Thoreau: Genius Ignored

IT'S NO WONDER that Thoreau's Walden is more popular than ever. The condition to which it is the antidote — the delusion that material things can bring one happiness, that labor in and of itself is good, and that Nature can be ignored — has spread from Europe and the United States to the entire world. We'd sensed that something was wrong even before we read this book, but needed Henry to bring it into focus, to strip the detritus from our still superficial lives, revealing bare rock. We may not agree with what he builds on this rock (the possibility of individual perfection) but are grateful for the stripping away. Finding each generation as deluded as those which preceded it, Thoreau continues to "brag as lustily as a chanticleer in the morning," and continues to try to wake us up.
[2] Thoreau was born in Concord, Massachusetts, on July 12, 1817. He was christened "David Henry", but his parents always called him by his middle name "Henry". He had a sister Helen who was five years older and a brother John two years older. In 1819 another sister, Sophia, was born. The family moved to Boston in 1821, but returned to Concord two years later. Except for his four years at college and a half-year stay on Staten Island, Henry lived in Concord for the rest of his life.
[3] As a youth Thoreau spent his spare time exploring Concord's woods, fields, rivers, and ponds. He remembered visiting Walden Pond when he was only four years old (when his family was still living in Boston). He was a good student and his family made a special effort to raise money for his schooling. He was able to attend Harvard and graduated with the Class of 1837. Though he later disparaged the value of his Harvard classes — and all formal education —, he was an avid reader and great user of libraries (including Harvard's) throughout his life.
[4] In the autumn of 1837 he obtained a position as a teacher at the Center School in Concord. Since he couldn't keep his students as quiet as authorities required — and since he refused to beat them — he lasted only two weeks. In the following months he spent quite a bit of time with Ralph Waldo Emerson, a fellow resident of Concord, fifteen years his senior and just coming into his fame.
[5] Thoreau started giving his name as "Henry David" instead of "David Henry". His neighbors did not approve: dissatisfaction with one's God-given name was unnatural and unseemly. In typical Thoreau fashion, he never bothered to have it changed legally.
[6] In May, 1838, when he left on a tour of Maine in search of a teaching position (at a private school where he would have more freedom) he carried with him a reference from Emerson:
[8] When he failed to find a position, he and his brother started their own school, the Concord Academy. Aside from its lack of corporal punishment, the school was distinguished by its innovative, "hands-on" approach to learning: scientific experiments, nature walks, field trips to the workshops of local craftsmen. It was, for the three years it lasted, quite successful — almost always having its full number of students.
[9] Henry had several romances during these years. The most serious was that with eighteen-year-old Ellen Sewall in 1840. He proposed marriage (by letter!), but was rejected.
[10] The Academy closed in 1841 when John became seriously ill with tuberculosis; Henry didn't have the will to continue alone. Emerson asked Thoreau to come and live with him and his family, doing a few hours of work each day as a handyman/gardener in exchange for room and board. The arrangement was originally for a year, but was later extended to two.
[11] In January, 1842, Thoreau's brother John died from lockjaw. Though Henry showed few outward signs of emotion, he developed an illness with all the symptoms of lockjaw himself. It took several months for him to recover.
[14] From May to December, 1843, Thoreau lived with Emerson's brother's family on Staten Island and tutored their children. He had decided to become a writer and it seemed that being close to the New York publishing scene might be an advantage. It wasn't. Deciding that he needed to simplify his life, he returned to Concord. He wanted to write a book with a canoe trip he and John had taken on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers in 1839 as its theme. It seemed that if he reduced his material needs he could spend far less time working and far more time studying nature and writing.
[15] In the spring of 1845, he went out to Walden Pond and built a primitive cabin. He moved in on July 4 and lived there for two years and two months. His plain, simple life there is described in Walden. Walden Pond was only a mile from Concord Village. He would go into town to visit friends, and they would likewise visit him at his hut. He ate with his family or received food from them at least once a week.
[16] He slept in his cabin each night. One exception was either July 23 or July 24, 1846, when he was in the Concord Jail for refusing to pay the poll tax. The amount was small, strictly a matter of principle, a protest against the government's support of slavery and the Mexican War. His mother or aunt paid it and he was expelled the next day (irritated at their interference).
