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Life Sketch of Henry David Thoreau

Writing life sketches of poets, philosophers, politicians, and saints offers space for learning and honing critical thinking skills.

More Philosopher Than Poet

Henry David Thoreau's self-effacing claim that he was "sometimes a Poetaster" likely reveals something about the poet's reputation: he was a philosopher, not poet. He also wrote fewer poems than philosophical essays.

The "sometimes a Poetaster" no doubt looked upon poetry writing in the original definition of the term, which is "maker." Thoreau, in a questionnaire from the secretary of his Harvard graduating class, wrote about himself:

I am a Schoolmaster—a Private Tutor, a Surveyor—a Gardener, a Farmer—a Painter, I mean a House Painter, a Carpenter, a Mason, a Day-Laborer, a Pencil-Maker, a Glass-paper Maker, a Writer, and sometimes a Poetaster.

Clearly, the "poetaster" had no qualms about stating exactly what he did with his time. Perhaps he thought of himself as a Renaissance man or perhaps just a jack-of-all-trades-and-a-master-of-none. Whatever his self-evaluation, he did remain intense in his beliefs, especially his political beliefs.

David Henry Thoreau was born on July 12, 1817, in Concord, Massachusetts, where he came to enjoy nature as a child. After the death of his uncle David for whom he was named, Thoreau reversed his first and middle names from "David Henry" to "Henry David."

Despite his family’s poverty, Thoreau was still able to afford admission to and graduation from Harvard University. After graduating in 1837, Thoreau worked in the family business, which was pencil-making. Also despite performing such mundane though useful work, Henry David remained an individual to a radical degree.

Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Influence

Henry David Thoreau resided at the home of Ralph Waldo Emerson for a time. Under the influence of the great transcendentalist philosopher/poet Emerson, Henry David began writing philosophical essays and poems with a transcendentalist flavor. His poems and essays were printed in Emerson's journal titled The Dial.

Thoreau also attended meetings with a literary group that included, in addition to Emerson, George Ripley, A. Bronson Alcott, and Margaret Fuller. This group of literati later became the designated original members of the Transcendentalist Movement in American literature.

Replica of Thoreau's Cabin

Replica of Thoreau's Cabin

Thoreau Builds His Cabin in the Woods

It was on a parcel of Ralph Waldo Emerson's land that Thoreau built his famous cabin in 1845, at Walden Pond. Because Thoreau had gained much experience in carpentry, building his very simple, one-room cabin was no daunting task for the philosopher.

After acquiring the plot of land on which to build, he had to gather the materials needed for his cabin. Keeping life as inexpensive and uncomplicated as possible, he determined to buy very little. Thus, he accumulated many used materials; for example, he purchased a tiny shanty that had been the home to the family of a railroad worker. He took the shanty apart and used the wooden planks to construct the walls of his own building. Additional wood that he needed, he acquired by cutting down pines, using an axe that he borrowed. Roof shingles, bricks for the chimney, and windows all came from second hand sources for which he paid very little.

In his most famous publication, Walden, Thoreau lists all of the materials used for the cabin along with the price of each item. He claims he is offering this list, "because very few are able to tell exactly what their houses cost, and fewer still, if any, the separate cost of the various materials which compose them":

Boards............. $ 8.03½, mostly shanty boards.
Refuse shingles for roof sides,.. 4.00
Two second-hand windows with glass,.......2.43
One thousand old brick,..... 4.00
Two casks of lime,........... 2.40 That was high.
Hair,................... 0.31 More than I needed.
Mantle-tree iron,.......... 0.15
Nails,........................... 3.90
Hinges and screws,............... 0.14
Latch,........................... 0.10
Chalk,........................... 0.01
Transportation,..1.40 I carried a good part on my back

In all,..................... $28.12½

After his list, he adds, "These are all the material excepting the timber, stones and sand, which I claimed by squatter's right." No doubt the low expense over-head pleased him very much. And today, a site called Walden Labs: Solutions for Self-Reliance will help one build such a cabin for "under $1,000":

Read More From Owlcation

Thoreau built his cabin from recycled and hand cut materials for $28.12 in 1845. Adjusted for inflation that’s equivalent to $878.75 in 2014. Here’s how you can build your own 10×16 Thoreau cabin replica for off-grid use, for under $1,000.

Thoreau spent only two year in the Walden Pond cabin that he built. His living there was an experiment. He had wanted to try to live simply and self-sufficiently. He wanted to "live deliberately" so he could engage in "sucking the marrow out of life." Thus, after only two years, he felt his experiment was a success. After all, it was there in that cabin that he wrote his most important works, Walden or Life in the Woods and A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers.

A Night in Jail

Thoreau sounds like a 1960s radical in his civil disobedience. He railed against the institution of slavery and the war with Mexico. In July 1846, he refused to pay his poll tax, an act which placed him behind bars. But the budding rebel then expressed great outrage when he was released from jail the very next day and found out that someone had paid that tax for him. The good samaritan was either Thoreau's aunt or it also might have been Emerson.

Out of his brush with the law, Henry David penned his famous radical treatise, "On the Duty of Civil Disobedience." Both the Mahatma Gandhi and the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., have claimed influence from this Thoreauvian tract.

Thoreau and Poetry

While Thoreau and poetry, qua poetry, have never been a tight fit, the man's life and philosophical stances are the stuff and basic foundation of true poetry. The literary life chosen by Henry David is unique and has proven influential.

Children's book illustrator, D. B. Johnson, was inspired by Thoreau to compose his book, Henry Builds a Cabin. The book demonstrates for children a new manner of thinking about a home, as well as an innovative way to think originally and creatively.

Thoreau's poem titled "Conscience" features the line, "I love a life whose plot is simple." The great philosopher's philosophy of life exemplified simplicity as the Transcendentalist essayist disdained ways that were complex and materialistic. He lived by his command to simplify life that he expounded in Walden:

Our life is frittered away by detail. Simplify, simplify, simplify! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumb-nail.

Henry David Thoreau died of tuberculosis, a disease that he had suffered for most of his life on May 6, 1862, in Concord, Massachusetts, where he was born. Never having traveled outside his native New England, in Walden, Thoreau quipped: "I have traveled a good deal in Concord."


This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 Linda Sue Grimes


Linda Sue Grimes (author) from U.S.A. on March 30, 2021:

Thank you, Audrey! Thoreau is an interesting fellow. Somehow even after professing a certain level of humility, he ultimately seems quite a man of vanity. Likely his pride got the better of him at times. But still he offered a useful model for folks like Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr, and even Mahatma Gandhi admired his philosophy.

Audrey Hunt from Pahrump NV on March 30, 2021:

I enjoyed this look into the life of Thoreau. He is one of my favorite philosophers. The stories you've shared are interesting. I can't imagine a genius of this magnitude spending time in jail. Thanks.

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