Thoreau’s First Year at
Walden in Fact & Fiction
By Richard Smith

Thoreau Reader:  Home - Walden

Delivered at the Thoreau Society Annual Gathering, on July 14, 2007

Also: Richard Smith's Thoreau at Cyberbee - Audio/Video of Richard Smith on WGBH

Below: Smith portraying Thoreau, at Walden's cabin replica - photo by Carol Haines

Smith portraying Thoreau, at Walden's cabin replica

“July 5, 1845.  Yesterday I came here to live.” With those words, written in his journal, the 27-year-old Henry Thoreau began his two-year sojourn at Walden Pond. This has become one of the most researched, pondered over, studied and influential events in American literary history.  To many, Thoreau’s experiment at Walden was the event of his life.  And, in truth, most people know little else about him; he is “the guy who lived in a cabin.”  His essays, his anti-slavery activities, his scientific studies, his home life – all these are overshadowed by his stay at Walden Pond, and many non-Thoreauvians are surprised when they learn that he only spent two years there.  Many assume that he lived there all of his life.

[2]       What is it about Thoreau’s life at Walden that we find so interesting?  Why does his experiment have such a hold on our imagination?  More importantly, what was it like, not only for him, but for his contemporaries?  How did Thoreau’s friends and neighbors see his “experiment”?  What are the facts of Thoreau’s life at Walden, and what is fiction?

[3]       We’ve hear this comment many times: Thoreau was a hermit at Walden Pond.  Of all the mythology and stories that surround Thoreau, this one story is the most persistent.  And no matter how much Thoreauvians protest, the story continues to circulate.  I even had a teacher say to me recently, “You know, Thoreau was a hypocrite – he told everyone he was a hermit, but he came home every day to get his laundry done!”

[4]       It should be obvious to anyone who’s read Walden that Thoreau was not a hermit.  Just the chapter called “Visitors” is enough to put the myth to rest.  So the question in my mind is not “Was he or was he not a hermit,” but how did the rumor start in the first place?  In Walden itself, Thoreau declares, “I am naturally no hermit.”  So if someone tells me Thoreau was a hermit, I'm inclined is to suspect that this person hasn’t read Walden very closely.

[5]       Almost from the very beginning of his sojourn, Thoreau had visitors.  In my mind, the first and most frequent visitor in those first months was probably Ralph Waldo Emerson.  After all, it was Emerson’s land that Thoreau was living on – to be precise, it was Emerson’s woodlot.  I would think that he’d be quite curious as to know what exactly Thoreau was doing, not only on his land, but what he was doing to it as well.

[6]       After purchasing about fourteen acres of land at the Pond in 1844, Emerson became quite attached to his new holdings.  He called the woodlot “my Garden” and wrote to Thomas Carlyle that his new land holding was “the best plaything I ever had.”  Emerson, along with his family, made frequent, almost daily excursions to the woodlot.  Any visitor to Emerson’s house was more than likely treated to a walk out to Waldo’s new property.  Historian Barksdale Maynard says that the woodlot was “a central feature of Emerson’s life.”  So naturally, I think that Emerson would want to stop by on occasion to see what Thoreau was up to, at least during Thoreau’s first year there.

[7]       By the second year, Emerson was too busy preparing a book of poetry for publication, as well as planning an upcoming trip to England, to stop by as often.  But in that first year, Thoreau was expected to make some improvements while at the Pond, the main chore being to clear the land of overgrown shrubs and brambles.  Ellery Channing called the land Thoreau lived on “The Briars,” and the place where Thoreau planned to plant his beans was a fairly wild, tangled area.  In exchange for rent, Thoreau set to work clearing some of the land about a month before moving into his house of July 4, 1845.  So, Emerson got some of his land cleared and Thoreau got beans.  The arrangement suited both.

[8]       Along with Emerson, Thoreau’s other friends went to see him at the Pond, including the Alcotts and the Hawthornes.  But his most frequent visitor was probably his best friend, Ellery Channing.  In fact, Channing lived with Henry for two weeks in the fall of 1845, sleeping on the floor next to Thoreau’s bedstead.  Emerson even commented on the living arrangements, saying, “Ellery lives with Henry Thoreau at the pond ... in the absence of his wife!”

