Henry D. Thoreau

III. HENRY D. THOREAU: 1817-1862.

While several of those who composed this group of transcendental thinkers in the Concord circle became more or less noted either for eccentricity or utterance, the most remarkable among them all, after Emerson, was Henry David Thoreau. A genuine lover of nature -- a naturalist first of all -- he was also a philosopher and a poet, too, although a crude one. He was misunderstood by most of those who knew or heard of him while he lived, -- and these were not many, -- but by the inner circle of the transcendentalists he was comprehended and beloved. It is characteristic of his career that but two of his books were published in his lifetime while his published writings now number twenty volumes.


Thoreau's ancestry was of mingled French and Scotch; his grandfather, John Thoreau, emigrated to New England from the island of Jersey about 1773, and settled in Concord in 1800. Henry Thoreau's father was a maker of lead pencils, and was in rather poor circumstances. Nevertheless Henry received a classical education and was graduated from Harvard in 1837, at the age of twenty. If he won distinction in any of his studies it was in Greek, in which he was especially proficient. He taught for a while, but for the most part he made his living by surveying and by making pencils. He also lectured from time to time, and on his father's death he continued the little business of pencil-manufacturing, which included a small trade in plumbago. He was thoroughly original and independent. Strongly American, he was yet more strongly idealistic in his conceptions of conduct and citizenship. He refused to pay the old parish tax which was then still exacted, and spent one night in jail because he would not pay his poll-tax on account of the government's permission of slavery. When Emerson came to the cell with the inquiry, "Henry, why are you here?" Thoreau received him with the question, "Why are you not here?" He was a friend of John Brown; and declared that "any man more right than his neighbors constitutes a majority of one already." He regarded only what was necessary as desirable. "A man is rich," he said, "in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone." His acquaintance with Emerson began early. He was for a time a member of his household, and during Emerson's visit to England in 1847, Thoreau occupied his house and took charge of affairs during his absence.

Concerning Thoreau's qualifications as a naturalist, Emerson has this to say: --

The Naturalist.

"He knew the country like a fox or a bird and passed through it as freely by paths of his own. . . . Under his arm he carried an old music-book to press plants; in his pocket his diary and pencil, a spy-glass for birds, microscope, jack-knife and twine. He wore straw hat, stout shoes, strong gray trousers, to brave shrub-oaks and smilax, and to climb a tree for a hawk's or squirrel's nest. He waded into the pool for the water-plants, and his strong legs were no insignificant part of his armor. . . . His power of observation seemed to indicate additional senses. He saw as with microscope, heard as with ear-trumpet, and his memory was a photographic register of all he saw and heard. . . . Every fact lay in glory in his mind, a type of the order and beauty of the whole. His intimacy with animals suggested . . . that `either he had told the bees things, or the bees had told him.' Snakes coiled round his leg, the fishes swam into his hand, and he took them out of the water; he pulled the woodchuck out of its hole by the tail, and took the foxes under his protection from the hunters."1

The Hermitage.

In 1845, Thoreau built for himself a cabin on the shore of Walden Pond, and here for two years he lived, cultivating potatoes, corn, and beans sufficient for his subsistence, recording his observations of all natural phenomena, and transcribing from his journal the narrative of an excursion taken with his brother in 1839. It is this experience in his life with its subsequent record which has more than anything else aroused interest in the personality of Thoreau. "My purpose in going to Walden Pond," he says, "was not to live cheaply nor to live dearly there, but to transact some private business with the fewest obstacles." He did not by any means discard human society; he made frequent trips through the woods to

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