Thoreau was born on July 12, 1817 in the village of Concord, Massachusetts. Under the influence of his brother John, an amateur ornithologist, he developed an early interest in nature and spent much of his youth exploring the town's ponds and woods.
He began his formal education at Concord Academy and continued his studies at Harvard College. An avid reader and note taker, Thoreau was interested in subjects as diverse as Greek mythology and English ballads. During this time, Ralph Waldo Emerson moved to Concord to begin his career as a writer and lecturer. Thoreau admired Emerson's 1836 essay, Nature, which advanced the idea, characteristic of American Romanticism, that each individual should seek a spiritually fulfilling relationship with the natural world.
After graduating from Harvard in 1837, Thoreau returned to Concord, where he taught school, improved and expanded his family's pencil-making business and engaged in carpentry, stonemasonry and gardening. He began his lifelong friendship and association with Emerson, who introduced him to other writers and nonconformist thinkers who were making Concord the center of new ideas. Among them were Bronson Alcott, Ellery Channing, Margaret Fuller and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Emerson, who valued Thoreau's practical talent and companionship, invited him to live in the Emerson household. Grief brought them closer together. The Emersons' first son died just two weeks after the death of Thoreau's beloved brother, John. Three years later, Thoreau, still suffering from his loss, wanted to live in the woods and embark on a career as a writer. When Emerson offered him the use of a newly purchased woodlot at Walden Pond, Thoreau gladly accepted.
In 1845, Thoreau went to live and work at Walden Pond. He stayed for two years, keeping a journal of his thoughts and his encounters with nature and society. Over the next few years, Thoreau wrote and rewrote (seven drafts in all) Walden; or Life in the Woods, one of the most famous works in American literature. Published in 1854, this classic has never been out of print and is still read by people all over the world. Until his death in 1862, Thoreau combined surveying, lecturing, and writing; in 1849, at the height of the anti-slavery struggle, he published On the Duty of Civil Disobedience, (a lecture originally entitled Resistance to Civil Government). Many years later, this essay inspired Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and other nonviolent protesters.
Thoreau became increasingly involved with the social and political issues of his time. He often spoke out against economic injustice and slavery, refusing to pay taxes to a government that supported slavery. With other members of his family, Thoreau helped runaway slaves escape to freedom in Canada. He opposed the government for waging the Mexican war; he delivered an abolitionist lecture, Slavery in Massachusetts. He even supported John Brown's efforts to end slavery after meeting him in Concord, defending his character after Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry, in A Plea for Captain John Brown.
On May 6, 1862 at the age of 44, the self-appointed inspector of snowstorms and rainstorms and author renowned for motivating the world to value our natural environment, died after a prolonged struggle with tuberculosis. He is buried on Authors' Ridge at Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord.