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Henry David Thoreau | Biography

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

The family's return to Concord took place when Thoreau was six. His father started an in-house pencil factory, and his mother, Cynthia Dunbar Thoreau, took in boarders. The pencil business succeeded; ultimately, Thoreau himself would come up with production modifications that made Thoreau pencils the top brand in America at the time.

In 1833 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 employment levels dropped to the lowest they had yet been in the nation's history. Thoreau patched together a livelihood by surveying, teaching, lecturing, and working at the pencil factory.

At around the time of Thoreau's graduation, Ralph Waldo Emerson—a famous philosopher, pastor, and essayist—moved to Concord. Emerson was soon followed by Margaret Fuller, an editor, journalist, and writer; Bronson Alcott, a teacher and writer (and father of writer Louisa May Alcott); and writer Nathaniel Hawthorne. This would have been an extraordinary concentration of intellectuals anywhere, but in a small town like Concord the group was a powerhouse. Naturally, these notable figures influenced Thoreau heavily.

Most 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 philosophers he was something of an oddity, although Louisa May Alcott fell in love with him and used him as the inspiration for the character Mac in her book Rose in Bloom. At the time he decided to build the cabin at Walden, Thoreau had been living in Emerson's house for months; he had also accidentally caused a serious forest fire that had angered many Concordians. Perhaps he felt that this was an ideal time to experience life in the wilderness.

In 1845 and using a borrowed ax, Thoreau constructed a small cottage near Concord's Walden Pond. 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, as 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 that 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 that 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.

Thoreau left his cabin and moved back to Concord in 1847. His most famous essay, "Civil Disobedience," was written after he spent a night in jail for refusing to pay a poll tax, and he published it in 1849. Thoreau also worked tirelessly for the abolitionist movement. He had contracted tuberculosis—perhaps exacerbated by pencil dust—and became more and more incapacitated throughout the 1850s. He died on May 6, 1862.

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