Henry David Thoreau

Henry David Thoreau (thôr´ō, thərō´), 1817–62, American author, naturalist, social activist, and philosopher, b. Concord, Mass., grad. Harvard, 1837. Thoreau is considered one of the most influential figures in American thought and literature. A supreme individualist, he championed the human spirit against materialism and social conformity. His most famous book, Walden (1854), is an eloquent account of his experiment in near-solitary living in close harmony with nature; it is also an expression of his transcendentalist philosophy (see transcendentalism).

Thoreau grew up in Concord and attended Harvard, where he was known as a serious though unconventional scholar. During his Harvard years he was exposed to the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, who later became his chief mentor and friend. After graduation, Thoreau worked for a time in his father's pencil shop and taught at a grammar school, but in 1841 he was invited to live in the Emerson household, where he remained intermittently until 1843. Becoming an important part of the Concord community, he served as handyman and assistant to Emerson, helping to edit The Dial and contributing poetry and prose to the transcendentalist periodical.

In 1845 Thoreau built himself a small cabin on the shore of Walden Pond, near Concord; there he remained for more than two years, "living deep and sucking out all the marrow of life." Wishing to lead a life free of materialistic pursuits, he supported himself by growing vegetables and by surveying and doing odd jobs in the nearby village, but he devoted most of his time to observing nature, reading, and writing. He kept a detailed journal of his observations, activities, and thoughts, and from it he distilled his masterpiece, Walden. The journal, begun in 1837, was also the source of his first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1849), as well as of his posthumously published Excursions (1863), The Maine Woods (1864), Cape Cod (1865), and A Yankee in Canada (1866).

One of Thoreau's most important works, the essay "Civil Disobedience" (1849), grew out of an overnight stay in prison as a result of his conscientious refusal to pay a poll tax that supported the Mexican War, which to Thoreau represented an effort to extend slavery. Thoreau's advocacy of civil disobedience as a means for the individual to protest those actions of his government that he considers unjust has had a wide-ranging impact—on the British Labour movement, on the passive resistance independence movement led by Mohandas Gandhi in India, and on the nonviolent civil-rights movement led by Martin Luther King, Jr., in the United States. After he left the Walden cabin, Thoreau and his family took an active part in the abolitionist movement.

Thoreau is also significant as a naturalist who emphasized the dynamic ecology of the natural world, helping to lay the foundations for environmentalism, and was an early advocate for the creation of national parks. Above all, Thoreau's quiet, one-man revolution in living at Walden has become a symbol of the willed integrity of human beings, their inner freedom, and their ability to build their own lives. Thoreau's writings, including his journals, were published in 20 volumes in 1906. He wrote many volumes of notes on the Native Americans of the NE United States, as well as careful studies of flowering plants and of trees in burned and logged forests.


See his collected poems, ed. by C. Bode (rev. ed. 1964); his letters, ed. by C. Bode and W. Harding (1958, repr. 1974); his journals, ed. by B. Torrey and F. H. Allen (14 vol., 1906, repr. 2 vol., 1963); biographies by H. S. Canby (1939, repr. 1965), J. W. Krutch (1948, repr. 1973), and L. D. Walls (2017); E. H. Wagenknecht, Henry David Thoreau (1981); R. Lebeaux, Thoreau's Seasons (1984) and Young Man Thoreau (1989); R. D. Richardson, Jr., Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind (1986); R. Schneider, Henry David Thoreau (1987); L. Buell, The Environmental Imagination: Thoreau, Nature Writing, and the Formation of American Culture (1995); A. D. Hodder, Thoreau's Ecstatic Witness (2001); W. B. Maynard, Walden Pond: A History (2004).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2018, The Columbia University Press.

Henry David Thoreau: Selected full-text books and articles

Thoreau's Living Ethics: Walden and the Pursuit of Virtue By Philip Cafaro University of Georgia Press, 2004
A Political Companion to Henry David Thoreau By Jack Turner University Press of Kentucky, 2009
Thoreau's Importance for Philosophy By Rick Anthony Furtak; Jonathan Ellsworth; James D. Reid Fordham University Press, 2012
A Thoreau Handbook By Walter Harding New York University Press, 1959
A Historical Guide to Henry David Thoreau By William E. Cain Oxford University Press, 2000
The Major Essays of Henry David Thoreau By Henry David Thoreau; Richard Dillman Whitston, 2001
A primary source is a work that is being studied, or that provides first-hand or direct evidence on a topic. Common types of primary sources include works of literature, historical documents, original philosophical writings, and religious texts.
Walden and Other Writings By Henry David Thoreau; Brooks Atkinson Modern Library, 1950
A primary source is a work that is being studied, or that provides first-hand or direct evidence on a topic. Common types of primary sources include works of literature, historical documents, original philosophical writings, and religious texts.
Henry David Thoreau's Walden By Harold Bloom Chelsea House, 1987
Librarian's tip: This is a book of literary criticism
Thoreau: A Century of Criticism By Walter Harding Southern Methodist University Press, 1954
Thoreau, Man of Concord By Walter Harding Holt Rinehart and Winston, 1960
Thoreau in the Human Community By Mary Elkins Moller University of Massachusetts Press, 1980
Nature's Extra-Vagrants: Frost and Thoreau in the Maine Woods By Link, Eric Carl Papers on Language & Literature, Vol. 33, No. 2, Spring 1997
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