The New International Encyclopædia/Thoreau, Henry David

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The New International Encyclopædia
Thoreau, Henry David
Edition of 1905. See also Henry David Thoreau on Wikipedia, and the disclaimer.

THOREAU, thō'rṓ or thṓ-rō', Henry David (1817-62). An American naturalist and author. He was of French and Scotch extraction and was born at Concord, Mass., where his father was a manufacturer of lead pencils. At this trade the younger Thoreau worked at intervals. He graduated from Harvard College in 1837, and was for five or six years engaged in school teaching and tutoring in Concord and in Staten Island, N. Y. Preferring, however, to live a life of contemplation, he soon abandoned teaching and proceeded, during the rest of his days, to demonstrate how simply and agreeably a man might live. He was for a time an inmate of Emerson's house, but his most characteristic act was his residence, from July, 1845, to September, 1847, in a hut on the shores of Walden Pond, a beautiful body of water on the outskirts of Concord. Here he lived, doing what little work was necessary to supply the necessaries of life, and devoting the major part of his time to the study of nature and to the society of friends. On leaving Walden Pond, he again became an inmate of Emerson's house, 1847-48, and passed the remainder of his life, after 1849, with his parents and sister at Concord. During the entire period at Walden Pond and elsewhere in Concord, he supported himself by odd jobs of gardening, land surveying, carpentering, etc., but without more exertion than he needed to keep himself in food and clothing. His large amount of leisure time he devoted to the study of nature, to the reading of Greek, Latin, French, and English classical literature, to excursions, to pondering metaphysical problems, and to friendly chat with his neighbors, by whom he was beloved.

From 1837 till his death he kept a journal, and this furnished the source and basis of his writings, and gave them uniformity of character. Of the ten volumes which comprise his works in the standard Riverside edition (11 vols, with the Familiar Letters of Thoreau edited by F. B. Sanborn), but two appeared in his lifetime. The first of these, A Week on the Concord and Merrimac Rivers (1849), is the narrative of a boating trip taken in August, 1839; it is full of admirable description and minute observation of nature, not unmingled with divagations into transcendental philosophy. The second book records the experiences, physical and moral, of the two years' residence at Walden Pond: Walden, or, Life in the Woods (1854), perhaps his most popular volume, and now recognized as one of the most original and sincere productions in American letters and as one of the most genuine of woodland books. It gives a plain unaffected statement of the reasons for the author's life as a hermit, and an admirably specific account of the main details of that life. The other volumes, not much different in quality, were posthumously edited from his journal, and are, chiefly: Excursions (1863); The Maine Woods (1864); Cape Cod (1865); Early Spring in Massachusetts (1881); Summer (1884); Winter (1888); and Autumn (1892). Their publication indicated an increasing interest in Thoreau and a sense of the permanent value of his work — that of a sincere thinker and an observer of nature. The literary quality of the writing was high; he had a marked gift for style, and wrote with great care and unfailing freshness. His best essays, to be found in the volumes entitled Miscellanies and Excursions, are perhaps not excelled in American literature, whether for substance or for style, and it may be doubted whether the work of any of his contemporaries is wearing so well. His poems are interesting, but occupy a minor place in his writings, which are being increased by such publications as the Essay on Service (1902). There is a Life by F. B. Sanborn in the “American Men of Letters Series” (1882), and an admirable sketch by Emerson in Biographical Sketches. Channing's suggestive Thoreau, the Poet-Naturalist (1873-1902), biographies by A. H. Japp (1877) and H. S. Salt (1896), and essays by Lowell and Stevenson should also be mentioned; considerable space is given to Thoreau in the histories of American literature, and the list of books specially devoted to him is growing steadily.