Today in Literary History – July 12, 1817 – Henry David Thoreau is born

Henry David Thoreau was born in Concord, Massachusetts on July 12, 1817.

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His idiosyncratic book Walden; or, Life in the Woods, published in 1854, describes the two years, two months, and two days that Thoreau spent living in a one room cabin on the edge of the town of Concord, on the banks of Walden Pond.

Thoreau’s intention for this experiment was not to seek isolation or wilderness, but to pare his life down to the bare essentials and live life “deliberately,” by which he meant paying attention to his surroundings and being aware of the impact of his every action on the natural world.

In the famous opening passage Thoreau writes:

“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…I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life…”

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Much in Walden strikes me as slotting into a number of modern trends. Its minimalist lifestyle and the “small house” movement for sure, with Thoreau’s cry of “simplify, simplify!”

But also Thoreau’s ethical and ecological concerns to – as we would say today – reduce his footprint. Also we would now recognize his meditative care in being acutely aware of the world around him as he goes about his daily routine as “mindfulness.” Thoreau himself was, of course, greatly interested in Asian philosophy.

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Thoreau was born into a family which saw both relative poverty and relative prosperity. The family’s fortunes rose when Thoreau’s uncle discovered a graphite mine and the Thoreaus went into the pencil making business, which proved to be very successful.

Thoreau graduated from Harvard University. When he returned to Concord he became a schoolteacher, but resigned when he found out that he would have to administer corporal punishment.

Together with his brother, John, Thoreau founded a progressive school, the Concord Academy. John died suddenly from tetanus poisoning in 1842. He died in Thoreau’s arms and, grief stricken, Thoreau closed the school.

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Ralph Waldo Emerson

Thoreau met the poet Ralph Waldo Emerson (14 years older than him) in Concord and the two became very close. Emerson introduced Thoreau to his circle of friends and fellow devotees of the philosophy of Transendentalism.

It was on land owned by Emerson that Thoreau built his cabin, and Thoreau lived with the Emerson family off and on for the rest of his life.

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Thoreau and his family were active in the anti-slavery movement and their house was one of the stops on the “Underground Railroad.”

A recollection by a former Harvard classmate visiting the Thoreau home is worth quoting at length. The friend is startled to come across Thoreau and his sister  tending to a frightened runaway slave:

“I observed the tender and lowly devotion of Thoreau to the African. He now and then drew near to the trembling man, and with a cheerful voice bade him feel at home, and have no fear that any power should again wrong him. The whole day he mounted guard over the fugitive, for it was a slave-hunting time. But the guard had no weapon, and probably there was no such thing in the house. The next day the fugitive was got to Canada.”

Thoreau died of tuberculosis in 1862 at the age of 44.

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