Henry David Thoreau

William Rossi

in American Literature

ISBN: 9780199827251
Published online August 2012 | | DOI:
Henry David Thoreau


Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862) was given the name David Henry at birth, outside Concord, Massachusetts, on the farm of his maternal grandmother. In 1833, he entered Harvard College, and graduated in 1837, the year Ralph Waldo Emerson delivered his Phi Beta Kappa address on “The American Scholar” (though Thoreau’s attendance at the event is unconfirmed). One of several youths deeply influenced by the Transcendentalist movement that gathered around Emerson, Thoreau enjoyed the older man’s professional encouragement and friendship throughout the 1840s. During the twenty-five years of his writing life, before he died of a tubercular condition at age 44, Thoreau published numerous magazine articles in well-established national venues as well as two books: A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1849), a reflective account of a journey taken with his older brother, John, ten years earlier, and Walden (1854), published by Ticknor and Fields, for which he is best known. Shortly after his death, four more essays were published in the Atlantic Monthly, and in the next few years Ticknor and Fields brought out four collections of his writings, including Excursions (1863); The Maine Woods (1864); Cape Cod (1865); and A Yankee in Canada, with Anti-Slavery and Reform Papers (1866). Although never a best-selling author, nor able to make a living solely by his pen, Thoreau was modestly successful in his own day and well-recognized nationally as a writer of ambition, sharp humor, and great skill. The commercial failure of A Week, which sank his plan of publishing Walden immediately afterward, did nothing to diminish Thoreau’s ambivalence toward the literary marketplace. But A Week suffered less critically than commercially, and that failure was probably more the result of unfavorable negotiating and inadequate marketing than of the author’s haughty disdain for his readers or the book’s anti-Christian critique. Walden, an immediate critical success, fared considerably better in sales (though hardly a blockbuster), owing both to energetic promotion by Ticknor and Fields and to the author’s growing stature. From the late 19th century to the present, critical interest in Thoreau as writer, social and environmental philosopher, and cultural icon has ranged through many dimensions of his work—the descriptive fidelity and moralism of the natural history essays, the social and political critiques leveled in early chapters of Walden and the reform essays, the literary artistry of Walden, and the ecological sensibility that characterizes the later Journal and two natural history projects, edited and published in 1993 and 2000, that Thoreau left unfinished at his death.

Article.  12589 words. 

Subjects: Literary Studies (American)

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