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Thoreau in His Own Time

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

Sandra Harbert Petrulionis

Publication Year: 2012


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.


Published by: University of Iowa Press

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. vii-x

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pp. xi-lii

“I am a schoolmaster—a Private Tutor, a Surveyor—a Gardener, a Farmer—a Painter, I mean a House Painter, a Carpenter, a Mason, a Day-Laborer, a Pencil-Maker, a Glass-paper Maker, a Writer, and sometimes a Poetaster.”1 So did Henry Thoreau, at age thirty, unwittingly spawn what became the time-honored assessment of his standing—he was an author and many other things as well. Indeed, more than other Transcendentalists, Thoreau embodied the full complement of the movement’s ideals and vocations— ...


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pp. liii-lxxii

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[Epistolary Comments on Thoreau in the 1840s]

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pp. 1-4

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 ...

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[Thoreau at Walden in 1847]

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p. 5-5

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....

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

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pp. 6-12

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 ...

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[Reflections on Thoreau through the Years]

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pp. 13-22

Our household is now enlarged by the presence of Mary Russell for the summer; of Margaret Fuller for the last fortnight; & of Henry Thoreau who may stay with me a year. I do not remember if I have told you about him: but he is to have his board &c for what labor he chooses to do: and he is thus far a great benefactor & physician to me for he is an indefatigable & a very skilful laborer & I work with him as I should not without him. . . . Thoreau is a scholar & a poet & as full of buds of promise as a young apple tree. . . .

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[Promoting Thoreau, 1846–1855]

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pp. 23-26

Believe me when I say that I mean to do the errand you have asked of me, and that soon. But I am not sanguine of success, and have hardly a hope that it will be immediate if ever. I hardly know a soul that could publish your article all at once, and “To be continued” are words shunned like a pestilence. But I know you have written a good thing about Carlyle—too solidly good, I fear, to be profitable to yourself or attractive to publishers. Didst thou ever, O my friend! ponder on the significance and cogency of the assurance, “Ye cannot ...

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[Journal and Epistolary Comments on Thoreau, 1842–1854]

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pp. 27-32

Mr. Thorow dined with us yesterday. He is a singular character—a young man with much of wild original nature still remaining in him; and so far as he is sophisticated, it is in a way and method of his own. He is as ugly as sin, long-nosed, queer-mouthed, and with uncouth and somewhat rustic, although courteous manners, corresponding very well with such an exterior. But his ugliness is of an honest and agreeable fashion, and becomes him much better than beauty. He was educated, I believe, at Cambridge, and formerly kept school in this town; but ...

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[News of the Thoreau Family in 1849 and 1857]

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pp. 33-35

Today Henry has gone to Salem to read another lecture they seem to be wonderfully taken with him there, and next month he is to go to Portland to deliver the same, and George wants him to keep on to Bangor they want to have him there, and if their funds will hold out they intend to send for ...

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[A Day with Thoreau and Emerson in 1852]

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pp. 36-38

Thoreau was already there. I think he had ended his experiment at Walden Pond some years before. Thoreau was dressed, I remember, in a plain, neat suit of dark clothes, not quite black. He had a healthy, out-of-door appearance, and looked like a respectable husbandman. He was rather silent; when he spoke, it was in either a critical or a witty vein. I did not know who or what he was; and I find in my old diary of the day that I spelled his rare name phonetically, and heard afterward that he was a man who had been a hermit. I ...

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[Memories of Thoreau, 1857 and 1860]

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pp. 39-41

Mr Thoreau has been here twice this week, once to dinner and once to tea. He went to have his Ambrotype taken to-day and such a shocking, spectral, spectral, black and white picture as Eddy brought home in triumph was never seen. I am to carry it back and poor Mr Thoreau has got to go again. . . .

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[Childhood with Thoreau, as Remembered in 1882]

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pp. 42-44

“The time when Mr. Thoreau was our more intimate playfellow must have been in the years from 1850 to 1855. He used to come in, at dusk, as my brother and I sat on the rug before the dining-room fire, and, taking the great green rocking-chair, he would tell us stories. Those I remember were his own adventures, as a child. He began with telling us of the different houses he had lived in, and what he could remember about each. The house where he was born was on the Virginia road, near the old Bedford road. The only thing he remembered ...

