Let’s suppose you take a time-machine trip back to 1840s Concord. You’d likely be impressed by Emerson (a tall, handsome man with a kindly manner) and by Louisa May Alcott’s quick wit and intelligence. Brooding Hawthorne wouldn’t talk much to you, but you could probably sense there was a great mind at work behind his shyness.
And then there’s Henry David Thoreau, who would probably strike you as odd.
That said, Thoreau is the person whom I would most like to meet walking down a shaded lane in Concord. After visiting his home town and learning more about the Transcendentalists, in fact, I have become fascinated by him. While I had read Walden years ago, but I had never known much about Thoreau’s biography, and the more I learn, the more endearing and intriguing he seems.
Of all the literary geniuses who gathered in Concord during this period, Thoreau is the one whose reputation has risen most dramatically. The writings of his contemporaries, though brilliant, often seem dated and antique, but many of Thoreau’s words are as fresh and immediate as if they were being written today (and given the scary economic climate, they ring truer than ever).
At the time, however, Thoreau was considered a harmless eccentric by most of the people of Concord. He was born into a family that owned a small pencil-making factory and grew to be a short, thin, agile, and boyish man. It has been said that the only large things about Thoreau were his ideas and his nose.
With his wild hair and shabby clothes, Thoreau had little concern for his physical appearance and was often uncomfortable around adults (though he loved children). He worked at times as a surveyor, but he was also an experienced gardener and skilled craftsman. Most of all, he loved the outdoors, and could frequently be found in the woods or in a boat paddling the waters and streams surrounding town.
“For many years I was self-appointed inspector of snowstorms and rainstorms,” he wrote, “and did my duty faithfully, though I never received one cent for it.”
In 1838 Thoreau and his brother started a small school in Concord, one that was attended by Louisa May Alcott and her sisters as well as other children in town. Its methods were influenced by the educational ideas of Bronson Alcott and included standard courses such as mathematics and English, but also nature study.
Thoreau knew so much about the natural landscape of Concord that his knowledge seemed magical to his students—some of his charges thought he must have made the place, in fact, because he seemed to know it so well. In the morning he would announce to his class that he would take them “to heaven” later in the day, and Louisa May Alcott said that it seemed as if he truly did so, introducing her and her fellow students to the wonders of cobwebs spun between stalks of grass and fish lurking in the shallows of the river.
During Thoreau’s lifetime, his own meager reputation as a writer was far overshadowed by that of his friend and mentor Emerson, who assisted him financially for years. Emerson gave Thoreau loans, found him work, and encouraged him in his writing. Their relationship was not without strains, for Emerson’s assistance could shade over into paternalism, and at times Thoreau greatly resented being dependent upon him. But in the annals of friendship, there is one act that stands above all others: In 1845, Emerson gave Thoreau the use of some land he owned on the outskirts of Concord.
The address is likely familiar to you: Walden Pond.
Thoreau was 27 years old when he built his hut on the shore of Walden Pond, which is a small body of water less than two miles long on the outskirts of Concord. The building of it must have been an intoxicating experience for him, this man who had so often relied on charity but who now was independent at last (though it must be admitted that he was living rent-free on borrowed land). Thoreau spent his days writing in his journal and working on the manuscript of what would become A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. He fished, played his flute, and tramped through the forest, keenly observing the changes of the seasons in the woods and waters around him.
His emotional life was troubled, for he was grieving his dead brother, his teaching career had floundered, and his prospects for a career as a writer looked bleak. He took solace not only in nature, but in the companionship of friends. He frequently walked into town to socialize and would entertain guests at his home as well. While the popular image of him is of a recluse and loner, he actually enjoyed the companionship of like-mind folks. “I had three chairs in my house; one for solitude, two for friendship, three for society,” he wrote in Walden. “When visitors came in larger and unexpected numbers there was but the third chair for them all, but they generally economized the room by standing up. It is surprising how many great men and women a small house will contain.”
After two years, he decided that his experiment in simple living had run its course and he moved back into Concord. “I left the woods for as good a reason as I went there,” he wrote. “Perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live, and could not spare any time for that one.”
But out of that two-year experience, something magical emerged.
Walden is based on the journals Thoreau kept at Walden Pond, but he would spend seven years laboriously rewriting and revising them. In Walden Thoreau invents not only memoir writing but also nature writing. More importantly, its voice speaks to us like that of a prophet, calling us to a new way of living, one of simplicity and harmony with the natural world. The prose is both down-to-earth (detailing the amount he spent on each part of his house, for example) and lyrical in its descriptions of the joys and wonders of the landscape around him. Its pages exemplify the joys of a life lived simply, thoughtfully and deliberately.
Writes Susan Cheever in American Bloomsbury: “What creates a masterpiece? In the case of The Scarlett Letter and Walden, both arguably the finest works of two men whom we now regard as great writers, the impetus seems to have come from a sharp despair. Both men felt, as they began to write, that they had nothing more to lose. Hawthorne had lost his job, his mother, his hometown; Thoreau had lost his brother and the prospect of anyplace to live besides a homemade hut on borrowed land. There is a fearlessness about both these books, an honesty about the human heart, with its petty angers and dreadful fears, that neither writer found again.”
Thoreau became sick soon after the publication of Walden in 1855. He had tuberculosis, and his lungs were further weakened by working amid the fine dust and lead shavings of his family’s pencil factory. When someone asked him if he had made his peace with God, Thoreau replied, “I didn’t know we had ever quarreled.”
Concord, which for years had shaken its collective head at his peculiarities, realized that it loved him after all. At his death in 1862, the town’s children were let out of school to attend his funeral and the church bells tolled 44 times, one for each year of his life. Appropriately, his coffin was covered with wildflowers.
It would be many years before Thoreau’s genius would be recognized by the rest of the world. Thoreau earned nothing from the publication of Walden, and after his death he was remembered as a minor disciple of Emerson, if at all. But in his eulogy for his friend, Emerson got it exactly right: “No truer American existed than Thoreau. The country knows not yet, or in the least part, how great a son it has lost.”