Genius Ignored, Chapter 5: Thoreau [Life/Biography]
It's no wonder that Thoreau's Walden is more popular than ever. The condition to which it is the antidote -- the delusion that material things can bring one happiness, that labor in and of itself is good, that Nature can be ignored -- has spread from Europe and the United States to the entire world. Of course we'd sensed that something was wrong even before we read this book but needed Henry to bring it into focus, to strip the detritus from our still superficial lives, revealing bare rock. We may not agree with what he builds on this rock (the possibility of individual perfection) but are grateful for the stripping away. Finding each generation as deluded as those which preceded it, Thoreau continues to "brag as lustily as a chanticleer in the morning, standing on his roost," . . . continues to try to wake us up. . . .
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[Maxham, 1856. Daguerreotype of Henry D. Thoreau. Courtesy of The Thoreau Society]
Thoreau was born in Concord, Massachusetts, on July 12, 1817. He was christened "David Henry", but his parents always called him by his middle name "Henry". He had a sister Helen who was five years older and a brother John two years older. In 1819 another sister, Sophia, was born. The family moved to Boston in 1821, but returned to Concord two years later. Except for his four years at college and a half-year stay on Staten Island, Henry lived in Concord for the rest of his life.
As a youth Thoreau spent his spare time exploring Concord's woods, fields, rivers, and ponds. He remembered visiting Walden Pond when he was only four years old (when his family was still living in Boston). He was a good student and his family made a special effort to raise money for his schooling. He was able to attend Harvard and graduated with the Class of 1837. Though he later disparaged the value of his Harvard classes -- and all formal education --, he was an avid reader and great user of libraries (including Harvard's) throughout his life.
In the autumn of 1837 he obtained a position as a teacher at the Center School in Concord. Since he couldn't keep his students as quiet as authorities required -- and since he refused to beat them -- he lasted only two weeks. In the following months he spent quite a bit of time with Ralph Waldo Emerson, a fellow resident of Concord, fifteen years his senior and just coming into his fame.
Thoreau started giving his name as "Henry David" instead of "David Henry". His neighbors did not approve: dissatisfaction with one's God-given name was unnatural and unseemly. In typical Thoreau fashion, he never bothered to have it changed legally.
In May, 1838, when he left on a tour of Maine in search of a teaching position (at a private school where he would have more freedom) he carried with him a reference from Emerson:
Later that summer, James Russell Lowell, the most influential literary figure of the mid-19th century, came in contact with Thoreau at Emerson's: "I saw Thoreau last night and it is exquisitely amusing to see how he imitates Emerson's tone and manner. With my eyes shut I shouldn't know them apart." [from a letter quoted in Harding, Thoreau As Seen, p. 180]
When he failed to find a position, he and his brother started their own school, the Concord Academy. Aside from its lack of corporal punishment, the school was distinguished by its innovative, "hands-on" approach to learning: scientific experiments, nature walks, field trips to the workshops of local craftsmen. It was, for the three years it lasted, quite successful -- almost always having its full number of students.
Henry had several romances during these years. The most serious was that with eighteen-year-old Ellen Sewall in 1840. He proposed marriage (by letter!), but was rejected.
The Academy closed in 1841 when John became seriously ill with tuberculosis; Henry didn't have the will to continue alone. Emerson asked Thoreau to come and live with him and his family, doing a few hours of work each day as a handyman/gardener in exchange for room and board. The arrangement was originally for a year, but was later extended to two.
In January, 1842, Thoreau's brother John died from lockjaw. Though Henry showed few outward signs of emotion, he developed an illness with all the symptoms of lockjaw himself. It took several months for him to recover.
In September, 1842, Nathaniel Hawthorne, who had just moved to Concord, recorded his first impressions of Thoreau in his journal:
This was how Priscilla Rice Edes, another Concord resident, saw him in those years:
From May to December, 1843, Thoreau lived with Emerson's brother's family on Staten Island and tutored their children. He had decided to become a writer and it seemed that being close to the New York publishing scene might be an advantage. It wasn't. Deciding that he needed to simplify his life, he returned to Concord. He wanted to write a book with a canoe trip he and John had taken on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers in 1839 as its theme. It seemed that if he reduced his material needs he could spend far less time working and far more time studying nature and writing.
