Henry David Thoreau, the 19th century Transcendentalist and author of Walden, came under attack in the New Yorker last fall for his individualistic philosophy and seemingly anti-social attitude. This isn’t a new issue. His contemporaries regarded him as crusty and contrary and called him a hard man to like. The naturalist John Burroughs wrote that he lacked sympathy and compassion.
Is it OK to admire Thoreau’s writing, if he was really such an unfriendly person?
It was with this question in mind that I recently read Men of Concord, a book published in 1936 that contained selected entries from Thoreau’s journal over the period 1838-1860, with a special focus on interactions with his neighbors in the Massachusetts town of Concord. The idea came from N. C. Wyeth (1881-1945), a popular illustrator during the early 20th century and a great admirer of Thoreau’s work, who conceived of the book as a way to help the public appreciate Thoreau as a great American philosopher. He contributed twelve original oil panels, which were reproduced as color plates in the book and which are on display today at a museum exhibition in Concord.