July 23, 2010
“Thoreau again? Don’t you ever tire of Thoreau?” I’ve discussed Thoreau several times in this e-zine, but never as thoroughly as this time. I always come back to Thoreau because he’s a great stylist, he’s one of the funniest of all philosophers, he lived well and died well, and he had a firmer grasp of Zen than any Western writer. They say “to philosophize is to learn to die.” Thoreau’s death is the best proof of his philosophy. I feel a personal connection to Thoreau since I, too, grew up in the woods and fields of New England, and since I lived in the Concord area for several years.
As readers of this e-zine know, I’m not a master of the well-packaged essay, with smooth transitions, and a neat conclusion; my essays aren’t easy to read. Perhaps, however, the content will compensate for the messy package. My hope is that this essay will allow the reader to get to know Thoreau a little better. Rather than sketching a chronology of his life, I’m going to discuss certain ideas, attitudes, and events that I find especially interesting.
Thoreau was born in Concord in 1817. One of his childhood memories was Lafayette’s visit to Concord in 1824 (Lafayette was a Frenchman who had fought in the American Revolution, and returned to the U.S. 50 years later, receiving a hero’s welcome and visiting every state in the country). Another memory was the 1825 celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Concord. Another memory was being allowed, on rare occasions, to stay home from school, and spend the day picking huckleberries; Thoreau said that these days were “like the promise of life eternal.”1
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:
As this story shows, Thoreau was an eccentric who made no effort to hide his eccentricity. He was also well-coordinated and full of physical energy.3 But as a youngster, he wouldn’t participate in children’s games, “he preferred to stand on the sidelines and watch.”4 His solemn manner earned him the nickname “Judge.” He neither enjoyed dominating others, nor allowed others to dominate him; one might describe Thoreau as a classic example of a younger son. Since he didn’t possess power as a small child, he had a lifelong aversion for power. 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.”5 Thoreau was as diligent a student of literature as he was a student of nature. “To read well,” Thoreau wrote, “that is, to read true books in a true spirit, is a noble exercise, and one that will task the reader more than any exercise which the customs of the day esteem. It requires a training such as the athletes underwent, the steady intention almost of the whole life to this object. Books must be read as deliberately and reservedly as they were written.”6 When Thoreau speaks of “the athletes,” he’s doubtless referring to ancient Greek athletes — an example of his wide learning.
Thoreau liked to read poetry, especially early poetry; Homer and Chaucer were favorites. When he travelled on Cape Cod, he was continually reminded of Homer’s descriptions of sea and sky. He was also fond of travel narratives, and natural history; he read Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle, and was one of the first American converts to Darwin’s theory of evolution. 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.
When Whitman was still young and unknown, Thoreau became acquainted with his poetry, and became an ardent supporter. Thoreau and Bronson Alcott traveled to New York to meet Whitman, and Thoreau asked Whitman, “Do you have any idea that you are rather bigger and outside the average — may perhaps have immense significance?”7 As they left Whitman’s house, Thoreau said to Alcott, “That is a great man.”
Whitman and Thoreau had both moved away from Western monotheism, and shared a rapturous, mystical pantheism that is akin to Eastern religion, especially Zen. They were close in age (Whitman was two years younger than Thoreau). There were, however, some differences between them: Whitman blamed Thoreau for despising the common man, Thoreau blamed Whitman for some poems that he felt were grossly sensual.
Thoreau had a strong affinity for Oriental thought. “For many years,” says his biographer, Walter Harding, “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.”8 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.
What Thoreau does, he does well, but his range is somewhat limited. He didn’t see what Poe saw — namely, that everything is connected. Though he studied Eastern thought, Thoreau never became familiar with acausal connections, with synchronicity, though it plays an important part in Eastern thought. He didn’t understand the occult as Poe did, as William James did.
It has been said that everyone has the faults of their virtues. Thoreau’s limited range was the natural partner of his virtues — his practical nature, his gift for metaphor and humor, his firm grasp of Zen. If he had a wider range, and a greater number of theories, he wouldn’t have been as practical, as humorous — he wouldn’t have been Thoreau. Just as his writing has a limited range, so too his reading had a limited range, and his travels had a limited range. I don’t believe, however, that this limited range is a vice or a virtue, it’s simply a characteristic, it’s Thoreau. Perhaps it’s related to birth order; as a younger son, Thoreau may have had a certain modesty, he may have lacked the soaring ambition that wants to know everything, travel everywhere, etc.8B
Thoreau was practical, not theoretical; he was interested in how actual people actually lived. Because he had a strong interest in literature and nature, Thoreau couldn’t understand why most people were interested chiefly in business:
Thoreau felt that reading newspapers, and keeping abreast of current events, distracted you from the classics, and from nature:
Better to have a mind that’s empty and peaceful than to stuff your mind with news.
