July 23, 2010

1. Thoreau

“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 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. fifty 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 fled 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.”2

As this story shows, Thoreau was an eccentric who made no effort to hide his eccentricity. He was also well-coordinated and full of energy.3 But as a youngster, he didn’t participate in 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. Thoreau exemplifies the younger son’s tendency to mistrust power.

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 read many English poets from the 1500s and 1600s, and quoted them in A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. For example, he read Francis Quarles, Michael Drayton, John Donne, and William Browne, perhaps because he enjoyed their descriptions of nature.

Thoreau was also fond of travel narratives, and natural history; he read Pliny and Linnaeus; he read Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle, and he was one of the first American converts to Darwin’s theory of evolution. One of the subjects that interested him most was the American Indian, and he devoured many books about Indians, such as the books of Henry Schoolcraft. 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. His friend Ellery Channing said, “Metaphysics was his aversion.”

Channing says that Thoreau was a big fan of Carlyle, and a fan of Ruskin. But Thoreau had no interest in fiction. Channing says, “For novels, stories, and such matters, he was devoid of all curiosity; and for the works of Dickens had a hearty contempt.”

When Whitman was still young and unknown, Thoreau became acquainted with his poetry, and became an ardent fan. 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 criticized Thoreau for despising the common man, Thoreau criticized 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:

The world is a place of business. What an infinite bustle! I am awaked almost every night by the panting of the locomotive. It interrupts my dreams. There is no sabbath. It would be glorious to see mankind at leisure for once. It is nothing but work, work, work.... There is nothing, not even crime, more opposed to poetry, to philosophy, ay, to life itself, than this incessant business.9

Thoreau felt that reading newspapers, and keeping abreast of current events, distracted you from the classics, and from nature:

I do not know but it is too much to read one newspaper a week. I have tried it recently, and for so long it seems to me that I have not dwelt in my native region. The sun, the clouds, the snow, the trees say not so much to me. You cannot serve two masters.10

Better to have a mind that’s empty and peaceful than to stuff your mind with news.

I believe that the mind can be permanently profaned by the habit of attending to trivial things, so that all our thoughts shall be tinged with triviality.... We should treat our minds, that is, ourselves, as innocent and ingenuous children, whose guardians we are, and be careful what objects and what subjects we thrust on their attention. Read not the Times. Read the Eternities.11

Thoreau is fond of puns — perhaps too fond.

In 1842, 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.

Thoreau 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:

There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root, and it may be that he who bestows the largest amount of time and money on the needy is doing the most by his mode of life to produce that misery which he strives in vain to relieve.14

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:

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.... The favorite of all his wild pets was a mouse.... When he held it a piece of cheese, it came and nibbled between his fingers, and then cleaned its face and paws like a fly.... Thoreau could summon the mouse out of hiding with his flute and display it to his friends.19

Later in his life, Thoreau

turned his attention to frogs and found that if he had the patience to sit by the side of a pool long enough, the frogs that first disappeared from sight would poke their noses quietly out of the water to stare curiously at him and eventually would come hopping up to within a foot and permit him to scratch their noses with his finger and to examine them to his heart’s content.20

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”:

One morning I went out in my field across there to the river, and there, beside that little old mud pond, was standing Da-a-vid Henry, and he wasn’t doin’ nothin’ but just standin’ there — lookin’ at that pond, and when I came back at noon, there he was standin’ with his hands behind him just lookin’ down into that pond, and after dinner when I come back again if there wasn’t Da-a-vid standin’ there just like as if he had been there all day, gazin’ down into that pond, and I stopped and looked at him and I says, “Da-a-vid Henry, what air you a-doin’?” And he didn’t turn his head and he didn’t look at me. He kept on lookin’ down at that pond, and he said, as if he was thinkin’ about the stars in the heavens, “Mr. Murray, I’m a-studyin’ — the habits — of the bullfrog!” And there that darned fool had been standin’ — the livelong day — a-studyin’ — the habits — of the bull-frog!21

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:

