A heretical introduction to Henry Thoreau, pt. 1

Opening talk from a class on Henry David Thoreau, given at the UU Church of Palo Alto on 18 April 2012.

Henry Thoreau is one of those literary figures that everyone likes to think they know. But having read him (and even studied him in a desultory way), and having read a good deal about him, and having lived the first forty years of my life in the very landscape of Concord, Massachusetts, in which he lived, and having been licensed as a tour guide in Concord, and having preached about him, and having in short devoted rather too much attention to Thoreau — the more I know about him, the more I feel that we tend to impose our sense of what we want Thoreau to be onto who he actually was.

What I would like us to do is to try to understand Thoreau as he really was, not as we would like him to be. That means that we cannot understand him as an environmentalist, because that is not a term he would have known, nor am I convinced that he would have been comfortable with that term. That means that we cannot claim Thoreau as a Buddhist, or a Unitarian, or an atheist or humanist, as various people have done over the years, for as an adult he would not have accepted any of those labels. That means that we should not think of him as one of the key figures in nineteenth century American literature, for in his own lifetime and throughout the nineteenth century he was spectacularly unsuccessful as a writer, especially as compared with his mentor, Ralph Waldo Emerson; and while Thoreau may today be considered a key figure in American literature, arguably he remains misunderstood primarily because his gifts in broad humor and the telling of tall tales are rarely acknowledged.

So who was Thoreau? Thoreau most probably knew himself first and foremost in the context of his family of origin. He lived in his mother’s boarding house for most of his life. He worked in his father’s pencil manufacturing business for a good part of his adult life. He was very close to his brother John, with whom he ran a private school for a few years in his twenties, and it was his brother’s untimely death which provided some of the impetus for his stay at Walden Pond. He took his mother’s politics: she was an abolitionist, whose house was a station on the Underground Railroad, and therefore so was he. At the same time, he rejected his mother’s religion: she remained a staunch Unitarian, while he actively sought to be removed from the church rolls once he became an adult. I think it is significant that he never married, and he died under his mother’s roof. Thus in order to understand Thoreau, we have to first understand how firmly he was embedded in his close-knit nineteenth century family.

Thoreau next knew himself as a college graduate in a day when perhaps less than five percent of those around him were college graduates. As much as Thoreau tried to portray himself as a sort of common man, his writing is filled with unconsciously patronizing references to uneducated people. Every job he took drew on his college education: he was a schoolteacher because he had enough education to be one; he took up surveying because he had studied mathematics in college; he took advantage of his privilege as a Harvard graduate to use the college library to research new manufacturing techniques for his father’s pencil business (which further implies that he knew how to do research); he had aspirations to writing high literature and filled his writing with classical and scholarly allusions; even when he was at Walden Pond and ostensibly doing nothing but growing beans, not only did he spend a great deal of time reading classical Roman and Greek authors and early scholarly translations of Hindu and Chinese philosophy and religion, but his real business was not horticulture, it was writing his first book.

Thoreau also understood himself as part of the Protestant white elite in an age of increasing racism. Racism in mid-nineteenth century eastern Massachusetts was not only directed at blacks, but also at Irish, French Canadians, and other non-Protestant, non-Anglo-Saxon ethnic groups. By New England standards, Thoreau did not come from the best bloodlines: on his father’s side, he came of French Protestant stock by way of the Channel Islands, rather than from the then-preferred Anglo-Saxon stock. On his mother’s side, he seems to have come from old New England Yankee stock. While his family were not of the true elite — they were not wealthy, they were not of the best families, and they lived in a provincial backwater rather than in one of the prestigious port cities like Boston or Salem — nevertheless, they were pretty high up on the social scale, and Thoreau was clearly aware of his social and ethnic status.

Next, Thoreau was religious in a religious society in a way that we can no longer understand today. During Thoreau’s lifetime, there were only three churches in Concord: the Unitarian church, in which he was raised; the Trinitarian Congregational church; and beginning in 1838 the Universalist church. (It’s worth remembering that the Unitarian church was supported by tax dollars until 1833, when Thoreau was 16.) Every once in a long while, a Catholic priest came out from Waltham to offer mass to the Irish who arrived in the 1840s to work on the railroad. Beyond those organized churches and religions, there was a tiny community of disorganized Transcendentalists who had gathered around Emerson, and most of them had some relationship to Unitarianism. Dating back to before the Revolution, Concord also had had its handful of people who professed Deism and ethical Christianity; these were often relatively educated people of relatively high social status who could afford to step away from the organized churches. There were also those who rejected all organized religion, but these were often people of low social and economic status, and it is not clear that their rejection of organized religion had any theological basis. In short, Thoreau lived in a time and place where a narrow slice of Protestant Christianity was the norm, where Catholicism was exotic and vaguely threatening, and where religious identity was often tied to social, class, and racial distinctions. So when we say Thoreau was a Transcendentalist, and that he expressed admiration of the Universalist minister in town, we have to remember that it’s not like he had a lot of religious choices once he rejected Unitarianism.