[17] Thoreau's move had aroused a great deal of curiosity among his fellow Concordians; they wanted to know why a Harvard graduate was living in a cabin in the woods. Thus, along with work on the book he had planned to write ("A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers"), Thoreau prepared a series of lectures on his life at the pond. In February, 1847, he read the first of these, "A History of Myself", to the Concord Lyceum. The success of this and the other lectures convinced Thoreau that he should make them into a book. By September, 1847, when he once again "became a sojourner in civilized life", he had finished not only a first draft of A Week but also an initial version of Walden (about half as long as the final version).
[18] Thoreau's relationship with animals was magical.
[19] Thoreau never married, but it is wrong to assume that he was a hermit. With the exception of his two years, two months, at Walden Pond, he lived with either the Emersons (for the two-year stay mentioned above and for ten months in 1847-8) or his own family (mother, father, sister, aunts) for his entire life. He wasn't a guy you'd be inspired to greet with a big kiss or a hug, but he did value his family and his friends. He had feelings.
[20] Some residents of Concord accused him of sponging off his parents. This was definitely not the case. He made major contributions to the family's pencil manufacturing business, both through his own labor and through improvements in the manufacturing process. He did odd jobs as a handyman, carpenter, and gardener for his own family and for other families. In his thirties and forties, he was a successful surveyor. It's true that he never worked that much — perhaps an average of 10-20 hours per week — but he spent and required even less. My point: Thoreau was genuine. He loved nature and lived a frugal, ascetic life, not just in his years at Walden Pond but in the years which followed as well.
[21] His townsmen wanted to know why he had gone to jail rather than pay the poll tax. On January 26, 1848, Thoreau delivered a lecture to the Concord Lyceum on "the relation of the individual to the State". It was published as an essay , "Resistance to Civil Government," a year later. (It did not receive its more widely-known title, "Civil Disobedience," until after Thoreau's death).
[32] Walden is a masterpiece of prose style. The profound ideas are expressed with simplicity and eloquence — and an excellent use of metaphor. (It's interesting to note that Thoreau had steeped himself in that progenitor of metaphor, the Iliad, during these years.)
[34] There were at least 15 positive reviews and about three negative ones.
[38] In the year following its publication more than 1700 copies of Walden (out of the original printing of 2,000) were sold. Sales declined rapidly in subsequent years, however.
[40] Thoreau decided to arrange a nationwide lecturing tour, similar to the ones at which Emerson had been so successful. Despite the fact that Greeley publicized Thoreau's availability in the New York Tribune, he received only one firm offer (from Hamilton, Ontario). There was no nationwide tour. Thoreau continued to lecture at towns nearer to Concord.
[42] In his later years, Thoreau spent, if anything, even more time observing and recording. The journals from this period are filled with detailed, scientific observations.
[44] It was in 1859 that Ticknor & Fields finally sold the last copy of Walden. It had taken one year to sell the first 1700 copies and 5 years to sell the last 300. They decided not to reprint it.
[45] Thoreau was greatly affected by John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry (in October, 1859). Though he didn't belong to any Abolitionist societies ("societies" being anathema to him) he was a radical, uncompromising opponent of slavery. He and his family had several times harbored runaway slaves and helped them get to Canada. He had met Brown in Concord in 1857. He knew that slaveowners had been butchered at Pottawatomie Creek, Kansas, in 1856, but did not know that Brown was responsible. To others, Brown was an ineffective madman. To Thoreau, he was a principled man willing to sacrifice everything, including his life, for those principles. "I was so absorbed in him as to be surprised when I detected the routine of the natural world surviving still." He prepared an eloquent "Plea for Captain John Brown" which he delivered in Concord on October 30, 1859, and again in Boston on November 1.
[46] For a number of years Thoreau had exhibited mild symptoms of tuberculosis. Beginning in 1861 the condition worsened.
[47] Fields agreed to a printing of 250 copies of Walden and on April 12 came to Concord and purchased all the unsold copies of A Week. One can't help but think — and it would seem that Thoreau couldn't help but think — that Fields did these things, at least in part, out of respect for the wishes of a dying man.
[48] Thoreau died on May 6, 1862. He was 44 years old. The reprintings of both Walden and A Week appeared within a month.