Henry David Thoreau

by Jack Lewis
[EPA Journal - September/October 1991]

He was condemned by many as a misanthrope, a misfit, a hermit. Certainly Thoreau did not suffer fools gladly, but he did have a heart. The two great loves of his life were his brother John and the wonders of nature. John died tragically of lockjaw in January 1842, and Thoreau was never quite the same again. It was then that he turned to the contemplative life, which he associated with a state of oneness with nature. Some thought he carried this passion too far: For instance, it is reported that Henry was inordinately fond of wading naked through the streams of Concord.

To many of his neighbors in Concord, Thoreau was known not as the Sage of Walden but as "the fool who burned the woods down." In 1844, while cooking fish at a spot on the perimeter of Concord woods, Henry accidentally sparked a major forest fire that for decades blighted one of the most beautiful places in America.

Thoreau's world-famous essay, Civil Disobedience, grew out of a night in July 1846 when he was detained in Concord jail for nonpayment of the poll tax. Henry had refused to pay the tax because of its association with the institution of slavery. His maiden Aunt Maria, without asking Thoreau, paid his tax and secured his release. Henry, wanting to continue his protest, was furious. Ralph Waldo Emerson is reputed to have visited Thoreau in his jail cell. "Why are you here?" Emerson asked. "Why are you not here?" Thoreau replied.

When asked by the alumni association of Harvard, his alma mater, to name his occupation, Thoreau termed himself a schoolmaster, surveyor, gardener, farmer, house painter, carpenter, mason, day-laborer, pencil-maker, and - last of all - "a Writer, and sometimes a Poetaster."

Even after a century and a half, Thoreau speaks best for himself:

From Walden

"I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived ... I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it too its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world...

"Near the end of March, 1845, I borrowed an axe and went down to the woods by Walden Pond, nearest to where I intended to build my house, and began to cut down some tall, arrowy white pines, still in their youth, for timber. It is difficult to begin without borrowing, but perhaps it is the most generous course thus to permit your fellow-men to have an interest in your enterprise. The owner of the axe, as he released his hold on it, said that it was the apple of his eye; but I returned it sharper than I received it ...

"The scenery of Walden is on a humble scale, and, though very beautiful, does not approach to grandeur, nor can it very much concern one who has not long frequented it or lived by its shore; yet this pond is so remarkable for its depth and purity as to merit a particular description. It is a clear and deep green well, half a mile long and a mile and three quarters in circumference, and contains about sixty-one and a half acres; a perennial spring in the midst of pine and oak woods, without any visible inlet of outlet except by the clouds or evaporation...

"The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation...

"It is an interesting question how far men would retain their relative rank if they were divested of their clothes..."


1817 Born in Concord, Massachusetts, July 12.
1827 Earliest known essay, The Seasons, is published.
1837 Graduates from Harvard College.
1845 In March, begins building his Walden cabin, located on land owned by Emerson. Moves in on Independence Day. Total cost of the cabin: 28 dollars, 12 1/2 cents.
1846 Arrested and thrown in jail overnight for nonpayment of taxes.
1847 Leaves Walden Pond in September, having finished the major part of Walden.
1849 Published A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. Only 218 copies are sold in four years.
1854 Publishes a much revised version of Walden in August. It takes five years to sell off the first editions of 2,000 copies. (In all editions and all languages, Walden has since sold millions of copies.)
1860 Contracts tuberculosis after catching a severe cold while surveying tree stumps.
1862 Dies in Concord on May 6, at the age of 44.