The Adventures of Henry Thoreau: A Young Man's Unlikely Path to Walden Pond

The Adventures of Henry Thoreau: A Young Man's Unlikely Path to Walden Pond

by Michael Sims


View All Available Formats & Editions
Members save with free shipping everyday! 
See details


Henry David Thoreau is an American intellectual icon; what made him so was the decade between his graduation from Harvard and the years he spent in a cabin he built himself on Ralph Waldo Emerson's land at Walden Pond—the formative decade that turned him into one of America's most influential writers.

In a detailed and textured narrative, Sims brings Thoreau to life—striding across the page like a radical folksinger rather than the curmudgeonly recluse who occupies our mental image of Walden Pond. In this youthful period, he wrote his first book and refined the journal entries that formed the core of his later work, Walden; joined the anti-slavery campaign and studied Native American culture; spent the night in jail that led to his celebrated essay Civil Disobedience, which would inspire the likes of Gandhi and Martin Luther King; developed a scientific/poetic response to nature; and aligned himself with the Transcendentalism , which questioned assumptions about God, citizenship, and the Industrial Revolution.

Sims relates intimate moments in Thoreau's daily life—teaching Nathaniel Hawthorne to row a boat; tutoring Emerson's nephew on Staten Island—and the deep influence of his parents and his beloved older brother, John, whose tragic early death haunted him. Chronicling Thoreau's youthful transformation, Sims shows how his intellectual development would resonate for the rest of his life, and throughout American literature and history.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781620401972
Publisher: Bloomsbury USA
Publication date: 06/23/2015
Pages: 384
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Michael Sims is the author of the acclaimed The Story of Charlotte's Web, Apollo's Fire: A Day on Earth in Nature and Imagination, Adam's Navel: A Natural and Cultural History of the Human Form, and editor of Dracula's Guest: A Connoisseur's Collection of Victorian Vampire Stories and The Dead Witness: A Connoisseurs Collection of Victorian Detective Stories. He lives in western Pennsylvania.

Read an Excerpt


A Young Man's Unlikely Path to Walden Pond



Copyright © 2014 Warren Berger
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-62040-195-8



When Henry was a child, a schoolmate accused him of stealing his knife. Henry knew the culprit's identity, but instead of exposing him he said flatly to his accusers, "I did not take it." A few days later the thief was revealed.

"I knew all the time who it was," said Henry. "The day it was taken I went to Newton with Father."

"Why," demanded his exasperated mother, "did you not say so at the time?"

Staying on his own track, as usual, Henry repeated stubbornly, "I did not take it."

He was a thoughtful boy, considered intelligent and perceptive, even though, after being awarded a school medal for geography, he asked his mother, "Is Boston in Concord?" Once he solemnly asked Phebe Wheeler, mistress of the infant school, "Who owns all the land?" A few years later, Mrs. Wheeler was teaching a private class for older children, mostly girls, and looked up in surprise to find Henry and his older brother John barefoot in the doorway. The public school term had ended and Cynthia Thoreau sent her boys to Mrs Wheeler's so that they might absorb a few more days of knowledge.

Young Henry was not adept at interpreting facial expressions, and often he failed to look at the face of the person with whom he was speaking. Earnest thinking aloud became his hallmark. At the age of three he was told that, like the pious heroes of the catechism, he must someday die. He took the news calmly. Later, however, as he came indoors from sledding, he announced that he did not want to die and go to heaven, because he could not carry his sled with him. Other boys had told him that because the sled's runners were wood instead of iron, it was "not worth a cent." He was used to owning unimpressive toys and clothes. Mrs. Thoreau made John's shirts and pantaloons out of their father's castoffs, and most of Henry's were further handed down from John. The single time he received new boots he was so excited he wore them to bed.

Constrained as usual by the family's shortage of money, Henry once carried a basket of young chickens to be sold to an innkeeper as food. In front of him, in order to immediately return the basket, the man took out one cheeping, fluffy chick at a time and efficiently wrung each fragile neck. The boy showed no emotion. At an early age his solemnity and frequent lack of expression inspired lawyer Samuel Hoar, Concord's leading citizen and a neighbor of the Thoreaus, to nickname Henry "the Judge." His parents said that as a baby he had suffered baptism by the Reverend Ezra Ripley, minister of Concord's First Parish Unitarian Church, without tears.

