In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Henry David Thoreau

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Biographies
  • Scholarly Journals
  • Thoreau, Emerson, and Transcendentalism
  • Thoreau and the Environment
  • Thoreau, Race, and Politics

American Literature Henry David Thoreau
William Rossi
  • LAST REVIEWED: 19 April 2024
  • LAST MODIFIED: 19 April 2024
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0094


Henry David Thoreau (b. 1817–d. 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 he 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 forty-four, 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 bestselling 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 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 nineteenth 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.

General Overviews

Three biographically based critical studies, Paul 1958, Milder 1995, and Robinson 2004, provide accessible introductions to Thoreau’s life and thought, although Paul 1958 and, to a lesser extent, Milder 1995 place greatest emphasis on Primary Texts: Walden. Broader and more balanced in this regard, Robinson 2004, written by a distinguished contributor to the late-20th-century revolution in Emerson studies also adept at synthesizing the previous twenty years’ scholarship on Thoreau’s post-Walden career, is the all-around best overview both for new and specialist readers. Although they also consider Thoreau’s full career, Sayre 1977, Hodder 2001, and Tauber 2001 do so with different thematic emphases, while Peck 1990 offers literary critics, graduate readers, and advanced undergraduate readers subtle analyses of Thoreau’s three main works. A rigorous philosophical inquiry and literary analysis rather than an overview in the usual sense, Arsić 2016 examines Thoreau’s career from the standpoint of two realities that dominated his thinking: the power of life and the presence of death.

  • Arsić, Branca. Bird Relics: Grief and Vitalism in Thoreau. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016.

    DOI: 10.4159/9780674495364

    Dense, powerful examination of the vitalism to which Thoreau turned in the aftermath of his brother’s death and the materialist epistemology he subsequently developed. A groundbreaking work.

  • Hodder, Alan D. Thoreau’s Ecstatic Witness. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2001.

    DOI: 10.12987/yale/9780300089592.001.0001

    An excellent overview and critical study of Thoreau’s religious imagination, weaving together intellectual history, literary criticism, and biography and including his exploration of Hindu and Confucian as well as Christian scriptures. Contains particularly incisive analyses of A Week, Walden, and the Journal.

  • Milder, Robert. Reimagining Thoreau. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511895883

    Unique psychosocial study, critical and biographical, that focuses on how Thoreau continually reimagined his complex relations to community throughout his writing life. Includes an extensive analysis of the nine-year evolution of Walden, as well as detailed readings of A Week, Cape Cod, and the later natural history writings.

  • Paul, Sherman. The Shores of America: Thoreau’s Inward Exploration. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1958.

    Early intellectual and critical biography that provided a template for much subsequent work. Thoreau’s thought and writing are assessed principally in relation to terms set by Emerson’s Nature and according to a trajectory that peaks with Walden.

  • Peck, H. Daniel. Thoreau’s Morning Work: Memory and Perception in A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, the Journal, and Walden. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1990.

    DOI: 10.12987/9780300156935

    Sensitive study of Thoreau’s lifelong attempt to balance memory and perception, loss and remembrance, in working out a harmonious vision of life. Explores how the intertextual relations among Thoreau’s three main works articulate this vision, while making a compelling case for the Journal as an integral literary project.

  • Robinson, David M. Natural Life: Thoreau’s Worldly Transcendentalism. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2004.

    Excellent overview concentrating on Thoreau’s determination to live a fully spiritual and natural life in the wake of his brother’s sudden death. Combines philosophy, intellectual history, and literary criticism in insightful readings of all the major writings, including “Ktaadn and the Maine Woods” and reform essays, among others.

  • Sayre, Robert F. Thoreau and the American Indians. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1977.

    The first full-length account of Thoreau’s fascination with Indians, tracing an evolution from early romantic savagism to greater firsthand knowledge and discovery. In-depth treatments of A Week, Walden, The Maine Woods, and Thoreau’s massive Indian notebooks.

  • Tauber, Alfred I. Henry David Thoreau and the Moral Agency of Knowing. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001.

    DOI: 10.1525/9780520937338

    Important philosophical account, by a philosopher and historian of science, that tracks Thoreau’s pursuit of self-discovery and self-knowing. A major contribution to the debate about Thoreau as thinker and writer in relation to science, objectivity, environmentalism, and morality.

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