Literary Corner Cafe

Friday, May 6, 2011

Today in Literary History - Henry David Thoreau Dies at the Age of Forty-Four


On May 6, 1862, Henry David Thoreau died at the age of forty-four from bronchial and respiratory problems. Thoreau, who was born David Henry Thoreau on July 12, 1817 in Concord, Massachusetts, was the son of John Thoreau, a pencil maker, and Cynthia Dunbar Thoreau. His paternal grandfather was of French origin and was born on the Isle of Jersey. His maternal grandfather, Asa Dunbar, led Harvard’s 1766 student “Butter Rebellion,” the first known student protest in what was then the Colonies.

Thoreau was named after his recently deceased paternal uncle, David Thoreau. It wasn’t until after he left Harvard that he decided to become “Henry David” and he never petitioned the court for a legal name change. Thoreau had two older siblings, Helen and John, Jr. and a younger sister, Sophia. The house where Thoreau was born still exists on Virginia Road in Concord, and is currently the focus of preservation efforts.

Thoreau’s writings total more than twenty volumes. His lasting contributions, of course, were on the subjects of natural history and philosophy. His literary style interweaves close natural observation, personal experience, pointed rhetoric, symbolism, and history, while displaying much poeticism and the characteristic “Yankee” love of practical detail.

Thoreau was a lifelong abolitionist and he delivered lectures attacking the Fugitive Slave Law. He praised the writings of Wendell Phillips and defended abolitionist John Brown. Thoreau’s philosophy of civil disobedience influenced the political thoughts and actions of Leo Tolstoy, Mahatma Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Thoreau studied at Harvard University between 1833 and 1837. He lived in Hollis Hall and took courses in rhetoric, classics, philosophy, mathematics, and science. It was said that Thoreau refused to pay the five-dollar fee for a Harvard diploma. The master’s degree had no academic value at any rate. Harvard offered them to graduates “who proved their physical worth by being alive three years after graduating, and their saving, earning, or inheriting quality or condition by having Five Dollars to give the college.” Legend has it that rather than purchase a worthless diploma, Thoreau said, “Let every sheep keep its own skin,” a reference, of course, to the tradition of diplomas being written on sheepskin vellum.

After graduation, diploma or not, Thoreau returned to Concord, where he was a philosopher of nature and its relation to the human condition. In his early years, he followed the form of Transcendentalism advocated by Emerson, Fuller, and Alcott, who held that an ideal spiritual state transcends the physical and empirical, and that one achieves insight through personal intuition rather than through religious doctrine. In the Transcendentalist view, Nature is the outward sign of inward spirit, expression the “radical correspondence of visible things and human thoughts.” (Emerson, Nature, 1836)

On April 18, 1841, Thoreau moved into Ralph Waldo Emerson’s home. There, from 1841-1844, he served as tutor for Emerson’s children, as well as Emerson’s editorial assistant, and the family repairman/gardener.

In 1844, Thoreau returned to Concord and worked in his father’s pencil factory, something he continued to do for most of his adult life. He rediscovered the process of making a good pencil out of inferior graphite by using clay as the binder.

Thoreau was restless in Concord, however. In April 1844, he and his friend, Edward Hoar accidentally set a fire that destroyed 300 acres of Walden Woods. During this time, Thoreau spoke often of finding a farm to buy or lease, something that he felt would give him an income and also allow him enough solitude to write his first book.

In March 1845, Ellery Channing said to Thoreau, speaking of Walden Woods, “Go out upon that, build yourself a hut, and there begin the grand process of devouring yourself alive. I see no other alternative, no other hope for you.” Thus, on July 4, 1845, Thoreau moved into a small, self-built house on land owned by Emerson in a forest near the shores of Walden Pond.

Thoreau left Walden on September 6, 1847. At Emerson’s request, he moved back into the Emerson house to help Mrs. Emerson manage the household while her husband was on an extended trip to Europe. During this time, he also continuously revised a manuscript that was to become his most famous. It was published in 1854 as Walden, or Life in the Woods, which recounted the two years, two months, and two days he spent on the shores of Walden Pond. In the book, however, Thoreau compresses the time into one year, using the passage of the four seasons to symbolize human development. Walden won few admirers when first published, but over the years it has come to be regarded as a classic of American literature.

In July 1848, Thoreau moved out of Emerson’s home, and in 1850 he and his family moved into a home at 255 Main Street, Concord, where Thoreau remained until his death.

Thoreau had contracted tuberculosis in 1835, and he suffered from it sporadically afterwards. In 1859, following a late night trip to count the rings of tree stumps during a rainstorm, he became ill with bronchitis. His health then declined over a three-year period, with brief periods of remission, until he eventually became bedridden. Thoreau recognized the terminal nature of his illness, and he spent his last years revising and editing his unpublished writings, writings that would go on to be published as The Maine Woods and Excursions, among others. He also wrote many letters and journal entries. His friends were alarmed at his appearance and fascinated with his tranquil acceptance of death. When, in his final weeks of life, his aunt, Louisa asked him if he had made his peace with God, Thoreau responded by saying, “I did not know we had ever quarreled.”

Henry David Thoreau died on May 6, 1862 at the age of forty-four. Bronson Alcott planned his funeral service and read selections from Thoreau’s works. Emerson wrote the eulogy spoken at his funeral. Originally buried in the Dunbar family plot, Thoreau was eventually moved to Authors’ Ridge in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord, where he lies alongside Emerson, Hawthorne, and the Alcotts.

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