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[Considerations of Thoreau’s Death, 1862]

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pp. 45-50

Profound joy mingles with my grief. I feel as if something very beautiful had happened, not death; although Henry is with us no longer, yet the memory of his sweet and virtuous soul must ever cheer and comfort me. My heart is filled with praise to God for the gift of such a brother, and may I never distrust the love and wisdom of Him who made him, and who has now called him to labor in more glorious fields than earth affords....

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“Notice of the Death of Mr. Thoreau” (1862)

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pp. 51-52

Henry D. Thoreau was distinguished for the great accuracy of his observations, and for the thoroughness with which he executed every research upon which he entered. He was esteemed as an accurate land surveyor, the only business upon which he ever entered for pay. As a botanist he was highly esteemed by those who are the best judges of the subject....

“Thoreau’s Flute” (1863)

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pp. 53-54

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From “Thoreau” (1865)

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pp. 55-64

Upon the tablet which friendship and delicate appreciation have raised to exhibit their record of Thoreau’s genius, there is still space where a classmate’s pen may leave some slight impressions, without claiming either advantage or authority to do so beyond a late but ever-deepening regard. This bids the thoughts return and drop themselves for holding-ground into some recollections of his collegiate career....

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[Remembrances of Thoreau in 1865]

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pp. 65-67

I am touched by the kindly remembrance which sends across these thousand leagues this exquisite expression of Henry Thoreau’s great soul. It seems as if it came not by mail or express but rather on sympathizing winds like a still clear breath of morning-air, laden with the perfume of tansy & golden-rod and the faint delicious aroma of the purple or imperial aster....

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From “Thoreau” (1866)

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pp. 68-75

It is now nearly four years since the inhabitants of the little town of Concord, Massachusetts, were gathered round the grave of one who, though a hermit, was dear to all of them, and who, as a naturalist and scholar, had received the homage of those literary men who have given to that town the celebrity of an American Weimar. . . .

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From “Literary Frondeurs” (1866)

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pp. 76-77

The two most perfect types of the literary frondeur in this country were Edgar A. Poe and Henry D. Thoreau—the first a man of letters with the artistic or literary spirit, the second a man of letters without the artistic spirit, but so thoroughly emancipated and so sincere that his writings have the beauty of truth if not the truth of beauty. Poe disturbed the tranquil selfsatisfaction of a great many excellent men and meritorious writers; Thoreau ...

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From the “Editor’s Easy Chair” (1869, 1874, and 1878)

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pp. 78-83

The last time that this Easy Chair saw that noble and remarkable man, Henry Thoreau, he came quietly into the study of a famous scholar to get a volume of Pliny’s letters. Expecting to see no one, and accustomed to attend without distraction to the business in hand, he was as quietly going out, when the host spoke to him, and without surprise, and with a cool, erect courtesy, Thoreau greeted his friends. He seated himself, maintaining the same habitual erect posture, which made it seem impossible that he ...

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From Thoreau:The Poet-Naturalist (1873)

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pp. 84-91

Things made a deep and ineffaceable impression on his mind. He had no trace of that want of memory which besets some amiable beings. . . . Sometimes, where the matter was important, he carried with him a string of leading questions, carefully written, which he had the ability to get as skillfully answered,—though, if there was a theory to maintain, with a possible overlapping to his side of the argument. Ever on the search for knowledge, he lived to get information; and as I am so far like Alfieri that I have almost ...

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From “Henry David Thoreau: The ‘Poet-Naturalist’ of Concord” (1874)

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pp. 92-96

There is scarcely, in the history of American literature, so unique and individual a figure as Thoreau, after we have excepted Emerson and Hawthorne. And yet when one has read Channing’s Thoreau—to which volume I would here acknowledge my indebtedness for most of the few facts I shall give you concerning the “Poet-Naturalist”—one seems rather to know of what manner of man he was, than much that he did. He was a creature of contradictions, in whom our complex human nature was more complex...

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From “Our Poet-Naturalist” (1877)

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pp. 97-99

There are few writers who have died and left more interesting books behind them than Henry Thoreau. What more delightful reading can there be than his Life in the Woods, his Excursions in Field and Forest, his Week on the Concord and Merrimac Rivers, his Yankee in Canada, and his adventures in the Maine Woods and on Cape Cod? These books never fail to bring their own enchantment with them, and I do not wonder at the eulogies bestowed upon them by such rare judges as Emerson, Curtis, Alcott,...

