The Depths of Thoreau


When you think about Henry David Thoreau, what do you think about, what do you know? My guess is that it goes something like this: he lived in the 19th century. He built a cabin in the woods near Walden Pond where he lived for a few years. He was a friend and protégé of Emerson, Ralph Waldo. His book called Walden about his time in the woods is considered a classic. He also wrote a famous essay called Civil Disobedience that influenced Martin Luther King, Jr. as he developed his theory of non-violent resistance as a way to call attention to injustice.

And that’s about it. And some of that is right, but it’s incomplete. Having spent much of the past week with Thoreau—at second- or third-hand—I’ve learned a few more things, deepening my understanding of this complicated man.

Henry David Thoreau was born in July, 1817, in Concord, Massachusetts, where he lived all of his life except for a few months in his young manhood when he worked as a tutor in New York City and his travels to explore natural settings on Cape Cod, the Maine Woods, and, late in life, Minnesota. He was born David Henry Thoreau and decided to change the order of his names while at college (much as Ralph Waldo Emerson dropped the “Ralph” as he entered manhood).

Thoreau’s father’s family came from the English island of Jersey, which is so close to France that their English was spoken with a strong French accent. The name was pronounced “Tho-RO,” accent on the second syllable, but when the family crossed the ocean, the accent changed so that the name was pronounced “thorough.” You might hear me alternate between the two pronunciations, as I reckon both have a legitimate claim.

The family left Jersey after Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes in 1685, which made Protestantism illegal again. Thoreau’s paternal grandfather was a privateer (yes, that means “pirate”), perhaps because his options were few or his regard for the law slight—or perhaps a combination of the two. Henry David’s father, John, was a tradesman, but the way he carried himself encouraged neighbors to consider him a gentleman—and one with a French accent and habits.

We tend to forget (or I do, anyway) that 1817, the year of Henry David’s birth, was not long after the Revolutionary War. (The Unitarian pastor in town, Rev. Ezra Ripley, in fact served in that war as a young man.) Henry was born in an upstairs bedroom in the home of his mother’s mother. Michael Sims, the author of a book about Thoreau’s early years, The Adventures of Henry Thoreau, points out that the bedroom faced the sunrise. One of his earliest memories was of a beautiful lake that his family took him to visit at around the age of five; it was called Walden Pond.

There were four children in the family: Helen, John, Henry, and Sophia. Their mother encouraged them to spend much time outdoors, which she herself loved, and the children explored the woods at their leisure.

“Henry’s adventurous childhood,” his biographer says, “led him to think of himself as strong and resilient, and he was impatient with those less rugged.” On some days, the boys would take a lunch with them, informing their mother they’d be gone for the day and would not be back until nightfall with stories of their adventures “at Egg Rock or Fairhaven Hill or even four miles away at Lincoln, or… on the waters of the nearby Sudbury River or Walden Pond.”

Though John was the elder of the two boys, Henry was the more studious one. So when it came time for the family to send one to college, Henry, at age sixteen, was the one to go to Harvard, about twenty miles from Concord. The entrance exams covered Cicero’s orations, the Greek Testament, and all of Virgil. The college president, Josiah Quincy, told Henry “You have barely got in.”

Harvard was founded as a divinity school, but near the beginning of the nineteenth century, leadership was taken over by the Unitarians, who encouraged a broader outlook and a focus on the Greek classics. (Modern languages were offered, but only at half the credit of Latin, Greek, and other subjects.) Harvard in those days was known for its raucous students. “Tables were anchored to the floor to prevent the formerly common practice of tossing them out a window.”

Henry spent much of his time in the library, which featured 50,000 volumes. Winters were cold, and Michael Sims tells us that “Snow often buried Harvard Yard for weeks at a time.” It got cold and there was not much fuel for heat. “Every student was supplied with a cannon-ball that could be warmed in his room’s fireplace to a red glow and then rolled onto an iron skillet from which it could radiate heat for a few hours. (Unheated cannonballs also guaranteed a satisfying uproar when tumbled downstairs during the night.)”

Serious and studious Henry Thoreau did not fit in easily with the “spirit” of his fellow college students. Not only did he not strive to be popular, he seemed sometimes to revel in not being popular. One fellow student found Henry’s rather stiff expression “like that of an Egyptian idol lost in a kind of mystical arrogance.”

He studied four modern languages at Harvard—Italian, French, German, and Spanish—some for two semesters, some for as many as five. He seems to have worked hard, though he graduated at only about the midpoint of his class. When asked to write an autobiographical sketch for the yearbook, he referred to the president’s sharp comment four years earlier (“You’ve only just got in”) and said that, still “I came—I saw—I conquered,” adding that another such victory would just about have “done him in.” And added, “Suffice to say, that though bodily I have been a member of Harvard University, heart and soul I have been far away among the scenes of my boyhood. Those hours that should have been devoted to study have been spent scouring the woods and exploring the lakes and streams.”

Just before graduating, he asked his mother which profession he should pursue. Full, perhaps, with the same spirit as her son, she suggested, “You can buckle your knapsack and roam abroad to seek your fortune.” We are told that “at the thought of leaving home, Henry’s eyes began to fill with tears.” This sensitivity mixed with the flinty arrogance remarked upon by Thoreau’s classmates is one of the puzzling complications in his nature. He appeared to love animals more than people, but the people he loved—mostly family members, but often children, as well—he loved deeply.

Back in Concord, he dressed as a rustic in “heavy boots, a straw hat, sturdy trousers that resisted thorns and would not rip” when he climbed up a tree to check out the home of an owl or raccoon. The ladies of the Charitable Society observed this dress, which they considered shabby, and approached their co-founder to see if Henry might accept a donation of shirts from them. The co-founder was Henry’s mother. At the next meeting, his mother, Cynthia, told them, “I told my David Henry that you would like to make him some unbleached cotton shirts. He said, “unbleached, Mother. Unbleached. Yes, that strikes my ear pleasantly; I think they may make me some.”

Author Sims comments, “A hard-working farm wife, probably tired of Henry’s notorious eccentricities, muttered to the woman beside her, ‘Strike his ears pleasantly, indeed. I guess they’ll strike his back pleasantly when he gets them on.’”

Thoreau was a young man who liked the peace and tranquility of the woods and the lakes where the loudest sounds were the songs of the birds, with an occasional whistle from the train that came through the town from Boston, heading west. So, it’s a bit ironic that most of his childhood was spent in a boarding house. His mother ran the establishment as an important source of the family’s income, but it meant that there was often the noise of shoes clumping up and down the stairs and the many voices of family, friends and almost strangers in the house.

Ironic, too, that the free-thinking Thoreau was the step-grandson of a Unitarian preacher, about whom Michael Sims says “Over time, (Ezra) Ripley came to think of himself as God’s regent in Concord. He read very little outside of the Bible and was ‘resistant to ideas beyond his ken’; he was famous for his use of prayer to encourage rain or to cure illness. When Emerson was a child, Ripley drove him about the parish in a carriage, pointing out the homes of people who had broken off from his church and emphasizing that divine misfortune had dogged each” ever since. Thoreau preferred enjoying God’s creation in the woods on a Sunday morning rather than Ripley’s word in a pew, says Sims.

Perhaps the most famous quote of Henry David Thoreau is “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.” Clearly, Thoreau heard a different drummer than the one his companions heard and clearly he stepped to it, though its measure was strange to others and its strains far from their ears.

In Emerson’s beautiful eulogy of Henry David, written in 1863, after Thoreau’s death at age 44, Emerson says, “Few lives contain so many renunciations. He was bred to no profession; he never married; he lived alone; he never went to church; he never voted; he refused to pay a tax to the state; he ate no flesh, he drank no wine, he never knew the use of tobacco; and, though a naturalist, he used neither trap nor gun. He chose, wisely, no doubt, to be a bachelor of thought and nature.” (Thoreau did occasionally go to church until he was convinced that his Sunday mornings would be more properly spent among nature’s elements; he did use a gun when young to shoot birds with bird shot so as to study them better; he ate meat, as well, when young, but may have become vegetarian in his maturity.)

But what discipline, to get up each morning to live as naturally as he could, getting short-term jobs such as surveying when he felt the need for money, keeping fastidiously a journal of what he saw and heard and smelled and learned, year after year, with no hope for remuneration. He was remarkable, indeed, to hear Emerson’s account.

Thoreau’s intimacy with animals reminds Emerson of a quote about a beekeeper, “Either he had told the bees things or the bees had told him.” According to Emerson, “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. Our naturalist had perfect magnanimity; he had no secrets; he would carry you to the heron’s haunt, or even to his most prized botanical swamp, — possibly knowing that you could never find it again, yet willing to take his risks.”

Emerson tells of a day when Thoreau “drew out of his breast-pocket his diary, and read the names of all the plants that should bloom on this day, whereof he kept account as a banker when his notes fall due. The Cypripedium not due till to-morrow. He thought, that, if waked up from a trance, in this swamp, he could tell by the plants what time of the year it was within two days.”

This lover of Nature was not much of a lover of mankind, at least not of those who chose to live conventional lives.

I see young men, my townsmen, whose misfortune it is to have inherited farms, houses, barns, cattle, and farming tools; for these are more easily acquired than got rid of. Better if they had been born in the open pasture and suckled by a wolf, that they might have seen with clearer eyes what field they were called to labor in.

