Henry David Thoreau

July 12 is the birthday of the man who said, “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.” That’s Henry David Thoreau, born David Henry Thoreau in Concord, Massachusetts (1817). In 1854, he published Walden, or Life in the Woods, which has become a beloved classic.

He grew up exploring the woods and fields of Massachusetts, encouraged by his mother to learn as much as he could from nature. He went to Harvard, but he didn’t like it very much – he refused a diploma since it cost five dollars. He worked for a while in his father’s pencil factory, and as a public school teacher, and he became close friends with Ralph Waldo Emerson. In 1841, the Emersons invited Thoreau to live with them and work as a handyman and gardener, and he helped take care of their children, taking them on nature walks and telling them stories. Thoreau stayed with the Emersons for two years, and during that time he worked on his writing, and through Emerson, became friends with many of the Transcendentalists. In 1842, Nathaniel Hawthorne and his wife rented some property from Emerson and moved to the area. When he first met Thoreau in 1842, Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote in his journal: “Mr. Thoreau dined with us yesterday. He is a singular character – a young man with much of wild original nature still remaining in him; and so far as he is sophisticated, it is in a way and method of his own. He is as ugly as sin, long-nosed, queer-mouthed, and with uncouth and rustic, though courteous manners, corresponding very well with such an exterior.” The two became good friends, and Thoreau planted a garden for the Hawthornes and did maintenance work for Ellery Channing and his wife.

In 1844, Emerson bought land on the shore of Walden Pond,  a pristine, 61-acre pond, surrounded by woods.  Emerson agreed to let his friend build a cabin there. People assume that Thoreau went out into the wilderness to write his famous treatise on nature, but in fact, he was living less than two miles from the village of Concord. He had regular dinners with friends, continued to do odd jobs for the Emersons, and had frequent visitors. The book he was so committed to writing at Walden Pond was called A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, about a trip he had taken with his brother. He published it himself, but it sold fewer than 300 copies.

During the two years he was at Walden Pond, Thoreau kept a journal, which he published as Walden, or Life in the Woods, (1854). It has become a beloved classic and Thoreau became one of the first nature / wilderness appreciation authors. John Muir and Gene Stratton Porter carried on this tradition.

The Thoreau Society was founded in 1941, making it the oldest society devoted to an American author. It’s also the largest. Every July, there is a four-day gathering at Walden Pond to celebrate Thoreau’s birthday.

In the conclusion to Walden, Thoreau wrote, “I learned this, at least, by my experiment; that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.”


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