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Encyclopedia > Thoreau
Henry David Thoreau

Henry David Thoreau (July 12, 1817 - May 6, 1862; born 'David Henry Thoreau') was a noted American author and philosopher who is most famous for Walden, his essay on civil disobedience, and his call for the preservation of wilderness. He was a lifelong abolitionist, delivering lectures that attacked the Fugitive Slave Law, praised the writings of Wendell Phillips, and even defended radical John Brown.


Life and work

He was born in Concord, Massachusetts, and graduated from Harvard in 1837. Thoreau never got a physical diploma from Harvard as he refused to pay the few dollars to get the "sheet of paper".

Thoreau was a philosopher of nature and its relation to the human condition. In his early years, he accepted the ideas of Transcendentalism, an eclectic philosophy that included among its advocates Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, and Bronson Alcott.

After college, Thoreau taught school, wrote essays and poems for The Dial, and briefly attempted freelance writing in New York City. The death of his brother in 1842 was a profound emotional shock and may have influenced his decision to live with his parents and never to marry.

Thoreau embarked on a two-year experiment in simple living on July 4, 1845 when he moved to a second-growth forest around the shores of beautiful Walden Pond, not far from his friends and family in Concord. He left Walden Pond on September 6, 1847 to live with his friend and mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson and Emerson's family in Concord, Massachusetts. Thoreau refused to pay taxes in 1846, based on his opposition to the Mexican War, and was later jailed (Abraham Lincoln and he were the only noted Americans who opposed this war). He described this event in his popular essay 'Civil Disobedience', which influenced Leo Tolstoy, Mohandas Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, Jr..

Published in 1854, Walden; or, Life in the Woods recounts the two years and two months Thoreau spent at Walden Pond. The book compresses that time into a single calendar year, using the passage of four seasons to symbolize human development. Part memoir and part spiritual quest, this American classic emerged from a nine year process of composition and revision, the lengthy period in part because his previous work, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, had been so poorly received.

At various times, Thoreau earned a living by lecturing or working at his family's pencil factory. He invented a machine that simplified production while cutting costs. Later he converted the factory to producing plumbago, used to ink typesetting machines. Frequent contact with minute particles of lead may have weakened his lungs.

After 1850 he became a land surveyor, "travelling a good deal in Concord," and writing natural history observations about the 26 mile˛ (67 km˛) township in his Journal, a two million word document that he kept for 24 years. He also traveled to Canada, Cape Cod, and Maine, landscapes that inspired his "excursion" books, A Yankee in Canada, Cape Cod, and The Maine Woods, in which travel intineraries frame his thoughts about geography, history, and philosophy.

Thoreau family headstone at Sleepy Hollow Cementery

Hailed as the first European-American environmentalist, Thoreau wrote essays on autumnal foliage, the succession of forest trees, and the disperal of seeds, collected in Excursions. Scientists regard these works as anticipating ecology, the study of interactions between species, places, and seasons. He was an early advocate of recreational hiking and canoeing, of conserving natural resources on private land, and of preserving wilderness as public land. Thoreau was also one of the first American supporters of Charles Darwin's theory of evolution.

Thoreau was not without his critics. In his lifetime, he was praised by the English novelist George Eliot who wrote in the Westminster Review, "People—very wise in their own eyes— who would have every man's life ordered according to a particular pattern, and who are intolerant of every existence the utility of which is not palpable to them, may pooh-pooh Mr. Thoreau and this episode in his history, as unpractical and dreamy."

Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson was one of those scoffers, with a sexist twist: "...Thoreau's content and ecstasy in living was, we may say, like a plant that he had watered and tended with womanish solicitude; for there is apt to be something unmanly, something almost dastardly, in a life that does not move with dash and freedom, and that fears the bracing contact of the world. In one word, Thoreau was a skulker. He did not wish virtue to go out of him among his fellow-men, but slunk into a corner to hoard it for himself. He left all for the sake of certain virtuous self-indulgences."

Many of these attitudes began to change after publication in 1906 of the Journal, which revealed the vast extent of Thoreau's writings and ideas. Today he is regarded as a foremost American writer, both for the modern clarity of his prose style and the prescience of his views on nature and politics.

Thoreau died of tuberculosis in the town of his birth, Concord. He was buried in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, Concord.


