication of his first book in 1854, titled Walden. The book has been described as a narrative prose, which includes philosophical speculations interwoven with poetry, which has a somewhat religious outlook of the universe and humanity. Unfortunately, few people were interested in purchasing the book, so he spent nine years continuing in his professional crafts of pencil-making and surveying, while writing and giving lectures. He consequently sparked an interest in the frontier and Native American Indians during his travels from Cape Cod and the woods of Maine.
He passionately opposed slavery, the Mexican war and the government for the US annexation of Texas. He refused to pay taxes to the government’s annexation effort, and his protests resulted in him being jailed for civil disobedience. After his brief stay in jail, Thoreau wrote Resistance to Civil Government, which was based on his experience. He also gave a lecture against slavery called “Slavery in Massachusetts” and supported the efforts of Captain John Brown to end it.
Thoreau’s view of science was the result of the distinct conflicts he experienced between religion and science within the rapidly expanding intellectual events of the 19th century. Through his distinctive way of viewing life, nature and the universe, he gained a unique awareness of the world, which resulted in the reconstruction of previously held scientific methods and assumptions.
In addition to Ralph Waldo Emerson, other key influences on Thoreau’s philosophical and individualist views of nature, science and the spirit of life include Darwin, Humboldt, Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King. He left some unpublished manuscripts about culture and Native American religion unpublished. However, Thoreau’s published literary works include books and essays, Walden; or, Life in the Woods, The Journal of Henry D. Thoreau, The Correspondence of Henry David Thoreau, Consciousness in Concord: The Text of Thoreau's Hitherto “Lost Journal,” The Indians of Thoreau: Selections from the Indian Notebooks, Early Essays and Miscellanies, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, The Maine Woods, Cape Cod, Faith in a Seed: The Dispersion of Seeds and Other Late Natural History Writings, Wild Fruits, and Collected Essays and Poems. Although Thoreau wrote a considerable amount of poetry, very few are considered excellent in comparison to his books and essays.
Henry David Thoreau died of tuberculosis in 1862, at the age of 44. The literary works he left behind are full of deep, complex contradictions. During his life, he was in the constant pursuit of finding greater meaning for life, the ultimate truth and spiritual renewal as shaped by nature. He had an unprecedented aptitude to discover the beauty in natural phenomena, while understanding the universe as an organic whole, as opposed to humanity and nature existing as separate entities. Thoreau’s national and international popularity has grown since his death and is considered to be fundamental in forming later developments in environmental philosophy, phenomenology and pragmatism.