Home  »  Harvard Classics, Vol. 28 Essays  »  Introductory Note

Essays: English and American. rn The Harvard Classics. 1909–14.

Henry David Thoreau

Introductory Note

HENRY DAVID THOREAU was born at Concord, Massachusetts, July 12, 1817, and died there May 6, 1862. He was one of the most markedly individual of that group of philosophers and men of letters which has made the name of the little Massachusetts town so notable in the intellectual history of America.

Thoreau came of a family of French descent, and was educated at Harvard. “He was bred,” says his friend Emerson, “to no profession; he never married; he lived alone; he never went to church; he never voted; he refused to pay a tax to the State; he ate no flesh, he drank no wine, he never knew the use of tobacco; and, though a naturalist, he used neither trap nor gun.” The individualism which is implied in these facts was the most prominent characteristic of this remarkable person. Holding that “a man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone,” he found that a small part of his time, devoted to making lead-pencils, carpentering, and surveying, gave him enough for his simple needs, and left him free for the rest of the year to observe nature, of think, and to write.

In 1845 Thoreau built himself a hut on the edge of Walden Pond, and for over two years lived there in solitude, composing his “Week on the Concord and Merrimac Rivers.” During these years he kept a journal, from which he later drew the volume called “Walden,” and these are his only two books published during his lifetime. From articles in magazines and manuscripts, some eight more volumes have been compiled since his death.

Interesting as is the philosophy which permeates the work of this solitary, his books have found readers rather on account of their minute and sympathetic observation of nature and the beauty of their style. The following essay on “Walking” represents all three elements; and in its charming discursiveness, in the absence of any structure to hinder the writer’s pen from wandering at will, and in the responsiveness which it exhibits to the moods and suggestions of nature, it is a characteristic expression of its author’s spirit.