I am a Schoolmaster, a private Tutor, a Surveyor, a Gardener, a Farmer, a Painter (I mean a House Painter), a Carpenter, a Mason, a Day-Laborer, a Pencil-Maker, a Glass-paper Maker, a Writer, and sometimes a Poetaster.... I have found out a way to live without what is commonly called employment or industry.... Indeed my steadiest employment, if such it can be called, is to keep myself at the top of my condition, and ready for whatever may turn up in heaven or on earth. For the last two or three years I have lived in Concord woods alone, something more than a mile from any neighbor, in a house built entirely by myself.... I beg that the Class will not consider me an object of charity, and if any of them are in want of pecuniary assistance, and will make known their case to me, I will engage to give some advice of more worth than money.23

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 often paid calls in the evening. Grindall Reynolds, a minister in Concord, said

Thoreau was one of the pleasantest gentlemen, most social and agreeable, I ever met. When I officiated at his father’s funeral he came over the next evening as a courteous acknowledgment, and spent two hours, and told his Canada story far better than in his book.

Thoreau had a penchant for story-telling. Thoreau’s friend Channing wrote,

On his return from one of his Maine journeys, he told the story at great length... not only to his family, but to his friends, with the utmost alacrity and pleasure — yet as if he were discharging a sacred duty.24B

Channing says that Thoreau also cultivated the art of asking questions, and even carried with him (sometimes) a written list of questions. “Ever on the search for knowledge, [Thoreau] lived to get information.... I once said to him how surprised I was at the persistence of this trait in him. ‘What else is there in life?’ was his reply.”

Thoreau questioned not only respectable people, but also the riff-raff who spent their days fishing, hunting, and drinking. Such men were “experienced in birds and beasts and fishes, and from them he loved to draw their facts.” Occasionally Thoreau enjoyed the conversation of the drunken. Thoreau wrote, “I have been inspired by one or two men in their cups. There was really a divinity stirred within them, so that in their case I have reverenced the drunken, as savages do the insane man.”24C

At a restaurant, Thoreau would order apple pudding, and enjoy conversation. “Never in too much hurry for a dish of gossip, he could ‘sit out the oldest frequenter of the bar-room,’ as he believed, and was alive from top to toe with curiosity.”

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

Since Thoreau was satisfied with Concord, he had little desire to travel; he didn’t hanker after Europe or South America or California. As Louisa May Alcott wrote in her poem “Thoreau’s Flute,”

The wisdom of a just content
Made one small spot a continent,
And turned to poetry life’s prose.

Below is a map of Concord in 1852. I’ve marked the Thoreau and Emerson homes with an X. The Thoreau home is on the west side of the village, across from Channing, while Emerson is on the east side. The Thoreau home is labelled “J. Thoreau” since Thoreau’s father was John Thoreau (his brother was also John, his grandfather was Jean).

Click here for a larger version of the above map. In his book on Thoreau, Edward Emerson says, “From his window Thoreau could see the quiet river.” The Sudbury River is just north of Thoreau’s house. Soon it meets the Assabet River, to form the Concord River. Today the river is probably obscured by trees and buildings, but the land was more open in Thoreau’s day.

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. Thoreau became sore at Emerson, and their friendship didn’t recover for several years.

Though this first book didn’t sell well, Thoreau was gradually acquiring literary contacts, and gradually acquiring a reputation. One of his most valuable contacts was Horace Greeley, editor of the New York Tribune. Greeley published a review of Thoreau’s first book on the front page of the Tribune. Thoreau’s book also “received considerable notice in England.”

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:

I am about five feet 7 inches in height — of a light complexion, rather slimly built.... One who faces West oftener than East — walks out of the house with a better grace than he goes in — who loves winter as well as summer — forest as well as field — darkness as well as light. Rather solitary than gregarious — not migratory nor dormant — but to be raised at any season, by day or night, not by the pulling of any bell wire, but by a smart stroke upon any pine tree in the woods of Concord.34

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.

When Emerson went to Europe, Thoreau stayed with his wife and three young children, helping out around the house and yard. Thoreau was fond of children, told them stories about animals, and made popcorn for them over the fire. Emerson’s son, Edward, later wrote,

As the children grew older, [Thoreau] led them to choice huckleberry hills, swamps where the great high-bush blueberries grew, guided to the land of the chestnut and barberry, and more than all, opened that land of enchantment into which, among dark hemlocks, blood-red maples, and yellowing birches, we floated in his boat, and freighted it with leaves and blue gentians and fragrant grapes from the festooning vines.

