June 12, 2000

1. Thoreau

[A revised and expanded version of this piece can be found here.]

Our discussion group is now reading The Days of Henry Thoreau, by Walter Harding. Wonderful book! Harding is the ultimate Thoreau scholar, the author of numerous works on Thoreau. His deep knowledge of the subject, and his deep love of the subject, are evident on every page. His narrative is skillfully put together and highly readable. The book is almost 500 pages long, and every page is a pleasure. One learns much about Thoreau, and also much about 19th-century life.

Thoreau’s paternal ancestors were French (as the name suggests). Being Protestants, they were subject to persecution, and went to the Isle of Jersey, in the English Channel. Thoreau’s grandfather, Jean Thoreau, came to America in 1773, and became a prosperous shopkeeper in Boston.

As for Thoreau’s maternal ancestors, his grandfather, Asa Dunbar, was a Harvard graduate, a clergyman, a schoolteacher and a lawyer. Thoreau’s grandmother was the daughter of a wealthy Tory whose eight sons fled to Canada at the start of the American Revolution. Thus, like Emerson, Thoreau was descended from the upper class of American society.

Thoreau’s mother had a certain aristocratic pride, as the following story suggests:

“One visitor to the house recalled that on the evening of a day too stormy for Thoreau to take his customary outdoor exercise, he came flying down from his study and amazed them all by suddenly breaking into a dance all by himself, ‘spinning airily around, displaying most remarkable litheness and agility and finally [springing] over the center-table, alighting like a feather on the other side.’ His mother boasted to the guest that she had taken care to see that he had had dancing lessons as a child as one of ‘the usual accomplishments of well-bred children.’”1

Thoreau was an eccentric who made no effort to hide his eccentricity. He was also well-coordinated and full of physical energy. But as a youngster, he wouldn’t participate in children’s games, “he preferred to stand on the sidelines and watch.”2 He neither enjoyed dominating others, nor allowed others to dominate him; one might describe Thoreau as a classic example of a younger son. This attitude found expression in his famous theory of Civil Disobedience. Any inquiry into the connection between birth order and political views should take account of Thoreau.

As a student at Harvard, Thoreau began keeping a Commonplace Book, that is, a notebook in which he jotted down interesting passages from his reading. He continued this habit after graduating, and his notebooks grew to “close to one million copied words — fantastic testimony to the zeal with which Thoreau carried out his studies both in college and afterwards.”3 Thoreau liked to read poetry, especially early poetry; Homer and Chaucer were favorites. As for philosophy, the only work that seemed to touch him deeply was Emerson’s essay, “Nature.” There’s no indication that Thoreau was interested in Hume, Kant or Hegel.

Thoreau had a strong affinity for Oriental thought. “For many years he was to read every such work he could lay hands on, even at times doing his own translating from French and German when the books were not available in English.”4 He published extracts of Oriental thinkers like Confucius in The Dial, a magazine for which he and Emerson wrote. Later, he wanted to read some of Harvard’s Oriental books, so he obtained permission to borrow books from the Harvard Library. I suspect that Thoreau would have been especially fond of Zennish works, such as Lao Zi’s Tao-te Ching, but there’s no indication that he was familiar with such works. Zen’s hour had not yet come.

Though we think of Thoreau as a bachelor who jeered at marriage, he had several love affairs during his early twenties, when the blood runs hottest. One of these affairs was with Ellen Sewall. Ellen lived in Concord for a time, and took excursions with Thoreau and his older brother, John. “The other day,” wrote Henry in his journal, “I rowed in my boat a free, even lovely young lady, and, as I plied the oars, she sat in the stern.”5 John Thoreau was also smitten with Ellen, and proposed marriage. Ellen agreed, but later realized that it was Henry, not John, whom she most loved. Furthermore, Ellen’s parents didn’t approve of her marrying either Thoreau boy, since her parents were conservative in their religious views, and Emerson’s Concord coterie — Thoreaus included — were unorthodox, some said heretical, in their religious views. So Ellen broke off the engagement. Later, Henry proposed to her, but she turned him down, remembering the tumult caused by her acceptance of John’s proposal.

