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The Days of Henry Thoreau

The Days of Henry Thoreau: A Biography

Walter Harding
Copyright Date: 1982
Edition: REV - Revised
Pages: 526
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt183psr0
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    The Days of Henry Thoreau
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    eISBN: 978-1-4008-7556-6
    Subjects: History
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Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter (pp. i-v)
  2. Preface to the 1992 Edition (pp. vi-vi)
  3. Table of Contents (pp. vii-x)
  4. Introduction (pp. xi-2)
    Walter Harding

    A hundred years ago Henry David Thoreau was looked upon as a minor disciple of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Fifty years ago he was thought of as an “also-ran” who was rapidly and deservedly being forgotten. Yet today he is widely rated as one of the giants in the American pantheon and his fame is on an upward rather than a downward curve. It is universally agreed that he speaks more to our day than to his own.

    Nature lovers find solace and beauty in his works. Critics of our times find in him one of the great satirists of our...

  5. CHAPTER ONE (1817–1823) (pp. 3-14)

    Henry David Thoreau was born in Concord, Massachusetts, on July 12, 1817, in what he thought “the most estimable place in all the world, and in the very nick of time, too.”¹ His birthplace was the easternmost upper chamber of his maternal grandmother’s house, a gray, unpainted farmhouse on Virginia Road, which winds almost deserted along the eastern outskirts of the village, in the center of a great tract known as the Bedford levels.

    Concord, some twenty miles northwest of Boston, is located on the plains surrounding the juncture of the Assabet and Sudbury Rivers which forms the Concord River,...

  6. CHAPTER TWO (1823-1833) (pp. 15-31)

    After so many years of misfortune in business, a turn for the better at last came for John Thoreau. Paradoxically, it was instigated by the most undependable of his relatives, his brother-in-law Charles Dunbar. Uncle Charles, a perennial bachelor, was born with wandering feet. He was constitutionally unable to hold a job for any length of time or even to stay put in one locale. It was said of him that when his stepfather, Jonas Minott, was anxious that he should cast a vote for Thomas Jefferson, Minott deeded him a small farm in a neighboring town to give him...

  7. CHAPTER THREE (1833-1837) (pp. 32-51)

    With the completion of his schooling in the Concord Academy, it was decided that Thoreau should go on to Harvard College. He himself was not particularly enthusiastic about the venture.¹ Since he was so adept with his hands, the family for a time talked of apprenticing him to a carpenter instead. But Cynthia Thoreau was anxious that at least one of her sons follow in her father’s footsteps and matriculate at Harvard. And despite the fact that their contemporaries thought John the more promising of the two, it was unquestionably Henry who was the more scholarly. Besides, the family pencil...

  8. CHAPTER FOUR (1837-1838) (pp. 52-74)

    A college graduate in Thoreau’s day had four roads open to him—the ministry, law, medicine, or teaching. Thoreau did not hesitate in his choice; schoolteaching was almost a family tradition. Both his father and his grandfather Asa Dunbar had taught for a time. Aunt Louisa Dunbar, who lived with them now, had taught for years. Brother John and sister Helen had taught to help Henry out financially while he was in college and were even now teaching in Taunton, Massachusetts. What is more important, no sooner had Henry graduated from Harvard than the Concord school committee offered him a...

  9. CHAPTER FIVE (1838-1841) (pp. 75-93)

    Having given up hope, after nearly a year of concerted effort, of ever obtaining a regular teaching or tutoring position, Thoreau finally decided to create his own. In mid-June of 1838 he opened a private school in the family home, the Parkman house on Main Street.¹ As might be expected, especially after his difficulties with the Concord school committee, the school was slow in getting started, but by the end of the month he had four boys from Boston enrolled and had made arrangements with his mother for them to board and room in the Thoreau home.² When the master...

  10. CHAPTER SIX (1839-1842) (pp. 94-112)

    Ellen, the oldest of the three Sewall children, was seventeen and her brothers Edmund and George eleven and five respectively when on July 20, 1839, she arrived in Concord for a two-week visit with the Wards and the Thoreaus. Although Henry had unquestionably met her many tunes before, he suddenly saw her as though for the first time. From all accounts she was a striking young lady—possessing a beauty she was to retain all her life. And Thoreau, at twenty-two, was ripe for such an encounter. He had been slow to develop an interest in the opposite sex. The...

