Henry David Thoreau (pronounced like the word thorough but THOR-oh) was born David Henry Thoreau on July 12, 1817, in the Wheeler-Minot farmhouse in Concord, Massachusetts. His parents were John Thoreau (a pencil maker) and Cynthia Dunbar. He was named for a recently deceased paternal uncle, David Thoreau, but became “Henry David” after college – without a legal name change. He had three siblings: Helen, John Jr., and Sophia. His birthplace still exists on Virginia Road in Concord; it was recently restored by the Thoreau Farm Trust and is open to the public. He apparently was quite homely with a large Roman nose. [I found no mention of wife or children but found reference to a proposal to Ellen Sewall (which she declined).]
Thoreau attended Harvard College (1833-1837) and studied rhetoric, classics, philosophy, mathematics, and science. He was a member of the Institute of 1770, now known as the Hasty Pudding Club. He refused to pay $5 for a master’s degree with no academic merit. “Harvard College offered it to graduates `who proved their physical worth by being alive three years after graduating, and their saving, earning, or inheriting quality or condition by have Five Dollars to give the college.”
Henry David Thoreau “was an American author, poet, philosopher, abolitionist, naturalist, tax resister, development critic, surveyor, and historian…. [He] is best known for his book Walden, a reflection upon simple living in natural surroundings, and his essay Resistance to Civil Government (also known as Civil Disobedience), an argument for disobedience to an unjust state.
“Thoreau’s books, articles, essays, journals, and poetry total over 20 volumes. Among his lasting contributions are his writings on natural history and philosophy, where he anticipated the methods and findings of ecology and environmental history, two sources of modern-day environmentalism. His literary style interweaves close natural observation, personal experience, pointed rhetoric, symbolic meanings, and historical lore, while displaying a poetic sensibility, philosophical austerity, and `Yankee’ love of practical detail. He was also deeply interested in the idea of survival in the face of hostile elements, historical change, and natural decay; at the same time he advocated abandoning waste and illusion in order to discover life’s true essential needs.
“He was a lifelong abolitionist, delivering lectures that attacked the Fugitive Slave Law while praising the writings of Wendell Phillips and defending abolitionist John Brown. Thoreau’s philosophy of civil disobedience later influenced the political thoughts and actions of such notable figures as Leo Tolstoy, Mahatma Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, Jr.”
Thoreau passed away on May 6, 1862, in Concord, Massachusetts, at age 44. He had been “periodically plagued” with tuberculosis since college and finally succumbed to it.