Henry David Thoreau

Henry David Thoreau (thôr´ō, thərō´), 1817–62, American author and naturalist, 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. He served as handyman and assistant to Emerson, helping to edit and contributing poetry and prose to the transcendentalist magazine, The Dial.

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. He devoted most of his time to observing nature, reading, and writing, and he kept a detailed journal of his observations, activities, and thoughts. It was from this journal that he later 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, the passive resistance independence movement led by Gandhi in India, and the nonviolent civil-rights movement led by Martin Luther King in the United States.

Thoreau is also significant as a naturalist who emphasized the dynamic ecology of the natural world. 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.


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) and J. W. Krutch (1948, repr. 1973); 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); W. B. Maynard, Walden Pond: A History (2004).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2015, The Columbia University Press.

Henry David Thoreau: Selected full-text books and articles

CliffsNotes Thoreau, Emerson, and Transcendentalism By Leslie Perrin Wilson IDG Books Worldwide, 2000
Librarian’s tip: "Henry David Thoreau" begins on p. 125
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
A Political Companion to Henry David Thoreau By Jack Turner University Press of Kentucky, 2009
The Major Essays of Henry David Thoreau By Henry David Thoreau; Richard Dillman Whitston, 2001
Walden and Other Writings By Henry David Thoreau; Brooks Atkinson Modern Library, 1950
Henry David Thoreau's Walden By Harold Bloom Chelsea House, 1987
Librarian’s tip: This is a book of literary criticism
Barron's Simplified Approach to Thoreau's Walden By Robert L. Gale Barron's Educational Series, 1965
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
The Heart of Thoreau's Journals By Henry David Thoreau; Odell Shepard Houghton Mifflin, 1927
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
Peer-reviewed publications on Questia are publications containing articles which were subject to evaluation for accuracy and substance by professional peers of the article's author(s).
Winter Tracings and Transcendental Leaps: Henry Thoreau's Skating By Marshall, Ian Papers on Language & Literature, Vol. 29, No. 4, Fall 1993
Peer-reviewed publications on Questia are publications containing articles which were subject to evaluation for accuracy and substance by professional peers of the article's author(s).
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