In Concord, Massachusetts, the nature-loving scribe is “our Henry,” but it always surprises me to read about his youthful lack of promise.
By Bruce Morgan
My first summer living in Concord, I was standing in the backyard swatting bugs when a neighbor came out to join me. “Man, the mosquitoes are terrible around here,” I complained.
“Thoreau said exactly the same thing,” she replied, as if the dude in question had just hoisted his backpack and slipped around the corner. In fact, at that point he had been dead for 130 years, but his presence still haunted, and haunts, the town in an amiable, persistent manner, like someone you’re always glad to see but who never seems to go away.
Should our high school expand into an adjacent meadow? “We honestly don’t believe Henry David Thoreau would approve of that,” the letters to the editor will say without blinking. That’s not the half of it. Every time I drive to the CVS for a bottle of aspirin, I pass the big mustard-yellow house where Henry spent his last years ruminating up in the attic. Then there’s limpid Walden Pond, plunked down next to Route 2, where the fledgling author camped in a cabin and sank his fishing line amid the stars. His grave in the town cemetery bears a single blunt name on its slab, “Henry.”
His time among us wasn’t as simple or easy as it sounds. A recent biography, Thoreau: A Life, by Laura Dassow Walls, puts all the personal struggles in plain view. It took young Henry a long time to find his footing. He was, first of all, a freelance writer (as well as a surveyor) for most of his life, a notoriously slippery trade. Typically, he stumbled and bumbled his way forward by fits and starts; was often broke; got stiffed on payment from newspapers and magazines; wrote a book that no one bought or read; and was constantly urged to try other things.
Although he made a few trips outside the state, Thoreau’s sensibility was forever anchored in Concord, which he famously labeled in Walden “the most estimable place on earth.” As you may know, his family made pencils, but did you also know that young Henry helped perfect the mechanics of refining the graphite used in those pencils, to the degree that Thoreau pencils became nationally known for their quality? When not aiding his father in the shop, Henry was out happily tramping the woods, gathering botanical specimens, observing nature, and, twig by twig, helping lay the foundation of modern ecology.
Ralph Waldo Emerson, the town’s preeminent man of letters and Thoreau’s most intimate friend, often tagged along on these extended nature walks. The two men were very close for a while — Thoreau even lived in the great man’s house briefly, and tutored his children — but then drifted apart, providing a source of deep pain for the excluded one. In effect, Emerson was a bank president and Thoreau the hippie slacker in the neighborhood. They were bound to fall out. But I guarantee that the cry of anguish that Walls cites from Thoreau’s journals in response to the split will permanently alter your sense of the man.
He could be an odd duck. The erection of his cabin at Walden Pond was the source of much speculation among people in town, who quizzed him so frequently that he began giving public lectures on the topic long before the pages of Walden took shape. I can’t help wondering about the degree to which Henry’s remarks before a friendly audience may have lent the book its trademark Yankee economy, humor, and ringing overtones. Walden manages to sound more spoken than written.
The question of Thoreau’s sexuality comes up briefly in the biography, just long enough for the author to note that Henry’s chief romantic bonds seemed to be with other men, and even these by all accounts never extended beyond friendship. But I wish she had given equal time to the condition that bewildered his associates.
I think today we would put Thoreau “on the spectrum” somewhere, and a modern diagnosis like that might be helpful in our comprehension of his unflinching and obsessive take on the world. He never relaxed his gaze. In a recent exhibit at the Concord Town Library, I happened to see a letter written by a contemporary describing a random encounter with Henry on the street. Several men were standing around, talking, when they saw Henry approaching. They called out to him, but he made no response, and sailed on by, oblivious and utterly self-absorbed. That was Henry.
I can’t complain. He’s been a good neighbor of mine, and the world’s, since he came to town. ☾
BRUCE MORGAN has been sharing Concord with the ghost of Thoreau for the past 29 years. (Read a longer bio here.)