In the spring of 1845, he went out to Walden Pond and built a primitive cabin. He moved in on July 4 and lived there for two years and two months. His plain, simple life there is described in Walden. Walden Pond was only a mile from Concord Village. He would go into town to visit friends, and they would likewise visit him at his hut. He ate with his family or received food from them at least once a week.
He slept in his cabin each night. One exception was either July 23 or July 24, 1846, when he was in the Concord Jail for refusing to pay the poll tax. The amount was small, strictly a matter of principle, a protest against the government's support of slavery and the Mexican War. His mother or aunt paid it and he was expelled the next day (irritated at their interference).
Thoreau's move had aroused a great deal of curiosity among his fellow Concordians; they wanted to know why a Harvard graduate was living in a cabin in the woods. Thus, along with work on the book he had planned to write ("A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers"), Thoreau prepared a series of lectures on his life at the pond. In February, 1847, he read the first of these, "A History of Myself", to the Concord Lyceum. The success of this and the other lectures convinced Thoreau that he should make them into a book. By September, 1847, when he once again "became a sojourner in civilized life", he had finished not only a first draft of A Week but also an initial version of Walden (about half as long as the final version).
Thoreau's relationship with animals was magical. Frederick Willis recalled visiting him at Walden Pond (in July 1847) with the Alcott family:
Thoreau never married, but it is wrong to assume that he was a hermit. With the exception of his two years, two months, at Walden Pond, he lived with either the Emersons (for the two-year stay mentioned above and for ten months in 1847-8) or his own family (mother, father, sister, aunts) for his entire life. He wasn't a guy you'd be inspired to greet with a big kiss or a hug, but he did value his family and his friends. He had feelings:
Some residents of Concord accused him of sponging off his parents. This was definitely not the case. He made major contributions to the family's pencil manufacturing business, both through his own labor and through improvements in the manufacturing process. He did odd jobs as a handyman/carpenter/gardener for his own family and for other families. In his thirties and forties, he was a successful surveyor. It's true that he never worked that much -- perhaps an average of 10-20 hours per week -- but he spent and required even less. . . . My point: Thoreau was genuine. He loved nature and lived a frugal, ascetic life, not just in his years at Walden Pond but in the years which followed as well.
His townsmen wanted to know why he had gone to jail rather than pay the poll tax. On January 26, 1848, Thoreau delivered a lecture to the Concord Lyceum on "the relation of the individual to the State". It was published as an essay , "Resistance to Civil Government," a year later. (It did not receive its more widely-known title, "Civil Disobedience," until after Thoreau's death).
In his A Fable for Critics, published in 1848, the influential James Russell Lowell included a portrait which was widely assumed to apply to Thoreau and Ellery Channing:
Tread in Emerson's tracks with legs painfully short;
How he jumps, how he strains, and gets red in the face,
To keep step with the mystagogue's natural pace!
He follows as close as a stick to a rocket,
His fingers exploring the prophet's each pocket.
Fie, for shame, brother bard; with good fruit of your own,
Can't you let Neighbor Emerson's alone?
Besides 't is no use, you'll not find e'en a core,--
________ has picked up all the windfalls before." [quoted in Harding, Days, p. 299]
Walter Harding, the pre-eminent biographer of Thoreau, contends that this accusation "postponed for a whole generation, if not longer, any true recognition of Thoreau's individual genius". [Harding, Days, p. 66]
Thoreau did, however, have some powerful supporters. There was Emerson, of course, and Horace Greeley, editor of the New York Tribune (and author of the Horatio Alger books), who, in the May 25, 1848, issue, printed an extensive "extract from a private letter we have just received from a very different sort of literary youth -- a thorough classical scholar, true poet, . . ." Greeley was a loyal and enthusiastic supporter of Thoreau throughout his career.
Thoreau had been unable to find a publisher for A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. Finally, he accepted an offer from James Munroe & Co. to print the book with no up-front cost to himself if he would promise to pay for any copies which didn't sell.
