Your casual bibliophile or fine arts undergraduate will most likely render Henry David Thoreau’s contribution to history as a pioneer transcendentalist whose works Walden and Civil Disobedience served to transcribe his values of personal independence and the importance of an untarnished conscience amidst the demands of taxation, lapsed morality and other failures of representative democracy. Others without preamble will recall that he was a man who liked nature. It’s true Thoreau was a source of potent inspiration and practicality that sprung forth in the great American narrative like leaves from a branch through his actions and his words, which continue to nourish the chronicles of other men, movements and cherished quotes claimed from the internet. And yet, even with those who have studied him best, the context that bred Thoreau and propelled him from a New England youth with powdered neckchops and “Concord’s most unhingeable jaw” to a franchisable icon of poetry, philosophy, pond staring, and premodern fedoraphila is frequently misinterpreted, vaguely understood, and almost always incomplete.
In his 1879 letter of retaliation to William Ellery Channing’s biography of Thoreau, lifelong friend Cletus Claymore declares, “Channing misremembers almost everything. There was no sow on the shore of the Sudbury with a fifth foot sewn to its back, and even if Thoreau had sought such substances for his new set of teeth by that point, it was already September, and there was no turning back.”
The savage claim Walden Pond had on the unwitting transcendentalist is continually cited having originated during that fateful March of 1845, but the harsher truth is that its influence already crept within him at a much earlier age. Claymore states, “it was not Channing or Emerson who sat at Thoreau’s bedside through the long bout of night terrors but I, [Cletus]. I witnessed the dark waters begin to drip from his flesh even then—before Harvard, before Ellen and John, all the piles of corsets in the yard and even the brawling rings—I should have had the strength of a wiser heart to recognize it . . . and help him best I could. But I didn’t. And by then it was too late.”
Though permanently redacted from the Library of Congress and the shelves of the American public school system, the words of Daniel Femmeling’s revisited history of Thoreau’s early life, Blood, Fur and Concord, still ring true: “A hat is not a salve for a man to put on his head and rehabilitate that which made him a man. There is something within . . . something that resides underneath the hat . . . a deeper kernel with less avenues for accessorization.” Indeed, the foul price imposed upon Thoreau may have lent towards his most elegant prose on unjust taxation, but his symptoms were such that “neither shady brims nor mercury-soaked felt could disguise them any longer” (Femmeling).
What happened next is a mismanaged and tragic anecdote of Thoreau’s life and a testament to moral fortitude, made all the more tragic with each scribbled mass of charcoal expurgating its place in the tomes. In his journalings, Emerson recounts:
“The bellows within [Thoreau’s] ragged breath had grown such that the mortar surrounding every brick in town began to chip and crack, and that’s when they came for him. I roused at midnight on the day of our independence and saw fire writhing in the crowns of the elms like the whips of demons. They tore down my doors and shoved past me for his sickroom, but he was found absent upon the boxspring. They then thrust their torches and rifles at a fresh hole torn in the ceiling, and there on the roof, he stood. ‘I will breathe after my own fashion,’ he growled, ‘now let us see who is the strongest.’”
Emerson sparsely spoke again upon what transpired within those next moments, and what other witnesses were left failed to bring their authority to this tattered piece of history. What is certain, however, is that Thoreau spent those succeeding black weeks not beside the hearth of his cabin he had erected the previous spring, but in a peat sinkhole on the northwest shore of the pond he named “Henry’s Haven” and adorned with iron collars and garlands of rusted wire. Unfortunately, when the notorious mudslides in the aftermath of the Great Michigan Fire swept across the eastern United States in 1871, no evidence of Henry’s Haven remained, and it has yet to be rediscovered. Still, its legacy remains in the benefaction of the damp, collapsing murk it provided for Thoreau and allowed him to scribe the majority of Walden’s most poignant passages. As Thoreau wrote himself, “if a man cannot live according to his nature, he dies; and so a monster.”
Connor Phillips lives in Arizona.