“Meet Mr. Thoreau”


“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 [an inferior poet]”

No summary of a few pages can do justice to Thoreau’s life. His own attempts, in his Journal, to record the meanderings of his mind used millions words. For those of you who might like to read a more complete biography of Thoreau, I would recommend The Days of Henry Thoreau by Walter Harding.

Thoreau was born in 1817, in Concord, Mass. For the next five years, his family moved around the area while his father searched for a way to make a living. In 1823, the family returned to Concord and the father settled into work as a pencil-maker. This business would eventually bring the family a measure of prosperity, with the help of the youngest son who helped invent new machines and processes for making pencils. David Henry (which he later changed to “Henry David”) entered Harvard University in 1833, where the president chose to remind him that, “You have barely got in.” He did well enough at school, but was something less than a social success. His classmates found him cold, detached, and somewhat strange. For his part, Thoreau found his Harvard experience very forgettable, except for use of the school’s library. Even after he graduated, he successfully fought for the right to keep his borrowing privileges.

Like even recent college graduates, Thoreau was unsure about his place in the world. Having done some teaching during his college years, he thought the classroom might be a hospitable place and accepted a job in the Concord public schools. He didn’t last long. The school administration pressured him over his failure to apply corporal punishment to his students. Thoreau, who believed that education should be a pleasant experience for teachers and students, became disgusted. He chose six students at random, gave them a whack, and then wrote his letter of resignation to the Concord school committee, saying, basically, “OK, are you happy?” So much for public school teaching.

A year later, Thoreau opened his own school in Concord with his older brother John. The school seemed a success and earned the affections of its students. But this venture too came to an end after several years when his brother died of lockjaw.Though Thoreau would occasionally work as a tutor, his classroom teaching career was over.

In searching for a way to live--and to make a living, Thoreau did not have to look far. In Concord, he found an important mentor and patron: Ralph Waldo Emerson. By this time, Emerson--the latest in a line of ministers from an influential Concord family--had become one of America’s most celebrated writers. His transcendental essays had inspired an intellectual movement and had made Concord its hub. This is one reason Thoreau spoke of being fortunate to have been raised in the town, and to have been born there “in the very nick of time.” In Emerson, Thoreau found an example of an intellectual who made his living by lecturing and writing. In his transcendental philosophy, Thoreau found ideas which imparted a deeper purpose to his long-time interest in nature and which came to define his life’s purpose. It was also Emerson who suggested to Thoreau that he keep a journal.

After 1839, the landmarks in Thoreau’s life were less outward events and more his literary work and intellectual explorations. In that year, Thoreau and his brother made a trip on local rivers, and this forms the basis of his first major work, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack. He began to lecture at the Concord Lyceum. He published some magazine articles. Through it all, even as he moved from occupation to occupation, finally settling into surveying, he continued his most important work: sauntering through the fields and forests of Concord (and Lincoln and Sudbury!), studying nature, and finding in it important insights into life, society, and the higher purposes of the “the divine.” His observations and reflections found their way into his journal, and from this record came his better known essays and lectures.

On July 4, 1845, Thoreau initiated his most deliberate experiment, building a simple cabin on the shores of Walden Pond and residing there for two years, two months, and two days. There he lived on close terms with nature, seeing what lessons it had to teach about the fundamental questions of human existence. He ultimately lefts because, he tells us, the time had come and he “had other lives to live.” The story of his experiment can be found in his most famous essay, Walden which, with his other work, helped to develop an environmental consciousness in America.

Thoreau’s idyllic Walden years were interrupted by a brief but famous stay in the Concord jail, following his arrest for refusing to pay taxes. He felt that he could not in good conscience help to finance the government’s war on Mexico, which he believed would result in the expansion of slavery. Though his jailing lasted only one night (thanks to an anonymous samaritan who paid his fine--much to Thoreau’s disgust!), the reverberations of this event would echo through the Twentieth Century. It would inspire Thoreau’s essay Civil Disobedience in which he argued that the individual human conscience was superior to any system of law. His political ideas would also profoundly influence the thinking of great leaders like Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.

In 1859, Thoreau entered the public political arena once again, coming to the defense of militant abolitionist John Brown. Thoreau’s willingness to speak out--loudly, clearly, and repeatedly-- against slavery distinguished him from many of his transcendentalist friends.

To the end of his life, Thoreau continued to “travel a great deal in Concord,” studying its people, and its fauna and flora. He also made important excursions to the Maine woods, to Cape Cod, and to the White Mountains. He became one of our great natural scientists (he preferred the term “natural historian”), and was the second person in the United States to read Darwin’s Origin of Species. He came to support Darwin’s theory about evolution and, in one of his last works (just recently published), Thoreau showed how it operated through the dispersion of seeds and forest succession.

Throughout his life, Henry Thoreau “marched to a different drummer,” refusing to accept the social conventions and values of his neighbors that didn’t make sense to him. In his walks, in his writing, in his political stands, he went his own way, trying to live a life of serious purpose and uncompromising principle.

Though he considered himself a poet, he never wrote the great verse he had hoped to. Perhaps he explained his own failure best:

“My life has been the poem I could have writ,
But I could not both live and utter it.”

He died on May 6, 1862, at the age of 44. In his eulogy, Emerson said that “no truer American existed than Thoreau” and that “the country does not know yet...how great a son it has lost.” Here history provides a happier ending, for Thoreau’s fame and importance has grown greatly since his time, receiving a great boost of appreciation during the 1960’s. And in our own confusing times, on our own poor, polluted planet, it is still growing, as people continue to turn to the brilliant, eccentric mind of that Concord mystic to help illuminate the way ahead.

All written material © Bill Schechter, 2016
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