It was published on May 30, 1848. Thoreau's account of the trip is interesting, but occupies less than half of the book. The rest is poems, quotations, historical information, and philosophizing whose connection with the narrative is frequently rather tenuous. There are some excellent observations of nature, but all in all the book seems rather "literary", stilted, meandering -- not a bad book, just suffering terribly in comparison with its successor. There were at least twelve reviews (at least four in British periodicals). More than two-thirds were positive.
Despite the widespread reviews, sales of A Week were poor. Beginning in 1849 Thoreau had to start making payments to Munroe. Though the publisher had agreed to bring out Walden soon after A Week, the failure of the latter made them (and other publishers) leery of the former.
On October 27, 1853, he wrote in his journal:
He lost $275 on the book. (He had had to pay $290 for unsold copies; his income from sales was $15.)
The people around Concord who had thought Thoreau a fool were vindicated. James Kendall Hosmer, a boy at this time, remembered being told that Thoreau ". . . had written a book no copy of which had ever been sold. . . . The edition fell dead from the press, and all the books, one thousand or more, he had collected in his mother's house, . . ." [quoted in Harding, Days, p. 255]
Thoreau continued to add new material to Walden, trying out various pieces with Emerson and other friends and in lectures to the public, revising it based on their feedback. The book went through numerous drafts between 1847 and 1854 when Thoreau felt it was really done. Ticknor & Fields agreed to publish it and an edition of 2,000 copies was produced in August, 1854.
Walden is a masterpiece of prose style. The profound ideas are expressed with simplicity and eloquence -- and an excellent use of metaphor. (It's interesting to note that Thoreau had steeped himself in that progenitor of metaphor, the Iliad, during these years.) Here are some of my favorite passages:
By closing the eyes and slumbering and consenting to be deceived by shows, men establish and confirm their daily life of routine and habit everywhere, which still is built on purely illusory foundations. . . . I have read in a Hindoo book, that 'there was a king's son, who, being expelled in infancy from his native city, was brought up by a forester, and, growing to maturity in that state, imagined himself to belong to the barbarous race with which he lived. One of his father's ministers having discovered him, revealed to him what he was, and the misconception of his character was removed, and he knew himself to be a prince. So soul,' continues the Hindoo philosopher, 'from the circumstances in which it is placed, mistakes its own character, until the truth is revealed to it by some holy teacher, and then it knows itself to be Brahme.' I perceive that we inhabitants of New England live this mean life that we do because our vision does not penetrate the surface of things. . . . [Thoreau, p. 91]
Let us settle ourselves, and work and wedge our feet downward through the mud and slush of opinion, and prejudice, and tradition, and delusion, and appearance, that alluvion which covers the globe, through Paris and London, through New York and Boston and Concord, through Church and State, through poetry and philosophy and religion, till we come to a hard bottom and rocks in place, which we can call reality, and say, This is, and no mistake; and then begin, having a point d'appui, below freshet and frost and fire, a place where you might found a wall or a state, or set a lamp-post safely, . . . [Thoreau, pp. 92-3]
Sometimes, after staying in a village parlor till the family had all retired, I have returned to the woods, and partly with a view to the next day's dinner, spent the hours of midnight fishing from a boat by moonlight, serenaded by owls and foxes, and hearing, from time to time, the creaking note of some unknown bird close at hand. These experiences were very memorable and valuable to me,--anchored in forty feet of water, and twenty or thirty rods from the shore, surrounded sometimes by thousands of small perch and shiners, dimpling the surface with their tails in the moonlight, and communicating by a long flaxen line with mysterious nocturnal fishes which had their dwelling forty feet below, or sometimes dragging sixty feet of line about the pond as I drifted in the night breeze, now and then feeling a slight vibration along it, indicative of some life prowling about its extemity, of dull uncertain blundering purpose there, and slow to make up its mind. At length you slowly raise, pulling hand over hand, some horned pout squeaking and squirming to the upper air. It was very queer, especially in dark nights, when your thoughts had wandered to vast and cosmogonal themes in other spheres, to feel this faint jerk, which came to interrupt your dreams and link you to Nature again. It seemed as if I might next cast my line upward into the air, as well as downward into this element, which was scarcely more dense. Thus I caught two fishes as it were with one hook. [Thoreau, pp. 165-6]
. . . There is solid bottom everywhere. We read that the traveller asked the boy if the swamp before him had a hard bottom. The boy replied that it had. But presently the traveller's horse sank in up to the girths, and he observed to the boy, 'I thought you said that this bog had a hard bottom.' 'So it has,' answered the latter, 'but you have not got half way to it yet.' So it is with the bogs and quicksands of society; but he is an old boy that knows it. Only what is thought, said, or done at a certain rare coincidence is good. I would not be one of those who will foolishly drive a nail into mere lath and plastering; such a deed would keep me awake nights. Give me a hammer, and let me feel for the furring. Do not depend on the putty. Drive a nail home and clinch it so faithfully that you can wake up in the night and think of your work with satisfaction,--a work at which you would not be ashamed to invoke the Muse. So will help you God, and so only. Every nail driven should be as another rivet in the machine of the universe, you carrying on the work.
Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth. . . . [Thoreau, pp. 309-10]
Emerson described the days following publication: "We account Henry the undoubted King of all American lions. He is walking up & down Concord, firm-looking, but in a tremble of great expectation." [quoted in Harding, Thoreau as Seen, p. 172]
There were at least 15 positive reviews and about three negative ones:
The Unitarian Christian Register: "We suppose its author does not reverence many things we reverence; but this fact has not prevented our seeing that he has a reverential, tender and devout spirit at bottom. . . ." [Harding, Days, p. 335]
The Boston Atlas: "There is not a page, a paragraph giving one sign of liberality, charitableness, kind feeling, generosity, in a word -- heart. . . ." [Harding, Days, p. 335]
Thoreau was a guest on a mid-nineteenth-century talk show:
[AB=Ainsworth Brown; HT=Henry Thoreau]
AB: Good afternoon. This is "The Ainsworth Brown Show" and I am Ainsworth Brown. We are privileged to have as our guest this afternoon Henry David Thoreau who has written a book, Walden; or, Life in the Woods. Henry, come on out . . . . [Applause from studio audience as Thoreau enters] Welcome, welcome. Glad you could come. . . . Have a seat. . . .
HT: Thank you.
AB: Henry, I have not had a chance to read your book yet but I do know that it is, in the popular parlance, "hot, hot, hot". Graham's Magazine has called it "always racy and stimulating", the product of a "powerful and accomplished mind". . . . So what's this Walden about?
HT: It's the story of the two years, two months, and two days I spent living alone in a cabin by Walden Pond, near Concord, Massachusetts.
AB: What happened?
HT: I built the cabin. That first summer I grew some beans as a cash crop. In the book I talk about the food I ate, the plants and animals I saw, and the changing of the seasons.
AB: So what did you eat?
HT: I ate wild berries and grapes. I occasionally caught some fish or a wild animal -- I once trapped and butchered a woodchuck who was bothering my bean plants -- but mostly I ate rice, bread made from rye and cornmeal with molasses as sweetening, potatoes, and peas.
AB: Frankly, Henry, except for the woodchuck, it sounds pretty boring.
HT: I can see why you might think so, Mr. Brown. But, as I contend in the book, the external circumstances in which one finds one's self are far less important than one's inner life. I wanted to simplify my material needs to a point where I could spend just a few hours each day satisfying them and have all the rest of my time free for contemplation and self-improvement. Most men are slaves to their possessions and to the jobs they are forced to perform in order to pay for them.
AB: I get it -- a Marxist/capitalist kind of thing. . . .
HT: I'm not sure I know what you mean. . . .
AB: What were the results of your contemplations?
HT: I have recorded many of my thoughts in the book, but I don't really think of contemplation as a means for book-creation, or as a means to anything at all, but rather as an end in itself.
AB: I see . . . so it's like meditation, TM, that kind of thing. . . .
HT: Yes, it is meditation.
AB: But you would meditate for like -- what -- ten hours a day?
HT: Yes, it might frequently have been that long.
AB: Wow! ... Did you spend all your time at the pond or did you go other places too?
HT: I have always walked wherever I've wanted to. Individual men may think they own particular pieces of property but, in a truer sense, trees, mountains and animals can not be owned; they belong to Nature and to the men who would love and protect them.
