But in fact there are many things not generally known about America’s great nineteenth-century naturalist.
I knew Thoreau’s soulful eyes.
We have few images of this forest-loving philosopher king–after all, he lived in the mid-1800s. But there does exist a studio shot taken in 1856. He was 40. When Thoreau disciple Calvin Greene asked for a photo of the writer, Thoreau replied: “You may rely on it that you have the best of me in my books, and that I am not worth seeing personally – the stuttering, blundering, clodhopper that I am.”
After Greene sent him money to get the picture taken, though, Thoreau dropped by the Daguerrean Palace in Worcester, had three plates made for fifty cents each, and sent one off to Greene in Michigan. The photo now hangs in the National Portrait Gallery.
A daguerreotype, of course, cannot reveal color. Thoreau had “the deepest set blue eyes that could be seen, in certain lights, and in others gray—eyes expressive of all shades of feeling.” So said peer, poet, abolitionist, Unitarian preacher and Thoreau biographer William Ellery Channing.
I also knew some of Thoreau’s pithiest statements, many of which seem prefabricated for use on art prints, mugs and tee shirts.
Way to go, Thoreau! Can anyone today quibble with his assessment that all good things are wild and free? But he expressed the sentiment pretty much better than anyone and over and over again, more juicily every time (with apologies to John Muir, who also knew how to turn a phrase about wildness).
I also did not know that the name is pronounced THOReau, accent on the first syllable. As in thorough. Thorough Thoreau. Makes sense when you consider he committed millions of words to paper in books, articles, poems and journals, all executed by hand.
Written with a fountain pen and ink. Something else I never knew concerns writing utensils: he revolutionized pencil making. In a recent trip to Concord, Massachusetts to worship at the shrine of Thoreau I discovered that between teaching students, surveying land and working as a handyman, the writer worked for his family’s pencil business and even ran it upon his father’s death. He invented a grinding machine that made better quality plumbago (the mixture of lead, graphite and clay inside pencils of the day). Today the Concord Museum sells facsimiles.
I went to the museum to see Thoreau’s homemade Aeolian harp (“when I am in the woods I sometimes sing”), his writing desk (painted green of course) and the humble cot on which he rested his head at the end of a tough day hiking and thinking.
My quest for the genuine Thoreau was led by my friend Joan, a citizen-naturalist devoted to all things Concord, and joined by my daughter Maud, the type of person who might be comfortable wearing one of those Thoreau-slogan tee shirts, only feeling slightly silly. We circled Fairy Lake, in a town forest now brimming with spring. We took what is titled in the local guidebooks and highlighted in pink as the Emerson-Thoreau Amble.
Maud showed off her own naturalist chops, identifying woodpecker holes, skunk cabbage, the pointed shape of a beaver stump. Beavers’ hearing, we would later learn, is so acute that they only quit building their dams when they notice the sound of running water has ceased.
It was easy to believe that all things might be possible here.
We headed up toward Walden Pond, through Thoreau’s pine-scented woods.
Someone had considerately left a walking stick wrapped in duct tape.
“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately,” Thoreau wrote.
“To front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived…I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.”
Boom! Boss, right? I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life…
Only these woods have changed, changed utterly, as William Butler Yeats would phrase it. Since Thoreau’s time his hometown has grown and modernized, with a current population of 18,000–up from1,800 at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Concord’s quiet cow paths and trails have become teeming highways.
In 1845, at the age of 27, Henry David Thoreau built a simple house at Walden Pond on land owned by his mentor, Transcendentalist writer Ralph Waldo Emerson. He lived here for two years, two months and two days. Paradoxically, today the site is dominated by a parking lot packed with hundreds of gas-guzzlers and a huge, modern visitor’s center.
Joan on the subject of Walden today: “I’m embarrassed by how touristy it is.”
In the gutter along the wooded path that is now a paved road are many tossed-aside nips, one bane of Joan’s existence.
Even Boston has a problem now with people scattering their empties into the byways, she told us. “It’s so ironic,” said Maud. “So unfortunate,” Joan said.
Joan loves all that is unspoiled, a creature after Thoreau’s heart. She remembers an iconic moment of her childhood, when she skated across a frozen pond to pluck a tempting cattail at the far edge and fell in. She has mounted a one-woman campaign to save the habitat of bluebirds in her suburban enclave, and showed me a half dozen bird houses that had been coopted by invasive sparrows.
“They use whatever they can find, straw, trash – nasty nests.” Sparrows will even kill bluebirds, she says – she’s found them “with their heads pecked out.” She told me, “Bluebird nests are beautiful, neatly made with pine needles.” The Audubon Society will give permission to destroy nests, eggs, even birds, because sparrows are invasive critters originally imported from England.
