When reading a Henry David Thoreau biography, you need to understand the concept of transcendentalism. Thoreau's life and work all deeply revolved around this revolutionary movement, which advocated spiritual fortune over physical fortune and a life in harmony with nature, God and human intuition. Thoreau's most famous work, Walden, is a thorough exploration of both nature and transcendentalism.
Henry David Thoreau was born in 1817 in Concord, Mass., the third child for John and Cynthia Thoreau. His father supported the family with a small pencil-making business. Thoreau was greatly influenced by his upbringing in the small village surrounded by wilderness.
In 1828, Thoreau attended Concord Academy, where he did so well that he was encouraged to enroll in college. He entered Harvard University in 1833 and graduated with average grades in 1837. He tried an unsuccessful stint as a teacher and went back to working at his father's pencil business for a year. In 1938, he and his brother John started a school that lasted until John fell sick three years later.
In 1839, Thoreau and his brother took a canoe trip that convinced Thoreau he should write about nature. Through his friendship with the famous author Ralph Waldo Emerson, Thoreau was able to make a living as a poet and writer. By 1845, Thoreau was feeling restless and wanted to focus on his writing. Emerson's family lent him some land they owned and Thoreau built a cabin near a place known as Walden Pond.
Thoreau spent a little over two years surviving off the land around Walden Pond. He spent the time reading, writing, meditating, journaling and becoming one with nature. His compilation of journal entries during this time would become his famous book, Walden, nine years later.
After Henry David Thoreau left Walden Pond, he worked as a surveyor, writer and as an employee at his family's pencil business. In 1849, he published Civil Disobedience, his essay outlining his belief that there is a higher law than civil ones and that these higher laws should be followed regardless of the consequences.
Though Thoreau remained a transcendentalist throughout his life, his later years focused more on naturalism and the abolishment of slavery than it did transcendentalist theories. He wrote and lectured against slavery in his later years, becoming a great admirer of the abolitionist John Brown, who was later hanged. Thoreau fell into poor health in the late 1850s and died of tuberculosis in 1862.