What Did Henry Look Like?
Images of Thoreau from words and pictures
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"His face, once seen, could not be forgotten. The features were quite marked: the nose aquiline or very Roman, like one of the portraits of Caesar (more like a beak, as was said); large overhanging brows above the deepest set blue eyes that could be seen, in certain lights, and in others gray, — eyes expressive of all shades of feeling, but never weak or near-sighted; the forehead not unusually broad or high, full of concentrated energy and purpose; the mouth with prominent lips, pursed up with meaning and thought when silent, and giving out when open with the most varied and unusual instructive sayings." This description is from Thoreau's friend Ellery Channing, in Thoreau, the Poet-Naturalist.
The first picture on this page (larger photo), and the picture on the Thoreau Reader home page, are two of the three daguerreotypes taken in June, 1856, when Thoreau was 39, after a Walden reader in Michigan had sent money and requested a picture. The beard had been grown the previous winter as a precaution against "throat colds." The image above is courtesy of the Thoreau Society Collections at the Thoreau Institute.
Another contemporary, Nathaniel Hawthorne, was less kind, although also a friend. After meeting Thoreau in 1842, he wrote: "He is a singular character — a young man with much of wild original nature remaining in him; and so far as he is sophisticated, it is in a way and method of his own. He is 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."
The second photograph (larger photo) is an ambrotype taken in August of 1861, when he was 44 years old. There is a noticeable difference between this and the first picture, especially after only five years; some of this may have been a result of the tuberculosis that affected Henry for much of his adult life, and was the cause of his death in May of 1862. This second image is from the Library of Congress.
While Henry must have looked like the photographs when they were taken, can we ever know how he actually appeared to his friends? How much did his personality overshadow his physical presence? How was his appearance affected by the context of his time?
In 1862, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote: "He wore straw hat, stout shoes, strong gray trousers, to brave shrub-oaks and smilax, and to climb a tree for a hawk's or a squirrel's nest. He waded into the pool for the water-plants, and his strong legs were no insignificant part of his armor." This does not sound much like the well-dressed man in the photographs. Emerson also wrote: "His senses were acute, his frame well-knit and hardy, his hands strong and skillful in the use of tools. And there was a wonderful fitness of body and mind." Until his final illness, this "wonderful fitness" may have contributed more to his actual appearance than anything that could be captured by a nineteenth century camera.
Information on this page is from The Days of Henry Thoreau, by Walter Harding.
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