Henry David Thoreau

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Thoreau, Henry David

Thoreau, Henry David (thôrˈō, thərōˈ), 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), R. D. Richardson, Jr. (1986), and L. D. Walls (2017); E. H. Wagenknecht, Henry David Thoreau (1981); R. Lebeaux, Thoreau's Seasons (1984) and Young Man Thoreau (1989); 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).

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Thoreau, Henry David


Born July 12, 1817, in Concord, Mass.; died May 6, 1862, at Waiden, near Concord. American writer and social figure.

Thoreau was the son of a small businessman. After graduating from Harvard University in 1837, he developed a close association with R. W. Emerson, under whose influence he became a follower of Transcendentalism. In Waiden, or Life in the Woods (1854; Russian translation, 1900), Thoreau gives testimony to the profound alienation he felt from contemporary society, with its mundane practicality and the hypocrisy of bourgeois “freedoms.” The book, because of its harsh criticism of society’s ills, its high philosophical tone, and its great literary merit, became a model of American realist prose.

A man of moral principles, Thoreau was an admirer of L. N. Tolstoy. His essays, for example, “On Civil Disobedience” (1849) and “Slavery in Massachusetts” (1854), and especially his speeches in defense of Negroes are regarded among the best examples of abolitionist literature, and they exercised a considerable influence on American social life. Thoreau gained wide recognition only in the 20th century.


The Writings of Henry David Thoreau, vols. 1–20. Boston–New York, 1906.
Journal, vols. 1–14. New York, 1963.
In Russian translation:
Uolden, ili Zhizn’ v lesu. Moscow, 1962. (With an afterword by A. Startsev.)


Istoriia amerikanskoi literatury, vol. 1. Moscow-Leningrad, 1947.
Bruks, V. V. Pisatel’ i amerikanskaia zhizn’, vol. 1. Moscow, 1967.
Krutch, J. W. Henry David Thoreau. New York, 1965.
The Recognition of Henry David Thoreau. Ann Arbor, Mich. [1969].
Paul, S. The Shores of America: Thoreau’s Inward Exploration. Urbana, 111. [1972].
Stern, P. van Doren. Henry David Thoreau. New York [1972].


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.

Thoreau, Henry David

(1817–1862) example of man’s ability to build his own life in the wilderness. [Am. Hist.: NCE, 2738]
Allusions—Cultural, Literary, Biblical, and Historical: A Thematic Dictionary. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.

Thoreau, Henry David (b. David Henry Thoreau)

(1817–62) writer, poet; born in Concord, Mass. After graduating from Harvard (1837), where he began his lifelong habit of keeping journals, he taught briefly in Concord but resigned to protest the disciplinary whipping of students. He helped in his father's pencil factory, and then, with his brother John Thoreau, opened a private school in Concord (1838), based on Transcendentalism, the literary/philosophical movement espoused by Ralph Waldo Emerson, Bronson Alcott, and Orestes Brownson. When John became fatally ill, the school was closed and Thoreau lived in Emerson's home as a sort of handyman while he maintained his practice of writing in his journal; he published a few pieces in the Dial, the Transcendentalist journal, wrote poetry, and lectured at the Concord Lyceum. In 1843–44 he went to Staten Island, N.Y., to tutor the children of Emerson's brother, William Emerson, and upon his return built a small structure on Emerson's land alongside Walden Pond. During his stay there—July 4, 1845–Sept, 6, 1847, although by no means every night—he was jailed one night for refusing to pay a poll tax meant to support America's war in Mexico; in 1849 he would publish an essay on this experience, "Resistance to Civil Government" (later known as "On the Duty of Civil Disobedience"), which in its call for passive resistance to unjust laws was to inspire Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. (Thomas Carlyle called it the one truly original American contribution to civilization.) During this time he completed the manuscript for A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1849), a ruminative account of a trip he had taken with his brother John in 1839. The journal he kept at Walden became the source of his most famous book, Walden, Or Life in the Woods (1854), in which he set forth his ideas on how an individual should best live to be attuned to his own nature as well as to nature itself. After leaving Walden, he lived with Emerson (1847–49) and then for the rest of his life in his family home; he occasionally worked at the pencil factory and did some surveying work while he made brief trips to such places as Cape Cod, Maine, and (in 1861) as far as Minnesota. By the 1850s he had become greatly concerned over slavery, and having met John Brown in 1857, he would write passionately in his defense. He lived out his final years knowing he had tuberculosis and spent much of his time preparing his journals and manuscripts for what indeed proved to be posthumous publication. Little known outside his circle in his day, it was not until later in the 20th century that he came to be regarded as one of America's major literary thinkers.
The Cambridge Dictionary of American Biography, by John S. Bowman. Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1995. Reproduced with permission.