Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind

Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind

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The two years Thoreau spent at Walden Pond and the night he spent in the Concord jail are among the most familiar features of the American intellectual landscape. Ícaro|Ícaro|Ícaro|In this new biography, based on a reexamination of Thoreau's manuscripts and on a retracing of his trips, Robert Richardson offers a view of Thoreau's life and achievement in their full nineteenth century context.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520063464
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 01/21/1988
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 464
Sales rank: 213,075
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Robert D. Richardson, Jr. is the author of Emerson: The Mind on Fire (California, 1995) among other books.

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Henry Thoreau

A Life of the Mind

By Robert D. Richardson Jr.


Copyright © 1986 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-06346-4


Fall 1837: Commencement

Returning to Concord from Harvard College in the early fall of 1837, David H. Thoreau had just turned twenty. Of medium height, or a little below, with sloping shoulders and an out-of- doors complexion, he had about him the suggestion of a seafaring race. He walked with unusual energy and people remembered his open face and pleasant flexible mouth, and the strong Roman nose which some thought made him look like Caesar, while others were reminded of Emerson. He had fine light brown hair. He was not, on the whole, a striking or compelling figure except for one feature, his eyes, which were strong, serious, large, and deep set; bright blue in some lights, gray in others. As he walked around Concord people noticed that his eyes rarely left the ground. When he did look up, however, he swept in everything at a glance. His eyes had a startling earnestness, and they were alight with intelligence and humor.

Harvard commencement had been held on the thirtieth of August, following rather than preceding the summer vacation as was common in those days. Within two weeks, Thoreau was not only back in Concord, living with his family in the Parkman house facing Main Street (on the site of the present Public Library) but he had a job teaching in the Concord Public Schools. Eighteen thirty-seven was a year of financial crisis for the United States and the start of a serious depression that lasted into the 1840s. Bank after bank had suspended payment, and Thoreau was lucky to have any job at all, let alone a good one. But before he had held the job for two full weeks, he had thrown up the position rather than administer the expected daily canings. A famous anecdote tells how one of the Concord school board members, Nehemiah Ball, went one day to observe Thoreau's teaching, called him into the hall, and reprimanded him for not using the cane. Stung and angered past self- possession, the impulsive twenty-year-old teacher went back into the classroom, picked out six students at random — rather as one deals with mass mutiny in the army — and proceeded to beat them. He then quit the job. It was all terribly sudden. His entire career in the public schools was auspiciously launched and catastrophically concluded before a month had passed since commencement.

But the fall was not all disappointment. A few days before his runin with Ball, about the middle of September, he was out walking and searching for Indian relics with his brother John on a Sunday evening, "with our heads full of the past and its remains." Coming to the Sudbury River bank at the mouth of Swamp Bridge Brook, a spot overlooking Clamshell Hill with Nashawtuc Hill off to the right, Thoreau launched into "an extravagant eulogy on those savage times" when the Indians roamed the Concord woods before the white man came. Throwing himself into the part, he asked, "How often have they stood on this very spot, at this very hour? Here," he went on, "stood Tahatawan and there," pointing at random toward the ground, "is Tahatawan's arrowhead." It was a mere rhetorical flourish, the gesture of a boy playing Indians, but when he impulsively stooped — to complete the scene — and picked up the nearest bit of rock, it turned out to be "a most perfect arrowhead, as sharp as if just from the hands of the Indian fabricator." It was one of those small, lucky chances that happen to everyone, but to some more frequently than others. In later years, one visitor after another was to tell how Thoreau could find arrowheads almost at will. Partly, of course, he was looking for them and expecting to find them. But this one must have seemed like an omen, a sign that the young schoolteacher's imaginative sympathies, however extravagant and romantic, were at bottom neither foolish nor misplaced. He always insisted that his whole life had been one of extraordinary luck, and he could have said, as Picasso did of a similar life, "I do not seek, I find."

This particular autumn was of good omen for Thoreau in other ways. For this was the time when he first became really close toEmerson, making a deep impression that the older man came back to again and again in later years. Emerson remembered Thoreau as a "strong healthy youth, fresh from college" that fall. Thoreau on his side had just read Emerson's Nature that spring. By the end of the third week in October, during that New England season which, Thoreau once remarked, would by itself "make the reputation of any climate," Emerson had persuaded Thoreau to start a journal and was encouraging him to think of writing as a career. Who could worry about being rejected by Nehemiah Ball when he had been accepted as a friend by Ralph Waldo Emerson?

It was a busy, eventful fall. There were walks and river outings, there was the active family life at home with his mother, father, and brother, not to mention aunts and boarders. He also worked for his father, making pencils. After the first teaching fiasco, there was the anxious search for another job, and there was the tonic, life-changing friendship with Emerson. He was also doing a great deal of reading, writing, and thinking during this fall. As his habits became settled in later years, he found a daily walk of several hours' length a necessity. But he was from the start as much a writer as a walker, and a daily stint at his desk was always just as much a necessity to him. "I seek a garret," he wrote in the inaugural entry in his new journal. He traveled Concord in his walks and river outings. He traveled everywhere else via books in the garret, and in between trips, he wrote out his accounts of both kinds of excursion.

