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.
Born in Concord, Mass. on July 12, 1817, Henry David Thoreau was the son of a pencil-maker. Thoreau attended Harvard and later was befriended by Ralph Waldo Emerson, who eventually gave him a job as a gardener and tutor, while encouraging Thoreau’s writing.
Then, in July 1845, he moved to the cabin at Walden Pond, where he lived for the next two years, two months and two days. The Walden site of Thoreau’s cabin.
Compressing those two years into a single year, he wrote Walden, his now-revered account.
It is not an “easy” book. It is not a simplistic “back to Nature” book. Even though Thoreau’s work has often been reduced to bumper sticker aphorisms –“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.”–the book is far more complex. Part memoir, part practical guide, it is really more about a sense of self-discovery –a spiritual search. Writing in a time of growing industrialism and mechanism, he did urge, “Simplify, simplify.”
In an Introduction to a 2004 edition of Walden, the late novelist John Updike wrote:
A century and a half after its publication, Walden has become such a totem of the back-to-nature, preservationist, anti-business, civil-disobedience mindset, and Thoreau so vivid a protester, so perfect a crank and hermit saint, that the book risks being as revered and unread as the Bible. Of the American classics densely arisen in the middle of the 19th century – Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter (1850), Melville’s Moby-Dick (1851), Whitman’s Leaves of Grass (1855), to which we might add Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1854) as a nation-stirring bestseller and Emerson’s essays as an indispensable preparation of the ground – Walden has contributed most to America’s present sense of itself.
Thoreau eventually published several books and essays, including his classic “Civil Disobedience” in opposition to the war against Mexico.
From “Civil Disobedience” by Henry David Thoreau (1849):
Unjust laws exist: shall we be content to obey them, or shall we endeavor to amend them, and obey them until we have succeeded, or shall we transgress them at once? Men generally under such a government as this, think that they ought to wait until they have persuaded the majority to alter them. They think that, if they should resist, the remedy would be worse than the evil. But it is the fault of the government itself that the remedy is worse than the evil. It makes it worse. Why is it not more apt to anticipate and provide for reform? Why does it not cherish its wise minority?Why does it cry and resist before it is hurt? . . . Why does it always crucify Christ, and excommunicate Copernicus and Luther, and pronounce Washington and Franklin rebels?
An ardent abolitionist, Thoreau gave a speech, “A Plea for Captain Brown” (later published as an essay), in honor of John Brown, whose 1859 raid on a federal arsenal was intended to provoke a massive slave insurrection and deepened the nation’s divisions. Thoreau was uncompromising in his defense of Brown, despite his own image as the spokesman for nonviolent civil disobedience.
He contracted tuberculosis and suffered from it sporadically. Thoreau died in May 1862 at age 44.
An excellent collection of resources on Walden, Thoreau and his other writings can be found at the Thoreau Society website.
Thoreau and his era of the mid-19th century leading up to the Civil War are discussed in Don’t Know Much About History: Anniversary Edition.