Getting to Know Thoreau

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.

men of concord

Thoreau was a man who “heard a different drummer,” to use one of his most famous phrases.  As I plunged into the journal entries, it was interesting to hear one of his favorite confidantes, Miss Mary Emerson (Ralph Waldo Emerson‘s aunt), voicing this point when she made a comment (which he duly recorded in his journal) that “It was not the fashion to be so original when I was young.”

miss mary emerson

Thoreau was very original and very different from his peers.  In my favorite journal entry from the book, he discussed cross-country travel with map and compass, what hikers today call “bushwhacking,” a skill that was part of his trade as land surveyor.  But bushwhacking wasn’t just a skill, he wrote, it was his preferred mode of travel.  On those occasions when his route took him through a village instead of around it, he reported feeling “as strange as if I were in a town in China.” Once on the other side, “I am at home in the wide world again.”  Thoreau’s contemporaries mainly stuck to the roads, which makes bushwhacking the perfect metaphor for a man who moved in a different direction.

19th century America was a time of conformity, and not surprisingly Thoreau’s journal entries reveal that he felt somewhat estranged, although this didn’t stop him from reaching out to others through writing and lecturing.  At one talk, satisfied that people had listened closely, he wrote that afterwards,”No-one spoke to me, nor needed they.”  However, in other cases, lecturing left him conscious of a great divide between himself and other people:

I am disappointed to find that most that I am and value myself for is lost, or worse than lost, on my audience.  I fail to get even the attention of the mass.  I should suit them better if I suited myself less.  I feel that the public demand an average man, — average thoughts and manners, — not originality, nor even absolute excellence.  You cannot interest them except as you are like them and sympathize with them.

— Henry David Thoreau, December 6, 1854

As a Harvard graduate, Thoreau might have gone into any number of careers including law, politics or business, but he found them uninteresting, and he didn’t seem to care for the mannerisms of the upper classes.  One journal entry describes a party he attended, a crowded and noisy affair, which he characterized as “a bad place to go to.”  He was introduced to a young woman whom he found “as lively and loquacious as a chicadee.”  She was accustomed to the “society of watering-places,” he wrote, and therefore could “get no refreshment out of such a dry fellow as I.”  Another woman was supposed to be pretty-looking, but Thoreau was unsure, as “I rarely look people in their faces.”

If facial expressions did not engage him, superficial chatter repelled him.  Encountering an English gentleman, Thoreau was put off by the “bustle and rapidity” of his speech.  “Though I peered in at his eyes I could not discern myself reflected therein.”  Indeed, he was consistently disdainful of gentlemen.  “You can have no profitable conversation with them,” Thoreau complained in his journal, “they are so conciliatory, determined to agree with you,” whereas he wanted to get to the heart of the matter through debate.  It seemed to him that the upper class was always playing a part:  the gentleman would “disappear and be merged in his manners,” Thoreau wrote in one entry, while in another, he observed that people with good manners were trying “to get between you and themselves.”  While sociable behavior is critical for business and polite society, this kind of scripted friendliness struck Thoreau as inauthentic.  “I am a commoner,” he declared in disgust, explaining that “to me there is something devilish in manners.  The best manners is nakedness of manners.”

For a man who wouldn’t go with the flow, forming close relationships was going to be a challenge.  Indeed, Thoreau found that friendship was difficult for many reasons.  In a journal entry from 1856, he mentioned an unnamed person who offered him “friendship on such terms that I could not accept it, without a sense of degradation.  He would not meet me on equal terms, but only be to some extent my patron.”  Friendship was not of interest to him if the relationship would be defined by social status.

This journal entry then discussed a second unnamed friend who “did not recognize a fact which the dignity of friendship would by no means allow me to descend so far as to speak of.”  The result of that ignorance was to “hold us apart forever.”  The entry is a little cryptic (one can’t help but wonder what was the unrecognized fact) but regardless, the point seems to be that close relationships couldn’t work with gaps in what should be a shared understanding.

Thoreau explored this theme in his journal again, when a few months later he observed that “very few men take a wide survey; their knowledge is very limited and particular.”  In other words, people operate in silos.  Without shared knowledge, true connection isn’t possible.  The best he could do was gain a glimmer of understanding:  “I see men like frogs,” he wrote, “their peeping I partially understand.”