Until this fall of 1837 Thoreau is an indistinct figure. There are some facts, some letters, various recollections of him as a boy or student, but everything is external, so to speak. We see him only as others saw him. Even his own letters and college themes seem written exclusively for others and almost all of this early material is curiously unrevealing. But when he begins, in October of 1837, to keep a journal, the quarry and substance of much of his best work, we begin to see the whole man as we follow the crowded, highly charged, and rapidly evolving inner life that accompanies the busy outer life and reveals the thoughts behind the eyes of the familiar photographs.

It is simply astonishing how many of his major themes appear in the record of this one autumn. He already takes a green interest in woods and fields. He was attracted to the river and its possibilities for travel and for metaphor. There is already in the midst of an increasingly busy life an unembarrassed interest in preserving some solitude for himself. There is a great deal this fall about poetry and poets — quotations from English poets, from Goethe and Virgil, and some of his best poems date from this year. Already he was preoccupied with the idea of a primitive, heroic life, distantly but attractively reflected in the early literature of northern Europe as well as in the ways of the North American Indians. He is already interested in self-culture, what the Germans called Bildung, and already his jottings show that deepest, most constant characteristic of his encounter with the natural world, indeed with life: a passionate, ecstatic sense of joy.

All this fall Thoreau was reading Goethe and Virgil with an eagerness inspired by natural affinity. He divided his time between reading and translating Goethe's Italian Journey (Italienische Reise) from the German and walking about Concord. Just as Goethe recounts in that book his own discovery that the leaf is the law of plant morphology, so Thoreau began to perceive nature as infinite variations on certain underlying laws.

In Virgil he recognized something more important yet. Among his mid-November notes this sentence stands out: "I would read Virgil if only to be reminded of the identity of human nature in all ages." Plain, unoriginal, even flat-footed as this sounds, it is, together with its complementary idea of the identity of nature itself in all ages, the cornerstone of Thoreau's mature thought, the basis and starting point for his most deeply held, most characteristic convictions about history, nature, society, and the individual.

From the point of view of the newspapers, the great events of 1837 were the accession of Queen Victoria, the protest in Canada against English rule — a rebellion that broke into open warfare — and a serious financial panic in America which came right on the heels of the messy, unpopular, bitter, and inconclusive Seminole Indian War in Georgia and Florida. The chief events in young Thoreau's life that fall were his encounters with Emerson, Goethe, and Virgil. The fall itself had been his true commencement, and sometime before the year was out, as though to mark the new start, he changed the order of his given names so that he now first became Henry David.

2. Harvard under Quincy

From 1833 to 1837 Thoreau had been a student at Harvard College, and though he deprecated the college and the education it gave him, Harvard must be considered a major formative influence on his life. When he left Concord for Cambridge, he was only another country hopeful. Solitary, penniless, vaguely promising but overly headstrong, he was a marginal student with marginal prospects. When he returned from college, Harvard, with all its shortcomings, had taught him how to pass judgment on Harvard, and had in fact prepared him for a life of the mind. Acknowledgment would come later.

Harvard in 1833 was a small school, drawing most of its students from the nearby area and operating on a scale difficult to imagine today. In 1839–40, there were enrolled in all schools at Harvard just 432 students who, with a faculty of 25, occupied a handful of buildings in Cambridge, most of which had been built with public funds. With unpaved streets and pigs in sties behind University Hall, the place had a distinctly rural atmosphere, and Boston, across the river and eastward toward the bay, was still a city of only seventy-five thousand people.

The college had a president, 11 professors, 7 instructors, 9 proctors (residential supervisor and teaching assistant combined), a bursar, a steward, and a librarian for its forty-one thousand books. There were no other administrators. Not even a dean was appointed until 1870. The president himself wrote letters of recommendation, computed grades, attended to breaches of discipline, and awarded scholarships. The college budget for 1840 came to just over $45,000 of which just over $28,000 was in salaries. The average professorial salary was $1,500 a year, which was three times as much as the highest paid schoolteacher in Concord. A village schoolteacher might start as low as $100 a year: a day laborer on the Erie canal made $.88 a day, and a carpenter made $1.25 a day.

A year's tuition at the college was $55, and total costs for a student in the late 1830s ran to $188 a year. Textbooks were a major item, as was board, but fuel was larger than either. The average college room was heated only by an open fireplace and six cords of wood a year were required to heat it, at a total cost of $22.50, or more than 10 percent of the entire cost of going to college.