[9]       I think that Channing was probably at Thoreau’s house a lot, so much so that Thoreau mentions him more than any other person in the book.  Channing is the “poet” in both the “Winter Visitors” and the “Brute Neighbors” chapters in Walden.  I think Ellery was probably more than a little jealous of Henry’s freedom at the Pond and no doubt the two of them had a great time there; Thoreau even says that there were “regular salutes of laughter” in his home whenever Ellery visited.  For all his faults, Ellery was probably a lot of fun to be around and he made Thoreau laugh … a lot!  And the two friends, no doubt, relished their image as Concord ne’er-do-wells!

[10]       Strangers, too, stopped by to see Thoreau and he lists all of the “honest pilgrims” that he saw, although he also mentions a visit from a “simple-minded pauper” as well as visits from “half-witted men from the almshouse.”  Obviously, he was far from alone at Walden.  So how was it that he became known as a hermit?

[11]       Some of it comes from Thoreau himself.  He calls himself a hermit in the book.  This was done tongue-in-cheek, of course, but many read Walden literally, perhaps too literally in this case.  Also, over the years, Thoreau’s intentions have been misunderstood.  Yes, he wanted to live a “solitary” life but students and teachers of Thoreau have confused “solitary” with “secluded.”  Henry was alone – a lot – but he was never secluded.  He was only a mile and a half from Concord and there were two roads near his Walden house.  Most who think Thoreau was secluded are often shocked when they actually see where Thoreau was living because it is not some hermitage deep in a primeval forest.

[12]       But in the nineteenth century, Walden Woods was on the fringe of polite Concord society.  To Thoreau’s friends and neighbors he probably did seem secluded.  Bronson Alcott even went so far as to call Thoreau’s house a “hermitage.”  To “proper” Concordians, all of whom lived a civilized life, Thoreau’s life at Walden was strange and non-conformist.  They probably saw Thoreau on a less frequent basis than his family and friends so to them he was a hermit and his life at Walden was just eccentric enough to warrant suspicion and, of course, gossip.  I honestly believe that the hermit myth started in over civilized Concord among the “proper”, well-heeled Concordians, the same ones that Thoreau later accused of living desperate lives.

[13]       Thoreau was already considered an outsider and a ne’er-do-well and I can just hear Concordians now, “You’ll never guess what Cynthia’s lazy David Henry is up to now…!”  And these sorts of rumors have persisted over the years, driven by Concordians.  I have noticed, however, that those who insist that Henry was a hermit are usually the ones who don’t like his writings or are out to discredit him somehow for being a sort of Transcendental hypocrite.  But real Thoreauvians know better.

[14]       Thoreau’s reasons for going to the Pond were two-fold.  In the book, he is annoyingly vague, and he tells his readers he went to Walden to “transact some private business.”  What business was it? To write his first book.  In fact, Thoreau had been contemplating both writing the book and living at a pond for several years.  The idea to live by a pond probably germinated when Thoreau spent six weeks in the summer of 1835 living with his Harvard classmate Charles Stearns Wheeler in a one-room shanty that Wheeler had built near Flint’s Pond in Lincoln.

[15]       That vacation stuck with Thoreau and by the 1840’s it seems that he was dead set on living by a pond, and it didn’t necessarily have to be Walden.  He tried to buy land near Flint’s Pond but the deal fell through, but Thoreau never gave up the idea.  In 1841, he wrote in his Journal, “I only ask a clean seat.  I will build my lodge on the southern slope of some hill,” and later that year added, “I want to go soon and live away by the pond where I shall hear only the wind whispering among the reeds.”  And his friends all knew about his plans; Margaret Fuller even wrote to Thoreau and asked him to “let me know whether you go to the lonely hut…”

[16]       With no steady job and little income, Thoreau’s plans seemed to be going nowhere until Ralph Waldo Emerson purchased fourteen acres on the shore of Walden Pond in the summer of 1844.  Within a year he had invited Thoreau to live there, build a house and write, rent free.  All Thoreau had to do was clear some land for Emerson and replant trees.  Other than that, Thoreau was free to, as his friend Ellery Channing put it, “devour” himself alive.

