To mark Henry David Thoreau’s birth on this day in 1817, Sally Minogue reflects on the continuing ...
"Live in each season as it passes; breathe the air, drink
the drink, taste the fruit, and resign yourself to the influence of the earth"
Henry David Thoreau, as we now know him, was born on July 12th 1817 in Concord, Massachusetts, to John and Cynthia (Dauber) Thoreau. He was originally christened David Henry but in 1837 reversed the order of his given names, as though to assert an authority over his own identity (though his family had always called him ‘Henry’, so this may simply have been a formal recognition of a standard usage). That re-ordering is known, and acquired significance, only because Henry David Thoreau became one of the central writers of the American canon. His birthplace likewise came to have a particular importance, since Concord was where he made his writerly home, and Walden pond and its surrounding woods, close to the town of Concord, achieved through his writing a symbolic meaning well beyond their own geography and particularity.
The details of Thoreau’s biography are therefore far more important than those of many writers, since his work is founded on the place where he was born and lived most of his life, and on the relationship between his lived life and the nature that surrounded him, but also on the ideas that sprang from that and were drawn from the larger cultural context. That larger context included the whole of America; Thoreau was one of the thinkers and writers who formed America’s ideas about itself. He is thus a local writer – a writer of his state, Massachusetts, and of the North and East as opposed to the South and West – but in terms of intent and effect, a writer for all Americans and all America. The enormous influence he was to have was not, however, evident in his own lifetime.
Thoreau was the third child of his family, and after a couple of moves within Massachusetts they settled back in his birthplace, Concord, when he was six. Concord’s population numbered around 2,000; its name apparently attested to the friendly relations developed between its original white settlers and the indigenous Native Americans. The Thoreau family business was, aptly, the manufacture of pencils. Henry’s nearest sibling was his older brother John (born in 1815) to whom he was very close. In spite of John’s seniority, it was Henry who was sent to Harvard in 1833, graduating in 1837. On graduation, Thoreau gained a privileged position as a teacher in Concord’s public school, but resigned it within weeks as he was not prepared to administer corporal punishment to his students. Thereafter he set up a private school in Concord with John. With John, in 1839, he also made the trip up the Concord and Merrimack rivers which would later (1849) form the basis of his first major publication. The defining tragedy of Thoreau’s life was the sudden death of his brother in 1842, from lockjaw (what we call tetanus) contracted from a cut while shaving.
Ralph Waldo Emerson, also an inhabitant of Concord from 1834, had addressed Thoreau’s graduating class in 1837; Emerson (fourteen years older) was to become a profound influence and a close friend. Here again, Concord achieved an importance beyond itself: through Emerson, it became the centre of the new Transcendentalism. This radical philosophy opposed an earlier Calvinist tradition in which man was inherently sinful; it emphasised the direct relationship between human and nature, and human and the divine. From 1841, after the closure of his school, Thoreau lived with Emerson, helping out with the household in various ways, and he was living there when John died. From 1842 to 1843 he assisted Emerson with the editing of the main Transcendentalist organ, The Dial.
In 1843 Thoreau moved briefly to Staten Island, New York, to tutor Emerson’s nephew. However, he disliked New York and returned to Concord at the end of the year, to live again with his family and to partake in the family business. In 1844 he notoriously set fire to local woods, while cooking fish on an open fire. This was no small event: 300 acres of woodland burned down. Undeterred, in March 1845 Thoreau began building the cabin on Walden pond (on land leased rent-free to him by Emerson) which would form the basis of his major and seminal work. In his text, he moves in on Independence Day 1845, but this is likely to be a symbolic date rather than an actual one. In the text, over two years’ habitation are boiled down into an emblematic year with its changing seasons. Throughout his time there, Thoreau was keeping a journal, on which he drew for Walden, but which now provides us with a far larger and more detailed picture of his observations.
In 1846, in the middle of his sojourn in the woods, Thoreau was arrested for the non-payment of poll tax, because he objected to America’s expansionist war with Mexico, toward which he thought the money might go. This was of a piece with his anti-abolitionist stance (he was active in the Underground Railroad in 1851), his egalitarian interest in the Native American, and his general position on the political relationship between the individual and the state, expressed in his ‘Resistance to Civil Government’ (1849), more commonly known as ‘Civil Disobedience’, which inspired a number of 20th century activists.
When he ended his habitation on Walden pond in 1847, Thoreau returned to Emerson’s household. In 1849 his account of his earlier trip with John, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, was published, but fell dead from the press. He continued to keep his journal, in great detail. At the same time, his relationship with Emerson began to deteriorate. Meanwhile, he worked in the family business and his research led to their switching from the production of pencils to that of graphite, to supply the makers of pencils. This side of Thoreau’s life should not be ignored; on his father’s death in 1859, he became head of the business, which was regarded as the best of its kind in America.
In 1854, after many revisions of his text, Thoreau’s Walden; or, Life in the Woods was published by the prestigious Boston publisher, Ticknor and Fields – his crowning achievement and the work on which his reputation and influence are founded. It sold 1,750 copies in the first year of publication, the majority of those sales in the first month. It was widely reviewed, including a review by George Eliot in the Westminster Review.
In 1856, Thoreau visited Walt Whitman, whose work he greatly admired. In these latter years he continued walking (including in Maine), observing, writing, and lecturing. In 1859, alongside taking over the family business after his father’s death, he spoke in support of the abolitionist leader John Brown, executed in December of that year for an armed attack on the United States Arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, intended to initiate an armed slave revolt. Brown was a controversial figure and Thoreau here put his principles on the line.
From 1860 onwards, Henry David Thoreau declined; a cold turned to bronchitis, and eventually tuberculosis (which had already killed his sister) claimed his life. He continued working during this period of illness, studying Native American life, and visiting Walden pond a last time. He made his final journal entry in November 1861, and died on May 6th 1862.
Thoreau’s work lived after him, with several publications following after his death, culminating in the 20-volume Walden edition of his writings in 1906. His work continues to be central to the American canon, and his life provides a particular sort of example to Americans, though they follow it in several ways.
TITLES BY HENRY DAVID THOREAU