After she had married another man, Ellen continued to inquire after Henry’s welfare, and watched for his writings in The Dial. “In later years she kept a picture of him on her living-room wall, and her own children presented her with a set of his collected works.” After Thoreau died, Ellen frequently visited his sister, Sophia. When Sophia died, she left Ellen “a scrapbook which she had made as a memorial to her two brothers.” “Shortly before [Thoreau’s] death in 1862, his sister Sophia mentioned Ellen’s name in his presence and Thoreau replied: ‘I have always loved her. I have always loved her.’”6

In March, 1845, Thoreau began building a small cabin at Walden Pond. He lived at Walden from about age 28 to age 30. While living at Walden, Thoreau wrote the bulk of his two chief works, Walden and A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers; evidently the solitude of his Walden cabin was a good environment for writing, better than his mother’s crowded boarding house. The first work that he completed while at Walden was an essay on Carlyle, which he delivered as a lecture at the Concord Lyceum. His audience, however, was more interested in hearing about his life-experiment at Walden Pond than in hearing about Carlyle; their curiosity prompted Thoreau to begin Walden.

Students of Zen might enjoy the following passage:

“Thoreau found plenty to do at the pond. He learned to love a broad margin to his life. On summer mornings he would sometimes sit in his sunny doorway from sunrise until noon, rapt in reverie, while the birds sang around or flitted noiselessly through his house. He grew, he thought, on such occasions, like corn in the night and said they were not time subtracted from his life, but so much over and above his usual allowance.”7

One of Thoreau’s Concord friends, Bronson Alcott, often visited Thoreau at Walden Pond, and often brought his guests out to the pond to meet Thoreau. One of these guests was struck by Thoreau’s Emersonian demeanor and his intimacy with nature:

“Thoreau gave us a gracious welcome, asking us within. For a time he talked with Mr. Alcott in a voice and with a manner in which [I] detected something akin with Emerson.... He was talking to Mr. Alcott of the wild flowers in Walden woods when, suddenly stopping, he said: ‘Keep very still and I will show you my family.’ Stepping quickly outside the cabin door, he gave a low curious whistle; immediately a woodchuck came running towards him from a nearby burrow. With varying note... a pair of gray squirrels were summoned and approached him fearlessly. With still another note several birds, including two crows, flew towards him, one of the crows nestling upon his shoulder. I remember it was the crow resting close to his head that made the most vivid impression upon me, knowing how fearful of man this bird is. He fed them all from his hand, taking food from his pocket, and petted them gently before our delighted gaze; and then dismissed them by different whistling... each little wild thing departing instantly at hearing its special signal.”8

Why did Thoreau leave Walden Pond? Thoreau assured readers of Walden that he “left the woods for as good a reason as I went there.” And just what was that ‘good reason’? Thoreau says that he had other lives to live, but that doesn’t seem such a very good reason. He later wrote in his journal, “Why I left the woods I do not think I can tell. I have often wished myself back.”9 One reason he left is that Emerson was going to England for a lecture tour, and he wanted Thoreau to live with his family while he was away. Another reason may be that the solitude of Walden was sometimes depressing, and Thoreau may have felt drawn to the company of his fellow men; perhaps there were times when he wanted distractions. To build a house at Walden, to live there for two years, and to write about his life there, was a great adventure, a rewarding experience, a successful experiment, but to remain there after the novelty had worn off might have meant confinement and stagnation.

Thoreau delivered many lectures all over New England; like Emerson, Thoreau derived a significant part of his income from lectures. He often lectured free of charge in his hometown, Concord, which had a thriving Lyceum where lectures were delivered once a week for many decades. In the years before the Civil War, however, the Concord Lyceum was torn by dissension, with Thoreau and others inviting abolitionists to lecture, while Concord’s conservatives opposed inviting abolitionists. Before the Civil War, abolition was by no means a popular cause in the North.