[17]        Perhaps it was because it was Emerson’s land that Thoreau has gained the dubious reputation for being a “squatter.”  Thoreau calls himself a squatter, in fact, throughout the book and, again, this was done tongue-in-cheek.  He wasn’t squatting however – he did have Emerson’s permission to live there.  But interestingly, at no place in Walden does Thoreau mention Emerson, or even thank him for his generosity.  In fact, the only mention of Emerson comes near the end of the “Winter Visitors” chapter.  He refers to Emerson as “one other with whom I had solid seasons…who looked in upon me from time to time.”  That’s all.  Had Thoreau and Emerson had their falling out by the time Thoreau wrote these lines?  Or was he squeamish about appearing to sponge off of Emerson’s fame?  Regardless, one fact is certain: if it were not for Emerson’s generosity in letting Thoreau live on his Walden property, Henry’s experiment, and for that matter, the writing of either of his books, probably would not have happened as they did.  Emerson looms large in the Thoreau legend.

[18]       Over the years, Thoreau’s detractors have somehow come to believe that because it was Emerson’s land and not Thoreau’s, that Henry was sponging off of Emerson or somehow taking advantage of him!  I attribute this to the fact that in the Nineteenth Century Emerson’s reputation very much eclipsed Thoreau’s; to many, Thoreau was just an Emerson disciple, or worse, a copycat.  Emerson was the man in Concord while, to many, Thoreau was a lazy ne’er-do-well who never amounted to anything.  So naturally, some would easily make the assumption that the lazy copycat was somehow sponging off of the famous sage of Concord for those two years.

[19]        Thoreau went to Walden with Emerson’s blessings, though at first Emerson did have doubts about Thoreau’s intentions.  It was at this time that Emerson even wrote in his Journal, “Cultivated people cannot live in a shanty.”  But I believe that Emerson did eventually come around to see Thoreau’s point of view – he later journalized, while sitting in his huge house on the Cambridge Turnpike, “Is not a small house the best?”

[20]        Thoreau accomplished one long-held goal: to live by a pond – but what about his other ambition, to write a book?  This, too, was accomplished in the two years at Walden. We know that Thoreau went to Walden primarily to work on A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers.  Most non-Thoreauvians assume he was at Walden to write Walden, but it was his first book that brought Henry to the Pond in 1845.

[21]        He’d been contemplating the book for a few years, ever since his brother John, with whom he’d made the river excursion in 1839, had died of lockjaw.  Thoreau’s Journal of 1842-1844 is filled with ideas and observations that eventually found their way into A Week.  Particularly because of John’s death in 1842, Thoreau’s ideas about writing the book seemed to crystallize – and moving to the Pond was just the catalyst that Henry needed in order to make the book a reality.

[22]        Originally entitled, “A Chit-Chat with Nature,” Thoreau completed the first draft of the book within his first year at the Pond.  This draft of the book, while not radically different from the finished version, was a lot shorter; only 105 pages long.  But the overall outline of the book seemed clear to Thoreau from the very start.  The thirteen-day voyage up the Concord and Merrimack was chronicled by each chapter being a day of the week.  But Thoreau had not yet shortened the excursion to just “a week” and the first draft starts with “August 31, 1839” and ends with “September 13.”  Missing from the draft, just as in the finished version, is the Thoreau brothers’ side trips to the White Mountains; the first draft’s chapters jump from “September 5” to “September 13,” the last chapter of the book.

[23]        Like all of Thoreau’s published writings, A Week started out as a series of observations and ideas in his Journal.  Indeed, three-fourths of his Journal for 1845-1846 are passages that eventually were used in A Week.  It should be noted that Thoreau kept scanty record of the trip up the rivers while it actually happened.  Most of A Week was written after the fact, six or more years later.  And the actual writing of the book was started only when Thoreau began living at the Pond.

[24]        There are several passages that originally were in A Week that, for some reason or another, Thoreau deleted but used later in Walden.  In particular, there is a section about fashion – “When the soldier is hit by a cannonball, rags are as becoming as purple” – as well as some commentary on tattooing – “It is not the hideous custom it is described to be” – both of which found their way into Walden a few years later.