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[“Warrington” and Henry Thoreau] (1877)

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pp. 100-101

There were frequent opportunities of seeing Henry Thoreau, as he often came with his father to work on the land belonging to the house in which Mr. Robinson lived, or, as the children said, to “paint the handles of the trees.” His meditative figure was often seen walking across the sunny meadows, with some live specimen of a “species” dangling from his hand, while (to use his own expression) “the sun on his back seemed like a gentle herdsman driving him home at evening.” He sometimes called on Mr. Robinson....

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[Reminiscences of Thoreau] (1878, 1881, and 1882)

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pp. 102-105

As a ladies’ man and a dandy, Thoreau would not be deemed a success, but as a student of nature in its most subtle windings, he had few equals living or dead. He possessed a character and lived a life peculiar to himself, and when out of his sphere, was commonplace enough, but in nature’s undiscovered realm was the most interesting of men....

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From “Thoreau” (1879)

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pp. 106-110

There is no fame more permanent than that which begins its growth after the death of an author, and such is the fame of Thoreau. Before his death he had published but two books, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, and Walden. Since his death four more have been printed, besides a volume of his letters, and two biographies. One of these last appeared within a year or two in England, where he was, up to the time of his death, absolutely unknown. Such things are not accidental or the result of whim,...

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[Appraisals of Thoreau] (1888)

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pp. 111-112

Thoreau’s great fault was disdain—disdain for men (for Tom, Dick and Harry): inability to appreciate the average life—even the exceptional life: it seemed to me a want of imagination. He couldn’t put his life into any other life—realize why one man was so and another man was not so: was impatient with other people on the street and so forth. We had a hot discussion about it—it was a bitter difference: it was rather a surprise to me to meet in Thoreau such a very aggravated case of superciliousness. It was egotistic—...

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“Henry D. Thoreau: A Disquisition” (1879)

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pp. 113-116

David Henry Thoreau was born in Concord in 1817. His father was a lead pencil maker and he himself worked at that trade until he was sent to Harvard at the age of 17. While in college he gained but little from his instructors or their text-books; he spent his time rummaging about in the dusty corners of the College library....

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From “A New Estimate of Thoreau” (1880)

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pp. 117-122

To approach our task: Here is a certain phenomenon called Thoreau; the first thing to do is to account for him, to uncover the long filamental roots that run out from his life, far back into the past, and out on every side into the fabric of contemporary society. That society is a little too modest in its rejection of Thoreau. He is one of its fruits; let it then except him, and fairly and candidly try to explain him. Without doubt, the result of the examination will be far more honorable to him than was supposed, and at the same ...

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From “Thoreau’s Wildness” (1881)

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pp. 123-124

Doubtless the wildest man New England has turned out since the red aborigines vacated her territory was Henry Thoreau—a man in whom the Indian reappeared on the plane of taste and morals. One is tempted to apply to him his own lines on “Elisha Dugan,” as it is very certain they fit himself much more closely than they ever did his neighbor. . . . His whole life was a search for the wild, not only in nature, but in literature, in life, in morals. The shyest fascinated him most, ...

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“Introductory Note” to Early Spring in Massachusetts (1881)

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pp. 125-128

Thoreau seems deliberately to have chosen nature rather than man for his companion, though he knew well the higher value of man. . . . Still, in ordinary society, he found it so difficult to reach essential humanity through the civilized and conventional, that he turned to nature, who was ever ready to meet his highest mood. From the haunts of business and the common intercourse of men he went into the woods and fields as from a solitary desert into society. He might have said with another,—he did virtually say,—“If ...

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From Henry D. Thoreau (1882)

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pp. 129-133

It has been a common delusion, not yet quite faded away, that the chief Transcendentalists were but echoes of each other,—that Emerson imitated Carlyle, Thoreau and Alcott imitated Emerson, and so on to the end of the chapter. No doubt that the atmosphere of each of these men affected the others, nor that they shared a common impulse communicated by what Matthew Arnold likes to call the...

