Henry David Thoreau

Grade Level: 
6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12
Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) was an American author, poet, natural philosopher, and a leading figure in the Transcendentalist movement. His popular book, Walden (1854), was an autobiography depicting his experiences in the woods on Walden Pond in Massachusetts. Walden profoundly influenced environmental conservation and activism. Thoreau is also known for his famous essay, Civil Disobedience (1849), which later inspired world leaders such as Mahatma Gandhi and Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. with its passive resistance message.

Biographical Highlights

Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) was an American from New England who was an author, poet, and natural philosopher. Thoreau was a leading figure in the Transcendentalist movement which held, as one of its premises, that the human connection with nature is necessary for intellectual and moral stability.

Thoreau was most well-known for the autobiographical story of his experiences in the woods on Walden Pond in Massachusetts where he lived very simply in commune with nature for nearly two years from 1845 to 1847. This book, entitled Walden (1854), explained his ideas about how a person should live, being consciously aware of his or her own nature and of the natural world itself. This, among other works, eventually earned him the title "The Father of American Nature Writing." Thoreau's work has been a staple of American literature courses in high school and at the college level for more than a century.

Another famous essay by Thoreau entitled Civil Disobedience (1849), was written in response to being jailed for refusing to pay a toll tax collected to support the Mexican-American War. This essay carried a powerful message proposing an ethical way to end oppression in American society by bringing about necessary social change. It went on to inspire future world leaders such as Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. with its passive resistance message.

Historic Roots

Henry David Thoreau was born in Concord, Massachusetts, to John and Cynthia Thoreau in 1817. He was the third of four children - Helen, John, David and Sophia. From 1833 through 1837 he attended Harvard College where he began his lifelong passion of keeping journals. It was also at Harvard that Thoreau was introduced to the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson. After graduating from Harvard he taught briefly at the public school in Concord, but soon resigned because he protested the use of physical discipline on the children. For a time, he then worked in his father's pencil factory while he continued to look for another teaching position.

In 1838, Thoreau, along with his older brother John, opened a private school in Concord, which they operated for three years. In 1840, Thoreau began to publish his poems and essays in The Dial , a transcendentalist periodical. Also that year, Thoreau proposed to a childhood friend of the family, Ellen Sewall, who refused on the advice of her father. Unfortunately, Thoreau's brother John, with whom he was quite close, died painfully from lockjaw in 1842 with Thoreau by his side.

From 1841 through 1843, Thoreau lived with his mentor, Ralph Waldo Emerson (a fellow Transcendentalist) and his family in Concord. While living there, he became quite fond of a summer boarder, named Mary Russell, who was a friend of Mrs. Emerson. Thoreau once "noted that talking to her was 'like talking to the clouds'" (Harding 1982, 108). Russell, like Sewall, also married another; however, Thoreau remained friends with both of their families. With an apparent end to his romances, Thoreau went on to become a confirmed bachelor.

Thoreau lived briefly in Staten Island, New York, in 1943-44, where he served as a tutor to the children of William Emerson, Ralph's brother. Upon his return to Massachusetts, he looked for a quiet place to write. On the advice of a friend, Thoreau built a small structure (which cost approximately $28 and took him over three months to build) on some land owned by Emerson in the woods by Walden Pond.

While living on Walden Pond, Thoreau wrote a book in memory of his brother John entitled, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers , which reflected on a canoe trip they had taken in 1839. He spent many hours reading and writing, receiving visitors and exploring the landscape around Walden Pond. In Thoreau's own words, "I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could learn what I had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived" (Thoreau 1971, 90). Also during his time at Walden, in 1846, Thoreau spent the night in jail for refusing to pay the poll tax that resulted in the writing of his essay Civil Disobedience . He visited Maine, which he did again twice more in his life and later recounted these trips in an essay entitled The Maine Woods (1864), published after his death.

Upon leaving his cabin at Walden, Thoreau briefly lived with the Emerson family again while Ralph Waldo Emerson was away lecturing in England. In 1848, he returned to his family home where he resided for the remainder of his life. Thoreau, not a popular writer in his day, worked between the family pencil factory and land surveying to earn a living.

In 1849, Thoreau and Ellery Channing took a trip to Cape Cod, the first of four such trips for Thoreau. He later delivered lectures about these experiences that were posthumously published in 1865, simply entitled Cape Cod. Many of Thoreau's works were published after his death. Some of these include Summer (1884), Winter (1887), and Poems of Nature (1895). From 1850 until his death, Thoreau continued to travel the country visiting as far as Minnesota. He wrote and lectured about his experiences and observations, including his essay Succession of Forest Trees (1859). He also became more involved in the abolitionist movement, serving as a conductor on the Underground Railroad and delivering lectures on such essays as Slavery in Massachusetts (1856). Thoreau died from tuberculosis on 6 May 1862, at the age of forty-four.


"Thoreau was not only a naturalist but also a scientist, a musician, a historian, a scholar, a lecturer and traveler, and an ecologist" (Schofield and Baron 1993, xxii). Though Thoreau is viewed as a thinker of broad reach, perhaps his most significant contribution is the way his writings encapsulate environmental stewardship. He constantly sought greater passion and meaning for his life through his relationship with nature. According to Lawrence Buell, in reference to Thoreau, "no writer in the literary history of America.comes closer than he to standing for nature in both the scholarly and popular mind" (1995, 2). Thoreau earned his place in the Ecology Hall of Fame with the publishing of Walden because "he articulated the idea that humans are a part of nature and that we function best, as individuals and societies, when we are conscious of that fact" (EcoTopia).