Thoreau collected nests, something else I did not know. He presented one to the Natural History Museum in Boston, along with eggs of the yellow warbler and the red-tailed hawk.
On a tour of downtown Concord with a guide named Richard we walked past some amazing trees, an old white oak on New Hill, a European larch in a colonial graveyard.
A tree company I once worked for inventoried all 23,806 public trees here. You can call up a red maple, say, on a phone app and learn all about its benefits, from cooling to carbon sequestration, posited in economic terms. Thorough Thoreau might have liked that trick.
This was one hot day. Witness the damp back of Maud’s neck.
I wanted to see the original manuscript of Walking, the consummate guide to getting out there in nature. Thoreau wrote, “I think that I cannot preserve my health and spirits, unless I spend four hours a day at least—and it is commonly more than that—sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields, absolutely free from all worldly engagements.” Hearing that Walking was in the possession of The Concord Library, I sought it out, thinking it must be centrally displayed. No. “You’ll have to go downstairs for that. Special collections,” instructed the librarian, sitting across the way from a Thoreau-inspired paper tree created by Concordian children.
In the basement, assistant curator Jess withdrew the precious item from a safe. I was allowed to thumb freely through the pages –now encased in plastic – which Thoreau submitted to the Atlantic Monthly just weeks before he died.
Kvelling, I examined the faded script, the ancient cross-outs and fluid stains (Strong coffee? Pond water? Milk of human kindness? Tears?) Then I found it. The iconic line.
How near to good is what is wild! With wild underscored for good measure. And emphasized with an exclamation point.
Maud’s husband Dan showed me something in the Concord woods he learned in Green Beret training, that if you take the root of a pine tree and scrape it, you can use the inside pith to light a fire.
It’s the type of knowledge that Thoreau would surely have treasured. Something else I did not know about Thoreau is that as a young man of 22 he actually torched part of the forest he loved. He was cooking fish over an open fire in the woods outside of Concord and the nearby grass caught flame and reduced over 100 acres of land to cinders. Really? Another paradox: while he did love the woods, it turns out the great man was human. And he made mistakes. Including setting a fire where he shouldn’t have. A historic figure’s inherent humanity, warts and all, makes him all the more endearing, to my mind.
Considering how much we know about Thoreau, and how much he wrote, including journals that are quite intimate in tone, I found it intriguing to see how much mystery still surrounds his private life.
On the Concord tour, Richard told us about the local Indians, the Nitmuk, who used weirs to catch eels, turtles and fish at the confluence of three rivers and who traveled in mashouns carved from tree trunks. Some of these canoes have been found submerged in Central Massachusetts because that’s how the Indigenous people stored them. A little hard to imagine that earlier life in civilized Concord with its many pretty window boxes.
Its ice cream cones and cutesie onesies.
Richard told the group that local history features “quite a literary crew. You are all familiar with Henry David Thoreau. He’s been called ‘one of the wealthiest men in town because his wants were so few.’” We stood at the corner of Walden Street under a mature gingko.
Brilliant feminist Margaret Fuller, Richard said, “slept on Emerson’s couch for four to five weeks at a time.” A notable run-in between Emerson and Fuller occurred when Fuller told Emerson she wanted to be closer to him: “You would have me love you. What shall I love? Your body?” he wrote in his journal, aghast. Emerson was a brain, and apparently not the most physical guy.
Thoreau slept there, too, after emerging from his Walden sojourn. “When I bought my house, the first thing I did was plant trees,” said Emerson. He also wrote, “Happy is the house that shelters a friend!” At Bush House he had hemlocks, pines and chestnuts, apples pears and plums, which surely delighted Thoreau.
Strong women made their voices heard in Concord, especially on the question of abolition. Louisa May Alcott, a passionate suffragist, was the first woman to vote in a local election in town in 1880: “No bolt fell on our audacious heads,” she recalled wryly, “no earthquake shook the town…” Louisa is even more of a draw locally today in Concord than Henry.
During the downtown tour I posed a question that had been bothering me: Why did Thoreau never marry?
Our guide’s pause was not inconsiderable: “I think he was gay.” Richard stated that the idea does not fit with what is often thought about Thoreau, “who is supposed to be above sexuality.” But letters from Thoreau to Emerson, he said, are “a tale of heartbreak and unrequited love.” Emerson felt safe leaving Thoreau at his house with his wife and daughters for the months on end while he traveled the lecture circuit because he trusted that the man would not seduce his wife or daughters.