Turning away from most of his peers, Thoreau famously spent two years living at Walden Pond as an experiment in simple living and a search for inspiration in nature.  Yet he realized that focusing entirely on nature was “too narrow,” that the wisest people recognize that we are all “related to men,” and that he should not neglect to observe, learn from, and sympathize with people even from the lowest stations in life.  Accordingly, he made a point to interact with farmers, hunters, fishermen, laborers, immigrants, slaves, and even children, always seeking to learn something new.

In some cases he recoiled from lives that seemed “penurious,” “groveling,” and devoid of spiritual meaning.  Farmers often struck him as “slow and dull” and inclined to pointless moralization.  Learning of the death of a neighbor, Thoreau reflected that “men lived, and ate, and drank, and passed away, — like vermin.  Their long life was mere duration.”   He saw no sign that “some divine thought” or “noble impulse” or even a “single verse of poetry” had ever graced that farmer’s life.

But in other cases, he found connections between himself and Concord’s other inhabitants.  Encountering a stone-mason one day, Thoreau at first dismissed him as a “stony man that hammered stone from breakfast to dinner, and dinner to supper, and then went to his slumbers.”  But then noticing a shelter the stone-mason built, he reflected that “he is even a man like myself, for he feels the heat of the sun.”

Despite a general disdain, he held certain farmers in high esteem.  For example, several journal entries mention a man named Minott, in whose behavior Thoreau discovered the “poetry of the farmer’s life.”  He wrote that Minott did “nothing with haste and drudgery, but as if he loves it.  He makes the most of his labor and takes infinite satisfaction in every part of it.”  Similarly, Thoreau remarked that a farmer named Flannery was “the hardest-working man I know.  Before sunrise and long after sunset he is taxing his unweariable muscles.  The result is a singular cheerfulness.  He is always in good spirits.”

One night he watched a fisherman loading driftwood onto a cart for his winter wood, and it was an epiphany of sorts: “That man’s employment, so simple and direct…charmed me unspeakably.  So much do we love actions that are simple.  They are all poetic.”

Thoreau encountered 80-year old Brooks Clark walking down the road barefooted one day.  Returning from an apple-picking excursion, the old man was “enjoying the evening of his days,” Thoreau observed in his journal, and his cheeriness “proves to me old age as tolerable, as happy, as infancy.”  Thoreau was even more impressed when he saw the octogenarian building a stone wall.


By the time I finished the book, I no longer saw Thoreau as anti-social.  To the contrary, he seemed open to relationships even with people he didn’t know:

How I love the simple, reserved country-men, my neighbors, who mind their own business and let me alone, who never waylaid nor shot at me, to my knowledge, when I crossed their fields, though each one has a gun in his house!  For nearly twoscore years I have known, at a distance, these long-suffering men, whom I never spoke to, who never spoke to me, and now feel a certain tenderness for them, as if this long probation were but the prelude to an eternal friendship.

— Henry David Thoreau, December 3, 1856

He wrote in another entry that he could recognize neighbors from a long distance away in the dark just by their walk or carriage, even when no details of their figures were visible.  The smallest clues reveal that “we have a very intimate knowledge of one another; we see through thick and thin; spirit meets spirit.”  And this was so even among people who are very different, so long as they don’t use polite manners to deceive or manipulate:

The laborers whom I know, the loafers, fishers, and hunters, I can spin yarns with profitably, for it is hands off; they are they and I am I still; they do not come to me and quarter themselves on me for a day or an hour to be treated politely, they do not cast themselves on me for entertainment, they do not approach me with a flag of truce.  They do not go out of themselves to meet me.

— Henry David Thoreau

With the right persons, Thoreau experienced companionship as a kind of magic.  In a journal entry from 1853 he describes spending a day with fellow Transcendentalist Amos Bronson Alcott:  “We wade so gently and reverently, or we pull together so smoothly, that the fishes of thought are not scared from the stream, but come and go grandly, like yonder clouds that float peacefully through the western sky.”

The journal entries in Men of Concord reveal some of Thoreau’s peculiarities, which no doubt left many of his conventional-minded peers feeling “irritation and disapproval,” as John Burroughs would write in 1882.  But Burroughs went on to predict that Thoreau’s influence would only grow with time, and he was right.  In the final analysis, what’s remarkable is that this “dry fellow,” who disliked manners, rarely looked in people’s faces, and felt, acted, and moved so differently, would establish a connection with others so strong and enduring that people continue to read his words today, long after he passed away.

Getting to Know Thoreau

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