Henry David Thoreau was born in Concord, Massachusetts, on July 12, 1817. His grandfather, Jean, a French Huguenot, had come to Boston in 1773, taken part in the American Revolution, and become a shopkeeper on the city’s waterfront until he moved to Concord in 1800. Thoreau grew up in Concord with his father, John Thoreau, one of the first American makers of lead pencils; his mother, Cynthia Dunbar, a nature lover and abolitionist; his older brother, John; and two sisters, Helen and Sophia.
Thoreau began his education at Miss Phoebe Wheeler’s infant school. He attended public grammar school and, at the age of eleven, enrolled at the Concord Academy. From childhood he had been a rather isolated figure; at school he kept to himself and refused to play games, preferring to spend much of his time in the woods and fields around Concord. In 1833 he entered Harvard College, where he studied rhetoric and modern and classical languages. He graduated in 1837.
During the winter following his graduation from Harvard, Thoreau established a close friendship with the Transcendentalist writer Ralph Waldo Emerson, who became his literary mentor. Thoreau wanted to become a writer, and undertook various jobs in order to support himself while working on his writing. He taught public school in Concord for a short time, but quit after learning that his duties included flogging the pupils. In 1838 he started his own school; his pupils included Louisa May Alcott, the author of Little Women, and two of her sisters. After the school closed in 1843, Thoreau tutored the children of Emerson’s brother, William, on Staten Island, New York, until 1844. Thoreau was at times a surveyor, a carpenter, a house painter, and a mason.
Thoreau’s friendship with Emerson led to his involvement with the Transcendentalist Club and the subsequent publication of his poems and essays in the Transcendentalist magazine The Dial. Thoreau also lived at times in Emerson’s home, and it was on Emerson’s property near Walden Pond that he built his famous cabin, the scene of his Walden experiment from July 4, 1845, to September 6, 1847. The friendship would cool in later years, but Thoreau remained a Transcendentalist all of his life. Except for occasional trips to Maine, Cape Cod, and Canada, Thoreau spent most of his brief life in Concord. Few writers have identified themselves so closely with their home region, and he became an authority on the history of Concord and the surrounding area. Thoreau’s first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, was a complete failure. Walden fared somewhat better, but much of its success came after his death. Throughout his career Thoreau presented his essays as public lectures and only later revised them for publication. Thoreau died in Concord of tuberculosis on May 6, 1862.
Soon after Thoreau’s death, the publishers Ticknor and Field reissued both A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers and Walden, and published Cape Cod and The Maine Woods. Walden has remained in print ever since and has appeared in nearly 200 editions. Millions of copies have been sold, and the book has been translated into every modern language.