Finally, I think Thoreau would have thought of himself as a scholar and a writer. Perhaps in another day, he would have become a university professor, but in his own day he apparently did not exert himself in college enough, nor was he brilliant enough, to be able to expect gain a professorship. Perhaps he would have remained a minor provincial writer and schoolteacher had not Emerson been nearby to encourage him, and to help him get his work published in The Dial (the Transcendentalist magazine) and elsewhere. But despite Emerson’s assistance and example, it seems clear that Thoreau felt he had a vocation for writing, and he did what he could within the limitations by which he was bound to follow his vocation of writing.


That, then, is a brief portrait of Thoreau as a person. Let me take just a moment to sketch a portrait of Thoreau as a writer; and then we can begin looking at some of his writing.

Thoreau’s greatest achievement as a writer was the book Walden. He may have achieved more fame for his essay on civil disobedience; or, more precisely, he achieved more fame for the interpretations Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., made of his essay on civil disobedience; but Walden is his real masterwork. And the most important thing to remember about Walden is that it is really funny; I mean, it is laugh-out-loud funny. Twenty years ago, I participated in leading a Sunday service in my home church where the sermon consisted entirely of excerpts from Walden, and we had them rolling in the aisles, figuratively speaking. If you can get over your sense of excessive reverence for Walden, a reverence which was probably imbued in you by a high school English class, you will find out how funny the book can be. Thoreau writes in the long tradition of American humorist who boast and exaggerate and tell tall tales; and he uses his humor to get at deeper truths. I’d call him one of the great American humorists, second perhaps only to Mark Twain.

As a poet, however, Thoreau didn’t quite make the grade. He called his poet friend Ellery Channing a “sublimo-slipshod” poet, but that same description can be applied to him. Some of his poetic lines are truly sublime, but in the next stanza or couplet he’ll ruin the effect with awkward rhythm or a too-obvious rhyme. I love his poems; I also get so frustrated by his poems I can barely read them. Yet his poetic sensibility strengthened his prose, and the poetry of his prose is perhaps its greatest strength.

Thoreau wrote brilliantly in his journals — at least he did in the early to mid-1850s. His early journals, from the 1830s, are stiffly written; from the 1840s journals, he plundered the best material for use in Walden and some of his essays; and by the late 1850s and 1860s, his journals devolved from beautiful literature to the beautifully written field notes of a naturalist and botanist. But the journals from the early to mid-1850s combine close observations of nature, meditations on morality, philosophy, and religion, aphorisms, poetic prose, records of moments of ecstasy, and other material in a delightful albeit sometimes intoxicating mix.


After this brief introduction to Thoreau, we read through two passages from Walden and a number of the poems. Part 2 of the class will take place next Wednesday.

2 thoughts on “A heretical introduction to Henry Thoreau, pt. 1”

  1. It is interesting to note that his journal entries also constitute what today might be called experimental data taken by a field biologist. I have seen several reports that compare his journal entries of the dates in each year at which certain plants flowered, or birds began nesting, etc. to what is now being observed to document how much change has occured in the climate. He was an accidental field biologist.

  2. Thoreau as humorist, yay. A favorite passage, from chapter 14:

    Breed’s hut was standing only a dozen years ago, though it had long been unoccupied. It was about the size of mine. It was set on fire by mischievous boys, one Election night, if I do not mistake. I lived on the edge of the village then, and had just lost myself over Davenant’s “Gondibert,” that winter that I labored with a lethargy—which, by the way, I never knew whether to regard as a family complaint, having an uncle who goes to sleep shaving himself, and is obliged to sprout potatoes in a cellar Sundays, in order to keep awake and keep the Sabbath, or as the consequence of my attempt to read Chalmers’ collection of English poetry without skipping.

    etc.–the whole incident is hilarious.

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