Stoic one moment, Henry might be timid the next. Thunder would send him running to his parents' room, where he would announce preemptively from the doorway, "I don't feel well." Other village children knew that Henry never let tree or mudbank slow his investigation of anything that sparked his single- minded curiosity, but they also knew that when racing after a quarry he might not pause to help a friend across a ditch. Henry was woven of contradictions. He loved to sing and dance but hated parades.

As a small boy, Henry shared a trundle bed with John, crowded by his longer limbs. Mrs. Thoreau would pull their fl at bed, which rode on casters, out from under the parents' high four-poster. A trundle bed made economical use of a room, especially in rented houses, with two sleeping areas stacked in the space of one and the lower tucked out of sight during the day. Its lat drawerlike structure, however, couldn't accommodate a full straw or feather mattress and wound up padded only with blankets, barely superior to a pallet on the floor.

After a day of exploring outdoors, the boys would tumble into their hard bed and soon John would be fast asleep. Henry, in contrast, often lay awake thinking or daydreaming. Once Mrs. Thoreau came back upstairs long after putting the boys to bed, only to find Henry lying beside his sleeping brother and staring out through the parted curtains at the clear night sky.

"Why, Henry dear," she exclaimed, "why don't you go to sleep?"

"I have been looking through the stars, to see if I couldn't see God behind them."

As they grew older, skinny John became the handsome brother, with his sisters' wavy brown hair and large dark eyes. His rounder, less pronounced features usually wore an open expression seldom seen on Henry's solemn, big-nosed face. John was more popular, not awkward or difficult as Henry could be. Both were imaginative, trusting children, as were their sisters Helen and Sophia. Helen (born only five months after her parents' wedding in 1812) was five years older than Henry, John two years older, and Sophia two years younger.

Each Christmas Eve, Mrs. Thoreau reminded them to hang their clean stockings on the hearth. During the night, she explained, Santa Claus, a generous and good-natured sprite who lies through the air astride a broomstick, would come down the chimney. On Christmas morning naughty children found a stocking stuffed with a rotten potato, a letter of reprimand from Santa, and possibly even a rod with which they might be whipped. Once John's Christmas dreams were smashed by the discovery of a stinking potato and a letter, which he was too young to read, so he had to suffer through someone else's recital of his faults. The rod, however, was too small for use, so clearly it was intended as a warning. Good children, in contrast—and most of the time John was considered a well-behaved child, perhaps especially after this warning from above—could look forward to a stocking sagging with sweet-scented doughnuts and sugarplums. One year John determined to wait up for this elusive benefactor. He slumped in a low chair by the fireplace, staring up the chimney, and kept his eyes open a full hour after his usual bedtime. The next morning he woke in his own bed to discover that Santa crept in after the sentinel dozed.

On Christmas as well as Thanksgiving, Mrs. Thoreau invited poor neighbors and friends to join her family for a modest holiday repast. Although few people gave significant gifts, Christmas was slowly gaining in importance as a holiday. In December 1823, two days before Henry's sixth Christmas, an anonymous poem called "A Visit from St. Nicholas" appeared in the Troy, New York, Sentinel. It was widely reprinted. The author—later identified as Clement Clark Moore—borrowed details from the traditional British notion of Father Christmas and the American idea of Santa Claus, both of which drew upon folklore inspired by the generosity of the historical fourth-century Saint Nikolaos of Myra. Moore also drew from Washington Irving's vivid sketch of St. Nicholas in his 1809 History of New York, which Irving had published under one of his pen names, Diedrich Knickerbocker.

Many people, however, were unfamiliar with the idea of Santa Claus. Christmas was not an official holiday. At school on one Christmas Day, the Thoreau children asked a girl what sort of treats Santa Claus had brought her. She didn't understand the question. Patiently the boys explained the rewards they had received, and even showed her some of the candy. Her father was a shop owner, the skeptical girl replied, and she had watched Mrs. Thoreau purchase that candy only the day before. Outraged, disbelieving, Henry and John raced home after school to interrogate their mother. She confessed all. The children never again hung up their stockings and never again found sugarplums and doughnuts on Christmas morning.

Henry enunciated R's with a Gallic burr. His father's family hailed from Jersey of the Normandy coast, source of the French surname whose accent in the New World had migrated from the second to the first syllable, evolving into thorough. They led the French-dominated island after Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes in 1685, making Protestantism again illegal, and in time Henry's grandsire became a privateer along the Atlantic coast of North America. One neighbor who knew the Thoreau ancestry considered Henry's quiet tradesman father not only a gentleman but a French one, from snuff box to shrug. French support during the Revolutionary War lent cachet to their lineage, and nothing enlivened a family tree like the pirate that Henry's grandfather had been.

