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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 300


This is the grave of Henry David Thoreau.

Born in 1817 in Concord, Massachusetts to a middling family and a pencil making father, Thoreau attended Harvard and found the experience rather trying, beginning to question whether he was learning anything of real value. During these years, he began to fall under the influence of the burgeoning transcendentalist movement, particularly of its leader, Ralph Waldo Emerson. He took a job in 1837, upon graduating, as a school teacher, but as he refused to use corporal punishment in the classroom and therefore lasted all of 6 days. He and his brother started their own school in 1838 that not only did not use corporal punishment, but also included walking in the woods, field trips to local businesses, and other very experimental things for the time. It lasted until 1842, when John Thoreau died of tetanus after cutting himself shaving. This was a time when people died from all sorts of things we wouldn’t even think of anything more than minor annoyances today.

Devastated in the aftermath, Thoreau came more under the influence of Emerson, who took a liking and a mentorship role to this somewhat odd young acolyte. Thoreau began publishing in the journal Emerson sponsored and Margaret Fuller edited, The Dial. The latter was somewhat less impressed by Thoreau’s work, but he managed to get his first piece published there in 1840. Emerson hired Thoreau as the tutor for his children most of the time from 1841-44 and Thoreau would live in the Emerson house repeatedly over the years, particularly when Ralph was in Europe. Thoreau never married and so this worked out well. He moved to New York briefly in 1843 but despised it and left for Concord pretty quickly. That was the only time Thoreau lived outside of Concord and its environs. Thoreau wanted to write and he had a unique style and form, but it took a long time for that to mature into usable prose. Luckily, he was a quite handy guy and could always resort to these skills when he needed money. He worked in his father’s pencil factory and significantly improved the pencils, making them among the best made in the United States. He was also a quite skilled surveyor, a somewhat ironic skill given that it was used to tame the wild that he was among the only white Americans to truly love in the mid-19th century.

Of course, it is Thoreau’s love of nature which is most of the reason that we know him today. He lived in a time not too unlike today with climate change, where rapid transformations were completely changing the world at incredible speeds and there seemed to be no hope for so many species, forests, and ecosystems, even if Thoreau wouldn’t have recognized that last term. This was somewhat true–the passenger pigeon is just the most famous of the many extinctions of wildlife in this era. Thoreau had no real illusion of saving anything from development, but he at least wanted to write what he thought that nature meant to him and what it should be for the nation. He himself could make mistakes, such as the fire he set on Walden Pond by accident in 1844 that burned up a good bit of the town’s forest supply and which caused him great shame and embarrassment for many years.

In 1845, Thoreau decided to build a cabin on Walden Pond and live there for awhile. It was a small but functional cabin that allowed him to write, grow crops, and observe the surrounding world. This was the act of an eccentric, but not of a misanthrope, as he is too often portrayed. The other way Thoreau’s act often gets derided is as basically a poseur. He lived a short distance from town and he could frequently walk to see friends and family. In the modern wilderness movement, or more accurately, a general public who has framed the wilderness movement is a specific way that makes it about being tough and far away from other people and imbibed it with all sorts of masculine characteristics, Thoreau gets laughed at for “roughing it” a mile or two from home. So what? Thoreau wasn’t interested in this masculine crap (although as I recall he wasn’t a supporter of women’s suffrage) and he never made any claims to be Jim Bridger in the Rockies or whatever. There is great and incredible beauty in the backyard and in the forested lots that surround a good bit of New England, more than you would think and certainly more than were around in 1845. Go hiking back in these lots and just sit. You may see all sorts of things–salamanders, ants, water snakes, deer, birds. And it is lovely. Thoreau saw that beauty long before others did and whether you like how he wrote about it, it’s a far more useful path for everyday people to engage in nature than asking them to go hike in Sierras for a few weeks, which relatively few have the means to do. Thoreau was not a perfect man and was very much a man of his time and place and he needs to be seen in that context, which too often doesn’t happen.

Thoreau’s first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, was written while he was at Walden. It detailed his 1839 trip with his brother. It was not successful. Some of this was because of the terrible state of American publishing at the time and some of it is that it was pretty hard to read and more than a little wandering. This was often the trouble with Thoreau’s writing and that of the Transcendentalists more broadly; they engaged in a lot of whims of the mind using a lot of words to do so.

Also, while he was at Walden, Thoreau famously refused to pay his taxes because of the U.S. invading Mexico in a shockingly unjust war to steal their land and expand slavery. He stayed a night in jail and then someone, probably his aunt, paid the tax. But the point was made. Thoreau was beginning to gain popularity on the lecture circuit by this time and he was strongly, loudly opposed to slavery. So he began working out what became his essay “Resistance to Civil Government,” better known as “Civil Disobedience,” which has become one of his most influential writings.

Thoreau finally left Walden Pond in 1847 and moved back in with Emerson for a bit. He began traveling and working more as a surveyor. He became fascinated with Darwin and the other scientific advancements of the age. He did the traveling that became the books The Maine Woods and Cape Cod. He also wrote Walden, his 1854 masterpiece that condensed his two years into one and was the first important book in American letters on humans’ relationship to the environment. It still holds up today, better I think than Thoreau’s other works. Certainly there are highlights to other material, especially the shipwreck stuff in Cape Cod, but I still remember being completely blown away reading Thoreau on ants, probably the first time I found environmental writing utterly captivating.

Unfortunately, Thoreau came down with tuberculosis in 1835 and it bothered him for the rest of his too-short life. He worked up to the very end, dying in 1862 at the age of 44, after one last trip, this time west to Minnesota, as his insatiable curiosity about our nation continued. I can’t imagine Thoreau would have dealt well with the Gilded Age. The Civil War on the other hand, well, Thoreau was a big supporter of John Brown and while he died before the full impact of the death that caused was something the American public could being to really comprehend, I can see him justifying it as cleansing the nation’s great evil. Thoreau also learned to respect Native ways in his travel, especially in Maine when he used some as guides. It was very difficult for whites in this era to get beyond their own thinking when considering Native people and most failed miserably. But Thoreau at least tried.

Henry David Thoreau is buried in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, Concord, Massachusetts.

If you would like this series to visit more 19th century writers, you can donate the cover the required expenses here. Harriet Beecher Stowe is in Andover, MA, and Walt Whitman is in Camden. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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