Thoreau is fond of puns — perhaps too fond.
When Hawthorne and his new wife moved into the Old Manse in Concord, they found that Thoreau had planted a garden for them. Hawthorne and Thoreau became friends. Like Emerson, Hawthorne appreciated Thoreau’s remarkable talents, and probably wouldn’t be surprised to learn of his current high reputation. Hawthorne said that Thoreau combined a “high and classic cultivation” with a “wild freedom,” and he said that conversing with Thoreau was “like hearing the wind among the boughs of a forest-tree.” It is said that a character in Hawthorne’s Marble Faun, Donatello, was based on Thoreau.
Thoreau had high goals, high ambitions. Though he died at 44, his collected works fill 20 volumes — and this isn’t counting his million-word Commonplace Book. “In the long run,” he wrote, “men hit only what they aim at. Therefore, though they should fail immediately, they had better aim at something high.”12 He aimed to cultivate his own mind and spirit, and he aimed to achieve the literary immortality that he now enjoys. He had little interest in helping others. “Do not stay to be an overseer of the poor,” he wrote, “but endeavor to become one of the worthies of the world.”13 Those who are busy with philanthropic activities are addressing symptoms, not causes:
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.”15 Henry would do anything Ellen asked except go to church. “When on Sunday morning she asked him to accompany her to divine services, he adamantly refused. Outdoors was where he worshipped, he announced.”16
John Thoreau was also smitten with Ellen, and proposed marriage. Ellen accepted John’s proposal, 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.’”17
In March, 1845, Thoreau began building a small cabin at Walden Pond. He lived at Walden from about age 28 to age 30, earning little money, spending little, and growing much of his own food. “At the end of his first eight months at the pond he found that he had spent a total of only $8.74 for food — an average of twenty-seven cents a week.” His farming had earned him $8.71.
He often began his days at the pond with a swim: “I have been as sincere a worshipper of Aurora as the Greeks. I got up early and bathed in the pond; that was a religious exercise, and one of the best things which I did.”18 It’s clear that Thoreau is using the word “best” not to mean “enjoyable,” but to mean “morally good.” Thoreau was developing his own religion, his own morality. The reference to Aurora is typical of Thoreau’s style; his prose is sprinkled with references to mythology, history, etc., but he has a light touch, he gives the reader learning without pedantry.
While living at Walden, Thoreau wrote most of Walden and A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers; evidently the solitude of his cabin was a good environment for writing — better than his mother’s crowded boarding house. The first work that he completed at Walden was an essay on Carlyle, which he read 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.
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 enabled Thoreau to revise and improve his work.
Alcott often visited Thoreau at Walden Pond, and brought his guests to the pond to meet Thoreau. One of these guests was struck by Thoreau’s Emersonian demeanor and his intimacy with nature:
Later in his life, Thoreau
Though we think of him as Henry David Thoreau, he was born David Henry Thoreau, and when he decided to change his name, he did so on his own, without petitioning the authorities.
