Henry David Thoreau Tossed Teaching to Live By a Pond and Become an Icon

On July 4, 1845, Henry David Thoreau walked 1.5 miles from where he lived in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s house in Concord, Mass., to a pond outside of town. On a logged plot of land owned by Emerson, Thoreau took residence in a small house he’d built. 

Thoreau, like his mentor Emerson, was a transcendentalist. Transcendentalism, a popular early 19th-century philosophy, centered on a person finding their place in the universe. To do so, Thoreau and Emerson convened with nature and writing.

Henry David Thoreau
Henry David Thoreau

For a short period starting in 1838, Thoreau led a transcendentalist school in Concord. He often led students for walks in the woods, teaching them about flora and fauna. One of those pupils was a girl named Louisa May Alcott. Alcott, who would later write Little Women (Amazon | Bookshop), was the daughter of transcendentalists.

Thoreau decided teaching wasn’t for him. So instead, Thoreau devoted himself to writing and, in July 1845, to living at Walden Pond.

From Walden Pond into history

Thoreau survived on primarily fruits and vegetables, including beans he grew in a 2.5-acre field. He spent his free time swimming, hiking, and writing in the 10-by-15-foot structure with one door and two windows.

That he needed shelter at all may have bothered Thoreau. He might have preferred to sleep under the stars. Plus, Thoreau felt material possessions, including houses, were part of society’s problems. Thoreau later wrote, “When the farmer has got his house, he may not be the richer but the poorer for it, and it be the house that has got him.”

For two years, two months, and two days, Thoreau lived in his small house on Walden Pond’s shores. (He did spend one night in jail in 1846 after running into a tax collector and refusing to pay his poll tax. An unidentified woman bailed him out, and Thoreau went back to Walden.)

Thoreau moved back into the Emerson house in Concord in Sep. 1847. Seven years later, he published the book for which he’s still known, Walden (Amazon | Bookshop).

The book begins: “When I wrote the following pages, or rather the bulk of them, I lived alone, in the woods, a mile from any neighbor, in a house which I had built myself, on the shore of Walden Pond, in Concord, Massachusetts, and earned my living by the labor of my hands only. I lived there two years and two months. At present I am a sojourner in civilized life again.”

At present I am a sojourner in civilized life again.” — Henry David Thoreau

Walden made Thoreau famous. He was perhaps the best known literary American in the mid-1850s, which is why an unknown poet sent his self-published poetry collection to Thoreau in 1855. The poet was Walt Whitman, and the book was the first edition of Leaves of Grass (Amazon | Bookshop). The book impressed Thoreau, who wrote to Whitman, “I greet you at the beginning of a great career, which yet must have had a long foreground somewhere, for such a start.”

Henry David Thoreau inspires a famous architect

Thoreau inspired Whitman, as the transcendentalist influenced many others. One of those includes the architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Wright grew up in a Unitarian family, the Christian denomination from which Transcendentalism sprouted. 

Wright read Thoreau’s Walden and essays. He became an architect determined to build structures that incorporated natural elements. For example, Wright designed Fallingwater, a house atop a waterfall in Mill Run, Penn.

While Thoreau inspired Wright, Thoreau himself didn’t have a high opinion of architecture. In his journal, Thoreau wrote, “It should not be by their architecture but by their abstract thoughts that a nation should seek to commemorate itself…Methinks there are few specimens of architecture so perfect as a verse of poetry.”

His feelings toward architecture aside, Thoreau once dabbled in the art form by building a tiny house beside a New England pond. Doing so made Thoreau, the pond, and his little shelter famous.

Today, the Walden Pond State Reservation’s a National Historic Landmark. The site features 250 acres for visitors to enjoy swimming, canoeing, hiking, and visiting a replica of Henry David Thoreau’s home.

Henry David Thoreau

  • Born on July 12, 1817, in Concord, Mass.
  • Died on May 6, 1862, in Concord, Mass.

Books by Henry David Thoreau

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