By Elizabeth Witherell
During his lifetime, Henry Thoreau wrote and wrote and wrote — essays, books, poems, translations, letters, Journal entries — and what he wrote has become an important part of our heritage as Americans. Even though Thoreau was born over 175 years ago, the questions he raised—about the meaning of nature, about the need for wildness as a tonic for the spirit, about individual rights and responsibilities — are still central issues in American life. In his writings, Thoreau also described situations and asked questions about human values that are universal.
Thoreau never mentions when he knew that he would be a writer, but he probably decided sometime during college that he wanted writing to be his life’s work. Apart from an early essay about the seasons that may not be authentic, Thoreau’s first surviving compositions are those he wrote for college classes in English that included composition, logic, and public speaking. Thoreau took these classes at Harvard from a professor of rhetoric and oratory named Edward Tyrrel Channing. Channing, who taught a number of outstanding writers, assigned topics for his classes. Some of Channing’s topics clearly influenced Thoreau’s later work as a writer: for example, he wrote a class essay about “the duty, inconvenience and dangers of conformity, in little things and great.” Seventeen years later, in Walden, he wrote: “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.”
In Thoreau’s day, Harvard graduates usually became teachers or ministers — Harvard was established as a Puritan institution, and was a Unitarian school when Thoreau attended in the 1830s — instead of doctors and lawyers. After he graduated in August 1837, Thoreau taught for a time: his first job was a well paying one as a teacher at the district school in Concord. He kept that job only two weeks, though. When a member of the school board visited Thoreau’s classroom and found it too noisy, he told Thoreau to maintain stricter discipline. Irritated at this interference, Thoreau selected several students at random, whipped them, and resigned (he was making a point, but understandably some of the students he treated so unfairly never forgave him).
He looked for another teaching job unsuccessfully, and in 1838 started his own school in Concord; in 1839 his older brother John joined him and they operated the Concord Academy together until April 1841, when John became ill with tuberculosis and the school had to close. After that, Thoreau relied on his practical talent to support himself. He did some painting, gardening, and hauling jobs, and he worked in the family pencil-making business, and as a surveyor for local landowners.
At about the same time as he began teaching, Thoreau began to keep a journal in which he collected his thoughts, and he changed the order of his names, from D. Henry to Henry D. He was declaring himself to be a new man — a writer. This was the most important part of his identity, and he supported himself at the various other jobs he held in order to keep writing. In November 1837 he saw his work in print for the first time — the Concord paper published an obituary that he had written.
After the Concord Academy closed in 1841, Thoreau accepted an offer from Ralph Waldo Emerson, another famous Concord writer, who lived across town from his family’s home, to stay with Emerson’s family and earn his keep as a handyman and gardener while he concentrated on his writing. The two and a half years that he spent in the Emerson household gave him freedom to read and think and write when he most needed it. While he was there, he reorganized and recopied what he had written up to then in his Journal, and he decided on the structure and began to gather materials for his first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. He wrote several essays and a number of poems, and published some of these in a magazine called The Dial that he helped Emerson to edit.
In 1847, when Thoreau described his life for the members of his Harvard class, he listed “writer” as only one occupation among many: “I am a Schoolmaster — a Private Tutor, a Surveyor — a Gardener, a Farmer — a Painter, I mean a House Painter, a Carpenter, a Mason, a Day-Laborer, a Pencil-Maker, a Glass-paper Maker, a Writer, and sometimes a Poetaster.” (Correspondence, 196) He was on the verge of realizing his dream of publishing a book, though: in 1849, A Week appeared, and even though it didn’t sell well, Thoreau’s sense of himself as a real writer was confirmed.
Thoreau continued to write, about trips he took — to Cape Cod and to the Maine Woods — and about his walks around Concord, during which he carefully observed the changing colors of the leaves in the fall and the life history of the wild apple tree. He wrote about current events, too — the injustice of the Fugitive Slave Law and of the death sentence the abolitionist John Brown received for leading the raid on Harper’s Ferry. And he wrote about a philosophical question — the problem of how to live our lives when the goal of being true to ourselves seems to be in conflict with the duty to be responsible members of society.
Thoreau wrote his most influential book, Walden, about the cycle of his life at Walden Pond, a lake about two miles from the center of Concord where he lived from 1845 until 1847. But his largest, most impressive work is the Journal he kept — it contains over two million words. He wrote the first entry in October 1837 and the last one in November 1861: altogether he filled almost fifty notebooks with observations about what he’d seen on his walks, comments on the books he was reading, accounts of conversations with his neighbors, and drafts of parts of the lectures and essays and books he was writing. After 1850, he wrote regularly in his journal. Instead of writing every day, though, he seems to have kept notes for several days and then written up the entries a few days at a time.
Journal-keeping in the mid-nineteenth century was a more public form of writing than it is usually considered today. Many of Thoreau’s literary neighbors in Concord also kept journals — Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Bronson Alcott and his daughter Louisa May — and they sometimes exchanged notebooks and read each others’ observations and reflections. Letter-writing was another form of communication much more popular then than now — and necessary, as well, with no telephones and limited means of travel. In his letters, Thoreau reveals aspects of his personality more directly than in his published writings or even in his Journal. In July 1849, he wrote to Emerson’s ten-year-old daughter, Ellen, who was visiting her cousins on Staten Island:
I can guess pretty well what interests you, and what you think about. Indeed I am interested in pretty much the same things myself. I suppose you think that persons who are as old as your father and myself are always thinking about very grave things, but I know that we are meditating the same old themes that we did when we were ten years old, only we go more gravely about it. (Correspondence, 245)
Thoreau’s books and essays and poems and letters and his Journal are all that really survive of him — the details of his life and personality are interesting and useful to know about, but you can have your own direct relationship only with the words that he wrote. Thousands of people all over the world have done so, and Thoreau has inspired readers like U.S. President John Fitzgerald Kennedy (1917-1963), Indian leader Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948), and civil-rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968) to great ideas and noble deeds. Read Thoreau and prepare to let your life be changed!