A Concord farmer recalled encountering “David Henry”:
What did Thoreau learn at Walden Pond? “I learned this, at least, by my experiment; that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.” And what is that success? “If the day and the night are such that you greet them with joy, and life emits a fragrance like flowers and sweet-scented herbs, is more elastic, more starry, more immortal — that is your success.”22
When Harvard sent a form to members of Thoreau’s class (class of 1837), asking what they were doing, Thoreau responded thus:
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.”24 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 had a positive attitude: “I do not propose to write an ode to dejection, but to brag as lustily as chanticleer in the morning, standing on his roost, if only to wake my neighbors up.”25 Few writers have ever had such a mastery of metaphor; for every thought, Thoreau has an image, a connection to daily life. “I love my fate to the very core and rind,” he wrote, “and could swallow it without paring it, I think.”26 Isn’t a mastery of metaphor one of the surest signs of a great writer?27
Thoreau had a deep love for Concord, his hometown, and he knew that time and “progress” would spoil it: “I have never got over my surprise that I should have been born into the most estimable place in the world, and in the very nick of time too.”28 While working as a tutor on Staten Island, Thoreau became homesick for Concord, and wrote his mother, “methinks I should be content to sit at the backdoor in Concord, under the poplar-tree, henceforth forever.”29
Thoreau liked to march to the beat of his own drum. He had an aversion for groups and societies of all kinds, especially churches. When he turned 23, the local church added his name to their tax rolls. Thoreau refused to pay the tax, and insisted that he had never joined the church. He told town officials that “if they would provide him with a list of all societies which he had never joined, he would sign a specific denial of membership in each one of them.”30
Thoreau’s first book was A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. It was “printed at his own risk in an edition of one thousand copies and when, four years later, fewer than three hundred had been sold he had taken over the remainder with the wry comment: ‘I have now a library of nearly nine hundred volumes, over seven hundred of which I wrote myself.’”31 It has been said that Thoreau blamed Emerson for the failure of the self-publishing project, since Emerson had advised Thoreau to self-publish, and Thoreau had used Emerson’s publisher. The failure of the project left Thoreau with a heavy load of debt. An estrangement between Emerson and Thoreau developed, and lasted for years.
Thoreau had an intimate knowledge of plants. “One person who accompanied Thoreau on a walk asked him where he might find the Hibiscus in flower; Thoreau pointed out where it could be found, and said it would blossom next Monday and not stay long; his friend went to the spot on Wednesday and found only petals scattered on the ground.”32 In June, 1853, Thoreau found a huge toadstool, 16 inches high, and paraded it down the main street of Concord. He noted that several people who had never spoken to him before came over to inspect his treasure.33
At about age 24, Thoreau wrote an autobiographical sketch:
One person who met Thoreau said, “His nose was strong, dominating his face, and his eyes as keen as an eagle’s. He seemed to speak with them, to take in all about him in one vigorous glance.”35 Hawthorne’s daughter remembered that Thoreau “used to flit in and out of the house with long, ungainly, Indian-like stride, and his piercing large orbs, staring, as it were in vacancy.”36 The eyes of genius.
Thoreau had a keen interest in Native Americans, and was adept at finding their relics, such as arrowheads.
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 just 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.
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: they went to the newspaper office to watch typesetting, they went to the gunsmith shop to watch the making of guns, and they gave each boy a hoe and had them plant a small garden. They thought that surveying would be a good application of math, especially geometry. 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.’”38
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.”39
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.”40
Thoreau had several disciples and admirers. A disciple in New Bedford, Daniel Ricketson, enjoyed Thoreau’s company so much that he considered moving to Concord. Bronson Alcott said,
Thoreau was an ardent abolitionist. He and his family helped slaves to buy their freedom, and helped fugitive slaves make their way to Canada. One ex-slave walked from Boston to Concord to thank Thoreau, and to present him with a little statue of Uncle Tom.42 Thoreau seemed to favor war with the South, and lamented that the North was slow to commence hostilities.43 Thoreau wrote an anti-slavery tract, “Slavery in Massachusetts,” and read it at Concord’s Town Hall; one listener said he read it “as if it burned him.”44 Thoreau admired John Brown, an abolitionist who used violent methods. Brown’s daughters said that Thoreau reminded them of their father.45 Harding thinks that Thoreau’s admiration for Brown may have been excessive: “Had Thoreau known of Brown’s perpetration of the bloodthirsty Pottawatomie massacre in Kansas, he might never have endorsed him and might have been convinced of his insanity.”
Thoreau was wary of reform societies, believing that reform should begin with the individual. Thoreau said of one band of reformers:
Thoreau contracted tuberculosis at a young age, and his health worsened when he contracted bronchitis in 1859, after walking on a rainy night. Thoreau died in 1862, about a year after the Civil War began. As death approached, Thoreau’s personal religion didn’t desert him. His sister, who was with him in his last months, marveled at his positive attitude:
When his aunt asked him if he had made his peace with God, Thoreau answered, “I did not know we had ever quarreled.”47 In his journal, he had once written, “For joy I could embrace the earth. I shall delight to be buried in it.”
