The Keeper Of Nature Essay, Research Paper
He?s not a king and he?s not a prince, he a human like you and I who went the distance to shift our perceptions of the world in a harmonious balance between man and nature. Henry David Thoreau was a young inquisitive boy who kept to himself and completed the task at hand. Henry was born into an upper lower class family who?s lives thrived on unity and sticking together. With inapirations held within, Henry David Thoreau?s compassionate trancendentalist style will forever reflect the man behind the writings.
Henry David Thoreau was born on July 12, 1817, in Concord, Massachusetts. Henry was the son of John and Cynthia Thoreau, and the third of four children. Henry was named after his paternal uncle, David Thoreau, who died just six weeks after Henry was born. However, Henry David Thoreau is not his legal name. Henry’s legal name is David Henry Thoreau. It wasn’t until after Thoreau had graduated from Harvard College that he unilaterally changed his name from David Henry to “Henry David Thoreau.” Henry had two sisters and a brother. Helen was the oldest sister, John Thoreau Jr. was Henry’s older brother and Sophia was Henry’s younger sister. The house Henry was born in belonged to his maternal grandmother and is located on the outskirts of Concord on Virginia Road.
Henry Thoreau’s father John Thoreau was the son of Jean Thoreau and Jane Burns. John Thoreau was born on October 8, 1787 in Boston. John Thoreau turned 21 in 1808 and he mortgaged his share of his inheritance to his stepmother, Rebecca Kettell for $1000. John used this money to open a store in Concord. His residence was located immediately above the store. In Concord, John was active in the Concord Fire Society and served as its secretary for several years.
While in Concord he met Cynthia Billings. Cynthia was born May 28, 1787 in Keene, New Hampshire. John Thoreau and Cynthia Billings were married on May 11, 1812. Their first daughter, Helen, was born in October, just five months after the wedding. John and Cynthia seemed opposite with regards to their personality. John was described as “a quiet mousy sort of man” while Cynthia was noted for being outspoken and having a strong personality. Cynthia joined the Concord “Female Charitables Society” in 1825 and, for a time, served as vice-president. Some of Henry’s friends nicknamed the society the “chattibles.” The couple did share one very important interest which had a lasting effect on all of their children. The two enjoyed nature and were often out exploring the surrounding world on picnics and day trips.
Helen Thoreau was Henry’s oldest sister, the first of John and Cynthia’s four children. Helen was born October 22, 1812, just five months after her parents were married. Helen attended the Concord Academy and after her graduation, began teaching school in Taunton, Massachusetts. In 1838 she left her teaching position in Taunton because of an illness. Helen had a severe skin inflammation which forced her decision to leave her job. Helen and her sister, Sophia, later started a school in Roxbury,
Massachusetts, but the school was only open a short time. Helen died on June 14, 1849. She had contracted a case of “consumption” otherwise known as tuberculosis and died at the age of 38.
John Thoreau, Jr. was born on July 5, 1815. John Jr. was outgoing and jovial, sometimes described as his father turned inside-out. John was often considered to be the more promising of the Thoreau boys; he was definitely more popular than Henry.
John had a great interest in birds and this interest spurned his younger brother’s, Henry, interest in ornithology. John kept a notebook about birds, from which Henry learned a great amount of information.
John and Henry shared many interests, including one woman, Ellen Seawall. Both brothers courted Ellen Seawall and both proposed to her. Both were also rejected because of their transcendental beliefs. John and Henry also re-opened the Concord Academy and were teachers. At the Concord Academy the students often favored John more than Henry. On January 1, 1842, what seemed a slight injury would lead to John’s death. John cut the end of his left hand ring finger with a razor. The cut was very slight and John bandaged it immediately, without washing the wound and it became severely infected. John contracted lockjaw and died on January 12, 1842 at two o’clock in the afternoon. He died in Henry’s arms at the age of 26. The next in order of birth was Henry. The third of the four siblings, Henry was born July 12, 1817.
His younger sister, Sophia, was born on June 24, 1819 in Chelmsford, Massachusetts. She attended Miss Phoebe Wheeler’s Dame School and later studied Latin at the Concord Academy. She attempted to paint, but was not very good. She also
engaged in making sketches, and probably her most famous sketch is of Henry’s Walden Pond cabin which is found on the cover page of Walden; or Life in the Woods. She taught with her sister in Roxbury, Massachusetts for a short while. Later in life, when her father and Henry died, she took control of the family leadworks business which her father and brother had run and was responsible for its operations. Around the same time she was taking care of the family business Sophia began editing Henry’s unpublished manuscripts for publication. Sophia was good friends with Ellen Seawall, and she corresponded with her on a regular basis. When Sophia died, Ellen was willed $1000 and a scrapbook which Sophia compiled. The scrapbook was dedicated to the lives of her two brothers.