[25]        But most interesting of all is a paragraph that Thoreau took out of A Week.  It reads:

“It is the sum of all wisdom not to do desperate things.  The great mass of mankind lead lives of quiet desperation.  What is called resignation is confirmed desperation – from the desperate city you go into the desperate country and have to console yourself with the bravery of minks and muskrats.”
I wonder: would Thoreauvians have such a special place in their hearts for this passage if Thoreau had kept it in his not-so-well-known first book instead of placing it in his later masterpiece?

[26]       On the contrary; the two years at the Pond were arguably the two most productive years of Thoreau’s literary life.  He produced not one but two drafts of A Week at Walden.  He also wrote a lecture about Thomas Carlyle, which he gave at the Concord Lyceum on February 4, 1846.  He later expanded the lecture into a two-part essay that was published in Graham’s Monthly Magazine early in 1847.

[27]       That first year Thoreau also wrote another lecture which he called “A History of Myself.”  This was the piece that was destined to become Walden – after eight years and seven drafts.  Thoreau would give that lecture in the winter of 1847-1848, first in Lincoln and then in Concord.  Yes, Concordians were not the first ones to hear the words that became Walden.  That distinction goes to their neighbors in Lincoln.  Thoreau delivered “A History of Myself” in Lincoln on January 19, 1847 and in Concord a month later.

[28]       If we can take a peek into Thoreau’s second year at Walden we can see what else he wrote: the second draft of A Week and an essay about Mount Ktaadn.  And don’t forget, Thoreau also wrote in his Journal every day.  So in a strictly literary sense, Thoreau was far from lazy while at the Pond.

[29]       An aside: some historians seem to think that Thoreau wrote “Resistance to Civil Government” while living at the Pond.  Personally, I don’t think so.  Henry went to jail in July of 1846.  His Journal for that year has a few sketchy ideas that were eventually used in his lecture and essay about civil disobedience; He rails against the Mexican War, calling it one of the worst crimes ever “committed since time began.”  He complains about the jailer or constable being “a tool of the state.”  But that’s about it.  The rest of the Journal for 1846 and into 1847 is filled with more ideas for A Week as well as entries that we recognize in Walden.  But there is nothing else about the war or jails.  Unfortunately, very little of Thoreau’s journal from 1847 or 1848 still exists,  so there is no “paper trail” showing the evolution of “Resistance to Civil Government” like we have for Walden or many of Thoreau’s other essays.

[30]       On August 31, 1846, Thoreau left the Pond for an excursion to Maine.  The Journal for the Fall of 1846 is almost entirely about that trip, which was then worked into an essay.  And he was still working on A Week and “A History of Myself,” both of which were taken from his Journal entries at that time.

[31]       I see no evidence in the Journals, or elsewhere, that Thoreau started “Resistance to Civil Government” while at Walden.  He was simply too busy with his other projects at the time.  He probably didn’t start the lecture until the fall of 1847, after he’d left the Pond and moved into Emerson’s house.  He gave the lecture in January of 1848.  I don’t think that he would have started writing the lecture a full year and a half before he gave it.  That’s not the way Henry worked.  “Resistance to Civil Government” was written at Emerson’s house, not at Walden Pond, and was probably not started until October, 1847.

[32]       Another myth that has materialized about Thoreau’s incarceration concerns Emerson visiting Thoreau while in jail.  As the story goes, Emerson came to see Thoreau that night, asking, “Henry, why are you in jail?” to which Thoreau cheekily replies, “Waldo, why are you out of jail?”  Simply put, this never happened!  There is no basis for the story, especially from either Emerson or Thoreau.  In fact, Emerson probably did not know about Thoreau’s incarceration until after the fact; he was probably told the next day by Bronson Alcott after Thoreau had been released. Thoreau and Emerson biographer Robert Richardson even goes so far as to say, “There is no basis for the story.”  In 1894 Sam Staples, the man who arrested Thoreau, even went so far as to say that the event never happened, that " Emerson could not have seen Thoreau in jail" because he arrested Henry at sundown and that the jail "was soon locked up" for the night.