Christened David Henry, he was named for his father's brother David, who died a few weeks after Henry's birth on the twelfth of July 1817. He was born in an upstairs bedroom that faced the sunrise, in the home of his mother's mother, Mary Jones Dunbar Minot, in quiet farmland between the Concord River and the Lexington Road. A second family occupied the other end of the house. An old building of unpainted gray boards, with a steep roof that almost touched the ground in the rear, it stood alone by the winding Virginia Road, a mile and a half east of Concord. Cynthia grew up there. Her father died when she was a child and she was raised by her mother and grandmother. Her grandmother told how her second husband, Captain Jonas Minot, would leave a glass of fresh milk on the night-stand beside their bed, for when he woke during the night—until one morning she rose to find the glass still full and Jonas cold beside her.

The house stood on a grassy, unfenced plot amid sprawling meadows and peat bogs, facing a brook that ran into the nearby Shawsheen River, a tributary of the Merrimack. During the day, at home with three children, Cynthia could hear little other than birdsong, grasshopper buzz, the gabble of geese, and the lazy sound of cattle lowing. She felt less lonely when she heard a neighbor cheerfully whistling to his team of oxen. Night was even more still. Sometimes Cynthia got up long after dark and sat on the doorstep, where the loudest sound was in the house behind her—a clock counting the hurrying minutes.

Beginning in 1818, when Henry was little more than a year old, the family lived in Boston and such suburbs as Chelmsford. Mr. Thoreau worked as a sign painter, sold groceries, and—after getting a license that required a character testimonial from Reverend Ripley back in Concord—sold ardent spirits. He also worked in nearby Salem with an inventor and chemist named Joseph Dixon, who had recently begun making pencils.

The family moved back to Concord in the spring of 1822, a few months before Henry turned five. One of his earliest memories was a vision of a beautiful lake that his family took him to visit shortly afterward. Called Walden Pond, it was about half a mile wide and three-quarters of a mile long, surrounded by hills clothed in thick woods, pine sprinkled with oak and maple. After the sometimes frightening bustle and clamor of Boston—Henry was sensitive to noise—he loved the pond's quiet seclusion, where only sunshine and shadow seemed to vary a stilled, enchanted landscape. He began to daydream about this haven as if he had read of it in a fable.

To many residents, the village of Concord lived up to its name—a harmonious setting, if lacking grandeur. The Sudbury and Assabet meandered through meadow and bog, finally uniting to form the Concord River. Its wandering course provided no sandy shores, permitting meadows to grow to the edge. As a boy, Henry loved the fields and woods beside the river and considered the land itself generous. Walnut and chestnut trees rained nuts for easy gathering. Thorny briars of sweet blackberries crowded the roadsides, and the pastures were fringed with huckleberry bushes. Henry could not resist berries and ate his way along many a pathless hillside. This bountiful land and gentle confluence had drawn both Indians and Europeans. In early days, the fur trade thrived on a dense population of beaver, marten, fox, and otter. Moose and bears were plentiful. Descendants of settlers who organized wolf hunts, Concord farmers now thronged to cattle shows.

Often the Thoreaus took their children on picnics to Walden Pond, Fair Haven Pond, Nawshawtuct Hill, and the banks of the Assabet. Shorter jaunts led to the copse between Main Street and the river. On these outings the children—Helen, the oldest, then John and Henry, and finally little Sophia—explored the woods while John Senior and Cynthia built up a temporary stone fireplace and started a fire and cooked supper. It was said around Concord that tall, talkative Cynthia was so determined to imbue her children with a love of the outdoors that one of her offspring came close to being born on Nawshawtuct Hill.

For the first three years back in Concord the Thoreaus lived in a handsome brick house on Main Street owned by Deacon Parkman, next door to Judge Samuel Hoar. Henry's father enjoyed village life. His family had first moved to Concord at the turn of the century, when he was around twelve, and he knew its business as well as anyone—including past business, because he researched the history of the region. He liked to sit with friends at the post office or in a shop and read the newspaper and discuss the world. He recalled family history—how when very young he would eat breakfast with his father, the son eating the bottom half of a biscuit, the father the top; how he apprenticed to a cooper whose business was later destroyed by the Revolutionary War; and how his own father described a cannonball striking so close by that it cast sand into his face.

