Meet Thoreau: Henry's Global Impact

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DragonflyHenry continued to write, lecture, and travel in the years remaining to him after his experiment at Walden Pond. He died at the age of only 44 on May 6th, 1862. He left many grieving friends and a slowly growing base of readers, though his works would not come into larger popularity for many years. As society's awareness of environmental issues increased, so did its appreciation of the writings of Thoreau. Today Walden is an internationally renowned classic that has inspired conservationists and individualists everywhere.

In this section, you will follow the legacies of Henry David Thoreau and Walden Pond. You will learn about Henry's enduring impact and might be surprised to learn of his real opinions on society and progress.


ThoreauWhat were Henry's next steps after Walden?

Henry left Walden Pond on September 6th, 1847 and moved into the Emerson home to help manage the household while Ralph Waldo Emerson lectured throughout England. Henry would also expand his public lecturing in the 1850s. In the following years, several of his works were published, including "Ktaadn and the Maine Woods," A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, "Resistance to Civil Government," "Slavery in Massachusetts," and "A Plea for Captain John Brown." Henry continued to be an active voice for the philosophy of Transcendentalism and for social principles, such as the abolition of slavery. He also traveled throughout New England, making memorable trips to Cape Cod in Massachusetts, the Canadian province Quebec, the backwoods of Maine, the White Mountains of New Hampshire, and finally traveling to Minnesota for his health. In his later years, Henry refined his studies of nature to a more scientific methodology. He made detailed drawings and collected specimens for local botany libraries. He was one of the earliest Americans to read Darwin's Origin of the Species and to recognize the principle of natural selection applied in his own local environment. In his essay "Succession of Forest Trees," Henry laid out for the first time the theory of forest succession which explains the maturing process of an ecosystem from basic mosses and legumes to a fully formed hardwood forest.

Unfortunately, Henry suffered from poor health for most of his life. During his college years he likely developed the tuberculosis that would ultimately be his demise. Working in the family pencil making business further aggravated his lung condition. One may speculate that it was only his active lifestyle, walking for hours each day in the open air, that allowed him to live as long as he did. Henry David Thoreau died on May 6th, 1862 at the age of only forty-four. Major newspapers across the country carried his obituary. In the last years of his life, Henry knew that his time was limited and worked to organize manuscripts for posthumous publication. He continued to collect Native American artifacts, and in his final years began making plans for a comprehensive naturalist's calendar of his local environment. One can only imagine what Henry would have accomplished if life had allowed him more years.

Henry's friends were deeply saddened by his early death. In his eulogy, Emerson stated, "The country knows not yet, or in the least part, how great a son it has lost … His soul was made for the noblest society … wherever there is knowledge, wherever there is virtue, wherever there is beauty, he will find a home." (1) A few years later, Bronson Alcott started a cairn-a pile of stones set as a monument or memorial-near the site of Henry's old house at Walden. Since that time people from all over the world have brought stones to place in Henry's honor. Other pilgrims come to pay homage to Henry's grave which lies among those of his family in the Sleepy Hollow cemetery in Concord.

Walden PondWhat is the legacy of Walden Pond?

After Henry moved out of his house at Walden Pond, it was sold it to Emerson's gardener. It passed through other hands before eventually being disassembled. The roof ended up covering a pig pen and the rest of the wood was later used to make a stable shed and patchwork on a barn. Over time, the site of the original house was lost. In 1945, archeologist Roland Robbins began to search for the house site by exploring Walden Woods and reviewing as many historical documents as he could for information about the house's location and construction. Over the next two years, Robbins excavated and documented the foundation of the chimney, the house corner stones, and the cellar. The knowledge of Henry's house gained from the excavation improved the building of replicas on the park grounds and at the Thoreau Institute.

During Henry's time, the woods around Walden Pond were viewed primarily economically as a source of firewood for local residents. In the late 1860s the railroad company noted the capacity for recreation at Walden and installed picnic tables and a bath house, followed by regular excursions around the pond. By the turn of the century, Walden Pond had been converted to a pleasure destination, with swimming, boating, concessions, a race track, and a merry-go-round. The heavy use of the land and water gave rise to concern, and in 1922 local landowners donated over eighty acres to the state of Massachusetts for responsible management. Today the state Department of Conservation and Recreation operates a park of over three hundred acres. Hundreds of thousands of people visit the Pond each year to see the cabin site, leave a stone on the cairn, take a swim in the water, and enjoy nature.