Who made them serfs of the soil? Why should they eat their sixty acres, when man is condemned to eat only his peck of dirt? Why should they begin digging their graves as soon as they are born? They have got to live a man’s life, pushing all these things before them, and get on as well as they can.

How many an immortal soul have I met well-nigh crushed and smothered under its load, creeping down the road of life, pushing before it a barn seventy-five feet by forty, its Augean stables never cleansed, and one hundred acres of land, tillage, mowing, pasture, and wood-lot! The portionless, who struggle with no unnecessary inherited encumbrances, find it labor enough to subdue and cultivate a few cubic feet of flesh.

But men labor under a mistake. The better part of the man is soon plowed under the soul for compost. By a seeming fate, commonly called necessity, they are employed, as it says in an old book, laying up treasures which moth and rust will corrupt and thieves break through and steal. It is a fool’s life, as they will find, when they get to the end of it, if not before.

The old book, of course, is the Bible, which Thoreau honors by quoting from it while slighting by calling it nothing more than an “old book,” a kind of perfect emblem of his glorification of the natural, while giving religious tradition a place, but not the central place. He writes like a prophet, too, nothing held back in the name of righteousness. The reader is left to discern for himself or herself how much self-righteousness is mixed in.

I had forgotten, if I ever knew it, that Thoreau never voted, and that surprised me. It had been too long since I had read Civil Disobedience, so I read it again this week and found this, which explains much:

(A) government in which the majority rule in all cases cannot be based on justice, even as far as men understand it. Can there not be a government in which majorities do not virtually decide right or wrong, but conscience?—in which majorities decide only those questions to which the rule of expediency is applicable? Must the citizen ever, for a moment, or in the least degree, resign his conscience to the legislator? Why has every man a conscience, then?

 I think that we should be men first, and subjects afterward. It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right. The only obligation which I have a right to assume is to do at any time what I think right. It is truly enough said, that a corporation has no conscience; but a corporation of conscientious men is a corporation with a conscience. Law never made men a whit more just, and by means for their respect for it, even the well-disposed are daily made the agents of injustice.

A common and natural result of an undue respect for the law is, that you may see a file of soldiers, colonel, captain, corporal, privates, powder-monkeys, and all, marching in admirable order over hill and dale to the wars, against their wills, ay, against their common sense and consciences, which makes it very steep marching indeed, and produces a palpitation of the heart. They are concerned; they are all peaceably inclined. Now, what are they? Men at all? Or small movable forts and magazines, at the service of some unscrupulous man in power?…

The mass of men serve the state thus, not as men mainly, but as machines, with their bodies…. In most cases there is no free exercise whatever of the judgment or the moral sense; but they put themselves on a level with wood and earth and stones; and wooden men can perhaps be manufactured that will serve the purpose as well. Such command no more respect than men of straw or a lump of dirt. They have the same sort of worth only as horses and dogs. Yet such as these even are commonly esteemed good citizens.

Others—as most legislators, politicians, lawyers, ministers, and office-holders—serve the state chiefly with their heads; and, as they rarely make any moral distinctions, they are as likely to serve the Devil, without intending it, as God.

A very few, as heroes, patriots, martyrs, reformers in the great sense, and men, serve the state with their consciences also, and so necessarily resist it for the most part; and they are commonly treated as enemies by it. A wise man will only be useful as a man, and will not submit to be “clay,” and “stop a hole to keep the wind away,” but leave that office to his dust, at least…

He who gives himself entirely to his fellow-men appears to them useless and selfish; but he who gives himself partially to them is pronounced a benefactor and a philanthropist.


You can see the justice in Emerson’s evaluation, “For not a particle of respect had he to the opinions of any man or body of men, but homage solely to the truth itself.” The truth, at least, as he understood it.

David Henry Thoreau was a gentle boy, thoughtful, serious, but affectionate to his mother and sisters and brother, and full of a love for adventure. To read about the time he and his brother spent several weeks building a boat, then taking it on a river trip to the White Mountains in New Hampshire for several more weeks, is to absorb the deep affection the young men had for each other and the friendly respect that they granted each other.

Each had fallen in love with the young Ellen Sewall, and there is evidence of that the seventeen-year-old loved them both. She accepted John’s marriage proposal, but her father, the Rev. Sewall, an upstanding Unitarian minister, had no use for the radical ideas preached in the Thoreau household, and Ellen was forced to withdraw her acceptance of the proposal. This did not deter Henry from proposing a little later, by means of flowers and a poem sent by the mail. Another reluctant refusal from Ellen, this time after consulting with her father. The river trip followed these parallel disappointments, but there is no evidence the competition dampened the enthusiasm the brothers had for the company of each other.

