Meet Thoreau: Introduction  

Next: Henry finds his Walden

ThoreauHenry David Thoreau was a true child of nature. He appreciated the natural environment on a deep level, finding spiritual replenishment and inspiration in his lengthy walks each day. Henry pursued his own ideals in every aspect of his life. He moved to Walden Pond as an experiment in living simply and deliberately, while taking ample time for writing, walking, and observing nature.

In this section, you will learn about Henry's life, environmental ethic, experiment at Walden Pond, and several fun facts you may not have known. You will also discover that Henry was not, as is commonly assumed, a friendless hermit, but a well-liked and sociable guy.


PineconeWho is Henry David Thoreau?

Henry David Thoreau--pronounced THOHR-oh, like "thorough" or rhyming with "furrow"-- is most famous today as the author of such celebrated works as Walden and "Civil Disobedience." If you asked him for a description of himself, however, he would have listed various other personas as well. Responding to a Harvard alumni questionnaire about his occupation and activities, Henry wrote, "I am a Schoolmaster--a Private Tutor, a Surveyor--a Gardener, a Farmer--a Painter, I mean a House Painter, a Carpenter, a Mason, a Day-Laborer, a Pencil-Maker, a Glass-paper Maker, a Writer, and sometimes a Poetaster [inferior poet]."(1)

Henry David Thoreau was born on July 12th, 1817 in his grandmother's farmhouse on the outskirts of Concord, Massachusetts, a small village of about two thousand people. His father John, described as "amiable and loveable," worked for some time as a shopkeeper and teacher before eventually finding success as a pencil maker. His mother Cynthia was dynamic and sociable as well as compassionate and charitable. Both parents maintained a love of nature which they shared with their four children during frequent explorations around Concord.

Beginning in early childhood and continuing throughout his life, Henry spent his most peaceful, reflective, and enjoyable times walking and carefully observing the outdoors, as well as collecting many botanical specimens. Ralph Waldo Emerson, a prominent author and lecturer, as well as friend and mentor to Thoreau, once described how Henry looked while walking around town: “There came Henry with music book under his arm to press flowers in, with telescope in his pocket to see the birds, and microscope to count stamens, with a diary, jackknife and twine, in stout shoes and strong gray trousers ready to brave the shrub oaks and smilax and to climb a tree for a hawk's nest. His strong legs when he wades were no insignificant part of his armor.(2)

Henry held many roles in his time: a satirist of society, a staunch individualist, a social reformer, a Transcendentalist, an observer of the seasons and natural changes, an environmentalist, a naturalist, and a conservationist.

Henry is considered one of the most influential men of his era, a social reformer whose ideas written in "Civil Disobedience" inspired the twentieth century Civil Rights movements of Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. He also holds great literary importance as the eloquent writer of the first modern American prose, Walden. Additionally, his promotion of conservation has led him to be revered as one of the most significant influences on the American environmental movement and wilderness preservation worldwide.

ThoreauWhat was Henry's environmental ethic?

Henry, along with other transcendentalists, considered Nature to be a spiritual entity. Adherents to this school of thought experienced Nature as a way of ascending to untamed wilderness and connecting with the divine. The wildness of the environment offered them rejuvenation and fired their imaginations. Henry wrote in Walden, “Heaven is under our feet as well as over our heads." (3)

Henry also believed that humans needed nature to survive on a practical level. The wooded forest offered a withdrawn place for spiritual reflection and rest, but it also provided shelter and fuel for fire.

As local towns and farms developed around him, Henry encouraged his peers to preserve some of the natural woodlands. In the essay "Walking" he wrote, "A town is saved, not more by the righteous men in it, than by the woods and swamps that surround it. A township where one primitive forest waves above, while another primitive forest rots below-such a town is fitted to raise not only corn and potatoes, but poets and philosophers for the coming ages."(4)

Henry held his local environment in high regard and believed in a responsibility to one's own community. "A man must generally get away some hundreds of thousands of miles from home before he can be said to begin his travels," he chided. "Why not begin his travels at home? Would he not have to go far or look very closely to discover novelties?"(5)

Henry tried to inspire his fellow townspeople to appreciate, as he did, the wonders of nature that surrounded them. He mused on the many offices that the village supported, such as commissioners of trade and agriculture, and asked why there should not also be a commissioner of flowers, since observing nature was just as important an endeavor for the community.

