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He was an inspiration to Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. He was a writer, an abolitionist and one of the greatest philosophers in American history. But when Henry David Thoreau wrote his first book, he had to pay for the printing, and it only sold 220 copies. How did this simple man with complex ideas become an American classic?
“What a man thinks of himself, that it is which determines, or rather indicates, his fate.”
Thoreau was born July 12, 1817, in Concord, Mass. As a boy, his natural curiosity led him to explore the woods and open fields near his home. In 1828, he began attending Concord Academy and was admitted to Harvard University in 1833. But Thoreau was an average student due to his disregard for the grading system.
He returned to Concord in 1837 to teach at his old grammar school. He refused to administer corporal punishment, though, and he resigned after only two weeks. He joined his father’s pencil-making business until he and his brother John opened their own progressive school. The brothers taught there until John died of lockjaw in 1842.
“If one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.”
Although he was qualified academically to teach, Thoreau never committed himself to the profession. He worked off and on as a surveyor and made pencils for his father’s company, but he always saw himself as a poet of nature.
While at Harvard, Thoreau had read a book called Nature by fellow Concord resident, essayist and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson. Thoreau and Emerson struck up a friendship that would last a lifetime. Emerson’s ideas fostered the New England Transcendentalist movement that Thoreau found fascinating. Combining Romanticism and reform, the movement emphasized the individual and celebrated emotions instead of reason, nature instead of man-made society.
Thoreau followed in Emerson’s footsteps and began writing on the tenets of Transcendentalism, extolling the virtues of a life in harmony with nature. Several of Thoreau’s poems, as well as academic and nature essays, were published in the Transcendentalist magazine, The Dial, which ceased printing in 1844.
“The value of any experience is measured, of course, not by the amount of money, but the amount of development we get out of it.”
By 1845, Thoreau began writing full time. His good friend Emerson allowed him to build a small log cabin on property near Walden Pond, just south of Concord. Once settled, Thoreau did a lot of writing, reading and meditating but also spent a great deal of time outdoors fishing, swimming, rowing and planting beans. He restricted his diet to beans and the fruits and vegetables naturally growing around his cabin, choosing to live as simply as possible.
In 1849, he completed A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, a memorial to a trip he took with his brother John. He paid for the book’s printing, and when the publishers couldn’t sell the last 700 copies, they dumped them on his doorstep. But Thoreau continued writing despite the poor commercial reception. He made daily journal entries, some of which would later appear as adaptations in his book Walden.
He stayed only two years at Walden Pond, moving back to Concord in 1847, but his creativity was sparked by the environment. And his experiment in basic living would inform his writing for the rest of his life.
“Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth.”
Walden, or Life in the Woods, Thoreau’s most famous work, was completed in 1854 and is a series of 18 essays that describe his philosophies on simple living, self-sufficiency, and the meaning of work and leisure. He also writes of his intimate relationship with the flora and fauna around Walden Pond, creating some of the most vivid and beautiful nature writing in American literature.
Thoreau went through seven full versions of Walden before seeking publication. The book received some publicity and helped establish Thoreau as a reputable author but didn’t provide him with a sufficient living, so he continued to support himself by surveying and giving lectures on his experiences at Walden Pond. The simplicity of daily life brought Thoreau much joy, and he found purpose in living his philosophies rather than chasing material goals, which he believed led to an unhappy existence. “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation,” he wrote in Walden.
“Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also in prison.”
One July evening in 1846, Thoreau was in town after giving a lecture when he was asked by the tax collector to pay his poll taxes, which he hadn’t paid for several years. In Thoreau’s opinion, poll taxes were used to fund a government that supported a system of slavery, so he refused to pay. He was arrested. In jail, he also refused to pay the fine for his release. An unidentified woman paid it for him, and he was released the next day.
In 1849, Thoreau published the now-famous essay Resistance to Civil Government, or Civil Disobedience, examining the individual’s responsibility to obey governmental law when they view that law as unjust. Thoreau advocated the individual’s right to express his or her conscience over the rule of the majority. The essay, like most of Thoreau’s work, didn’t receive much attention until the 20th century, when leaders like Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. pointed to Thoreau’s revolutionary ideas in inspiring their approaches to civil rights reform.
“Talk about slavery!” Thoreau wrote in his journal. “It is not the peculiar institution of the South. It exists wherever men are bought and sold, wherever a man allows himself to be made a mere thing or a tool, and surrenders his inalienable rights of reason and conscience.”
“It is not an era of repose. If we would save our lives, we must fight for them.”
Beginning in the 1850s, social and political reform became increasingly important to Thoreau. He delivered an abolitionist lecture, Slavery in Massachusetts, and opposed the U.S. war in Mexico, which would extend the reach of slavery to the south.
Along with other Concord residents, Thoreau helped fleeing slaves escape on the Underground Railroad, and he befriended the abolitionist leader John Brown. When Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry resulted in his death sentence and public backlash, Thoreau read A Plea for Captain John Brown, in which he painted Brown as a man willing to lay down his life for his beliefs.
“Be not simply good; be good for something.”
Thoreau spent his 40s writing nature articles based on his trips to the Maine woods, Cape Cod and Canada. He took over the pencil factory after his father died and continued to write in his journal until the last weeks of his life. Thoreau died of tuberculosis in 1862 at the age of 44.
Thoreau’s journal was published posthumously in 20 volumes. Emerson, Louisa May Alcott and others wrote memorials to the great poet, essayist and philosopher who inspired generations of American conservation and reform.