While Henry's father enjoyed sitting quietly and talking about the past, Henry raced around with boyish energy. He loved the first ball games of early spring, cavorting in the russet fields near Sleepy Hollow as the last snow melted into mud. When not playing snap-the-whip or the knife game mumble-the- peg, Concord boys played chaotic, rule-free ball games, including a version of cricket. They could learn to swim at Thayer's swimming hole, with its gravel beach that gently slanted for twenty or thirty feet down into the water, and afterward sprawl on the bank and exchange insults while the sun dried them. Forced indoors by rain or snow, they could turn to backgammon, hunt-the-slipper, and blind man's buff.

Despite occasional illnesses, Henry's adventurous childhood led him to think of himself as strong and resilient, and he was impatient with those less rugged. As they grew, the Thoreau boys' free-roaming lives invited adventure. They were good friends with two of their schoolmates, the Hosmer brothers from rural Derby's Bridge—Benjamin and Joseph. Ben especially was close to them, stealing whatever time he could from his apprenticeship to a shoemaker. Black-haired, black-eyed Ben was a restless, wiry boy whom Henry and John enviously considered the best whistler, runner, and stone thrower they knew. Ben also wore a reputation for courage. Once, when he and friends were chased across a field by an angry bull, Ben turned on it and, like David facing Goliath, flung a stone that hit it between the eyes so hard it staggered and fell to the ground. Another time, a friend who couldn't swim fell into a pond and panicked. Although he didn't know how to swim either, young Ben grasped a mooring loop on the boat dock, slipped into the water, and awkwardly maneuvered around until his friend could grab Ben's legs and pull himself out of the water.

The Hosmer boys ate many meals at the Thoreau house and sometimes spent the night. Mrs. Thoreau remarked that whenever she heard doors slamming or found them left open, she would soon hear one of her boys call out, "Ben has come, Mother!"

Young people were charmed by Henry's talkative and welcoming mother, who was renowned for her sweet puddings and pies, and quiet John Senior was a tradesman with the gracious manners of a gentleman. During lean times, meat might not be seen on the Thoreau table, but there was always a wide array of vegetables from the garden and the melon patch, as well as aromatic fruit. The scent of Mrs. Thoreau's fresh bread filled the house. When her daughters were young, she removed luxuries such as sugar, tea, and coffee from the weekday menu, and with the savings funded their piano lessons.

Some mornings Henry and John would grab food for a picnic lunch, explain to their mother that they would not be home until dark, and race outdoors with their friends. At nightfall they came trudging back. Usually they were mud-splashed and tired, full of stories about what they had seen at Egg Rock or Fairhaven Hill or even four miles away at Lincoln, or perhaps on the waters of the nearby Sudbury River or Walden Pond.


Excerpted from THE ADVENTURES OF HENRY THOREAU by MICHAEL SIMS. Copyright © 2014 Warren Berger. Excerpted by permission of BLOOMSBURY.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Overture: Dancing on the Ice 1

Part I Reflection

Chapter 1 Behind the Stars 9

Chapter 2 Seek Your Fortune 22

Chapter 3 More Beautiful than Useful 36

Chapter 4 Meadow River 44

Chapter 5 The New Schoolmaster 51

Chapter 6 Savage Brothers 60

Chapter 7 God and Nature Face to Face 71

Part II Shadow

Chapter 8 How Comic Is Simplicity 89

Chapter 9 We Can Teach You 98

Chapter 10 No Remedy for Love 111

Chapter 11 Give Her a Kiss for Me 123

Chapter 12 My Friend's Little Brother 131

Chapter 13 Log Cabins and Cider 137

Chapter 14 Melodies and Inventions 151

Chapter 15 Near to the World of Spirits 159

Part III Echo

Chapter 16 Hawthorne's New Boat 175

Chapter 17 A Skating Party 186

Chapter 18 Staten Island 196

Chapter 19 Fire 217

Chapter 20 A Poor Man's House 223

Chapter 21 Favored by the Gods 242

Chapter 22 Death on the River 251

Chapter 23 Living Fireworks 257

Chapter 24 Luncheon at the Cabin 265

Chapter 25 My Muse, My Brother 275

Chapter 26 A Night in Jail 284

Chapter 27 Chaos and Ancient Night 297

Coda After the Cabin 314

Acknowledgments 323

Notes 325

Bibliography 351

Index 361

Customer Reviews