Henry David Thoreau: An American Voice for Wildness and Freedom"In Wildness is the preservation of the world," wrote Henry David Thoreau in his essay "Walking" (Finch & Elder, p. 192). This saying is often misquoted and the preservation of the world attributed to wilderness. This minor wrinkle in how one of the most contradictory voices for wilderness and wildness is remembered is quite appropriate. Thoreau is not a simple subject.
David Henry Thoreau was born on July 12, 1817 in Concord, Massachusetts to John and Cynthia Dunbar Thoreau. The newest Thoreau joined siblings Helen (born 1812, five months after the parents' marriage) and John, jr. (born 1815). The Thoreaus' last child, Sophia, was born in 1819. David Henry was named for a recently deceased relative, but by all accounts was always called Henry by his family.
Thoreau's father was nearly as much of a wandering soul as his son would become. While the Thoreau household was home to a close-knit family, they struggled financially through most of Thoreau's childhood and well into his adolescence. John Thoreau, sr. worked at various times as a farmer, a store-keeper, a teacher, and a traveling salesman specializing in trading with Native American tribes occupying the fringes of Massachusetts. In 1823, John sr. returned permanently to Concord and his family and became a pencil maker. This provided a degree of stability both financially and emotionally for the family.
Thoreau attended Concord's public primary school and went on to Concord Academy. Thoreau was not an extraordinary student in any regard. It is not difficult to imagine that the mind that would create some of the most influential writings on freedom might have been unwilling to conform to the authoritarian 1820's New England education system. However, Thoreau was enough of a scholar to be accepted to Harvard in 1833, just after his sixteenth birthday.
It was a financial struggle for the Thoreau family to send Henry to college, but through a combination of Yankee frugality, family contributions, a minor scholarship from Harvard, and a program that allowed latter-day financial aid students to take semesters off to work, Thoreau completed his studies at Harvard in 1837. Although today Thoreau is honored and studied as a scholar, writer, philosopher, and social activist, there was nothing remarkable about him as a student. He graduated 19th out of 44 students, and did nothing in his scholastic endeavors to distinguish himself. What is perhaps most notable about Thoreau's time at Harvard is that his future mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson, who was a noted Transcendental scholar, spoke at Thoreau's graduation.
After Harvard, Thoreau returned to Concord and taught briefly at the public school. He accepted the teaching position on the condition that he would not implement any form of corporal punishment. The school board did not agree with the young teacher's alternative ideas of education, and Thoreau left after only two weeks. He worked alternately in his father's pencil shop, which was operating in the back wing of the family house, but felt called to teach. Thoreau applied for a teaching job in Maine, but when he wasn't hired, he and his brother started a school in the Thoreau house in 1838.
The Thoreau brothers' alternative style of teaching, which featured nature walks and discussions rather than memorization and corporal punishment, became popular with Concord residents and other nearby parents wishing for a different sort of education for their children. Due to the popularity of their methods, the school outgrew the Thoreau house, and the brothers moved their school to the grounds of the then defunct Concord Academy.
The Thoreau family home itself was far from the idyllic solitude "Walden" and Thoreau have come to symbolize. Not only was the pencil-making operation run out of the house, but several of Thoreau's aunts also lived there. Thoreau's mother took in boarders, including John and Henry's pupils. The house was also a hotbed of abolitionist activities. Thoreau's mother and both sisters were founding and active members of the Concord Women's Anti-Slavery Society, formed in 1837. Not surprisingly, there are accounts that Thoreau himself was active in the Underground Railroad, (Cain, p. 65). It was a busy place-Thoreau's daily walks may have arisen as much out of need to hear himself think as "a sort of crusade, preached by Peter the Hermit in us, to go forth and reconquer [sic] this Holy Land from the hands of the Infidels," as he wrote in "Walking," (Finch & Elder, p. 180).
