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Biography

1817-1862

A Brief Biography

If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.

Henry David Thoreau Thoreau always marched to the sound of a different drummer. In school, he was so serious his friends called him “Judge.” Later, at Harvard, he amassed 5,000 pages of notes and soon, at age 20, started keep the diary that eventually comprised 30 volumes.

His performance at his first job after college was in keeping with his individualistic streak. He was hired as a teacher by the Center School at his home town of Concord. After two weeks, he resigned over his determination not to whip his students into greater academic zeal.

In 1842, his brother John died of lockjaw. Three years later, Henry decided to write a book commemorating a canoe trip he had taken with John in 1839. Seeking a quiet place to write, he followed a friend’s suggestion and built a small cabin on the north shore of Walden Pond on a piece of land owned by his friend and mentor, Ralph Waldo Emerson. He started work on his cabin in March of 1845. On the 4th of July, he moved in. Thus began one of the great and lasting experiments in life and thought of the whole of human experience.

“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.”

Thoreau wrote his memorial to his brother, A Week on the Concord and Merrimac Rivers, and otherwise filled his time by working in his garden, talking with visitors, reading, and writing in his diary. But most of all, he walked and thought, and it’s difficult to tell now which was the more important activity. It seems that, in his two years living in his little cabin in the woods he brought himself to a state of conscious living, where thought and action were harmoniously combined.

While living at Walden, he found time to spend a night in jail for his refusal to pay his poll tax in protest over the U.S. invasion of Mexico. He said, “It costs me less in every sense to incur the penalty of disobedience to the State than it would to obey.” He also campainged actively against slavery. In this he was following his mother’s lead — she had been an early anti-slavery campaigner.

In the summer of 1846, during his time at Walden, he also made the first of his three trips to Maine. In his later essays, collected under the title The Maine Woods, Thoreau showed an intimacy with nature that prompted Edward Abbey to say that he had “outgrown” his Emersonian transcendentalist background. His incessant immersion in nature combined with incessant thought, deliberate living, had brought him to march to a different drummer than his neighbors. His drummer was Nature.

“The poet’s, commonly, is not the logger’s path, but a woodman’s … there are spirits … to whom no simplicity is barren. There are not only stately pines, but fragile flowers, like the orchises, commonly described as too delicate for cultivation, which derive their nutriment from the crudest mass of peat. These remind us, that, not only for strength, but for beauty, the poet must, from time to time, travel the logger’s path and the Indian trail, to drink at some new and more bracing fountain of the Muses, far in the recesses of the wilderness.”
The Maine Woods


He left Walden in 1847. His later life seems in some ways an anticlimax. He wrote and lectured. He traveled twice more to Maine and once, in the waning months of his life, to Minnesota. He died in 1862.

Two years earlier, Hawthorne had described him as “a singular character — a young man with much of wild original nature still remaining in him; and so far as he is sophisticated, it is in a way and method of his own.” It was a way and method of marching to his own drummer, his own sensitivity, developed through thought, walking, and deliberate living.