[33]       The story seems to have originated with Thoreau's Aunt Maria, who told it to various people in the 1890's, some of whom were old friends of Thoreau's. They took the old lady's recollections – and Henry's saintly action – at face value. Perhaps the story is nothing more than myth-buliding by the Thoreau family and friends, in order to keep the idea of a highly principaled and concientious Thoreau alive. Over the years it has become gospel; it is even the center piece of a Vietnam War-era stage production entitled, "The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail."  That play, studied by thousands of students since 1970, has done more to propogate the jail story more than anything else One would think, however, that Staples, more than anyone else, would have known if Emerson was there that night or not. His story is the most plausible.

[34]       Still, considering what he did write while at Walden, I don’t think that Thoreau had such a productive two years ever again.  Along with his writings, the “lazy” Thoreau accomplished a lot of other things.  Consider this: in the first year alone he built a house, cleared two and a half acres of land and planted those acres with beans, potatoes, corn, peas and turnips.  The bean rows themselves, according to Thoreau, would have been approximately seven miles long if laid end to end.  According to Barksdale Maynard, that’s over 20,000 bean plants!  It’s no wonder that Thoreau wrote in August of 1845, “I will not plants beans another summer.”  This was a lie, however. The next year he did plant beans, but only about one-third of an acre. He also grew tomatoes, squash, corn and potatoes, most of which he lost during a freak killing frost on June 12, 1846.

[35]       As well as farming, Henry did other work while living at the Pond; ‘surveying, carpentry and day-labor of various other kinds,” including the building of a fence for Emerson.  In the first eight months alone he earned $13.34 with his hands, $10 of which came from work done for Emerson.  Of course, he didn’t work every day.  He proudly announced that there were whole days when he didn’t accomplish any work at all.  But taken as a whole, what with the house-building, the housekeeping, the farming, the writing and the occasional odd-job, Thoreau’s first year was jam-packed.

[36]       So was he lazy?  If you judge him by the standards of most Nineteenth-Century Concordians, yes.  Most of Thoreau’s neighbors were working six days a week, twelve to fourteen hours a day.  But Thoreau states in Walden that he really was working – all told – only about six weeks a year in order to simplify his life.  This had been his goal for years.  In 1837 he wrote, “The order of things should be somewhat reversed – the seventh should be a man’s day of toil…and the other six his Sabbath…”  He accomplished this at Walden.  Jeff Cramer points out that six weeks work per year comes out to exactly one day of work a week.

[37]       So, Thoreau was indeed “lazy” if you compare his life to others’.  But, in his mind, the others were working way too much!  However, if you look at all that Thoreau accomplished in his first year at Walden it seems that he was working just as hard as his fellow Concordians – just not as much!  He did, after all, value his freedom, or as he put it, a broad margin to his life.  And he couldn’t help himself when it came to comparing himself to his neighbors; naturally his mode of life came out on top.  “When I compare myself with most other men,” he wrote, “I am favored by the Gods.”

[38]        It’s obvious that Thoreau was eating well while living at the Pond.  Along with the produce that he grew he would purchase groceries in town, specifically rice and molasses, two things he could not “grow, make himself or do without.”  In his list of foodstuffs in “Walden” he lists flour, sugar, lard, apples (dried and fresh) and sweet potatoes, as well as a pumpkin and a watermelon as “experiments which failed.”  I assume these are things that he either failed to grow or failed to keep fresh for any extended period of time.  As it was, the soil of Walden Woods was really only good for beans, and as it was, he began his garden too late in the season (as various farmers were fond of telling him) for much to thrive other than beans.

[39]       The planting of his crops led Henry to use my favorite Thoreauvian pun: he says that, by planting his crops he was determined to “know beans,” as in when someone says “you don’t know beans.”  Well, by the end of his first year, Thoreau knew beans all right!

[40]       The crop was not only for Thoreau to eat, but also “to earn ten or twelve dollars by some honest and agreeable method.”  He grew twelve bushels of beans and eighteen bushels of potatoes that first year and sold most of it.  His whole income from his farm (as he called it) was $23.44 and he proudly bragged that that was “doing better than any farmer in Concord that year.”