In 1837, following Emerson's speech at Harvard and Thoreau's return to Concord, the two men struck up a friendship. The exact details of their meeting remain obscure. Thoreau may have worked briefly as a gardener for Emerson, or mutual friends may have introduced young Thoreau to the elder Emerson based on similarities between Thoreau's journals and Emerson's lectures. In any case they enjoyed, for a time, a mutually beneficial and harmonious friendship. While their love and respect for each other was constant, in the nearly 30 years of their friendship, they had many intellectual and social differences of opinion.
Emerson was thirty-four years old when he and Thoreau became friends and he admired the younger man, who seemed to live out so many of the Transcendental ideals that he was writing about and lecturing on at the time. It is possible that it was Emerson who encouraged Thoreau to keep a daily journal. Thoreau, somehow between teaching at the school, helping with the pencil business, and doing other odd jobs around Concord, found time for nearly daily walks where he recorded both his natural history observations and his commentaries on society. This was a practice that Thoreau would keep for his entire life-the full collection of his journals and diaries is well over 7000 pages.
In 1839, Thoreau and John took a river trip down the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. The journals and observations that Thoreau made over those two weeks comprised his first book "A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers." Thoreau's writing conveys an infectious and passionate enthusiasm for the wildness he found along the two populated rivers. This enthusiasm is almost tangible, even reading his accounts 170 years after the fact. The triumphant vitality of Thoreau's writing has carved his rightful place among the various schools of philosophy, politics, naturalists, and writers who all claim him as their own.
Although the brothers' river trip occurred in 1839, the book was not written and published until 1848. Thoreau was busy in the intervening years. In 1839 he delivered his first lecture to the Concord Lyceum, one of the many active facets of the Transcendentalist movement in the greater Boston area in the mid-1800s. Thoreau also worked with Emerson on "The Dial," a Transcendental publication, and continuing to teach with John.
Sadly, in 1842, John's health began to fail and the Thoreau brothers closed their school. Thoreau moved into the Emerson household as a tutor, gardener, and intellectual companion. In January of 1842, John died of lockjaw. Perhaps as a way to cope with the grief of John's death, Thoreau moved to Staten Island and tutored Emerson's relatives. He returned to Concord in 1843. For all his ramblings and rovings throughout New England, Thoreau was more tied to his family and the Transcendentalists in Concord than any other place he ever visited.
In April of 1844, Thoreau and a friend took another river trip along the Sudbury River. The two men burnt down 300 acres of forested land when a cooking fire they started in a stump got wildly out of control. This event was reported in the Concord newspaper, and though Thoreau remained anonymous, there was little doubt in the townspeople's minds who had set the fire. For Thoreau, who espoused personal responsibility, freedom, and respect for the natural world above all else, this fire was a wake-up call to his own potential impact on the world around him. Thoreau wrote of the fire, and the loss of the woodlands saying, "I felt that I had a deeper interest in the woods, knew them better, and should feel their loss more, than any or all of them," (Derleth, p. 53).
In 1845, Thoreau built his famous cabin on the shores of Walden Pond. He moved to the woods to "live deliberately" as he says in "Walden." The myth of Thoreau's two years there is of a lone woodsman/philosopher scrapping out a living in the wilderness, pausing occasionally to write down his observations. In reality, Thoreau was living on the edge of settled Concord, and he maintained frequent, if not daily contact with friends and visitors-Walden Pond was no hermitage.
In fact, the whole experiment of "Life in the Woods," the subtitle of "Walden," rose out of friendship. The cabin was on land that Emerson had purchased several years earlier, and Emerson encouraged Thoreau to pursue a deliberate life in the woods. While Thoreau's cabin was in a grove of trees, Concord and its surrounding lands had been settled and farmed for years-this was more edge-of-the-pasture than edge-of-the-wilderness. And while Thoreau was certainly alone at Walden much of the time, his sauntering jaunts around the country side and journal entries are nearly as much social observation as they are natural history.
While at Walden, Thoreau frequently returned home for meals or company, and had many visitors to his home. It was June of 1846 that Thoreau spent his famous night in jail for refusing to pay his poll tax, the inspiration for his famous essay "Civil Disobedience." This act and essay went onto inspire people as varied as Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Daniel Ellsberg, as noted in the 2006 film "Life with Principle: Thoreau's Voice in Our Time." Also in the summer of 1846, his mother, sisters, and the rest of the Concord Women's Anti-Slavery Society gathered at Walden Pond.
