Writer, philosopher, and naturalist Henry David Thoreau was born on July 12, 1817, in Concord, Massachusetts. Associated with the Concord-based literary movement called New England Transcendentalism, he embraced the Transcendentalist belief in the universality of creation and the primacy of personal insight and experience. Thoreau’s advocacy of simple, principled living remains compelling, while his writings on the relationship between people and the environment helped define the nature essay.
The doctrines of despair, of spiritual or political tyranny or servitude, were never taught by such as shared the serenity of nature.
Henry David Thoreau. Excursions. (Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1863), 39. The Evolution of the Conservation Movement, 1850-1920. Rare Book & Special Collections Division
After graduating from Harvard in 1837, Thoreau held a series of odd jobs. Encouraged by Concord neighbor and friend Ralph Waldo Emerson, he started publishing essays, poems, and reviews in the transcendentalist magazine The Dial. His essay “Natural History of Massachusetts” (1842) revealed his talent for writing about nature.
From 1845 to 1847, Thoreau lived in a cabin on the edge of Walden Pond, a small glacial lake near Concord. Guided by the maxim “Simplify, simplify,” he strictly limited his expenditures, his possessions, and his contact with others. His goal: “To live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach.”
I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it…
Henry David Thoreau, “Where I Lived, and What I Lived for External,” from Walden; or, Life in the Woods.External. p. 106. Chicago, New York: Scott, Foresman and Company, 1917 (originally published 1854)
Walden; or, Life in the Woods External chronicles his experiment in self-sufficiency. In a series of loosely-connected essays, Thoreau takes American individualism to new heights, while offering a biting critique of society’s increasingly materialistic value system.
During his time at Walden, Thoreau spent a night in jail for refusing to pay his poll tax. He withheld the tax to protest the existence of slavery and what he saw as an imperialistic war with Mexico. Released after a relative paid the tax, he wrote “Civil Disobedience External” (originally published as “Resistance to Civil Government”) to explain why private conscience can constitute a higher law than civil authority. “Under a government which imprisons any unjustly,” he argued, “the true place for a just man is also a prison.” Thoreau continued to be a vocal and active opponent of slavery. In addition to aiding runaway slaves, in 1859 he staunchly and publicly defended abolitionist John Brown.
When his writing failed to win money or acclaim, he became a surveyor to support himself. As a result, Thoreau’s later years increasingly were spent outdoors, observing and writing about nature. His seminal essay, “The Succession of Forest Trees,” describes the vital ecology of the woodlands, highlighting the role of birds and animals in seed dispersal. Republished posthumously in Excursions, Thoreau’s essay makes the forward-looking suggestion that forest management systems mirror existing woodland ecology.
“If a man does not keep pace with his companions,” Thoreau reminds us, “perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.” Considered something of a failure by the small town merchants and farmers of Concord, Thoreau died at home on May 6, 1862. His place in American letters is secure, however, as many continue to find inspiration in his work and his example.
- In his later years Henry David Thoreau spent a great deal of time reading, annotating and drawing maps. Some map scholars consider Thoreau to be one of the earliest historians of cartography. Read about how Library of Congress reference librarian John Hessler discovered two maps by Thoreau in the Library’s collections, and listen to an October 2009 talk he gave at the Osher Map LibraryExternal in which he discusses his findings.
- Search on the term civil disobedience in the Hannah Arendt Papers at the Library of Congress. Read, for example, Arendt’s notes for a 1970 lecture on that topic in which she states “…to consider ‘the citizen’s moral relation to the law in a society of consent,’ we are inclined to think first of…Socrates in Athens and Thoreau in Concord….”
- Like Thoreau, Rosa Parks was also arrested for civil disobedience when, on December 1, 1955, she refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white passenger. To learn more about Parks’s private life and public activism on behalf of civil rights for African Americans, explore the Rosa Parks Papers. See, for example, her handwritten reflections on her bus arrest
- See Today in History features on Thoreau’s friends Ralph Waldo Emerson and Bronson and Louisa May Alcott.
- Learn more about the history of conservation in America by viewing Documentary Chronology of Selected Events in the Development of the American Conservation Movement, 1847-1920, presented within the collection The Evolution of the Conservation Movement, 1850-1920. The collection also includes Excursions by Thoreau.
- Search The Evolution of the Conservation Movement, 1850-1920 on the names of the following individuals to find works by:
- Take a virtual tour of turn-of-the-century Concord, Massachusetts via the collection Detroit Publishing Company.