Writer, philosopher, and naturalist Henry David Thoreau was born on July 12, 1817, in Concord, Massachusetts. Associated with the Concord-based literary movement called New England Transcendentalism, he embraced the Transcendentalist belief in the universality of creation and the primacy of personal insight and experience. Thoreau’s advocacy of simple, principled living remains compelling, while his writings on the relationship between people and the environment helped define literature about nature.
After graduating from Harvard in 1837, Thoreau held a series of odd jobs. Encouraged by Concord neighbor and friend Ralph Waldo Emerson, he started publishing essays, poems, and reviews in the transcendentalist magazine The Dial.
From 1845 to 1847, Thoreau lived in a cabin on the edge of Walden Pond, a small glacial lake near Concord. Guided by the maxim “Simplify, simplify,” he strictly limited his expenditures, his possessions, and his contact with others. His goal: “To live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach.”
His iconic book Walden; or, Life in the Woods External chronicles his experiment in self-sufficiency. In a series of loosely-connected essays, Thoreau explores American individualism, while offering a cutting critique of society’s increasingly materialistic value system.
During his time at Walden, Thoreau spent a night in jail for refusing to pay his poll tax. He withheld the tax to protest the existence of slavery and what he saw as an imperialistic war with Mexico. Released after a relative paid the tax, he wrote “Civil Disobedience External” (originally published as “Resistance to Civil Government”) to explain why private conscience can constitute a higher law than civil authority. “Under a government which imprisons any unjustly,” he argued, “the true place for a just man is also a prison.” Thoreau continued to be a vocal and active opponent of slavery. In addition to aiding runaway slaves, in 1859 he staunchly and publicly defended abolitionist John Brown.
“If a man does not keep pace with his companions,” Thoreau reminds us, “perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.” Considered something of a failure by his neighbors in Concord, Thoreau died at home on May 6, 1862. Still, his place in American literature is secure as many continue to find inspiration in his work and his example.
You can download his work for free at Project Gutenberg.