While living at Walden, Thoreau took his first of two major excursions to Maine in the summer of 1846. This was somewhat rougher country than Thoreau was accustomed to in his rambles around Concord and he was reminded of "the creations of the old epic and dramatic poets, of Atlas, Vulcan, the Cyclops, and Prometheus," (Finch & Elder, p. 206) high praise indeed for the Appalachian Mountains which are often overlooked in light of larger western mountain ranges. Thoreau's travels through Maine and New Hampshire would become his posthumously published "The Maine Woods."
In fact, the bulk of Thoreau's work was published after his death. While he spent a great deal of his time at Walden writing in his journal, revising the story of his trip along the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, and beginning pieces of other essays, he only published two books during his lifetime. The first, "A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers," dedicated to the memory of his brother, was published in 1848. It was moderately well received, certainly more so than the 1854 publication of "Walden, or, Life in the Woods."
It is hard to picture the romantic ideal of Thoreau having any life besides those years at Walden, but his time after Walden was at least equally productive. Following his father's death in 1857, Thoreau assumed the responsibilities of running the pencil factory, and continued to write and study the world around him. The primary topic for his prose continued to be freedom, almost as if his time in quasi-solitude in the woods had given him greater empathy for the plight of those who were not free. He wrote an essay in defense of the militant Abolitionist John Brown following Brown's execution in 1859.
Thoreau also continued his careful and ecstatic observations of the wild places around Concord. It was in fact, in the spirit of scientific observation that Thoreau found himself out in the chilly December weather of 1860. He was counting tree rings in the Walden Woods, studying the succession of trees, and became ill. Thoreau had been plagued by tuberculosis since he was an adolescent and he would never fully recover from this bout. He continued to investigate forest succession, observe natural history, and write politically even as his health declined. Thoreau died on May 6, 1862. He is buried in Concord. While Emerson and Thoreau had had several intellectual falling-outs in their long friendship, there is little doubt that the two men retained a deep respect for each other. Of Thoreau's death, Emerson said: "The country knows not yet, or in the least part, how great a son it has lost" (Derleth, p. 202). Emerson's eulogy is oddly prophetic because it is only since his death that Thoreau has come to be seen and understood as a great voice for wildness and wilderness.
Many people who are seen as defenders of wilderness often use sweeping language and images to inspire thoughts of wild places untrammeled by humans, places that are almost sublime in their beauty. Appropriately for his Transcendentalist leanings, Thoreau is most noted for his ability to transcend this idea and instead focus on the human need for freedom in the beauty of ordinary places. He does use dramatic language, but the scenes he describes are on a smaller scale than most wilderness writers. He finds epic drama and wildness in the ordinary and overlooked corners of life, ants and mice, for example. Those not from New England are often taken aback when they realize that Thoreau's wild places were not akin to Muir's or Abbey's Yosemite and Arches, but instead were his neighbor's apple orchards and berry patches. Thoreau's talents for finding and highlighting wildness in both the natural world and as a right for humanity were indeed revolutionary.
Cain, W.B., (Ed.) . (2000). A Historical Guide to Henry David Thoreau. New York: Oxford University Press.
Derleth, A. (1962). Concord Rebel: A Life of Henrey David Thoreau. Philadephia & New York: Chilton Company.
Finch, R., & Elder, J. (Eds.) . (2002). The Norton Book of Nature Writing. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.
Melvyn Hopper Production (Producer). (2006). Life with Principle: Thoreau's Voice in Our Time. [DVD recording]. Concord, MA: The Thoreau Society
The Thoreau Project. (2008). A Chronology of Thoreau's Life, with Events of the Times. In The Thoreau Project [Online]. Available: http://www.calliope.org/thoreau/thorotime/html [updated December 7, 2008].
Thoreau, H.D. (1993 ed.) Walden and Other Writings. New York: Barnes & Noble Classics