Civil Disobedience | Study Guide

Henry David Thoreau

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Henry David Thoreau | Biography


New England Beginnings

Henry David Thoreau was born on July 12, 1817, in Concord, Massachusetts, a town near Boston. His father, a failed shopkeeper, moved the family from Concord to Chelmsford to Boston, and then back to Concord. John Thoreau's reputation for being too lenient about payment of debt might explain his record of business failures.

The family returned to Concord when young Thoreau was six. His father started an in-house pencil factory, and his mother, Cynthia Dunbar Thoreau, took in boarders. The pencil business was successful. Ultimately, young Thoreau came up with production modifications that made Thoreau pencils the top brand in America at the time.

In 1833 Henry David Thoreau entered Harvard College, once remarking that the curriculum there had "all the branches and none of the roots." He had the bad luck of graduating during the Panic of 1837, a five-year depression during which time employment levels dropped to the lowest they had been in the nation's history. Thoreau patched together a livelihood by surveying, teaching, lecturing, and working at the pencil factory.

Joining the Transcendentalist Community

Around the time of Thoreau's graduation, fellow American writer Ralph Waldo Emerson—a famous philosopher and pastor—moved to Concord. Emerson was soon followed by American writers Margaret Fuller, an editor and journalist; Bronson Alcott, a teacher (and father of writer Louisa May Alcott); and Nathaniel Hawthorne. This collection of writers, led by Emerson and Thoreau, developed the philosophy of transcendentalism, which advocated the discovery of truth and knowledge through intuition, imagination, sensory experience, and the study of nature.

While many of Thoreau's intellectual friends were married, with families and careers already in place, Thoreau lived by himself and seemed disinclined to find a traditional job. Even among his fellow Concord transcendentalist philosophers, he was something of an oddity, although writer Louisa May Alcott fell in love with him and used him as the inspiration for the character Mac in her book Rose in Bloom (1876). At the time he decided to build a solitary cabin at Walden Pond, Thoreau had been living in Emerson's house for months. He had also accidentally caused a serious forest fire that angered many Concordians. Perhaps, he believed this was an ideal time to explore his spirituality by putting his transcendentalist beliefs to work and experiencing life in the wilderness.

Life on Walden Pond

Using a borrowed ax, Thoreau constructed a small cottage near Concord's Walden Pond in 1845. The solitude and natural setting provided a perfect backdrop for serious writing. Thoreau carried out his quest to live as simply and mindfully as possible. He grew his own food, rambled through the woods, and read the great philosophers. His close observations and lively descriptions of plant and animal life show he took to heart the notion of embracing nature as his teacher.

During the two years he lived at Walden, Thoreau wrote A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. In giving the occasional lecture, he realized his audiences wanted to hear about his life in the woods, so he began writing about Walden Pond. He structured the book chronologically and published Walden; or, Life in the Woods in 1854.

Activism for the Abolitionist Movement

Thoreau left his cabin and moved back to Concord in 1847. He wrote his most famous essay, "Civil Disobedience," published in 1849, after he spent a night in jail for refusing to pay a poll tax. He refused the tax because it helped support the Mexican–American War (the 1846–48 war between Mexico and the United States over the annexation of Texas) and the enforcement of proslavery laws, both of which he strongly opposed. Thoreau worked tirelessly for the abolitionist (antislavery) movement as a speaker, supporter of other abolitionists, and conductor on the Underground Railroad (a network of escape routes leading from the South to the North). He contracted tuberculosis (a bacterial lung infection)—perhaps exacerbated by pencil dust—and became more and more incapacitated throughout the 1850s. He died on May 6, 1862, his work having helped bring about the end of slavery, and his essay forming the basis for some of the most important—and dramatic—social changes of the 20th century.

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