The photo image of Thoreau shown above was taken at the Maxham studio in Worcester, MA in 1856. It is not a photo in the public domain and appears on this website by permission of The Thoreau Institute at Walden Woods, Concord, MA. It should not be copied or reproduced without consent.
This man in his life was not so well adept, that is if we judge him in the common way that humans are often judged, by their physical appearance or their material accomplishments, but what of their moral accomplishments? What of the factor of honor and integrity in their lives? What of the deepest and most important tie that binds us to our source and to each other? What of spirit? In this regard, we cannot overestimate Thoreau's value because of the strength and power of his words, because the truest of all truths will be found in the words of Thoreau.
For those who have never read Thoreau's work and who consider it best left in the hands of the academics, I encourage you to read him for when you do you will find that the heart of his message is a simple one. Do with less, want for less, because when you are in touch with your truest self you will see that you have all that you need and that all that you are is permanent and everlasting. The spirit in you does not wear down the way the body wears down. It does not lose color or diminish in strength. It stays strong and steady and when the body reaches its end the spirit casts itself back into the light from whence it came where it is renewed and reinvigorated and sets out to create again.
Henry David Thoreau attended Harvard College in Cambridge from 1833-1837. While there he read the essay Ralph Waldo Emerson called, Nature. It was an essay that described a philosophy called transcendentalism and to Thoreau it was an articulation of his own knowledge and experience. It was through the purity and truth in nature that Thoreau had first felt the stirrings of his own soul.
After returning to Concord in 1837, Thoreau met Emerson for the first time and that meeting between Emerson, who was a sage at 34 and Thoreau, who was then only 20, marked the beginning of an extraordinary association. It was Emerson who recommended Thoreau keep a journal; it was Emerson who encouraged Thoreau to write and who helped to get his early essays and poems placed in the publication called The Dial; and it was Emerson who gave Thoreau permission to build a cabin on a piece of land that he owned at Walden Pond.
Thoreau's masterpiece, Walden or Life in the Woods, was published in 1854, and was enough to establish him as a writer during his lifetime. In the last few years of his life he was frequently visited by those who had read Walden and wished to know the author. In addition to Walden, and his extensive journals that are felt by some to be his greatest accomplishment, Thoreau wrote other books, poems and essays and delivered lectures on the issues of his day. His best known essay, Civil Disobedience, was inspired by a dispute over taxes that led to a night in the Concord jail. He also wrote essays and spoke out powerfully for the abolition of slavery and against the government that supported it; he spoke out for the rights of the individual over the demands of any government because he felt the only laws that should govern any man were the divine laws; and he spoke of the ability of man to intuit his own right actions through his conscience, which is a direct connection to the divine.
Thoreau passed into spirit on May 6, 1862, another victim of tuberculosis, or what was called consumption, the disease that had taken the lives of so many in the 19th century, and yet two centuries later, his words, his wisdom and his spirit endure.
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Henry David Thoreau was born in Concord on July 12, 1817. He was the third of four children of John Thoreau and Cynthia Dunbar. Other than the first few years of his life, Thoreau spent his entire life living in Concord. He said of it, "I have never got over my surprise that I should have been born into the most estimable place in all the world, and in the very nick of time, too."
There are few men who live who achieve the greatness of this man known as Henry David Thoreau. It was not so much seen or known within the course of his life, but in the words that survived him and that have been read and reflected upon by so many. That is because there is within each of his observations of the world the purest truth and it is a truth that stems from his understanding of spirit.