Author Spotlight: Henry David Thoreau

By Audrey W. | Arcadia Staff
During his life, Henry David Thoreau would join fellow writers, essayists, and philosophers in discussing and seeking solutions for the challenges of their time. Despite never quite making it off the ground in his writing career while he was alive, Thoreau’s works are still widely read and studied today. This is a look into the moments and people that shaped the writer’s life and lent to the legacy he left behind. 

Transformative Ideas Are Born

Thoreau spent nearly his entire life in Concord, Massachusetts. He began schooling at a public school in Concord before transferring to the private Concord Academy, where his performance was outstanding. He went on to attend Harvard in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he again finished at the top of his class, despite dropping out for several months due to health and financial reasons. By the time he graduated from Harvard, the country had fallen into an economic recession. Jobs were scarce, and those who did have work were hardly making enough to live.
 
At the time, Harvard graduates were to choose between one of four professions: law, medicine, the ministry, and teaching. With his two older siblings already teachers, Thoreau decided to take this route. However, after only two weeks at the Concord public school, Thoreau resigned due to disagreeing with the superintendent on how to discipline students. With no other options for income, Thoreau went to work at his father’s pencil factory. 
 
Not long after, Thoreau was offered a job as a live-in handyman for famed writer and personal friend Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emerson had served as a kind of mentor to the young writer since his graduation from Harvard. It was with Emerson that Thoreau was exposed to ideas of American Romanticism and Transcendentalism. This was the belief that to live a successful life, one must live beyond material possessions, and focus on the spiritual. Thoreau would end up channeling these ideas through his work and life with more dedication that Emerson ever did. 

Growing Into an Ambitious Writer

While living with Emerson, Thoreau developed upon a long-seeded passion for writing. Emerson helped him refine his skills in the craft, and get some poems and essays published in Transcendentalist journal The Dial. In 1845, Emerson offered for Thoreau to live on a piece of land he owned alongside Walden Pond. Thoreau’s aim was to write his first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, to pay homage to his brother and experiment with the possibility of working one day a week while devoting the other six to Transcendentalism. At the same time, the budding writer was taking notes during his walks in nature along the pond. These notes would later evolve into Walden

Henry David Thoreau.
In all, Thoreau spent two years at Walden Pond. During those years, he published both A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers and Walden. However, the former performed poorly which resulted in Thoreau holding back on the initial publication of Walden to fix potential errors. It received little publicity, but it was enough to gain Thoreau some public attention. 

Returning Home in His Later Years

Thoreau returned home after his time with Emerson, moved into a spare room of his parent’s home, and went back to work at his father’s pencil company. He lectured occasionally, and published essays and poems in local journals. He regularly wrote on abolitionism, and was for a time a conductor for the Underground Railroad. Toward the end of his life, Thoreau made frequent trips to Cape Cod and the woods of Maine, and wrote about his travels and observations. These writings were published after his death. 
 
In May 1862, Thoreau died of tuberculosis. He had been living with the disease since his time at Harvard. At the time of his death, Thoreau was in the midst of several projects, including a comprehensive guide to the natural world surrounding Concord, volumes of daily journals, and notes on Native Americans.
 
Thoreau spent much of his life struggling between an average working life and the ideas he experimented with in Transcendentalism. He wrote on controversial topics of the time, posing ideas of living that did not wholly align with American ideals. Through his friendship with Emerson, Thoreau grew into one of today’s leading writers of Transcendentalism, whose work is still read and admired today. 
 
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