Harvard was a modest place in those days, and it was intensely local, drawing fewer students from Connecticut, for example, than Yale drew from Massachusetts. Harvard's graduating class of 39 students in 1836 falls well below Yale, Union, and Dartmouth with 81, 71, and 44 respectively. No college in the country had a graduating class over 100; college was still something reserved for only a very few. In the 1840s there was, in New England, one college student for every 1,294 people in the general population. The figure for 1985 was one college student for every 19.

Academically, Thoreau's Harvard was in a period of stagnation. Josiah Quincy was one of Harvard's poorer presidents, and the faculty, with a few shining exceptions, was not distinguished. The point of a college education was not liberal learning, but in President Quincy's words, a "thorough drilling." Even if professors wished to teach rather than drill, the teaching load was heavy, anywhere from twenty-five to nearly forty hours of classes a week, keeping Professor Felton in Greek, Professor Channing in rhetoric, and the other better-than-average instructors overburdened with mere schoolmastering. The curriculum was largely fixed and generally detested, consisting of three years of Greek, three of Latin, two of math, one of history, three of English, and two years of one modern language. Although a few electives had been allowed beginning in 1825, the college took care to discourage them by allowing them half the usual credit. Perhaps the worst aspect of the college was the hated marking system also begun in 1825, and refined to burdensome folly by Quincy. Under this system, every aspect of college life was graded and marked. Every student received a mark on a scale of eight every day for every recitation. Themes and other assignments counted for so many points each. The totals, which were used to determine class rank, upon which in turn rested the scholarship awards, were subject to all sorts of deductions, including disciplinary ones such as absence from chapel or class or curfew violation. A contemporaneous account tells how "at daily prayers a professor kept watch over the congregation from a sort of raised sentry box and noted down the names of any one guilty of a misdemeanor." All instructors and monitors sent up their marks weekly to "old Quin" who, more a headmaster than a college president, added up the scores himself. In Thoreau's case he made numerous undetected errors, which was probably inevitable in a scheme so complex that an average student would accumulate over fourteen thousand points before graduation. According to Quincy, young Thoreau had "imbibed some notions concerning emulation and college rank," which was his way of saying that Thoreau had expressed an unconcealed distaste for the system. He was not alone, and with a grading system that makes the modern grade point average calculated to three decimal places seem simplicity and fairness itself, it is no wonder that Thoreau lost his respect for it and perhaps for the college that permitted it, or that the school was restive under Quincy.

The three Rs at Harvard during Thoreau's time were rote learning, regimentation, and rowdyism. Boys commonly entered college at fifteen, sometimes younger. Dress, hours, and attendance were all prescribed. Meals were in commons, and the food was said — as all college food is always said — to have been dreadful. Breakfast consisted of hot coffee, hot rolls, and butter. Supper was tea, cold rolls "of the consistency of wool," and no butter. The midday meal was the only one that was plentiful, and students sometimes affixed a piece of the noon meat to the underside of the table, with a fork, in order to have meat for supper. The boys rose half an hour before sunrise in winter, crowding into a bitterly cold, unheated chapel for services before breakfast. They rose, did their lessons, and went to bed by the bell, and the general atmosphere was more that of a boarding school than what we now think of as a college. The habits of the students were rough; throwing food at meals was nothing compared with the habitual destruction of property, which was not confined to breaking up furniture. Public rooms in inhabited buildings were blown up with gunpowder "every year," according to some accounts.

In the spring of 1834, toward the end of Thoreau's freshman year, occurred the most violent rebellion of Harvard's history. Unable to find who was responsible for rioting that had begun with a student being insolent to a teacher and ended with hundreds of dollars' worth of damage in smashed furniture and broken windows, Quincy expelled the entire sophomore class. He further outraged student opinion by turning to the civil authorities to press charges in the public courts, then sitting in Concord. Student grievances were so well articulated that the board of overseers found it useful to issue a forty-seven-page pamphlet in response.

3. Thoreau at Harvard

When Thoreau came to college in the fall of 1833, he had just turned sixteen. He shared room number 20 in Hollis Hall with a boy from nearby Lincoln, Charles Stearns Wheeler. They lived in a plain room without carpets, with pine bedsteads, a washstand, desks, and chairs. Matches being unknown, they banked the fire carefully every night so it would start in the morning. Many rooms had a cannonball, useful when hot as a foot warmer, when cold to roll down the stairs in the middle of the night.


Excerpted from Henry Thoreau by Robert D. Richardson Jr.. Copyright © 1986 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


I. 1837 Return to Concord,
II. 1838–1840 The Ethical Imperatives of Transcendentalism,
III. 1841–1843 American Reformation,
IV. 1843–1845 The Road to Walden Pond,
V. 1846–1849 The Profession of Letters,
VI. 1849–1851 The Language of the Leopard: Wildness and Society,
VII. 1851–1852 New Books, New Worlds,
VIII. 1852–1854 Walden, or the Triumph of the Organic,
IX. 1854–1862 The Economy of Nature,
Principal Sources,

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