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From “Henry D. Thoreau” (1886)

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pp. 134-140

We are not surprised to find that Thoreau’s doctrines obtained but little recognition during his lifetime; he was regarded with profound respect by a few select friends, Emerson among the number; but to the many he appeared merely eccentric and quixotic, his sojourn at Walden gaining him the reputation of a hermit and misanthrope. Even now, nearly a quarter of a century after his death, he is not known as he deserves to be either in America or this country; most readers ignore or misunderstand him; and ...

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[Conversations on Concord] (1892 and 1893)

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pp. 141-142

I have just finished reading Thoreau’s Winter. There is not so much natural history in it as in some other volumes, not so much as there is of matter addressed to man’s moral nature.
I have greatly regretted that I did not know Thoreau better. . . .
I was shown that side of his nature to the full, the natural history side, the minute observer. But there were other sides to him, and I was wholly...

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From “Thoreau” (1889)

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pp. 143-144

Cities he disliked; civilization he did not believe in. Nature was his passion, and the wilder it was the more he loved it. He was a fine scholar, especially in Greek, translated two of the tragedies of Aeschylus, was intimate with the Greek anthology, and knew Pindar, Simonides, and all the great lyric poets. In English poetry he preferred Milton to Shakespeare, and was more familiar with the writers of the 17th century than with modern...

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From “Glimpses of Force: Thoreau and Alcott” (1891)

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pp. 145-147

I was about 9 years old and coming sternly to realize that I had been transferred from English homelikeness to American sandbanks, when, a little above the garden path, I beheld two enormous eyes not far from each other. They moved toward me. I melted away. Thoreau had come to call at the house.
The horrible effect of the great eyes, grey as autumn pools lit by a rift in the clouds, upon a mind pining for luxurious verdure and gem-like blue heavens, created a thirst in me for the ...

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From “Henry David Thoreau” (1891)

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pp. 148-150

[Thoreau] was odd, in all senses of the term. He was bilious in constitution and in temper, with a disposition somewhat prone to suspicion and jealousy, and defiant, rather than truly independent, in spirit. He had a searching, watchful, unconciliating eye, a long, stealthy tread and an alert but not graceful figure. His heart was neither warm nor large, and he certainly did not share that “enthusiasm for humanity” which was the fashionable profession...

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From “Reminiscences of Thoreau” (1893)

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pp. 151-153

More than forty years ago half a dozen boys were on the east bank of the Assabet river taking a sun bath after their swim in the stream. They were talking about the conical heaps of stones in the river, and wishing that they knew what build them. There were about as many theories as there were boys, and no conclusion had been arrived at, when one of the boys said “here comes Henry Thoreau, let us ask him.” So when he came near, one of the boys asked him “what made those heaps of stones in the river.” “I asked...

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From “Memories of Thoreau” (1897)

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pp. 154-156

“While I was at the Thoreaus in Concord, Mass., in the fall of ’63,” says C. H. Greene, of Rochester, Mich., who is one of the poet-naturalist’s strongest admirers, “Miss Sophia Thoreau related, among others, the following anecdotes of her brother during his last illness.”
Some boys of the vicinity were in the habit of bringing game for him to eat, presenting it at the kitchen door, and then gently withdrawing so as not to disturb the sick man. On one ...

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From “Thoreau’s Incarceration” (1898)

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pp. 157-159

It seems that a question had arisen regarding the boundary line between land owned by Emerson and Mr. S. himself, which the latter told me had recently become his through a “dicker” with someone whose name I did not catch. Thoreau was employed to make the necessary survey (“and he did it right slick, I tell you”); and having finished his work, he had appointed a meeting at Emerson’s house to make his report. I can never forget...

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[Recollections of Thoreau and Concord] (1897–1898)

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pp. 160-166

You asked about my memories of Concord life, Thoreau &c. It’s a big subject but interesting. If I could sit down of an evening with you, and your son, it would be nice. People in these days have nature revealed to them by science as they did not in Thoreau’s time, and many things which he thought and felt, would not be so strange now as they were then. The family lived near us, and there were several reasons why we were more closely drawn together than would have been expected of persons not sympathizing...

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From “Reminiscences of Thoreau” (1899)

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pp. 167-170

Henry usually retired to his study after breakfast, and later would reappear ready for a jaunt through field or forest, or by the river, or, if in winter, for a long skate on its frozen surface, once going sixteen miles before turning homeward—this was, however, an exceptional achievement. But wherever he wandered, on his return he always had some new and instructive fact to relate, often all aglow with enthusiasm over some discovery he had made or treasure he had found....