Thoreau formed a lasting bond with Edward Emerson. When Edward was about to go away to college, Thoreau was sympathetic, remembering his own experience of leaving home. Edward later wrote,

My father and mother invited Thoreau and Channing... to dine with us. When we left the table and were passing into the parlor, Thoreau asked me to come with him to our East door — our more homelike door, facing the orchard. It was an act of affectionate courtesy, for he had divined my suppressed state of mind and remembered that first crisis in his own life.... With serious face, but with a very quiet, friendly tone of voice, he reassured me, told me that I should be really close to home; very likely should pass my life in Concord. It was a great relief.

Thoreau had a keen interest in Native Americans, and was adept at finding their relics, such as arrowheads.

He soon learned from experience just which were the most “arrowheadiferous” sands in Concord and pored over them by the hour each spring as soon as the snows had melted or whenever their surface was broken by a farmer’s plow. He became so adept at finding the relics that he boasted to Grindall Reynolds that if he could sell them at six cents apiece he could make a comfortable living out of them. By the time of his death he had accumulated a collection of about nine hundred pieces, including axes, pestles, gouges, mortars, chisels, spear points, ornaments, and a large number of arrow points of varied patterns and materials... [His collection] is now in the Fruitlands Museum in Harvard, Massachusetts.37

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.

Thoreau prided himself on the quality of his work, and a later surveyor said that Thoreau’s surveys were precise. However, “magnetic north” changes over time, so compasses change over time; therefore, Thoreau’s surveys didn’t match those taken in later years.

For Thoreau, quality work was a matter of conscience — one might even say, a matter of religion. “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.... Every nail driven should be as another rivet in the machine of the universe, you carrying on the work.”

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 learned 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

Edward Emerson says that Thoreau devised a way of mixing graphite with fine clay particles, but these fine particles may have gotten into his lungs, hastening his death. When Thoreau had mastered the art of pencil-making, he suddenly quit the business, perhaps because it impinged on his freedom. But when his father became feeble, Thoreau returned to the business, on a part-time basis, and he continued working until he himself was gravely ill.

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,

I know of nothing more creditable to his greatness than the thoughtful regard, approaching to reverence, by which he has held for many years some of the best persons of his time, living at a distance, and wont to make their annual pilgrimage, usually on foot, to the master — a devotion very rare in these times.41

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:

They would not keep their distance, but cuddle up and lie spoon-fashion with you.... [I] tried to keep some starch in my clothes.... [He] addressed me as “Henry” within one minute from the time I first laid eyes on him, and when I spoke, he said with drawling, sultry sympathy, “Henry, I know all you would say; I understand you perfectly... I am going to dive into Henry’s inmost depths.” I said, “I trust you will not strike your head against the bottom.”

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 contracted tuberculosis at a young age, and his health worsened when he contracted bronchitis in 1859, after walking on a rainy night (Edward Emerson says he was, “counting the growth-rings on the stumps of some old trees”). 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:

Henry was never affected, never reached by [his illness]. I never before saw such a manifestation of the power of spirit over matter.... He remarked to me that there was as much comfort in perfect disease as in perfect health, the mind always conforming to the condition of the body. The thought of death, he said, could not begin to trouble him. His thoughts had entertained him all his life and did still.46

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.”

Edward Emerson wrote,

News of Thoreau’s death came to Louisa Alcott, then nursing in a military hospital. In the watches of the night, sitting by the cot of a dying soldier, her thoughts wandered back to the happy evenings when Thoreau might bring his flute with him to please the growing girls, when he visited the elders; that yellow flute, very melodious in its tone, which his brother John used to play. In these sad surroundings she wrote:

Thoreau’s Flute
We sighing said, “Our Pan is dead —
His pipe hangs mute beside the river,
Around it friendly moonbeams quiver,
But music’s airy voice is fled.
Spring comes to us in guise forlorn,
The blue-bird chants a requiem,
The willow-blossom waits for him,
The genius of the wood is gone.”

© L. James Hammond 2010
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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. One is reminded of Banfield’s maxim, “Do no good and no harm will come of it.” 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
24B. Thoreau, the Poet-Naturalist, by William Ellery Channing back
24C. Quoted in Channing 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