|1.|| Walter Harding, The Days of Henry Thoreau: A Biography, Ch. 2, #2, p. 19. All my quotations are from this biography, unless otherwise indicated. back|
|2.|| Ch. 14, #1, p. 265 back|
|3.|| “When winter came, Hawthorne often joined Thoreau and Emerson in skating on the river and Mrs. Hawthorne was amused to note their varied posture. Thoreau did ‘dithyrambic dances and Bacchic leaps on the ice’ while Hawthorne ‘moved like a self-impelled Greek statue, stately and grave,’ and Emerson ‘closed the line evidently too weary to hold himself erect, pitching headforemost, half lying on the air.’”(Harding, Ch. 7, #4, p. 139) back|
|4.|| Ch. 2, #2, p. 18 back|
|5.|| Ch. 3, #2, p. 38 back|
|6.|| Walden, ch. 3 back|
|7.|| Ch. 17, #5, p. 374 back|
|8.|| Ch. 7, #2, p. 130 back|
|8B.|| One of Thoreau’s harshest critics was Robert Louis Stevenson, who said Thoreau was a “skulker” who lacked manliness and “dash.” George Eliot leapt to Thoreau’s defense, and criticized his critics; Eliot said we shouldn’t want “every man’s life ordered according to a particular pattern.”(Wikipedia) back|
|9.|| “Life Without Principle” back|
|10.|| “Life Without Principle” back|
|11.|| “Life Without Principle” back|
|12.|| Walden, ch. 1 back|
|13.|| Walden, ch. 1 back|
|14.|| ibid back|
|15.|| Ch. 6, #1, p. 99 back|
|16.|| Ch. 6, #1, p. 95 back|
|17.|| Ch. 6, #1, p. 104 back|
|18.|| Walden, ch. 2 back|
|19.|| Ch. 10, #1, pp. 193, 194 back|
|20.|| Ch. 18, #8, p. 403 back|
|21.|| Ch. 18, #8, p. 404 back|
|22.|| Ch. 10, #1, p. 198 back|
|23.|| Ch. 11, #4, p. 220 back|
|24.|| Ch. 10, #1, p. 198 back|
|25.|| Walden, ch. 2 back|
|26.|| Henry David Thoreau, by J. W. Krutch, ch. 3 back|
|27.|| Schopenhauer’s remarks on genius and metaphor (The World as Will and Idea, vol. 2, ch. 7) seem especially applicable to Thoreau. back|
|28.|| Henry David Thoreau, by J. W. Krutch, ch. 5 back|
|29.|| Ch. 8, #2, p. 153 back|
|30.|| Ch. 11, #1, p. 200 back|
|31.|| Henry David Thoreau, by J. W. Krutch, ch. 1 back|
|32.|| Ch. 15, #7, p. 329 back|
|33.|| Ch. 15, #7, p. 328 back|
|34.|| Ch. 7, #2, p. 124 back|
|35.|| Ch. 10, #1, p. 193 back|
|36.|| Ch. 19, #4, p. 431. According to Schopenhauer, “It is only the eye which is any real evidence of genius.”(The Art of Controversy, “Genius and Virtue”) “The glance of the man in whom genius lives and works readily distinguishes him,” Schopenhauer wrote; “it is both vivid and firm and bears the character of thoughtfulness, of contemplation.”(The World As Will and Idea, vol. 1, #36) Lichtenberg spoke of, “that expression which one could call an inward looking of the eyes of the mind, which is always a mark of the genius.”(The Lichtenberg Reader, Boston, Beacon Press, 1959; Aphorisms, 1768-1771) back|
|37.|| Ch. 19, #3, p. 426 back|
|38.|| Ch. 14, #4, p. 276 back|
|39.|| Ch. 9, #1, p. 157 back|
|40.|| Ch. 14, #8, p. 292 back|
|41.|| Ch. 20, #2, p. 459. Emerson said, “I have repeatedly known young men of sensibility converted in a moment to the belief that this was the man they were in search of, the man of men, who could tell them all they should do. His own dealing with them was never affectionate, but superior, didactic, scorning their petty ways — very slowly conceding, or not conceding at all, the promise of his society at their houses, or even at his own.”(“Thoreau”) back|
|42.|| Ch. 15, #4, p. 316 back|
|43.|| Ch.15, #4, p. 315 back|
|44.|| Ch. 19, #2, p. 417 back|
|45.|| Ch. 19, #2, p. 423 back|
|46.|| Ch. 20, #2, p. 464 back|
|47.||Ch. 20, #2, p. 464 back|