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Henry David Thoreau

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He spent his life in voluntary poverty, enthralled by the study

of nature. Two years, in the prime of his life, were spent living in a

shack in the woods near a pond. Who would choose a life like this?

Henry David Thoreau did, and he enjoyed it. Who was Henry David Thoreau,

what did he do, and what did others think of his work?

Henry David Thoreau was born in Concord, Massachusetts on July

12, 1817 ("Thoreau" 96), on his grandmother's farm. Thoreau, who was of

French-Huguenot and Scottish-Quaker ancestry, was baptized as David Henry

Thoreau, but at the age of twenty he legally changed his name to Henry

David. Thoreau was raised with his older sister Helen, older brother

John, and younger sister Sophia (Derleth 1) in genteel poverty (The 1995

Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia 1). It quickly became evident that

Thoreau was interested in literature and writing. At a young age he began

to show interest writing, and he wrote his first essay, "The Seasons," at

the tender age of ten, while attending Concord Academy (Derleth 4).

In 1833, at the age of sixteen, Henry David was accepted to

Harvard University, but his parents could not afford the cost of tuition

so his sister, Helen, who had begun to teach, and his aunts offered to

help. With the assistance of his family and the beneficiary funds of

Harvard he went to Cambridge in August 1833 and entered Harvard on

September first. "He [Thoreau] stood close to the top of his class, but

he went his own way too much to reach the top" (5).

In December 1835, Thoreau decided to leave Harvard and attempt to

earn a living by teaching, but that only lasted about a month and a half

(8). He returned to college in the fall of 1836 and graduated on August

16, 1837 (12). Thoreau's years at Harvard University gave him one great

gift, an introduction to the world of books.

Upon his return from college, Thoreau's family found him to be

less likely to accept opinions as facts, more argumentative, and

inordinately prone to shock people with his own independent and

unconventional opinions. During this time he discovered his secret

desire to be a poet (Derleth 14), but most of all he wanted to live with

freedom to think and act as he wished.

Immediately after graduation from Harvard, Henry David applied

for a teaching position at the public school in Concord and was

accepted. However, he refused to flog children as punishment. He opted

instead to deliver moral lectures. This was looked down upon by the

community, and a committee was asked to review the situation. They

decided that the lectures were not ample punishment, so they ordered

Thoreau to flog recalcitrant students. With utter contempt he lined up

six children after school that day, flogged them, and handed in his

resignation, because he felt that physical punishment should have no part

in education (Derleth 15).

In 1837 Henry David began to write his Journal (16). It started

out as a literary notebook, but later developed into a work of art. In

it Thoreau record his thoughts and discoveries about nature (The 1995

Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia 1).

Later that same year, his sister, Helen, introduced him to Lucy

Jackson Brown, who just happened to be Ralph Waldo Emerson's

sister-in-law. She read his Journal, and seeing many of the same

thoughts as Emerson himself had expressed, she told Emerson of Thoreau.

Emerson asked that Thoreau be brought to his home for a meeting, and they

quickly became friends (Derleth 18). On April 11, 1838, not long after

their first meeting Thoreau, with Emerson's help, delivered his first

lecture, "Society" (21).

Ralph Waldo Emerson was probably the single most portentous

person in Henry David Thoreau's life. From 1841 to 1843 and again

between 1847 and 1848 Thoreau lived as a member of Emerson's household,

and during this time he came to know Bronson Alcott, Margaret Fuller, and

many other members of the "Transcendental Club" ("Thoreau" 696).

On August 31, 1839 Henry David and his elder brother, John, left

Concord on a boat trip down the Concord River, onto the Middlesex Canal,

into the Merrimack River and into the state of

New Hampshire. Out of this trip came Thoreau's first book, A Week on the

Concord and Merrimack Rivers (25).

Early in 1841, John Thoreau, Henry's beloved older brother,




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