  • "In the morning I bathe my intellect in the stupendous and cosmogonal philosophy of the Bhagavat Geeta, since whose composition years of the gods have elapsed, and in comparison with which our modern world and its literature seem puny and trivial; and I doubt if that philosophy is not to be referred to a previous state of existence, so remote is its sublimity from our conceptions. I lay down the book and go to my well for water, and lo! there I meet the servant of the Brahmin, priest of Brahma, and Vishnu and Indra, who still sits in his temple on the Ganges reading the Vedas, or dwells at the root of a tree with his crust and water jug. I meet his servant come to draw water for his master, and our buckets as it were grate together in the same well. The pure Walden water is mingled with the sacred water of the Ganges." (Henry David Thoreau, Walden and Civil Disobedience, Owen Thomas, ed. (New York, London: W. W. Norton & Company, 1966), p. 197).
  • "Love must be as much a light, as it is a flame."
  • "To be awake is to be alive, and I have not yet met a man who was quite awake."
  • "Why should we be in such desperate haste to succeed and in such desperate enterprises? If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away." —Walden, 1854
  • "No face which we can give to a matter will stead us so well at last as the truth." —Walden, 1854
  • "The faultfinder will find faults even in paradise." —Walden, 1854

See also


Online texts

  • Autumnal Tints (http://wikisource.org/wiki/Autumnal_Tints) - courtesy of Wikisource.
  • Cape Cod (http://eserver.org/thoreau/capecd00.html) - Thoreau Reader
  • On the Duty of Civil Disobedience (http://onlinebooks.library.upenn.edu/webbin/gutbook/lookup?num=71)
  • Civil Disobedience (http://wikisource.org/wiki/Civil_Disobedience) - courtesy of Wikisource.
  • The Highland Light (http://wikisource.org/wiki/The_Highland_Light) - courtesy of Wikisource.
  • The Landlord (http://wikisource.org/wiki/The_Landlord) - courtesy of Wikisource.
  • Life Without Principle (http://wikisource.org/wiki/Life_Without_Principle) - courtesy of Wikisource.
  • The Maine Woods (http://eserver.org/thoreau/mewoods.html) - Thoreau Reader
  • Night and Moonlight (http://wikisource.org/wiki/Night_and_Moonlight) - courtesy of Wikisource.
  • A Plea for Captain John Brown (http://onlinebooks.library.upenn.edu/webbin/gutbook/lookup?num=2567)
  • Slavery in Massachusetts (http://eserver.org/thoreau/slavery.html) - Thoreau Reader
  • Walden (http://onlinebooks.library.upenn.edu/webbin/gutbook/lookup?num=205)
  • Walden (http://eserver.org/thoreau/walden00.html) - Thoreau Reader
  • Walking (http://wikisource.org/wiki/Walking) - courtesy of Wikisource.
  • Walking (http://onlinebooks.library.upenn.edu/webbin/gutbook/lookup?num=1022)
  • A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (http://onlinebooks.library.upenn.edu/webbin/gutbook/lookup?num=4232)
  • Wild Apples: The History of the Apple Tree (http://onlinebooks.library.upenn.edu/webbin/gutbook/lookup?num=4066)
  • The Succession of Forest Trees (http://www.walden.org/thoreau/writings/essays/Succession.htm)
  • An Excursion to Canada (http://www.walden.org/thoreau/writings/canada/)

External links

Wikiquote has a collection of quotations related to:
Wikisource has original works written by or about:
Henry David Thoreau
  • Thoreau David Thoreau ("The Transcendentalists") (http://www.transcendentalists.com/1thorea.html)
  • The Writings of Henry D. Thoreau (http://libws66.lib.niu.edu/thoreau/)
  • The American Transcendentalist Web (http://www.vcu.edu/engweb/transcendentalism/authors/thoreau/)
  • Thoreau Project at Calliope (http://www.calliope.org/thoreau/thoreau.html)
  • The Thoreau Reader (http://eserver.org/thoreau/)
  • John Updike, "A Sage for All Seasons" (http://books.guardian.co.uk/review/story/0,12084,1246669,00.html) - courtesy of the UK Guardian, an edited extract from the introduction to Updike's new edition of Walden
Wikimedia Commons has multimedia related to:

  Results from FactBites:
Henry David Thoreau - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia (1307 words)
Thoreau embarked on a two-year experiment in simple living on July 4, 1845 when he moved to a second-growth forest around the shores of beautiful Walden Pond, as a guest of his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson, a fifteen minute walk from his family in Concord, Massachusetts.
Thoreau was also one of the first American supporters of Charles Darwin's theory of evolution.
Thoreau died of tuberculosis in 1862, in the town of his birth, Concord, and was buried at Sleepy Hollow Cemetery.
Thoreau, Henry David. The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition. 2001-05 (478 words)
Thoreau’s advocacy of civil disobedience as a means for the individual to protest those actions of his government that he considers unjust has had a wide-ranging impact—on the British Labour movement, the passive resistance independence movement led by Gandhi in India, and the nonviolent civil-rights movement led by Martin Luther King in the United States.
Thoreau is also significant as a naturalist who emphasized the dynamic ecology of the natural world.
Thoreau’s writings, including his journals, were published in 20 volumes in 1906.
  More results at FactBites »



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