AB: [Turning to the camera] So, there you have it. Henry David Thoreau, Marxist eco-warrior. He has regularly spent ten hours a day in meditation and once killed, butchered with his own hands, and ate a woodchuck who was devouring his bean plants. His book [holding a copy up to the camera] is Walden; or, Life in the Woods. Thank you, Henry. Please tune in tomorrow when my guest will be . . .
Nathaniel Hawthorne didn't care for Thoreau quite so much by this time as he had in 1842. He wrote in a letter to a friend:
"He despises the world, and all that it has to offer, and, like other humorists, is an intolerable bore. I shall cause it to be known to him that you sat up till two o'clock reading his book; and he will pretend it is of no consequence, but will never forget it. . . . he is not an agreeeable person, and in his presence one feels ashamed of having any money, or a house to live in, or so much as two coats to wear, or having written a book that the public will read -- his own mode of life being so unsparing a criticism on all other modes, such as the world approves." [quoted in Harding, Thoreau as Seen, p. 175]
Nevertheless, Hawthorne recommended the book to a variety of friends in England (where he was then serving as the U. S. consul in Liverpool) and had copies shipped to them from the United States.
In the year following its publication more than 1700 copies of Walden (out of the original printing of 2,000) were sold. Sales declined rapidly in subsequent years, however.
Thoreau included some literary self-criticism on the inside cover of his journal for the fall of 1855:
Paradoxes,--saying just the opposite,--a style which may be imitated.
Playing with words,--getting the laugh,--not always simple, strong, and broad.
Using current phrases and maxims, when I should speak for myself.
Not always earnest.
"In short," "in fact," "alas!" etc.
Want of conciseness.
Thoreau decided to arrange a nationwide lecturing tour, similar to the ones at which Emerson had been so successful. Despite the fact that Greeley publicized Thoreau's availability in the New York Tribune, he received only one firm offer (from Hamilton, Ontario). There was no nationwide tour. Thoreau continued to lecture at towns nearer to Concord.
Thoreau's two-million-word journal contains remarkably few insights into his inner life. Some of the entries from 1856 and 1857 are exceptions:
(October 18, 1856) . . . I see that my neighbors look with compassion on me, that they think it is a mean and unfortunate destiny which makes me to walk in these fields and woods so much and sail on this river alone. But so long as I find here the only real elysium, I cannot hesitate in my choice. My work is writing, and I do not hesitate, though I know that no subject is too trivial for me, tried by ordinary standards; for, ye fools, the theme is nothing, the life is everything. All that interests the reader is the depth and intensity of the life excited. . . .
(January 11, 1857) For some years past I have partially offered myself as a lecturer; have been advertised as such several years. Yet I have had but two or three invitations to lecture in a year, and some years none at all. I congratulate myself on having been permitted to stay at home thus, I am so much richer for it. I do not see what I should have got of much value, but money, by going about, but I do see what I should have lost. It seems to me that I have a longer and more liberal lease on life thus. I cannot afford to be telling my experience, especially to those who perhaps will take no interest in it. I wish to be getting experience. You might as well recommend to a bear to leave his hollow tree in the woods. He would be leaner in the spring than if he had stayed at home and sucked his claws. . . .
(April 23, 1857) How rarely a man's love for nature becomes a ruling principle with him, like a youth's affection for a maiden, but more enduring! All nature is my bride.
In his later years, Thoreau spent, if anything, even more time observing and recording. The journals from this period are filled with detailed, scientific observations. Different people had very different views of him as a scientist/naturalist:
1. An old farmer (as recorded by Mrs. Daniel Chester French):
2. Abby Hosmer:
At last, though, along about supper time, he came up here to the house. And then we children knew that we'd learn what it was he'd been watching. He'd found a duck that had just hatched out a nest of eggs. She had brought the little ducks down to the water. And Mr. Thoreau had watched all day to see her teach those little ducks about the river.