[41]       We know that he made bread from rye and cornmeal, an experiment I tried myself, once, at the Thoreau house replica at Walden Pond.  He also ate a lot of rice, so much in fact that Thoreau notes, “It was fit that I should live on rice, mainly, who loved so well the philosophy of India.”  And, no doubt, he ate a lot of beans at Walden as well.  He also reports in his Journal that, in the Fall of 1845, he collected half a bushel of chestnuts for the winter, which he boiled before eating them.

[42]       Yes, Thoreau did enjoy meals at the homes of his family and friends.  Non-Thoreauvians like to point this out, as if Henry was somehow living a lie by eating out with his friends.  He mentions these arrangements in the book, that his dining out was something he had “always done” and would, no doubt, continue to do in the future.  He didn’t view this as hypocritical.  Why would he?  But, somehow over the years, this dining out with friends has become “raiding the family cookie jar” or, the ever-popular “bounding through the fields every time the Emersons’ dinner bell would ring.”

[43]       And let’s not forget my personal favorite: Henry would “steal pies” from his neighbors’ window sills.  This last rumor was just repeated to me at the Concord Museum this past June as I was working on this lecture!  And who gleefully told me this revelation? An older gentleman, probably in his seventies, who has lived in Concord all of his life.  As he put it, “I was just telling my wife that Thoreau was a ne’er-do-well who stole pies from his neighbors.”  And I know a teacher who tells the same story to her classes every year.

[44]       Where do these stories come from?  Like a lot of history, they are cherished stories that have been passed down through the years, stories that aren’t necessarily true, but do somehow have the ring of truth about them, stories along the lines of Betsy Ross and the first flag or Paul Revere shouting, “The British are coming!”  These are stories that just don’t seem to go away.

[45]        No doubt some people in Concord of 1845 believed that Thoreau was indeed a stealer of pies.  His reputation in mid-Nineteenth Century Concord, as we have seen, was one of someone on the fringe of society (literally and figuratively) so it was probably believed by some that Thoreau did steal some pies.  After all, he was a jail bird and a woods burner so stealing pies would not be beyond him.

[46]        No doubt these stories will continue to circulate as teachers, scholars and people who don’t like Thoreau tell them to new generations of students.  As Thoreauvians, we can only do our best to confront these stories and refute them as often as possible.

[47]        Was Thoreau a vegetarian?  Not at Walden he wasn’t!  Granted, at this stage in his life he was eating very little meat, but he lists among his groceries at Walden “pork” and even notes that, while living at the Pond he would “sometimes catch a mess of fish” for his dinner.  His Journal for this period is filled with reports of his fishing, in fact.

[48]        And then, there is this quote: “Once I went so far as to slaughter a woodchuck which ravaged my bean field…and devour him…partly for experiment’s sake.”  He reported that it had a “musky flavor” but that it only afforded him a “momentary enjoyment.”  So what about this woodchuck?  Did Thoreau actually eat one?

[49]        In 1880, Joseph Hosmer wrote that Thoreau did indeed catch a woodchuck but that he let it go; in fact, according to Hosmer, Thoreau didn’t want to do anything “too severe” to the beast because of his philosophy of not wanting to “take the life of anything that breathed.”  So Thoreau “carefully” took the creature in his arms and carried it two miles away before he released it!

[50]        I tend to believe this story, to a certain point.  Thoreau probably did catch and release a woodchuck.  But Hosmer’s story is a little too “St. Francis of Assisi” for me.  In later years Thoreau was almost a vegetarian but he would eat meat on occasion, especially on his excursions to the mountains when he would pack salt pork.  And also, in later years, Thoreau had given up the killing of animals, such as birds, for study, preferring a spyglass to a gun.  But this attitude toward animals was only beginning during Thoreau’s Walden sojourn.  Hosmer’s story is, to me, more of Hosmer’s “ideal Thoreau” than what Henry was truly like while at the Pond.

[51]        I think that Thoreau did eat the woodchuck; if he says he did, then I believe him.  And his almost strict vegetarianism did not come until a few years later.

