Rhode Island Archival and Manuscript Collections Online

For Participating Institutions

Albert Edgar Lownes collection on Henry David Thoreau (Ms.80.1)

Brown University Library

Box A
Brown University
Providence, RI 02912
Telephone: Manuscripts: 401-863-3723; University Archives: 401-863-2148
Email: Manuscripts: hay@brown.edu; University Archives: archives@brown.edu

Biography of David Henry Thoreau (1817-1862)

Henry David Thoreau (christened as David Henry Thoreau), was born in 1817, the second of three children. His father, John Thoreau, was a shopkeeper of modest means in Concord, Massachusetts. John Thoreau ran a string of unsuccessful businesses before establishing a profitable pencil factory. His wife, Cynthia, supplemented the family income by keeping a boarding house.

As a child, Henry David Thoreau enjoyed the beauty of the woods in Concord and excelled at school. He was the only child in the family to receive a college education, entering Harvard College in 1833 and graduating near the top of his class in 1837. After college, he worked in the family pencil factory for a year, and then taught briefly in the public schools of Canton (Massachusetts) and at the Center School. However, he found himself disinclined to the common practice of applying corporal punishment as a means of discipline and, as a result, soon lost his position as a teacher. Unable to find another teaching job, Thoreau and his older brother John, who had helped put Henry through college on his teacher's pay, established a private school using the progressive educational methods advocated by Bronson Alcott. Henry also began writing essays and poetry, some of which were printed in The Dial, Ralph Waldo Emerson's Transcendentalist literary magazine.

The Thoreau brothers' school closed down in 1841, primarily because of John Thoreau's ill health. Later that year, Emerson invited Thoreau to live with his family as a handyman. Thoreau accepted, seeing the opportunity to both write and earn his keep. At Emerson's home he came into frequent contact with a number of Transcendental luminaries, including George Ripley and Margaret Fuller. He took up the study of Hindu scriptures, and contributed to The Dial, publishing additional poems and essays and occasionally helping to edit the magazine.

John Thoreau died in 1842. A grieving Henry moved to New York the following year, serving as tutor to William Emerson's sons, but returned to Concord in 1844. His move to the cabin on Walden Pond, part of Emerson's property, took place in 1845 and lasted for two years. While there, he wrote much of A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers and Walden. It was during this period that Thoreau was briefly jailed for refusing to pay the Massachusetts poll tax, which he argued was used for unjust purposes, such as enforcing the Fugitive Slave laws and prosecuting the war against Mexico.

Returning from Walden Pond, Thoreau earned his living as as Emerson's handyman and later as a surveyor. By the early 1850s, however, Thoreau had begun to fear that he had not fulfilled his literary calling. The publication of Walden in 1854 and its enthusiastic reception, particularly in Transcendentalist circles, restored his confidence. The moderate success of Walden also made it easier for Thoreau to publish essays in popular periodicals of general circulation. During the 1850s Thoreau also traveled and lectured widely on conservation of natural resources and the abolition of slavery.

Thoreau had developed tuberculosis in 1835 but managed it successfully for 20 years. However, when the disease flared up in 1860, his immune system proved too weak to combat it and he finally succumbed to the disease. He died at Concord on May 6, 1862.