In the 1990s Walden Woods faced another threat. Plans were nearly finalized to develop large tracts of land around Walden into residential and office buildings. Recording artist Don Henley heard of the plans and led the effort to preserve the natural environment of Walden. He founded the Walden Woods Project to raise the necessary money to buy the land and save it from development. Since then, the Walden Woods Project has continued its work in conservation, while expanding its mission to include education and research. The Thoreau Institute library at the Walden Woods Project attracts scholars from all over the world to its over eight thousand volumes and sixty thousand other items related to Thoreau.

Henry David ThoreauHow has Henry influenced people all over the world?

"How many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book," Henry wrote in Walden. (2) Little did he realize how true that statement would be for so many people who read his book! Today Walden has inspired millions of readers and is considered Henry's masterpiece. Since Emerson brought copies of Walden to England, its worldwide impact has never ceased to spread. Walden has been printed in hundreds of editions and dozens of languages. It has influenced conservationists, writers, philosophers, activists, and individuals of all professions and passions. None of that would have happened, however, if Henry had carried out his experiment and kept it to himself; it was by sharing his story that he inspired so many people and changed the world.

Henry's messages of simple, deliberate living; spirituality in nature; and conservation are present throughout his works but achieved little recognition in his own lifetime. It was only after his death and in the following century that his writing became well known and appreciated. Henry's writing did not change, society changed. In the second half of the nineteenth century, America came face to face with the consequences of its lack of foresight in managing the environment. Many of the birds of New England, such as the once ubiquitous passenger pigeon, were all but extinct. The need for wood to warm homes, fuel the steam engine, and make way for farms left forests depleted or destroyed. People began to react. The first Audubon Society for the protection of birds and wildlife was formed in Massachusetts in 1896. In the next decade other states followed the example and incorporated into the National Audubon Society in 1905.

Thousands of miles away on the other American coast, John Muir began to note the overgrazing and logging of the precious Yosemite Valley in California. He could not allow the loss of such an irreplaceable landscape and so worked for its incorporation as a park in 1890. After Muir took President Theodore Roosevelt on a camping trip in Yosemite in 1903, Roosevelt pushed to have the government take the park under national control to provide further protection for the land. John Muir went on to found the Sierra Club, a prominent environmental advocacy organization even today. His leadership had its own inspiration, too; on his mantel Muir kept two portraits: one of Emerson and one of Thoreau.

As society became more environmentally aware, its appreciation of Henry David Thoreau and Walden increased. Today Henry is considered among the greatest of all American writers and the intellectual inspiration for the conservation movement. His long lasting influence cannot be fully expressed.



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Common Misconception:

Henry was opposed to society and progress.

Henry was certainly a social critic, but he did not seek to cut himself off from society. By living at the pond he was able to immerse himself in nature and distance himself from the bustle of everyday life in town, but he did not cut off contact with the rest of the world. Henry highly valued community and maintained close friendships throughout his life.

Henry had an open mind and enjoyed learning about new ideas and inventions. He read a German encyclopedia in order to learn how to make better graphite for his family's pencil making business.


Henry liked gadgets; he was adept at using his surveying equipment and he also often carried with him a small telescope and microscope on his nature walks.


Henry was one of the first people in America to read Darwin's The Origin of the Species. He recognized the application of the principles of natural selection in his own local environment.


Henry was the first to publish the theory of forest succession, the process by which forests evolve and mature over time. The theory is still accepted by ecologists today.


Did You Know?

In the last year of his life, Henry took a trip to Minnesota hoping it would cure his Tuberculosis. He returned early, however, in worse condition than when he left.

Henry's personal heroes were the contemporary American poet Walt Whitman, the abolitionist activist John Brown who was executed for his attempt to arm the slaves by raiding Harper's Ferry, and Joe Polis, a Penobscot Native American who had been Henry's guide in Maine.


Henry's final words were "moose" and "Indian."


 Henry's sister Sophia organized and prepared his manuscripts for publication after his death.

 Henry is buried near the Emersons, Hawthornes, and Alcotts in a part of the Sleepy Hollow cemetery in Concord called Author's Ridge.


Louisa May Alcott fondly remembered her visits as a child to Henry while he was living at Walden Pond. Henry loved children and would entertain them with nature walks, boating on the pond, and showing them the details of nature.