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Henry David Thoreau

Henry David ThoreauAKA David Henry Thoreau

Born: 12-Jul-1817
Birthplace: Concord, MA
Died: 6-May-1862
Location of death: Concord, MA
Cause of death: Tuberculosis
Remains: Buried, Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, Concord, MA

Gender: Male
Race or Ethnicity: White
Sexual orientation: Matter of Dispute [1]
Occupation: Author

Nationality: United States
Executive summary: Walden

The American recluse, naturalist and writer Henry David Thoreau was born at Concord, Massachusetts, on the 12th of July 1817. To Thoreau this Concord country contained all of beauty and even grandeur that was necessary to the worshipper of nature: he once journeyed to Canada; he went west on one occasion; he sailed and explored a few rivers; for the rest, he haunted Concord and its neighborhood as faithfully as the stork does its ancestral nest. John Thoreau, his father, who married the daughter of a New England clergyman, was the son of a John Thoreau of the isle of Jersey, who, in Boston, married a Scottish lady of the name of Burns. This last-named John was the son of Philippe Thoreau and his wife Marie le Gallais, persons of pure French blood, settled at St. Helier, in Jersey. From his New England Puritan mother, from his Scottish grandmother, from his Jersey-American grandfather and from his remoter French ancestry Thoreau inherited distinctive traits: the Saxon element perhaps predominated, but the "hauntings of Celtism" were prevalent and potent. The stock of the Thoreaus was a robust one; and in Concord the family, though never wealthy nor officially influential, was ever held in peculiar respect. As a boy, Henry drove his mother's cow to the pastures, and thus early became enamoured of certain aspects of nature and of certain delights of solitude. At school and at Harvard University he in nowise distinguished himself, though he was an intelligently receptive student; he became, however, proficient enough in Greek, Latin, and the more general acquirements to enable him to act for a time as a master. But long before this he had become apprenticed to the learning of nature in preference to that of man: when only twelve years of age he had made collections for Agassiz, who had then just arrived in America, and already the meadows and the hedges and the stream-sides had become cabinets of rare knowledge to him. On the desertion of schoolmastering as a profession, Thoreau became a lecturer and author, though it was the labor of his hands which mainly supported him through many years of his life: professionally he was a surveyor. In the effort to reduce the practice of economy to a fine art he arrived at the conviction that the less labor a man did, over and above the positive demands of necessity, the better for him and for the community at large; he would have had the order of the week reversed -- six days of rest for one of labor. It was in 1845 he made the now famous experiment of Walden. Desirous of proving to himself and others that man could be as independent of this kind as the nest-building bird, Thoreau retired to a hut of his own construction on the pine-slope over against the shores of Walden Pond -- a hut which he built, furnished and kept in order entirely by the labor of his own hands. During the two years of his residence in Walden woods he lived by the exercise of a little surveying, a little job-work and the tillage of a few acres of ground which produced him his beans and potatoes. His absolute independence was as little gained as if he had camped out in Hyde Park; relatively he lived the life of a recluse. He read considerably, wrote abundantly, thought actively if not widely, and came to know beasts, birds and fishes with an intimacy more extraordinary than was the case with St. Francis of Assisi. Birds came at his call, and forgot their hereditary fear of man; beasts lipped and caressed him; the very fish in lake and stream would glide, unfearful, between his hands. This exquisite familiarity with bird and beast would make us love the memory of Thoreau if his egotism were triply as arrogant, if his often meaningless paradoxes were even more absurd, if his sympathies were even less humanitarian than we know them to have been. His Walden, the record of this fascinating two years' experience, must always remain a production of great interest and considerable psychological value. Some years before Thoreau took to Walden woods he made the chief friendship of his life, that with Ralph Waldo Emerson. He became one of the famous circle of the transcendentalists, always keenly preserving his own individuality amongst such more or less potent natures as Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Margaret Fuller. From Emerson he gained more than from any man, alive or dead; and, though the older philosopher both enjoyed and learned from the association with the younger, it cannot be said that the gain was equal. There was nothing electrical in Thoreau's intercourse with his fellow men; he gave off no spiritual sparks. He absorbed intensely, but when called upon to illuminate in turn was found wanting. It is with a sense of relief that we read of his having really been stirred into active enthusiasm anent the wrongs done the ill-fated John Brown. With children he was affectionate and gentle, with old people and strangers considerate. In a word, he loved his kind as animals, but did not seem to find them as interesting as those furred and feathered. In 1847 Thoreau left Walden Lake abruptly, and for a time occupied himself with lead-pencil making, the parental trade. He never married, thus further fulfilling his policy of what one of his essayist-biographers has termed "indulgence in fine renouncements." At the comparatively early age of 44 he died, on the 6th of May 1862. His grave is in the Sleepy Hollow cemetery at Concord, beside those of Hawthorne and Emerson.

Thoreaus fame will rest on Walden; or, Life in the Woods (Boston, 1854) and the Excursions (Boston, 1863), though he wrote nothing which is not deserving of notice. Up till his thirtieth year he dabbled in verse, but he had little ear for metrical music, and he lacked the spiritual impulsiveness of the true poet. His weakness as a philosopher is his tendency to base the laws of the universe on the experience-born, thought-produced convictions of one man -- himself. His weakness as a writer is the too frequent striving after antithesis and paradox. If he had had all his own originality without the itch of appearing original, he would have made his fascination irresistible. As it is, Thoreau holds a unique place. He was a naturalist, but absolutely devoid of the pedantry of science; a keen observer, but no retailer of disjointed facts. He thus holds sway over two domains: he had the adherence of the lovers of fact and of the children of fancy. He must always be read, whether lovingly or interestedly, for he has all the variable charm, the strange saturninity, the contradictions, austerities and delightful surprises, of Nature herself.

[1] Walter Harding, "Thoreau's Sexuality", Journal of Homosexuality, 21.3 (1991): 23-45. Based primarily on journal writings, Harding theorizes that Thoreau was primarily attracted to males, but likely celibate particularly towards the end of his life. See also passages from Thoreau's writing, e.g., Friendship, regarding love among men: "Two sturdy oaks I mean, which side by side / Withstand the winter's storm... Admiring you shall find / Their roots are intertwined / Inseparably." It should be noted that in 1840 Thoreau by letter proposed marriage to a family friend, Ellen Sewall, months after Thoreau's brother John had proposed to her as well. Both brothers were rejected. It is likely that Thoreau died a virgin. In 1857 he scribed in his journal, "All nature is my bride."

Father: John Thoreau
Brother: (d. 1842)

    University: Harvard University (1837)

    Boston Saturday Club
    Civil Disobedience refusal to pay poll tax
    French Ancestry Paternal
    Huguenot Ancestry
    Scottish Ancestry Paternal
    Risk Factors: Vegetarian, Nudism

Is the subject of books:
Thoreau: The Poet Naturalist, 1873, BY: W. E. Channing
Henry David Thoreau, 1882, BY: F. B. Sanborn
Life of Henry David Thoreau, 1890, BY: H. S. Salt
Bibliography of H. D. Thoreau, 1908, BY: F. H. Allen

Author of books:
Civil Disobedience (1849, essay)
Walden; or, Life in the Woods (1854, nonfiction)
Excursions (1863, nonfiction)
The Maine Woods (1863, nonfiction)
A Yankee in Canada (1866, nonfiction)

Appears on postage stamps:
USA, Scott #1327, details: Designed by Leonard Baskin

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