  11. CHAPTER SEVEN (1839–1843) (pp. 113-144)

    It was only a few days after Thoreau’s return from his journey on the Merrimack in 1839 that his friends and associates in the Hedge Club—the Transcendentalists—took the step that perhaps more than anything else was to lead him into the profession of writing. For some time they had been disturbed that there seemed to be no outlet for their ideas. The pages of the leading periodicals of the day—such as those of theNorth American Review—were closed to them, for their editors thought the writings of the Transcendentalists nonsensical if not heretical. And there was...

  12. CHAPTER EIGHT (1843) (pp. 145-156)

    As pleasant as life had been at the Emerson’s, by the spring of 1843 Thoreau once more began to feel restless. He was twenty-five years old and had little, he felt, to show for it. As early as October 11, 1842, he had begun to look for some new type of employment. And on March 1, 1843, he wrote Emerson, who was then in New York City, asking him to keep his ears alerted for any employment that might be appropriate. He was particularly anxious to further himself as an author.

    At the moment, Emerson was visiting with his brother...

  13. CHAPTER NINE (1843-1845) (pp. 157-178)

    Back in Concord once more, Thoreau settled down with his parents in the Parkman house on Main Street. His immediate problem was, of course, a financial one—to pay off his debts—and he settled it by going to work in the family pencil factory. Coming fresh again to the pencil business after an absence of several years, he quickly saw many ways to improve both the manufacturing methods and the product. It had always been the custom, for example, to split open the cedar pencil wood, chisel out a groove, fill it with lead in a paste form, and...

  14. CHAPTER TEN (1845-1847) (pp. 179-198)

    It was in the early spring of 1845 that Henry David Thoreau went out to the shores of Walden Pond, a little glacial lake, three quarters of a mile in length and half a mile in width, two miles south of Concord village, and began cutting down the tall, arrowy pines to build the cabin that was to make him famous around the world. He wanted to get down to work seriously on a book he had long planned to write about the voyage he and his brother John had taken on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers in 1839. And...

  15. CHAPTER ELEVEN (1846–1847) (pp. 199-220)

    One evening late in July of 1846, probably the 23rd or 24th, Thoreau walked in to Concord village from Walden Pond to pick up a shoe he had left at the cobbler’s shop to be repaired. He was stopped on the street by Sam Staples, the local constable, tax collector, and jailer, and asked to pay his poll tax for the last several years. “I’ll pay your tax, Henry, if you’re hard up,” Staples said.¹ He also offered to try to persuade the selectmen to reduce the tax if Thoreau thought it too high, but Thoreau replied that he had...

  16. CHAPTER TWELVE (1847-1849) (pp. 221-242)

    On October 5, 1847, Emerson sailed from Boston on the packetWashington Irvingfor London. Thoreau, who was at the wharf to see him off, thought his stateroom no better than a carpeted dark closet with a keyhole for a window and was happy that he was remaining where he could walk in Walden woods rather than on a wooden deck. If he were to go anyplace, he told Emerson, he would rather it were Oregon than London. But instead he returned to Concord and settled down once again in the Emerson home on Lexington Road to act as man...

  17. CHAPTER THIRTEEN (1845–1849) (pp. 243-260)

    For nearly ten years Thoreau had been working on the manuscript of his book about the voyage he and his brother John had taken on the Concord and Merrimack rivers in 1839. It was on June 11, 1840, that he first began expanding his original journey notes, perhaps thinking to make a short travel essay such as his “Walk to Wachusset” out of it.¹ Then, with John’s death in 1842, his motives changed. Now it was to be a full-length book and a memorial tribute to John. Until he went out to Walden, the world, as he said, was just...

  18. CHAPTER FOURTEEN (1849-1852) (pp. 261-297)

    Although the pencil business had been prospering since Thoreau had worked out the new methods of perfecting their manufacture, the whole family was both pleased and puzzled suddenly to start receiving large orders for the ground lead itself from the Boston firm of Smith & McDougal. At first they thought the firm might be going into the pencil business themselves, but investigation proved that they were printers. The Thoreaus asked questions, but the firm for some time refused to give any answers. Finally, after swearing the Thoreaus to secrecy, they explained. Electrotyping had been invented and the high quality of the...

  19. CHAPTER FIFTEEN (1849-1853) (pp. 298-329)

    For some time there had been a gradual cooling of the friendship between Thoreau and Emerson. Whereas in the early days neither could find anything but satisfaction in the other’s ways and thoughts, they began to have differences of opinion and to be more critical of each other. Emerson was coming to the end of his great creative period. By the late 1840s he had said everything of importance he had to say. The rest of his life he was, for the most part, only to repeat himself or to retreat slowly from his most advanced positions. Thoreau on the...