And while we ate our suppers there in the kitchen, he told us the most wonderful stories you ever heard about those ducks." [quoted in Harding, Thoreau as Seen, p. 182]
In 1858 Thoreau's nemesis, James Russell Lowell, editor of the newly-founded Atlantic Monthly, solicited a contribution from Thoreau. Thoreau submitted an account of a trip he had taken to Maine in 1853 which was accepted and published. Unfortunately, Lowell omitted (apparently because he considered it blasphemous) the following sentence: "It [a pine tree] is as immortal as I am, and perchance will go to as high a heaven, there to tower above me still." Thoreau was extremely upset and refused to have any dealings with Lowell for the rest of his life.
It was sometime in 1859 that one of Thoreau's townsmen "innocently told him after riding through Walden woods in his sleigh that he had never seen anything so beautiful in his life and that if there had been men there who knew how to write about it, it would have been a great occasion for them. . . ." [Harding, Days, p. 339] (obviously unaware that a book named Walden had ever been written). It was also in 1859 that Ticknor & Fields finally sold the last copy of Walden. It had taken one year to sell the first 1700 copies and 5 years to sell the last 300. They decided not to reprint it.
Thoreau was greatly affected by John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry (in October, 1859). Though he didn't belong to any Abolitionist societies ("societies" being anathema to him) he was a radical, uncompromising opponent of slavery. He and his family had several times harbored runaway slaves and helped them get to Canada. He had met Brown in Concord in 1857. He knew that slaveowners had been butchered at Pottawatomie Creek, Kansas, in 1856, but did not know that Brown was responsible. To others, Brown was an ineffective madman. To Thoreau, he was a principled man willing to sacrifice everything, including his life, for those principles. "I was so absorbed in him as to be surprised when I detected the routine of the natural world surviving still." He prepared an eloquent "Plea for Captain John Brown" which he delivered in Concord on October 30, 1859, and again in Boston on November 1.
For a number of years Thoreau had exhibited mild symptoms of tuberculosis. Beginning in 1861 the condition worsened. "As ill as he was, Thoreau nonetheless continued his literary work. Early in February  a request came from James T. Fields for him to submit some of his writings to the Atlantic Monthly. Ticknor & Fields, the publishers of Walden, had purchased the Atlantic in 1859 . . . In June 1861 Fields had taken over its editorial direction. Since James Russell Lowell now no longer had any connection with the magazine, Thoreau was happy to accede, . . ." [Harding, Days, p. 457] Fields accepted the manuscript Thoreau sent and expressed an interest in reprinting Walden. Thoreau replied that "he would not only be very happy to see Walden back in print, but he had 146 bound copies and 450 unbound copies of A Week in his attic -- an obvious hint to Fields that he would like to see the earlier book republished too." [Harding, Days, p. 458]
Fields agreed to a printing of 250 copies of Walden and on April 12 came to Concord and purchased all the unsold copies of A Week. One can't help but think -- and it would seem that Thoreau couldn't help but think -- that Fields did these things, at least in part, out of respect for the wishes of a dying man.
Thoreau died on May 6, 1862. He was 44 years old. The reprintings of both Walden and A Week appeared within a month.
Charles Woodbury in his account of his visits with Emerson from 1865 to 1870 quotes Emerson as saying:
"He [Thoreau] had a great contempt for those who made no effort to gauge accurately their own powers and weaknesses, and by no means spared himself, of whom he said that a man gathers materials to erect a palace, and finally concludes to build a shantee with them." [quoted in Harding, Thoreau as Seen, p. 71]
At the Barnes & Noble bookstore in Evanston, Illinois, on November 12, 1995, there were eight books by or about Ralph Waldo Emerson; 19, by or about Nathaniel Hawthorne; and 23, by or about Henry David Thoreau. There were no books by or about James Russell Lowell.
Harding, Walter. The Days of Henry Thoreau. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1965. LC Card number: 65-18766.
Harding, Walter. Thoreau as Seen by His Contemporaries. New York: Dover, 1989. ISBN: 0-486-26160-3.
Thoreau, Henry D. Walden and Other Writings. New York: Random House, 1992. ISBN: 0-679-60004-3.
Thoreau on the Web
Do you know of art --especially contemporary art available through the Web-- which expresses genuine feeling? Please email me: Lucius@jspecht.org
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