Thoreau in His Own Time: A Biographical Chronicle of His Life, Drawn from Recollections, Interviews, and Memoirs by Family, Friends, and Associates

Thoreau in His Own Time: A Biographical Chronicle of His Life, Drawn from Recollections, Interviews, and Memoirs by Family, Friends, and Associates

by Sandra Harbert Petrulionis (Editor)
Thoreau in His Own Time: A Biographical Chronicle of His Life, Drawn from Recollections, Interviews, and Memoirs by Family, Friends, and Associates

Thoreau in His Own Time: A Biographical Chronicle of His Life, Drawn from Recollections, Interviews, and Memoirs by Family, Friends, and Associates

by Sandra Harbert Petrulionis (Editor)



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More than any other Transcendentalist of his time, Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862) embodied the full complement of the movement’s ideals and vocations: author, advocate for self-reform, stern critic of society, abolitionist, philosopher, and naturalist. The Thoreau of our time—valorized anarchist, founding environmentalist, and fervid advocate of civil disobedience—did not exist in the nineteenth century. In this rich and appealing collection, Sandra Harbert Petrulionis untangles Thoreau’s multiple identities by offering a wide range of nineteenth-century commentary as the opinions of those who knew him evolved over time.

The forty-nine recollections gathered in Thoreau in His Own Time demonstrate that it was those who knew him personally, rather than his contemporary literati, who most prized Thoreau’s message, but even those who disparaged him respected his unabashed example of an unconventional life. Included are comments by Ralph Waldo Emerson—friend, mentor, Walden landlord, and progenitor of the spin on Thoreau’s posthumous reputation; Nathaniel Hawthorne, who could not compliment Thoreau without simultaneously denigrating him; and John Weiss, whose extended commentary on Thoreau’s spirituality reflects unusual tolerance. Selections from the correspondence of Caroline Healey Dall, Maria Thoreau, Sophia Hawthorne, Sarah Alden Bradford Ripley, and Amanda Mather amplify our understanding of the ways in which nineteenth-century women viewed Thoreau. An excerpt by John Burroughs, who alternately honored and condemned Thoreau, asserts his view that Thoreau was ever searching for the unattainable.

The dozens of primary sources in this crisply edited collection illustrate the complexity of Thoreau’s iconoclastic singularity in a way that no one biographer could. Each entry is introduced by a headnote that places the selection in historical and cultural context. Petrulionis’s comprehensive introduction and her detailed chronology of personal and literary events in Thoreau’s life provide a lively and informative gateway to the entries themselves. The collaborative biography that Petrulionis creates in Thoreau in His Own Time contextualizes the strikingly divergent views held by his contemporaries and highlights the reasons behind his profound legacy.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781609380977
Publisher: University of Iowa Press
Publication date: 03/15/2012
Series: Writers in Their Own Time
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: eBook
Pages: 268
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Author of To Set This World Right:The Antislavery Movement in Thoreau’s Concord, editor of Journal 8: 1854 in The Writings of Henry D. Thoreau, and coeditor of The Oxford Handbook of Transcendentalism and More Day to Dawn: Thoreau’s “Walden” for the Twenty-First Century, Sandra Harbert Petrulionis is a professor of English and American Studies and the program coordinator for Letters, Arts, and Sciences at Penn State Altoona.

Read an Excerpt

THOREAU in His Own Time

A Biographical Chronicle of His Life, Drawn from Recollections, Interviews, and Memoirs by Family, Friends, and Associates

University of Iowa Press

Copyright © 2012 the University of Iowa Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-60938-087-8

Chapter One

[Epistolary Comments on Thoreau in the 1840s]

Lidian Jackson Emerson

LIDIAN JACKSON EMERSON (1802–1892) was born and grew up in Plymouth, Massachusetts. In 1835, she married Ralph Waldo Emerson and moved with him to Concord, Massachusetts. After meeting the Emersons in 1837, Henry Thoreau became an intimate of the family, living for two extended periods in their home while Waldo lectured abroad—in 1841–43 and 1847–48—during which periods Thoreau took on various editorial, handyman, gardener, and parenting responsibilities. Both his journals and correspondence reflect that his friendship with Lidian Emerson was one of the closest personal relationships of Henry Thoreau's life. From her initially positive response to Thoreau, over the years Lidian grew to depend on his company and his resourcefulness. She also promoted his writing career and enjoyed his lectures (Carpenter, "Introduction," xlv).

