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Henry David Thoreau: A Life Summary
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Henry David Thoreau: A Life (2017) is a biography by the American English professor and author Laura Dassow Walls. Building on scholarship Walls has amassed since the 1970s, the book offers a comprehensive biography of the nineteenth-century American author best-known for Walden and “Civil Disobedience.”
Born in Concord, Massachusetts in 1817 to a “modest New England family,” Henry David Thoreau had civil disobedience in his blood. His maternal grandmother, Asa Dunbar, helped lead the 1766 “Butter Rebellion” at Harvard, considered by scholars the first student protest in American colonial history. Thoreau attended Harvard, graduating in 1837 and famously refusing to pay the $5 diploma fee, which in today’s dollars would amount to around $125. Bored by the traditional pursuits available to college graduates, Thoreau became a public school teacher but soon quit after refusing to dole out corporal punishment to students.
Around this time, Thoreau met the prominent philosopher-poet Ralph Waldo Emerson who introduced Thoreau to some of New England’s brightest literary stars, including Nathaniel Hawthorne, Bronson Alcott, and Margaret Fuller. He became interested in Emerson’s flagship philosophical movement, Transcendentalism, which held that spiritual transcendence grew out of personal intuition and a connection with nature rather than existing religious dogma. Long a nature enthusiast, Thoreau found that Transcendentalism’s emphasis on the natural world was of particular interest to him.
Though Thoreau kept a journal and occasionally contributed articles to Fuller’s The Dial periodical, he spent the years between 1837 and 1845 without a great deal of focus, shifting between jobs that ranged from editorial assistant to repairman. He eventually ended up back in Concord where he gained employment at a pencil factory owned by his father, where he came up with a number of innovations that saved the company a great deal of money.
On July 4, 1845, restless and eager to better focus his literary and philosophical pursuits, Thoreau embarked on what would be his most famous and lasting endeavor: his two-year experiment living alone in the woods on Walden Pond. During the experiment, Thoreau lived in isolation in a small house located on property owned by Emerson in a secondary forest. His goal, Thoreau writes, was “to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.”
In describing Thoreau’s sojourn into nature, Walls provides readers with valuable insight into the woods surrounding Walden Pond. While many readers have an idea in their head of those woods as a portal into a world of untouched natural purity, in reality, the woods were something of a “rural slum of outcasts, drunks, and derelicts.” Moreover, in a thematic and historical connection between Walden and Thoreau’s strident abolitionism, the area also had been recently home to former slaves living off the land.
Among the few intrusions from the outside world that Thoreau endured during this period, the most famous came in July of 1846 when tax collector Sam Staples imprisoned Thoreau for a night in jail due to his failure to pay poll taxes. Thoreau argued that his opposition to slavery and the Mexican-American War were his primary motivations for refusing to pay taxes. After his Walden experiment ended, Thoreau published an essay codifying these motivations, “Resistance to Civil Government,” which is better known today under its revised title, “Civil Disobedience.” In the essay, Thoreau argues that an individual has a moral duty to resist acquiescence to laws that would make the individual complicit in his or her government’s injustice. The principle would prove to be extraordinarily influential on various Civil Rights Movements of the twentieth century.
Following his departure from Walden Pond, Thoreau spent the next seven years paying off debts and refining his Walden manuscript. Finally, in 1854, Thoreau published it under the title, Walden, or Life in the Woods. Though the book failed to make much of an impact in Thoreau’s lifetime, later American writers would help catapult it into the pantheon of the American literary canon. Of Walden, the American poet Robert Frost wrote, “In one book, he surpasses everything we have had in America.”
Despite Thoreau’s relative obscurity in his lifetime, at least in comparison to other canonical New England writers of his era, Thoreau was quite popular within his personal circle of friends and colleagues. Contrary to the popular conception of Thoreau as a crazed hermit, Walls describes him as “loving and funny and far too talkative, as his friends well knew, to keep to keep to himself for very long.” In examining his later years, Walls argues that, if anything, Thoreau became even more committed to the cause of abolitionism as he got older, writing, “He and everyone he knew were all implicated…the threads of the modern global economy were spinning him and everyone around him into a dehumanizing web of destruction.” In other words, slavery and injustice had become so intertwined with the modern American industrial complex that to practice civil disobedience against it was almost impossible without removing oneself from society completely.
On May 6, 1862, Thoreau died at the age of forty-four after suffering from tuberculosis on and off over the previous decades. When asked by a family member if he had made his peace with God, Thoreau famously replied, “I did not know we had ever quarreled.”
By pushing back against some dominant narratives about the author, Henry David Thoreau: A Life is a worthy and valuable biography of an American luminary.