Wit is one of the chief charms of Thoreau’s writings, and wit was also an ingredient in his lectures. In 1850, Thoreau lectured at the Concord Lyceum on his recent excursion to Cape Cod. Emerson reported that the lecture was “a huge success and people in the audience ‘laughed until they cried.’”10 In 1847, Thoreau lectured at the Concord Lyceum on his life-experiment at Walden, and the lecture was so well received that he was asked to repeat it a week later for those who had missed it. Emerson reported that the audience was “charmed with the witty wisdom which ran through it all.”11

This response encouraged Thoreau to continue his efforts on Walden. Though he made rapid progress with the first draft of Walden, he continued working on it for seven years, and completely revised it eight times. Thoreau was neither a hasty nor a prolific writer. Perhaps he would have published his works sooner, and revised them less, if publishers had been more eager to publish what he wrote. Posterity should be grateful to the publishers who rejected Thoreau’s manuscripts; rejection gave Thoreau an opportunity to revise and improve his work.

Besides lecturing, another source of income for Thoreau was surveying. He began to dabble in surveying when he was teaching school with his older brother, John. He and John liked to take their students on field trips, and they thought that surveying would be a good practical application of math. Thoreau’s interest in surveying gradually developed into a part-time job. One of his surveying projects was to walk around the boundaries of Concord with the town selectmen:

“But he had forgotten that the selectmen would be his constant companions in the work. By the time the task was over he was complaining that he had been ‘dealing with the most commonplace and worldly-minded men, and emphatically trivial things.’ He felt ‘inexpressibly begrimed’ and almost as though he had committed suicide in a sense. For days after the task was over he wandered alone in the fields, trying to recover his ‘tone and sanity,’ trying ‘to perceive things truly and simply again.’”12

While his surveying business flourished, he lamented that it was consuming his time and energy, that it was drawing him away from his true occupations, drawing him away from nature and literature. He lamented that “surveying used only his lowest talents. He had more important things to do for his community, he thought, than running lines and measuring angles.” Thoreau’s predicament is one that any businessman-writer can empathize with.

In addition to lecturing and surveying, Thoreau was actively involved in the family business, pencil-manufacturing. His practical intelligence and his skill with tools made him an excellent pencil engineer. He did some research at Harvard Library, and discovered how the Germans were able to make good pencils. Every advance led to a further advance, and eventually Thoreau made considerable strides in pencil manufacturing. He once complained to Emerson that he “could think of nothing else, and even in his dreams he worked at the new machines.”13

Thoreau devoted most of his afternoons to walking in the woods and fields around Concord. “He set out each afternoon well prepared for his hikes. Under his arm he carried an old music book in which to press flowers. In his hand was a cane... its edge marked off in feet and inches for quick measuring. On his head was his size seven hat with a special shelf built inside on which to place interesting botanical specimens.... His clothes were chosen to provide a natural camouflage in the woods and fields.... He rejoiced that he could easily walk ten, fifteen, or twenty miles from his own door without going by any house.”14

Sometimes a friend would accompany him on his walks. One of his friends said, “if you were willing to walk long and far, have wet feet for hours at a time, pull a boat all day long, and come home late at night after many miles, Thoreau would take you with him.”15 In the summer of 1851, he decided that he should see the world “by moonlight as well as sunlight.... Each month as the full moon approached he would tiptoe out of the house, sometimes as late as 1:30 a.m., [and] wander out into the fields to see the world in this new light. ‘Will not my townsmen consider me a benefactor if I conquer some realms from the night, if I can show them that there is some beauty awake while they are asleep?’”16

© L. James Hammond 2003
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1. XIV, 1 back
2. II, 2 back
3. III, 2 back
4. VII, 2 back
5. VI, 1 back
6. ibid back
7. X, 1, p. 184 back                   
8. X back
9. X, p. 198 back
10. XIV, 3 back
11. X back
12. XIV, 4 back
13. IX, 1 back
14. XIV, 8 back
15. XIV, 8 back
16. XIV, 9 back