While living in New York with William and Susan Emerson's family, Thoreau sent letters to Lidian that reflect his homesickness for Concord and for her, whom he refers to "as some elder sister ... a sort of lunar influence." He confides that "the thought of you will constantly elevate my life" (Correspondence, 103, 119). Together again in the Emerson household during Waldo Emerson's absence in 1847–48, Thoreau and Lidian both wrote letters to Waldo depicting a warm household, with Thoreau taking a lively interest in domestic activities—from making a toy watch for Ellen Emerson to "neat little cowhide shoes" for Lidian's chickens; to leading huckleberry parties; to planting the garden; to shoveling snow, parching corn, and cracking nuts (Ellen Tucker Emerson, Life, 85, 68, 107, 115; Lidian Jackson Emerson, Selected Letters, 126, 124). In November 1847, Thoreau informed Waldo that in his absence, "Lidian and I make very good housekeepers. She is a very dear sister to me." In an extended journal entry in 1849, entitled "A Sister," Thoreau defines this figure as one "Whose heart answers to your heart. Whose presence can fill all space. One who is a spirit. Who attends to your truth.... The stream of whose being unites with your own without a ripple or a murmur." He goes on to address this unnamed sister directly: "I still think of you as my sister. I presume to know you. Others are of my kindred by blood or of my acquaintance but you are mine. You are of me & I of you I can not tell where I leave off and you begin.—" Thoreau then contrasts a "sister" with a "friend": "My sister. ... my inspirer. The feminine of me.... Whether art thou my mother or my sister—whether am I thy son or thy brother. On the remembrance of whom I repose— — So old a sister art thou—so newly has thou recreated me" (Thoreau, Correspondence, 189; PEJ 3:17, 18).

To Lucy Jackson Brown, [11 January 1842]

I begin my letter with the strange sad news that John Thoreau has this afternoon left this world. He died of lockjaw occasioned by a slight cut on his thumb. Henry mentioned on Sunday morning that he had been at home helping the family who were all ailing; and that John was disabled from his usual work by having cut his finger. In the evening Mr [Nathan] Brooks came for him to go home again, and said they were alarmed by symptoms of the lockjaw in John. Monday John was given over by the physicians—and to-day he died—retaining his sense and some power of speech to the last. He said from the first he knew he should die—but was perfectly quiet and trustful—saying that God had always been good to him and he could trust Him now. His words and behaviour throughout were what Mr. Emerson calls manly—even great. Henry has been here this evening and seen Mr Emerson but no one else. He says John took leave of all the family on Monday with perfect calmness and more than resignation. It is a beautiful fate that has been granted him and I think he was worthy of it. At first it seemed not beautiful but terrible. Since I have heard particulars and recollected all the good I have heard of him I feel as if a pure spirit has been translated. Henry has just been here—(it is now Wednesday noon) I love him for the feeling he showed and the effort he made to be cheerful. He did not give way in the least but his whole demeanour was that of one struggling with sickness of heart. He came to take his clothes—and says he does not know when he shall return to us....

To Ralph Waldo Emerson, 15 January 1843

Henry [Thoreau] is about as well as when you were here—and a great comfort to Edith with whom he dances and for whom he plays the flute. Richard Fuller sent him a music box as a N. Years' gift and it was delightful to see Henrys child like joy. I never saw any one made so happy by a new possession. He said nothing could have been so acceptable. After we had heard its performance he said he must hasten to exhibit it to his sisters & mother. My heart really warmed with sympathy, and admiration at his whole demeanour on the occasion—and I like human nature better than I did.... Here is Mother just come in from church—where she affirms she saw Henry in your uppermost seat, not without "astonishment." It must be that he is converted to the right doctrine. I had a conversation with him a few days since on his heresies—but had no expectation of so speedy a result....

To Ralph Waldo Emerson, 12 February 1843

Henrys Lecture pleased me much—and I have reason to believe others liked it. Henry tells me he is so happy as to have received Mr [John S.] Keyes's suffrage and the Concord paper has spoken well of it. I think you would have been a well pleased listener. I should like to hear it two or three times more. Henry ought to be known as a man who can give a Lecture. You must advertise him to the extent of your power. A few Lyceum fees would satisfy his moderate wants—to say nothing of the improvement and happiness it would give both him & his fellow creatures if he could utter what is "most within him"—and be heard.... I think you have made Henry wait a reasonable—or unreasonable time for an answer to his letter.

