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Henry David Thoreau

Henry David Thoreau

 

American essayist, poet, and practical philosopher, Henry David Thoreau was a New England Transcendentalist and author of the book Walden. He is one of America's most famous writers, and is remembered for his philosophical and naturalist writings.

Thoreau was born in 1817, in Massachusetts. He began writing nature poetry in the 1840s, with poet Ralph Waldo Emerson as a mentor and friend. In 1845 he began his famous two-year stay on Walden Pond, which he wrote about in his master work, Walden. He also became known for his beliefs in Transcendentalism and civil disobedience, and was a dedicated abolitionist. Thoreau went to Harvard College, where he studied Greek and Latin as well as German. He graduated from college in 1837 and set up a school with his brother John in 1838. The venture collapsed a few years later after John became ill. Thoreau then went to work for his father for a time.

Through his friend, Ralph Waldo Emerson, he became exposed to Transcendentalism, a school of thought that emphasized the importance of empirical thinking and of spiritual matters over the physical world. It encouraged scientific inquiry and observation. Thoreau came to know many of the movement's leading figures, including Bronson Alcott and Margaret Fuller. Emerson acted as a mentor to Thoreau and supported him in many ways, promoting his literary efforts, which were published in The Dial, a Transcendentalist magazine. In 1845, Thoreau built a small home for himself on Walden Pond, on property owned by Emerson. He spent more than two years there, living a simple life in which he sought to work as little as possible. His schedule gave him plenty of time to devote to his philosophical and literary interests. Thoreau worked on A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1849). The book drew from a boating trip he took with his brother John in 1839. Thoreau eventually started writing about his Walden Pond experiment as well. Many were curious about his revolutionary lifestyle, and this interest provided the creative spark for a collection of essays. Published in 1854, Walden; or, Life in the Woods espoused living a life close to nature. The book was a modest success, but it wasn't until much later that it reached a larger audience. Over the years, Walden has inspired and informed the work of naturalists, environmentalists and writers.

In 1849, he published "Civil Disobedience", an essay which has inspired many leaders of protest movements around the world. This non-violent approach to political and social resistance has influenced American civil rights movement activist Martin Luther King Jr. and Mohandas Gandhi, who helped India win independence from Great Britain, among many others.

In his later years, Thoreau battled an illness that had plagued him for decades. He had tuberculosis, which he had contracted decades earlier. He finally succumbed to the disease on May 6, 1862. Thoreau was heralded as "an original thinker" and "a man of simple tastes, hardy habits, and of preternatural powers of observation" in some of his obituaries.

 

I have no doubt that it is a part of the destiny of the human race, in its gradual improvement, to leave off eating animals, as surely as the savage tribes have left off eating each other when they came in contact with the more civilised.
Henry David Thoreau