Harrison Gray Otis Blake (1816-1898)

Harrison Gray Otis Blake was born in 1816 in Worcester, Massachusetts. At age fifteen, Blake enrolled in Harvard College and graduated in 1835. After graduation, Blake continued his theological studies at the Harvard Divinity School. His dedicated involvement with the school granted Blake, and two others, the responsibility of inviting a commencement speaker; to which they agreed on inviting Ralph Waldo Emerson. The pair remained connected post commencement, and Blake would travel out to Concord to visit Emerson. There, he was introduced to Henry David Thoreau. After abandoning the ministry, Blake taught in various schools between Boston and Worcester from 1839, up until the 1860’s. He was married to Sarah Chandler Ward in 1840, until she died in 1846 after bearing their second child. In 1852, Blake wed Nancy Pope Conant, one of his former students.

Blake pin002
H.G.O. Blake’s Harvard Phi Beta Kappa pin (The Walden Woods Project Collection)

Blake traveled, venturing out to Mount Monadnock, Mount Washington, and throughout central Massachusetts. Often times, he hiked with Thoreau. He became one of Thoreau’s most well corresponded friends, exchanging letters to one another frequently. After Thoreau passed, Blake and other acquaintances gathered to collect, and ultimately preserve, his work. From 1879 to 1888, Blake attended the Concord School of Philosophy, and also gave readings. Towards the end of his life, he suffered from various health difficulties. In 1898, Blake died from a stroke. He is buried in Worcester, Massachusetts.

Blake wrote about Thoreau:

I was introduced to him first by Mr. Emerson more than forty years ago, though I had known him by sight before at college. I recall nothing of that first interview unless it be some remarks upon astronomy, and his want of interest in the study as compared with studies relating more directly to this world — remarks such as he made here and there in his writings. My first real introduction was from the reading of an article of his in the Dial on “Aulus Persius Flaccus,” which appears now in the Week. That led to my first writing to him, and to his reply, which is published in the volume of letters. Our correspondence continued for more than twelve years, and we visited each other at times, he coming here to Worcester, commonly to read something in public, or being on his way to read somewhere else.

As to the outward incidents of our intercourse, I think of little or nothing that it seems worth while to write. Our conversation, or rather his talking, when we were together, was in the strain of his letters and of his books. Our relation, as I look back on it, seems almost an impersonal one, and illustrates well his remark that “our thoughts are the epochs in our lives: all else is but as a journal of the winds that blew while we were here.” His personal appearance did not interest me particularly, except as the associate of his spirit, though I felt no discord between them. When together, we had little inclination to talk of personal matters. His aim was directed so steadily and earnestly towards what is essential in our experience, that beyond all others of whom I have known, he made but a single impression on me. Geniality, versatility, personal familiarity are, of course, agreeable in those about us, and seem necessary in human intercourse, but I did not miss them in Thoreau, who was, while living, and is still in my recollection and in what he has left to us, such an effectual witness to what is highest and most precious in life. As I re-read his letters from time to time, which I never tire of doing, I am apt to find new significance in them, am still warned and instructed by them, with more force occasionally than ever before; so that in a sense they are still in the mail, have not altogether reached me yet, and will not probably before I die. They may well be regarded as addressed to those who can read them best.

— H.G.O. Blake (source: Henry Salt’s
The Life of Henry David Thoreau (London: Bentley, 1890) 144-146)

Selected Letters of Henry D. Thoreau to H.G.O. Blake

That friend to whom Thoreau wrote most constantly and fully, on all topics, was Mr. Harrison Blake of Worcester, a graduate of Harvard two years earlier than Thoreau, in the same class with two other young men from Concord, — E. R. Hoar and H. B. Dennis. This circumstance may have led to Mr. Blake’s visiting the town occasionally, before his intimacy with its poet-naturalist began, in the year 1848. At that time, as Thoreau wrote to Horace Greeley, he had been supporting himself for five years wholly by the labor of his hands; his Walden hermit life was over, yet neither its record nor the first book had been published, and Thoreau was known in literature chiefly by his papers in the Dial, which had then ceased for four years. In March, 1848, Mr. Blake read Thoreau’s chapter on Persius in the Dial for July, 1840, — and though he had read it before without being much impressed by it, he now found in it “pure depth and solidity of thought.” “It has revived in me,” he wrote to Thoreau, “a haunting impression of you, which I carried away from some spoken words of yours. . . . When I was last in Concord, you spoke of retiring farther from our civilization. I asked you if you would feel no longings for the society of your friends. Your reply was in substance, ‘No, I am nothing.’ That reply was memorable to me. It indicated a depth of resources, a completeness of renunciation, a poise and repose in the universe, which to me is almost inconceivable; which in you seemed domesticated, and to which I look up with veneration. I would know of that soul which can say ‘I am nothing.’ I would be roused by its words to a truer and purer life. Upon me seems to be dawning with new significance the idea that God is here; that we have but to bow before Him in profound submission at every moment, and He will fill our souls with his presence. In this opening of the soul to God, all duties seem to centre; what else have we to do? . . . If I understand rightly the significance of your life, this is it: You would sunder yourself from society, from the spell of institutions, customs, conventionalities, that you may lead a fresh, simple life with God. Instead of breathing a new life into the old forms, you would have a new life without and within. There is something sublime to me in this attitude, — far as I may be from it myself. . . . Speak to me in this hour as you are prompted. . . . I honor you because you abstain from action, and open your soul that you may be somewhat. Amid a world of noisy, shallow actors it is noble to stand aside and say, ‘I will simply be.’ Could I plant myself at once upon the truth, reducing my wants to their minimum, . . . I should at once be brought nearer to nature, nearer to my fellow-men, — and life would be infinitely richer. But, alas! I shiver on the brink.”

— Franklin B.  Sanborn (source: Familiar Letters,
edited by F.B. Sanborn (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1906)  p. 158-159)

Letters to Harrison Gray Otis Blake edited by Wendell Glick (from Great Short Works of Henry David Thoreau edited, with an introduction, by Wendell Glick (New York: Harper & Row, 1982). Reprinted courtesy of HarperCollins Publishers.