HenryWhat was Henry's Experiment? 
Henry moved to Walden Pond on July 4th, 1845 to experiment with a new way of living. While many Americans were seeking fresh starts by moving west in the middle of the century, and some of his friends were trying out "Utopian communities" based on communal living, Henry sought to change his way of life on his own without leaving Concord. He would lead a solitary and independent life, but not reclusive one. He kept three chairs in his house, "one for solitude, two for friendship, three for society."(6)

Henry wanted to test a daily existence based on simplifying down to the necessities of life. He would sustain himself on minimal possessions and work while spending a maximum amount of time enjoying nature and pursuing his writing. "I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived."(7)

At his college graduation, Henry had spoken of an ideal lifestyle as consisting of working one day per week and resting for the remaining six. He put this idea of a simplified life into practice during his experiment, although on his days of "rest" he stayed busy observing nature and writing.

The most evident stimulus for Henry's move to Walden was to work on a book about the trip he and his beloved brother John had taken on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers six years earlier. In the solitude and quiet he would have time to reflect and write while grieving for his brother who had recently died.

Walden PondWhere and what is Walden Pond?

Walden Pond, a small glacial lake located just two miles outside the village of Concord, gave inspiration to Henry Thoreau every day for the two years, two months and two days that he lived there. The pond, half a mile wide and three-fourths of a mile long, is exceptionally deep and clear. It is surrounded by hills and a mixed woodland forest comprised mostly of white pine and oak trees, which Thoreau believed to be fed by "a perennial spring...without any visible inlet or outlet except by the clouds and evaporation."(8)

Walden Pond is one of several similar ponds or small lakes in Concord. It is not an exceptional pond in any of its inherent characteristics, but is only remarkable because people have made it so. Much of New England is littered with lakes formed as the glaciers in the last Ice Age receded and left depressions in the Earth's surface from large, heavy sections of ice. As the glaciers shrunk away, debris such as sand and smooth-worn stones were left in their wakes, forming attractive sandy beaches on Walden Pond on the one hand, and deteriorating the quality of land for farming on the other.

There are three hypotheses for how Walden received its name. In one version, the physical description of the pond as being "walled in" slurred to form one word. In another story, the name comes from the German word for wooded, which is "bewadelt." It is also possible that Walden is an English family name bestowed on the pond by some earlier neighbors.

Walden Pond also held some commercial significance for the nearby people. In winter, the thick layer of ice covering the pond was broken up and carted away for sale in town. The woods surrounding the pond were also a source of timber for Concord residents. Henry describes the ice-cutters in Walden in the chapter "The Pond in Winter," and his interaction with a woodchopper in "Visitors."



Next: Henry finds his Walden

Common Misconception:

Thoreau was a hermit with no friends.

Henry’s house at Walden Pond was not isolated in the wilderness, but less than half a mile to either the railroad or the main road into Concord.

He lived close enough to walk into town regularly to visit family and friends, often joining them for dinner at their houses. He also entertained guests and conversed with passersby at his house at Walden Pond.

Henry enjoyed talking and traveling with his close friends, including Ralph Waldo Emerson, Ellery Channing, Bronson and May Alcott, and Nathaniel Hawthorne.

He even threw parties! Henry’s annual melon party, featuring his own delicious watermelons, was a popular event among his neighbors.

Henry went to Walden as an experiment in simple and deliberate living, not as an exercise in complete solitude. He felt that the distance from town helped eliminate some of the more frivolous visits he would otherwise receive while those people he most wanted to see would still make the effort to come out to his house.


Did You Know?

His birth name is David Henry Thoreau.

He barely passed his entrance exams to get into Harvard, though he was an above average student thereafter.

The total expense to attend Harvard at the time was $179 per year. Henry’s whole family contributed to paying for his education, drawing from his parents’ income in pencil making and his siblings’ teaching salaries.

Henry sang in a choir and played the flute.

Henry was the best ice skater of all his friends.

Henry was 5’7” (170 cm), medium to medium-short in height for a man of his time.

Both Henry and his brother, John, proposed to the same woman, Ellen Sewall, and were both refused because her father disapproved of anyone associated with Transcendentalism.