  20. CHAPTER SIXTEEN (1854-1855) (pp. 330-356)

    Although Thoreau had completed a first draft ofWaldenwhile at the pond, he was not at all satisfied with it. In 1848, while he was revisingA Week, he also nursedWaldenthrough a second draft. When in 1849 he signed his contract with Munroe for the publication ofA Weekand they agreed to publishWaldensoon after, he polished it again. Aunt Maria wrote Prudence Ward on February 28: “[Thoreau] is preparing his Book for the press, and the title is to be, Waldien (I don’t know how to spell it) or life in the Woods. I...

  21. CHAPTER SEVENTEEN (1855-1857) (pp. 357-377)

    Although Thoreau had spent a vigorous winter, taking longer skating excursions on the rivers than he ever had before, and spending as much of the spring outdoors as he ever had, he was struck down the spring of 1855 with a strange illness. All the strength and vigor seemed to depart from his usually sturdy legs and he found it almost impossible to continue his daily walks, although he tried manfully. The Emersons were alarmed and tried unsuccessfully to persuade him to spend a week resting at their home.¹ On June 27, Thoreau wrote Blake:

    I have been sick and...

  22. CHAPTER EIGHTEEN (1857-1858) (pp. 378-407)

    On March 28, 1857, Thoreau suddenly wrote Daniel Ricketson that he would like to come to New Bedford for a visit. He had still not recovered fully from his illness and thought the earlier spring in New Bedford would be cheering. It snowed and turned cold however the morning of April 2 as he left Concord and, passing through Cambridge, he picked up a frozen toad from the sidewalk, hoping the heat of his body would thaw it back to life in his pocket. In New Bedford he found not only Ricketson but Alcott and Channing awaiting him and they...

  23. CHAPTER NINETEEN (1859–1860) (pp. 408-441)

    Thoreau’s father’s health had gradually been fading over a period of years. A severe attack of jaundice in October 1857 nearly carried him off and his sisters Maria and Jane were summoned posthaste from Cambridge. He recovered somewhat but a bad cough troubled him now and he spent more and more time sleeping in his chair, rarely trying to go outside.¹ For a time a daily glass of bourbon seemed to help him, but he still grew weaker and weaker.² After January 13, 1859, he was confined to his bedroom although he still insisted on sitting in his chair each...

  24. CHAPTER TWENTY (1861–1862) (pp. 442-468)

    As the winter of 1861 progressed, Thoreau’s health deteriorated. On January 28 Alcott called on him and found him busily working on his journal but too hoarse to think of going out. Alcott expressed the hope that fair weather would prove his best physician and that with the coming of spring he would get outdoors once more.¹ On February 3 Ellery Channing reported that Thoreau had been confined to the house for ten weeks and that cold air brought on attacks of coughing. Ten days later he wrote Mary Russell Watson that Thoreau had lost a great deal of weight...

  25. EPILOGUE (pp. 469-470)

    For one who is thought to have been little recognized in life, Thoreau received wide notice at death. Obituaries appeared in theConcord Monitor,theBoston Advertiser,theBoston Transcript,the New YorkTribune,theLiberator,theNew Bedford Standard,theBanner of Light,theAtlantic Monthly,theChristian Register,theHarper’s Monthly,theHarvard Magazine,theNational Almanac,and theAnnual of Scientific Discovery. WaldenandA Weekwere both brought back into print within a few weeks. “Walking” was the lead article in the JuneAtlantic Monthlyand was followed by “Autumnal Tints” in October, “Wild Apples” in...

  26. A Bibliographical Note (pp. 471-472)
  27. Afterword to the 1992 Edition (pp. 473-478)

    It has been more than a quarter of a century sinceThe Days of Henry Thoreauwas first published (New York, 1965). In the intervening years interest in Thoreau has continued to grow and his spirit seems more alive now than it did then. Much new work has been accomplished in the field of Thoreau scholarship.

    Unquestionably the most important has been and is the ongoing publication of the Princeton University Press edition ofThe Writings of Henry D. Thoreau(1971–), with new volumes appearing regularly and with an eventual goal of more than twenty-five volumes. Scholars and enthusiasts...

  28. Notes Added to the 1982 Edition (pp. 479-486)
  29. Index (pp. 487-502)