SUMMARY: Henry David Thoreau (July 12, 1817 – May 6, 1862) American author, naturalist, transcendentalist, tax resister, development critic, and philosopher
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Henry David Thoreau was an American author best known for “Walden” which was a reflection on simple living. He is also remembered for his “Civil Disobedience” essay which he wrote as an argument for resistance to civil government in opposition to an unjust state. His writings total over more than 20 volumes.
Henry David Thoreau was name after a deceased uncle name David Thoreau, but did not take on the name Henry until after he graduated from college. He studied at Harvard University for four years (1833-1837) taking a variety of courses such as classics, philosophy, mathematics, and science. During those four years in Harvard he took a leave of absence in 1835 and taught school in Massachusetts. He did not receive a tangible diploma as he refused to pay the five dollars required for a Harvard diploma. After graduation he joined the Concord Academy as a faculty member but refused to administer corporal punishment so he was, naturally dismissed from the school. He then in 1837 opened a grammar school with his brother John. Henry and John grew up closely as John was the one who helped him pay tuition while attending Harvard. In 1842 John cut himself while shaving and died of lockjaw in Henry’s arms. This was devastating for Henry and took many years for him to recover from the traumatic event. He worked for several more years, but at the age of 28 he decided he wanted to write a book so picked up his things and moved to Walden. He built a cabin on land owned by Emerson.
Emerson was an advocate of Thoreau’s work and constantly encouraged him to submit essays and poems to the quarterly periodical. In 1841 Henry David Thoreau moved into to the Emerson home and served there as a tutor for the children, and editorial assistant, and a gardener.
After helping with the Emerson family for just over two years, Henry Thoreau returned to Concord. Very few people were interested in his book “Walden” so he spent most of the time surveying and making pencils. He went through a restless period in which he and his friend Edward accidentally set fire to 300 acres of Walden Woods. He was an abolitionist and delivered lectures that attacked the slave laws. His thoughts and writings had a great influence on many other political leaders such as Gandhi, and Martin Luther King.
Until the 1970’s Thoreau’s writings were criticized greatly and consider very amateur. With environmental history and ecocriticism on the rise, people began to take more interest in his writing more seriously. Many of his readers mistakingly thought that Henry’s tone in his writings and books was a bit harsh and cranky. Edward Emerson said to this that he was one of the kindest neighbors and found great joy in his daily life. He frequently traveled to Maine woods and to Cape Cod; opposed the government for waging the Mexican war to extend slavery and then wrote “Resistance to Civil Government.” This particular writing was a brief book about his experience in jail.
Henry Thoreau first contracted tuberculosis in 1835 and suffered from it over the years. After a late night excursion counting tree rings, he became ill with bronchitis. His health continued to decline. Henry David Thoreau died on May 6 1862 at the age of 44. He left a number of different books, essays, and poetry behind, along with a journal that has been published comprising of more than 20 volumes. To some he was a friend, others a writer, and others just plain nonsense. His memory is honored by the international Thoreau Society.