Henry David Thoreau was born in Concord, Massachusetts, on July 12, 1817. He was introduced to the countryside at a young age, and this first contact with the natural world sparked a lifelong fascination. Although his family lived in relative poverty, subsisting on the income from their small pencil-making business, Thoreau was able to attend Harvard University, where he gained an early reputation as an individualist. After graduating in 1837, he assisted his father with the family business and worked for several years as a schoolteacher.
In 1841, Thoreau was invited to live in the home of his neighbor, Ralph Waldo Emerson. There, he began meeting with the group now known as the Transcendentalist Club, which included A. Bronson Alcott, Margaret Fuller, and George Ripley. Thoreau passed his time at the Emerson house writing essays and poems for the Transcendentalist journal The Dial and doing odd jobs, like gardening and mending fences. In 1845, he began building a small house on Emerson’s land on the shore of Walden Pond, where he spent more than two years “living deep and sucking out all the marrow of life.” His experiences there formed the basis for two books, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, and his masterpiece, Walden, which advocated a lifestyle of self-sufficiency and simplicity.
Although Thoreau thought of himself primarily as a poet during his early years, he was later discouraged in this pursuit and gradually came to feel that poetry was too confining. It is as a prose writer that Thoreau made his most meaningful contributions, both as a stylist and as a philosopher. A tireless champion of the human spirit against the materialism and conformity that he saw as dominant in American culture, Thoreau’s ideas about individual resistance, as set forth in his 1849 essay “Civil Disobedience,” have influenced, among others, Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.; and his mastery of prose style has been acknowledged by writers as disparate as Robert Louis Stevenson, Marcel Proust, Sinclair Lewis, and Henry Miller. Largely ignored in his own time, the self-styled “inspector of snowstorms and rainstorms” has emerged as one of America’s greatest literary figures.
Thoreau died of tuberculosis on May 6, 1862, in his native Concord.