Ties to the Philanthropic Sector

Henry David Thoreau led a simple life as an educator and author. He had a very small circle of friends and colleagues and has even been referred to by some as a hermit. Because his works were not widely read during his lifetime, his connection to philanthropy has occurred primarily since his death. Through the increasing popularity of his literature, Thoreau's ideas have inspired many to civic action. This civic action is diverse in its scope ranging from passive resistance for social reform to environmental conservation and activism. The reach of his influence on leaders like Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr. and the many American and international environmentalists is immeasurable. Thoreau's words and thoughts have been catalysts for individuals' actions, advocacy, monetary contributions, and voluntary associations (including the formation of nonprofit organizations to accomplish peace and environmental work).

Key Related Ideas

  • Abolitionist : One who advocates the end of slavery.
  • Anthropologist : One who studies human beings, particularly their customs and practices.
  • Civil disobedience : Refusal to comply with specific laws as a form of peaceful political protest, and with the aim of instigating social change.
  • Conservationist : One who advocates the preservation of natural resources.
  • Ecology : The study of science that focuses on the interrelationship of organisms and their environments.
  • Environmental stewardship : An approach to the earth and its resources that "affirms that freedom, human flourishing, and the integrity of creation are principles that are not only compatible but also dynamically related" (Acton Institute).
  • Nature writing : Writings, including poetry and essays common during the transcendental period that focus on the human experience in the natural world.
  • Naturalist : A field biologist.
  • Passive resistance : A nonviolent refusal to cooperate; advocated by world leaders Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., and inspired by the concept of civil disobedience.
  • Transcendentalism : A philosophy that emphasized transcending human experience, but not human knowledge, through spiritual growth.

Important People Related to the Topic

William Bartram (1739 -1824): Known as the first native born naturalist in America, Bartram traveled the country, particularly the South, extensively and wrote about his observations of nature. These natural accounts of his journeys served as an inspiration to Thoreau (The Bartram Trail Conference).

(William) Ellery Channing (1817 - 1901): One of the most eccentric Transcendentalists and probably Thoreau's best friend. Not known for his poetry, his most significant literary contribution was the biography he wrote in 1873, Thoreau, the Poet-Naturalist (Woodlief).

Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803 -1882): A close friend and colleague to Thoreau, Emerson was the leading figure in the Transcendentalist movement. Also an author, his book Nature (1836) embodied the transcendental philosophy. Known as well for his essay entitled Self-Reliance (1841), Emerson emerged as a prominent figure in nineteenth century American history (Ibid.).

Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804 -1864): Also a friend to Thoreau and a Transcendentalist, Hawthorne was considered unusual because of his dark view of human nature (Ibid.). He is most famous for authoring works such as The Scarlet Letter (1850) and The House of the Seven Gables (1851).

Walt Whitman (1819 -1892): A friend to Thoreau later in his life, Whitman was inspired by the writings of Emerson. Whitman wrote poetry that had transcendentalist characteristics. His most famous collection of poetry, Leaves of Grass , was written in 1855 (Ibid.).

Related Nonprofit Organizations

The Thoreau Society , established in 1941, is known as the oldest and largest non-profit organization devoted to an American author. Its main mission is "to honor Henry David Thoreau by stimulating interest in and fostering education about his life, works, and philosophy" (The Walden "The Thoreau").

The Walden Woods Project is a nonprofit land conservation organization that was founded by the popular music artist Don Henley in 1990 and has raised more than $23 million (most of which has been used to purchase conservation land. The mission of this organization is "to protect land of ecological and historical significance in Walden Woods, near Henry D. Thoreau's Walden Pond; and to manage, operate, and support the Thoreau Institute, a research and educational facility" in Lincoln, Massachusetts (The Walden "Overview").


Bibliography and Internet Sources

  • Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty. "Environmental Stewardship." Acton Institute. http://www.acton.org/ 
  • The Bartram Trail Conference. "The Travels of William Bartram." The Bartram Trail Conference. http://www.bartramtrail.org/index.shtml.
  • Buell, Lawrence. The Environmental Imagination: Thoreau, Nature Writing, and the Formation of American Culture . Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1995. ISBN: 0674258622.
  • EcoTopia. "Ecology Hall of Fame: Henry David Thoreau." EcoTopia. http://www.ecotopia.org/ehof/thoreau/index.html .
  • Harding, Walter. The Days of Henry Thoreau: A Biography . New York: Dover Publications, 1982. ISBN: 0486242633.
  • Schofield, E. and Robert Baron, eds. Thoreau's World and Ours . Colorado: North American Press, 1993. ISBN: 1555919030.
  • Thoreau, Henry David. Walden . New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1971. ISBN: 0691013098.
  • The Walden Woods Project. "Overview of the Walden Woods Project." The Walden Woods Project. http://www.walden.org/About/index.htm.
  • The Walden Woods Project. "The Thoreau Society." The Walden Woods Project. http://www.walden.org/institute/collections/Thoreau%20Society/ThoreauSociety.htm.
  • Woodlief, Ann. "American Transcendentalism Web: Henry David Thoreau." Virginia Commonwealth University. http://www.vcu.edu/engweb/transcendentalism/authors/thoreau/index.html .

This paper was developed by a student taking a Philanthropic Studies course taught at the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University. It is offered by Learning To Give and the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University.