On New Year’s Day, 1842, John was stropping his razor prior to shaving in the afternoon. Before his razor made its way to his face, he slightly nicked the ring finger of his left hand. He slipped the flap of skin back over the wound and wrapped it tightly with a small piece of rag. Instead of healing rapidly, it began to hurt again after a few days. John removed the homemade bandage to see that on one side of the wound the fingertip had developed gangrene. A week after getting the wound, John consulted the family doctor who cleaned and dressed the wound, but on the walk home, John began experiencing acute pain in various parts of his body. He could barely make it home.

By the next morning, his jaw muscles were stiffening. He had developed lockjaw, which we now call tetanus. The young and heretofore healthy man had to accept the diagnosis that there was no hope for his survival. Not long after learning of his fate, John quoted the words attributed to Jesus after Pilate’s men came for him in the garden by the brook, “The cup that my father gives me—Shall I not drink it?”

Henry sat beside his brother, reading to him and telling him stories through the pain of the dying days. John died ten days after nicking his finger on New Year’s Day, 1842. Henry was 25 years old. This is how Michael Sims describes the aftermath: ‘For weeks, Henry stayed in bed and looked at the ceiling. His interest in the natural world, in the life of the village, in his family—all faded away. He read little and seldom wrote in his journal. Eventually, he became aware of his numbness and, typically, he wondered whether other creatures were ever plagued with this kind of malaise…

“‘Where is my heart gone,’ he wrote in his journal. It was a question without a question mark because there was no answer; ‘—they say men cannot part with it and live.’

“His need for the outdoors was slow to return, as he spent day after day indoors, staring at walls, being cared for by his sister and mother. Finally, in mid-March, he went for a solitary walk in the woods… he went out with only memories to accompany him.

“The sun shone brightly. He saw old people sniffing the air after the long winter and young people working in the dark bare fields. Color was returning to the earth, in the veined green leaves of skunk cabbage peeking up from the swamp, in the cardinals dashing against the blue sky that was revealed as the wintry white clouds withdrew. For the first time in far too long, he felt aware of the world, and then gratitude for it washed over him. The sounds of life poured back into his ears—the wood-and-metal rattle of a shay on the road, the slurred whine of a phoebe repeating his name. A song sparrow with one brown spot like a smear on a painter’s smock, whistled grace notes and burst into liquid song, Henry heard a bluebird chortling and a robin belting out cheerily, cheerily, cheerily.

“Alone at the pond, he admired the new form of a pine branch that had fallen into the water some time ago. Lathed by sun, wind, and current, it now lay clean and white in a new element, its upright former life forgotten.”

It was three years later that Thoreau began his experiment in simple living at Walden Pond. There are various theories suggested as to his reasons for doing this, but I have to think that the loss of his beloved brother played a large part in the decision. Like all such losses, it forced him to look deeply at life, at what gives it meaning and purpose, joy and delight. Deep immersion in the natural world is what satisfied these needs in Thoreau and deep disappointments in his personal life and his view of the deleterious effects of so called “civilization” combined to make him want to retreat into the natural world and into himself.

In an introduction to a collection of Thoreau’s writing (Walden and Other Writings), Brooks Atkinson says: “Transcendentalism… believed in the infinity of man.” That was more than an idea for Thoreau. He heard it preached by Emerson. Thoreau read it in his books and lived it in his walks in meadows and fields. Thoreau believed that he could fathom the mind of God by not putting words to it in theory, but by living in the midst of the natural world, “(assembling) his thoughts and observations, (trying) to extract the basic truth of the cosmos.” Jonathan Levin describes Thoreau’s two years at Walden as “his retreat to the woods… framing a reflection on both what ails men and women in their contemporary condition and what might provide relief.”

So, what are we to make of Thoreau today? Few of us would advocate spending two years in the woods as a way to confront the complications of contemporary life, but many of us will acknowledge the benefits of a deep connection with the natural world as a way to understand and feel a part of things more lasting and significant than just our tiny and fleeting lives. And our regard for the world we have constructed around us certainly is worth looking at with a critical eye and maturely developed conscience. How do you reconcile the decisions you make in your daily life with the philosophy embodied in the life and teachings of Henry David Thoreau?



  • The Adventures of Henry Thoreau: A Young Man’s Unlikely Path to Walden Pond by Michael Sims. Bloomsbury, USA. NY, NY. 2014.
  • Walden and Other Writings by Henry David Thoreau, edited with an introduction by Brooks Atkinson. The Modern Library. NY, NY. 1950.
  • Wikipedia: “Walden” and “Henry David Thoreau”
  • Henry David Thoreau: A Life of the Mind by Robert D. Richardson, Jr. University of California Press. Berkeley & Los Angeles. 1986.
  • The Days of Henry Thoreau: A Biography by Walter Harding. Dover Publications. NY, NY. 1982.

 Presented by the Rev. Peter Connolly at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Bowling Green, KY on September 18, 2016

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