Profiles in Greatness: Henry David Thoreau

UPDATED: August 31, 2009
PUBLISHED: August 31, 2009

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
, 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.

Amy Anderson is the former senior editor of SUCCESS magazine, an Emmy Award-winning writer and founder of Anderson Content Consulting. She helps experts, coaches, consultants and entrepreneurs to discover their truth, write with confidence, and share their stories so they can transform their past into hope for others. Learn more at and on Facebook.