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From “Sketch of Henry D. Thoreau” (1902)

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pp. 171-175

My first interview with him was so peculiar that I will venture to state it. The season was winter, a snow had lately fallen, and I was engaged in shovelling the accumulated mass from the entrance to my house, when I perceived a man walking towards me bearing an umbrella in one hand and a leather travelling-bag in the other. So unlike my ideal Thoreau, whom I had fancied, from the robust nature of his mind and habits of life, to be a man of unusual vigor and size, that I did not suspect, although I had expected him ...

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[Reminiscences of Henry Thoreau] (1903)

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pp. 176-177

I knew Henry Thoreau very intimately. I went to school with him when I was a little boy and he was a big one. Afterward I was a scholar in his school. . . .
He knew the best places to find huckleberries and blackberries and chestnuts and lilies and cardinal and other rare flowers. We used to call him Trainer Thoreau, because the boys called the soldiers the “trainers,” and he had a long, measured stride and an erect carriage which made him...

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[Thoreau’s Visit to Plymouth in 1851] (1894)

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pp. 178-179

When Thoreau was a young man he visited Plymouth and Duxbury, and as enthusiastic pedestrians never tire of walking, he attempted to continue his stroll around Captain’s Hill to the north shore of Clark’s Island. When the tide is at its lowest ebb this does not look so impossible! The sand flats even invite one to pace their shining surface! The channel looks narrow enough to be jumped across, and the three miles, which at high tide are a foaming sea or a level blue sheet of water, look but a short stretch to traverse....

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From “Thoreau’s ‘Maine Woods’” (1908)

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pp. 180-184

It must be admitted in the beginning that The Maine Woods is not a masterpiece. Robert Louis Stevenson discards it as not literature. It is, however, a very good substitute, and had Robert Louis worn it next the skin he might perhaps have absorbed enough of the spirit of the American forest to avoid the gaudy melodrama which closes The Master of Ballantrae. The Maine Woods is of another world. Literature it may not be, nor one of...

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From “Henry D. Thoreau” (1909)

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pp. 185-187

There has been in America no such instance of posthumous reputation as in the case of Thoreau. Poe and Whitman may be claimed as parallels, but not justly. Poe, even during his life, rode often on the very wave of success, until it subsided presently beneath him, always to rise again, had he but made it possible. Whitman gathered almost immediately a small but stanch band of followers, who have held by him with such vehemence and...

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From Henry Thoreau as Remembered by a Young Friend (1917)

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pp. 188-199

In childhood I had a friend,—not a house friend, domestic, stuff y in association; nor yet herdsman, or horseman, or farmer, or slave of bench, or shop, or office; nor of letters, nor art, nor society; but a free, friendly, youthful-seeming man, who wandered in from unknown woods or fields without knocking,—...

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From Memories of Concord (1926)

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pp. 200-209

One of the most welcome visitors to the Hosmer farm was Henry D. Thoreau. There have been many opinions of this quiet man who wore coarse shoes and homespun raiment, which he considered best fitted for his long walks and close study of nature. Some said that because except to make a few lead pencils, survey a neighbor’s field, or teach a term of school he had no regular occupation, he was an idle, lazy sort of fellow. Others, that he...

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From The Thoreau Family Two Generations Ago (1958)

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pp. 210-214

My memory goes back a long way, but it does not quite reach that day in Cambridge when my mother invited Henry Thoreau to come to the house to see her wonderful new baby. He came in, boldly enough, and so remained until, with mistaken zeal, the nurse placed me in his arms, doubtless thinking it would be an especial treat to the shy recluse. Far from it—he did not know which end was which! My terrified mother caught sight of...


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pp. 215-218


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pp. 219-230


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pp. 231-240

Further Reading, Back Cover

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p. 241-241

E-ISBN-13: 9781609380977
E-ISBN-10: 1609380975
Print-ISBN-13: 9781609380878
Print-ISBN-10: 1609380878

Publication Year: 2012

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Subject Headings

  • Naturalists -- United States -- Biography.
  • Thoreau, Henry David, 1817-1862 -- Friends and associates.
  • Authors, American -- 19th century -- Biography.
  • Intellectuals -- United States -- Biography.
  • Thoreau, Henry David, 1817-1862.
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