Featured Author: Henry David Thoreau

Henry David ThoreauHenry David Thoreau (1817–1862) was born, grew up, lived out his life, and died in Concord, Massachusetts. He studied at Harvard from 1833 to 1837, then signed on as a teacher at Concord Academy but was dismissed for refusing to whip students. He and his brother John opened an elementary school in 1838, where, according to some authorities, they invented the idea of the field trip. John became sick in 1841 and the brothers closed the school; Henry went to live with Ralph Waldo Emerson, beginning a long friendship with him and with the other members of the Transcendental Club, among them Bronson Alcott and Margaret Fuller.

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The other transcendentalists experimented with communes like Brook Farm, but Thoreau was more solitary, and the most important years in his life began in 1845 when he took up residence in a small cabin he’d built on the shore of Walden Pond a short walk from town. He spent two years, two months, and two days there, experimenting with simplifying his life. Thoreau’s isolation at Walden wasn’t absolute or deliberately ascetic—he often returned to town to see friends and eat meals, had a steady stream of visitors (often too steady for his taste), and at one point engaged in a political protest, spending a night in Concord jail for his refusal to pay his poll tax. But it was notably productive: he returned to town with the draft of one book (A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers) and the notes that he would spend the next six years turning into Walden (1854), perhaps the most remarkable book in the American canon.

As dense as scripture, crowded with aphorism, Walden is full of enough ideas for a score of ordinary books. But it has lived as long and as fully as any other writing of its vintage and inspired all the best kinds of people: both Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. claimed him as a major influence. Thoreau suffered from tuberculosis contracted during his college years; his condition worsened beginning in 1859, and he spent his last years revising his accounts of the Maine woods and other works. As he neared death his aunt Louisa asked him if he had made his peace with God. “I did not know we had ever quarreled,” he said. He died at the age of 44.

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