To Ralph Waldo Emerson, [17 May 1848]

Henry has helped Colombe remove the Apple tree, and has set out some of the pear trees from the heater-piece, in the garden or yard. He has planted the pears—of which you, dear husband, will gather and eat the fruit, I hope.... Eddy is having his go-to-bed frolic with Henry, & has just informed me that Mr T. has first swallowed a book, then pulled it out of his (Eddy's) nose, then put it into his (Mr T.'s) "pantalettes." I tell Henry I shall send you word he is in his second childhood, a wearer of pantalettes. He says it is so, according to the younger Edda; the poetic, not the prose Edda....

[Thoreau at Walden in 1847]

Abigail May Alcott

Abolitionist and social worker Abigail May Alcott (1800–1877) married Transcendentalist educator Amos Bronson Alcott in 1830. Together they raised four daughters, including the popular author Louisa May Alcott. The entire Alcott family shared a close friendship with Henry Thoreau, whom they knew well during the years they lived in Concord, Massachusetts, in the 1840s, and from 1857 on. These brief excerpts from Alcott's letters to her brother, Samuel Joseph May, demonstrate that she shared her husband's admiration for Thoreau's Walden experiment.

To Samuel J. May, 8 February 1847

Mr. Alcott thinks we shall never be safe until we get a Hut on Walden Pond where with our Beans Books and Peace we shall live honest and independent—But Habits are Tyrants as well as Laws and Customs I do think time, Labour well devised and conscientious simplicity of life—will keep us afloat.

To Samuel J. May, 18 March 1847

Thoreau came and read to them his lecture on his "Diogenes life"—His hut is little larger than tradition reports the Philosopher's to have been but I doubt if the sage lived a more temperate wise life than this Hero of the 19 century—He read the 1st part—and in the evening we all went up to the Lyceum and heard the 2d part—If he does not print it I will get Anna to copy in a legible hand some parts of it for your special use—I know you will feel with me it is no small boon to live in the same age with so experimental and true a Man—surely he who teaches us how to live truly is the Phylanthropist the Saviour of mankind.

[Journal and Epistolary Remarks on Thoreau, 1847–1859]

Amos Bronson Alcott

Amos Bronson Alcott (1799–1888) was an author, a lecturer, and an educator who lived in Concord, Massachusetts with his wife, Abigail, and their family during the years 1840–43, 1844–48, and from 1857 until his death. From 1859 to 1865, he served as superintendent of the Concord schools. One of the original members of the Transcendentalist Club that formed in 1836, Alcott was an intimate friend of both Henry Thoreau and Waldo Emerson. Edward Emerson noted that Alcott and Thoreau differed tremendously in temperament, with Thoreau "impatient of Alcott's philosophic calm while failing to comfortably maintain his family" (Henry Thoreau, 101), yet the two men admired each other a great deal, even valuing their differences, with Alcott particularly impressed with the regard in which others whom he respected held Thoreau. Thoreau viewed Alcott as a "visionary ... [who] will be the last man to be disappointed as the ages revolve" (PEJ, 2:223). In addition to praising his books and lectures, Alcott valued Thoreau not only as an observer of nature but, importantly, as a scholar: "Seldom has a scholar's study circumscribed so much of the Cosmos as that of this footed intelligence of ours—nothing less than all out-of-doors suffi cing its genius and scope, and this day by day, through all weeks and weather, the year round" (Journals, 285). The letters and journal entries below refl ect his friendship with Thoreau as it evolved over twenty-plus years. In the selections below, journal entries are preceded by a date. Excerpts from letters are preceded by the name of the correspondent and the date.

March 1847

Thoreau's is a walking Muse, winged at the anklets and rhyming her steps. The ruddiest and nimblest genius that has trodden our woods, he comes amidst mists and exhalations, his locks dripping with moisture, in the sonorous rains of an ever-lyric day. His genius insinuates itself at every pore of us, and eliminates us into the old elements again. A wood-nymph, he abides on the earth, and is a sylvan soul. If he could but clap wings to his shoulders or brow and spring forthright into the cope above sometimes, instead of beating the bush and measuring his tread along the marsh-sides and the river's sedge and sand, and taking us to some Maine or Indian wilderness, and peopling the woods with the Sileni and all the dryads!