Henry spent the majority of his time walking in and around the town of Concord, as well as many frequent journeys through the wilderness of Concord. Occasionally he would be found sauntering and conversing with his mentor and friend, Ralph Waldo Emerson or Ellery Channing. Some believe Henry went to live at Walden Pond because he was a hermit or a recluse or because he hated his fellow man, but this is not the case. Henry had a very special and sincere reason to go to Walden Pond; to honor his brother. Ralph Waldo Emerson, the great “Sage of Concord,” owned land adjacent to Walden Pond and allowed Henry to live at Walden Pond. Henry went to Walden Pond to work on a book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers which would be a tribute to John Thoreau Jr. Henry stayed at Walden Pond for two years, two months and two days. Henry wanted to live deliberately and so he went and built a simple cabin at Walden Pond. Henry explains in Walden,
“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”
Henry left his nearby town of Concord to live at Walden Pond on July 4, 1845, Independence Day. Some have speculated that this date represents Henry’s personal declaration of independence from society. Others have pointed out that July 4th was the
day before his brother’s birthday. By leaving for Walden on July 4th, Independence Day, Henry would have spent his first full day at Walden Pond on the anniversary of his brother’s birthday. This idea is further supported in Walden,
“When I first took up my abode in the woods, that is, began to spend my nights as well as days there, which, by accident, was on Independence day, or the fourth of July, 1845…”
Ralph Waldo Emerson provided Thoreau with the opportunity to complete his first work, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers and the first draft of a Thoreau’s uniquely American work, Walden; or Life in the Woods. Walden, as it is more commonly and popularly known, is Henry’s response to a multitude of questions he received as a result of living two years, two months, and two days in his small cabin in the woods at Walden Pond.
Although many believe Henry was a recluse, Henry was no stranger to society while he lived at the Pond. He had frequent dinners with family and friends. Henry also had friends and the occasional curious neighbor visit him at his cabin. Henry explains, “I had three chairs in my house; one for solitude, two for friendship, three for society.”
In late July of 1846, a little more than one year into Henry’s excursion to Walden Pond, Henry needed to get his shoe repaired and as he was leaving the cobbler’s store, Sam Staples, the town constable, asked Henry to pay his poll tax. Henry was intentionally several years behind in paying his tax. When asked to pay up, Henry flat out refused to pay the poll tax. Henry objected to the use of the revenues of this poll tax because it helped finance the United States’ war with Mexico and supported the enforcement of slavery laws.
Henry refused to pay his taxes and refused the offers made by Sam Staples himself to pay the tax. Since Henry refused to have his tax paid, Sam Staples was required to take Henry to jail. Henry spent that night in jail. During that evening however, someone heard that Henry was in jail and paid Henry’s taxes. No one really knows for sure who paid the tax, but most believe it was Henry’s Aunt Maria Thoreau.
When Sam Staples found out that Henry’s taxes were paid it was after he had taken off his boots for the evening, so he decided to release Henry in the morning. Henry should have never spent the night in jail have since the state no longer had a reason to hold Henry. When Henry found out that his tax had been paid he was outraged and wanted to remain in the jail. Henry argued that since he himself was not the one who paid the taxes that he still deserved to be in jail. The evening he spent in jail prompted Henry to write what became one of his most famous essays and one of the most important political essays ever, “On the Duty of Civil Disobedience.” It is in “Civil Disobedience” that Henry asks all of us to question our actions and the actions of our state. He writes,
“Unjust laws exist; shall we be content to obey them, or shall we endeavor to amend them, and obey them until we have succeeded, or shall we transgress them at once?….I do not hesitate to say, that those who call themselves abolitionists should at once effectively withdraw their support, both in person and property, from the government of Massachusetts, and not wait till they constitute a majority of one, before they suffer the right to prevail through them….Moreover, any man more right than his neighbors, constitutes a majority of one already.”
“Civil Disobedience” and Henry David Thoreau have had great impacts one the lives of some of America’s greatest leaders. President John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglass were all influence by Henry David Thoreau’s thoughts. Henry Thoreau left his cabin at Walden Pond on September 6, 1847. Henry’s book, Walden, was published several years and seven versions later in 1854.
As Henry got older, his attentions turned more towards the observing and recording of natural history in Concord. Henry kept very thorough journals of natural history and the citizens of Concord regarded him as the town naturalist and would ask him many questions regarding nature and would ask him to identify interesting creatures and plants. Many scholars consider Henry David Thoreau to be the father of the American conservation and preservation movements. The essay heralding Thoreau’s ideas of conservation and preservation is “Walking”. In his essay “Walking” Henry claims,
“To preserve wild animals implies generally the creation of a forest for them to dwell in or resort to” and “…in Wildness is the preservation of the world.”
Few dare to take what they really think and put out for all to see, but Henry David Thoreau did and we the world refuse to accept otherwise. Henry David Thoreau died May 6th 1862, after a suffering a prolonged case of tuberculosis, a disease which plagued Henry throughout most of his adult life. His physical being gave out but his spirit still and will forever thrive in the hearts of transcendentalists forever. His views revolutionized the people thought of he world and his radical actions instilled rebellion in the hearts of all.
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2. Richardson, Robert D. A Life of Mind. University of California Press. Los Angelas.
3. Thoreau, Henry David. Cape Cod. The Heritage Press. New York. 1968.
4. “Life and Times of Henry David Thoreau,” Encarta Online 24 August 1999. 17