On this day in 1817, Henry David Thoreau, social reformer, naturalist, philosopher, writer, transcendentalist, and scientist, was born. His many pursuits are reflected in his writings. As a social reformer, his principles embraced human rights over political rights, which inspired many leaders, such as Gandhi, Tolstoy, and King. As a naturalist, he believed that the path to better understanding life is by observing nature. As a philosopher and transcendentalist, he embraced all philosophies and religions and work to free himself from bigotry and ignorance. As a scientist, he embraced leading scientific theories from his time.
Thoreau was born in Concord, Massachusetts, where he spent most of his life. He grew up during the beginning of the Transcendentalist movement, a philosophical movement that rejected the unthinking conformity of society and believed in the inherent goodness of humankind and nature. It was also the belief that people were their best when they were self-reliant and independent.
Thoreau graduated from Harvard in 1837 during a time of economic crisis in America. He became a teacher at a public school in Concord but resigned after two weeks because of a dispute with a superintendent over disciplining children. A year later, Thoreau and brother, John, opened a school. They worked well together, However, in 1841, they had to close the school because of John’s lengthy illness at the time. The school proved to be too much for Henry to handle on his own.
He began working for Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emerson was already considered America’s greatest philosophers and transcendentalists of that time. While working for him, Thoreau became interested in writing. He wrote essays for the journal, The Dial. In 1845, Emerson gave him land to build a small house on the shore of Walden’s Pond so that Thoreau could continue his writing career in privacy. He wrote his first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. He began writing his most famous work, Walden, during the later part of his stay. It was a nature study on his two years spent on the Pond, from 1845 to 1847. During those two years, he spent one night in jail for not paying his taxes in protest against slavery. This inspired him to write “Resistance to Civil Government (Civil Disobedience).”
Years after leaving Walden’s Pond, Thoreau published A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers and Walden. Walden gained moderate success, and even a small following. He returned to Emerson’s home, working for a pencil factory while occasionally publishing essays and other writings. He was also an outspoken abolitionist, serving as a conductor on the Underground Railroad.
His trips to Maine and Cape Cod served as subjects for his travel essays. Unfortunately, in 1862, Thoreau passed away from tuberculosis, leaving behind many unfinished projects.
As his funeral, Emerson paid tribute to Thoreau: “….His soul was made for the noblest society; he had in a short life exhausted the capabilities of this world; wherever there is knowledge, wherever there is virtue, wherever there is beauty, he will find a home.”
The excerpt from Thoreau’s “Excursions and Poems,” featured in April 21, 1908 The Morris County Chronicle, describes nature as mythical and mystical.
This short mention of Thoreau, featured in March 16, 1917 Perth Amboy Evening News, encourages readers to pay respect to his life as a nature lover and hero.
This article, featured in December 5, 1901 The Jersey City News, mentions how the Women’s Club Literature Department held a meeting in Hasbrouck Institute to continue the study of American essayists. As imagined, Thoreau was a talking point of conversation. He “must always be read whether lovingly or interestedly, for he has all the variable charm, the strange saturninity, the contradictions, austerities, and delightful surprising of nature itself.”
“What lies behind us and what lies ahead of us are tiny matters compared to what lives within us.”
-Henry David Thoreau
(Contributed by Kristi Chanda)
“Henry David Thoreau.” (2021). The Walden Woods Project. Received from www.walden.org/what-we-do/library/thoreau/.
“Thoreau and ‘Civil Disobedience.” (2021). Constitutional Rights Foundation. Received from www.crf-usa.org/black-history-month/thoreau-and-civil-disobedience#:~:text=Thoreau%20had%20already%20stopped%20paying,Thoreau%20for%20his%20tax%20delinquency.
“Thoreau’s Life.” (2020). The Thoreau Society. Received from www.thoreausociety.org/life-legacy.