But this fits him all the better for his special task of delineating these yet unspoiled American things, and of inspiring us with a sense of their homelier beauties—opening to us the riches of a nation scarcely yet discovered by her own population.


Excerpted from THOREAU in His Own Time Copyright © 2012 by the University of Iowa Press. Excerpted by permission of University of Iowa 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

Contents Introduction Chronology Lidian Jackson Emerson, [Epistolary Comments on Thoreau in the 1840s] Abigail May Alcott, [Thoreau at Walden in 1847] Amos Bronson Alcott, [Journal and Epistolary Remarks on Thoreau, 1847–1859] Ralph Waldo Emerson, [Reflections on Thoreau through the Years] Horace Greeley, [Promoting Thoreau, 1846–1855] Nathaniel Hawthorne, [Journal and Epistolary Comments on Thoreau, 1842–1854] Maria Thoreau, [News of the Thoreau Family in 1849 and 1857] John Albee, [A Day with Thoreau and Emerson in 1852] Ellen Tucker Emerson, [Memories of Thoreau, 1857 and 1860] [Edith Emerson Forbes], [Childhood with Thoreau, as Remembered in 1882] Sophia E. Thoreau, Caroline Wells Healey Dall, Sophia Peabody Hawthorne, and Sarah Alden Bradford Ripley, [Considerations of Thoreau’s Death, 1862] [Charles T. Jackson], “Notice of the Death of Mr. Thoreau” (1862) [Louisa May Alcott], “Thoreau’s Flute” (1863) [John Weiss], From “Thoreau” (1865) Samuel Storrow Higginson, [Remembrances of Thoreau in 1865] [Moncure Daniel Conway], From “Thoreau” (1866) Eugene Benson, From “Literary Frondeurs” (1866) [George William Curtis], From the “Editor’s Easy Chair” (1869, 1874, and 1878) William Ellery Channing, From Thoreau:The Poet-Naturalist (1873) Louise Chandler Moulton, From “Henry David Thoreau: The ‘Poet-Naturalist’ of Concord” (1874) James T. Fields, From “Our Poet-Naturalist” (1877) [Harriet Hanson Robinson], [“Warrington” and Henry Thoreau] (1877) Joseph Hosmer Jr., [Reminiscences of Thoreau] (1878, 1881, and 1882) Thomas Wentworth Higginson, From “Thoreau” (1879) Walt Whitman, [Appraisals of Thoreau] (1888) Prescott Keyes, “Henry D. Thoreau: A Disquisition” (1879) William Sloane Kennedy, From “A New Estimate of Thoreau” (1880) John Burroughs, From “Thoreau’s Wildness” (1881) H. G. O. Blake, “Introductory Note” to Early Spring in Massachusetts (1881) F. B. Sanborn, From Henry D. Thoreau (1882) H. S. Salt, From “Henry D. Thoreau” (1886) Edward Sherman Hoar, [Conversations on Concord] (1892 and 1893) Octavius Brooks Frothingham, From “Thoreau” (1889) Rose Hawthorne Lathrop, From “Glimpses of Force: Thoreau and Alcott” (1891) Julian Hawthorne and Leonard Lemmon, From “Henry David Thoreau” (1891) [Horace R. Hosmer], From “Reminiscences of Thoreau” (1893) Anonymous, From “Memories of Thoreau” (1897) S[amuel] A[rthur] J[ones], From “Thoreau’s Incarceration” (1898) Amanda P. Mather, [Recollections of Thoreau and Concord] (1897–1898) Anonymous, From “Reminiscences of Thoreau” (1899) Daniel Ricketson, From “Sketch of Henry D. Thoreau” (1902) George F. Hoar, [Reminiscences of Henry Thoreau] (1903) Ellen Watson, [Thoreau’s Visit to Plymouth in 1851] (1894) [Fanny Hardy Eckstorm], From “Thoreau’s ‘Maine Woods’” (1908) Thomas Wentworth Higginson, From “Henry D. Thoreau” (1909) Edward Waldo Emerson, From Henry Thoreau as Remembered by a Young Friend (1917) Mary Hosmer Brown, From Memories of Concord (1926) Mabel Loomis Todd, From The Thoreau Family Two Generations Ago (1958) Permissions Bibliography Index
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