“People think they were nonsexual, because they were such intellectuals, but I’m like, baloney,“ said Richard. Go to the diaries, he insisted, to see “it’s a passion at a Shakespearean level.”
So I did. Here is just one sentence from Thoreau’s journals: “My friend is the apology for my life. In him are the spaces which my orbit traverses.”
Is this view a case of presentism? Are we interpreting the past mistakenly through the lens of contemporary mores? I am not the first to be intrigued by Thoreau’s queerness, or that of other writers of his time. It is generally acknowledged that Walt Whitman, another bard of the outdoors, preferred men romantically–the poet’s relationship with the streetcar conductor Peter Doyle, the love of his life, has been well documented.
Why not Thoreau?
Something curious pertaining to Thoreau’s personal life occurred in 1847, when Sophia Ford – Louisa May Alcott’s tutor – fell in love with him. She was 45, he was 30. He explained to Emerson: “I have had a tragic correspondence, for the most part all on one side, with Miss ——,” he wrote. “She did really wish to — I hesitate to write — marry me. That is the way they spell it. Of course I did not write a deliberate answer. How could I deliberate upon it? I sent back as distinct a no as I have learned to pronounce after considerable practice, and I trust that this no has succeeded. Indeed, I wished that it might burst, like hollow shot, after it had struck and buried itself and made itself felt there. There was no other way. I really had anticipated no such foe as this in my career.”
Ford threatened to kill herself. Thoreau burned her correspondence. She lived to the grand old age of 85, died single, and never forgot him.
Emerson reciprocated, but only to a certain extent. He informed his brother William that the newest member of the household was “a scholar & a poet & as full of buds of promise as a young apple tree.” But it seems that Thoreau could be a bit of a handful. One acquaintance commented, “I love Henry, but I do not like him.” A docent at the Concord Museum thought it important to reassure us that “Thoreau’s family really loved and supported him, no matter what.” In any case, Emerson’s passion did not measure up to Thoreau’s.
Everyone, I think, knows what it is to pine for somebody. Why would Thoreau be exempt?
Weirdly, when I stopped into the replica of Thoreau’s Walden cabin—built as a tourist attraction in the mid-twentieth century just by the car-mobbed parking lot, its roof mossy at this point, situated across the road from his beloved pond—I found it absolutely empty.
It was just me and Thoreau’s green desk and Thoreau’s cot, identical to the one in the museum, which looked as if it had been specially made up just for my nap-time visit with sheets and pillow and a thin comforter. It was so easy to imagine Thoreau lying in bed here thrilling to the sound of the wind in the trees and the peepers at the pond, pondering everything wild and yearning for his friend Emerson. Thoreau was human. He might not have been so celibate in his secret fantasies.
Emerson surely would have visited him at the cabin before or after the two ambled. There are a couple of chairs there, in addition to the cot with its rumpled sheets. Where would they have sat? No matter, it would have to be close to one another, the single room is so small, so intimate. Would they have been sensible of each other’s sweat?
Of course they would have.
It must have been a terribly hard secret to keep, a secret hiding in plain sight. How painful must that have been for Henry on his daily walk around Fairy Lake with Waldo?
And here’s another irony: after Thoreau died young, of tuberculosis, years before his friend, Emerson would read every one of Thoreau’s journals and would be privy to all of this intense emotion, all the things that Thoreau could not confess aloud at the time. Thoreau was in fact in love with forests, in love with the wild. But he was also in love with a man.
I find this idea incredibly moving. He was a person of his time, when homosexuality was pretty sternly disallowed. But surely today we may be permitted to ask ourselves whether he did in fact harbor this powerful love. It won’t tarnish his image, don’t worry. Thoreau is such an important and influential figure that his reputation can handle it.
In fact, if he was gay, and if some of his rapture about his wild can be pegged to a sublimated love for another man, I believe it makes his achievement all the more striking.
People pay homage now to Thoreau’s utterly simple grave site on Authors Ridge in Concord’s Sleepy Hollow Cemetery—the headsone reads simply “Henry”—leaving pencils in his memory. Aware he was dying, Thoreau had some memorable last words: “Now comes good sailing.”
I visited another plot where he first was buried, his mother’s family plot, before his remains were reinterred at the more writerly site.
There is no mention of him at the first grave site now. I have only to wonder what Thoreau himself would have made of being laid to rest with the other famous ones in his circle. Would he have preferred even his burial to be solitary? He was as great a loner as he was a walker. On the other hand, being buried alongside Emerson, their two bodies stretched out side by side for eternity, might have made him very happy.