[52]        Of course, in the “Higher Laws” chapter of Walden Thoreau rails against meat eating, noting that for “many years” he had stopped eating meant because it was “not agreeable to his imagination.”  He even goes so far as to predict that it is man’s destiny to give up eating animals if we are going to improve society; “Is it not a reproach,” he writes, “that man is a carnivorous animal?”

[53]        But “Higher Laws” was written after 1850, and by this time Thoreau’s attitudes toward vegetarianism had solidified a bit more than when he was living at the Pond.  He was never a pure vegetarian but these ideas certainly started while living at Walden, and in April of 1846 he wrote in his Journal an entry that eventually found its way into “Higher Laws”: “I find I cannot fish without falling a little in my own respect.”

[54]        By the 1850’s Thoreau rarely ate meat, as chronicled in his Journal in 1853; “Left to my chosen pursuits, I should never…eat meat.”  But his friend, Moncure Conway noted that later that Thoreau sometimes did eat meat, “in order not to cause inconvenience to his family,” and in 1858 he listed moose meat as a staple on his last trip to Maine.  But, beginning with his Walden years Thoreau would, for the rest of his life, keep what he called a “low diet.”  One little known fact about Thoreau’s time at Walden is that, in the Spring of 1847 he was asked by Louis Agassiz to collect animal specimens for Agassiz to study.  Thoreau caught – and sent off to Harvard College – pouts, perch, breams, minnows, several kinds of tortoise, a black snake, some shiners and, amazingly, a live fox, all to the delight of Agassiz.  In later years Thoreau would comment that he felt badly about the killing of animals for research, but since it was done in the name of science, the killing, at least, wasn’t done in vain.

[55]        By the end of his first year at Walden, Thoreau was living quite comfortably in his self-built house.  And that was exactly what Thoreau called his abode: a house.  Yes, it was small, 10’ x 15.’  Yes, it had only one room.  But, other than in size, Thoreau’s Walden home, built in the English cottage architectural style, was no different than any other mid-Nineteenth Century frame house.  The same sort of house could be found all over Concord, or for that matter, all over New England.

[56]        Thoreau’s house has been called many things over the years, and, more often than not it’s referred to as a “cabin.”  Even the stone columns that mark the house site at Walden say “site of Thoreau’s cabin,” and many visitors who visit the Pond are expecting to see exactly that: a pioneer style, Lincoln Log cabin.

[57]        Thoreau – along with most New-Englanders – was probably familiar with log cabins, thanks to the frontier literature of the era.  But in 1845, Massachusetts hadn’t been the frontier for over 200 years, and even then log cabins hadn’t been constructed by the Bay Colony’s early settlers.  The log cabin ideal was strictly a Western phenomenon, and by “West” I mean Eighteenth-Century Pennsylvania, Ohio, Kentucky, and Tennessee.  New Englanders just did not build log cabins.

[58]        When visitors come to Walden and see the replica of Thoreau’s “tightly shingled and plastered house,” they seem quite surprised – and in some cases, even disappointed at how well-built and cozy it is.  When I’ve been there as Thoreau I often here this reaction: “…Oh, this…is…nice!?”  It’s not exactly the Daniel Boone moment they were expecting!  More often than not, Thoreau himself called his home a “house.”  In his first Journal entry at the Pond, on July 5, 1845, he wrote:

“My house makes me think of some mountain houses I have seen, which seemed to have fresher auroral atmosphere about them as, I fancy, of the halls of Olympus.”
[59]        And a couple of days later he wrote:
“Verily, a good house is a temple – clean house – pure and undefiled…”
Thoreau, understandably so, was very proud of his home.  It was very well built; his housewright skills having been honed when he and his father built the family’s "Texas" House near the Concord railroad depot.

[60]        Although he almost always called his home a “house,” Thoreau did sometimes refer to it in other terms.  According to Jeff Cramer, Henry called his house a “homestead” once, a “cabin” twice, a “hut” twice, a “lodge” and “apartment” three times and a “dwelling” four times.  Henry’s family called the house a “hut” as did Emerson and his family.  Ellery Channing, knowing that Thoreau was getting a lot of writing done, called it “a wooden inkstand.”  Bronson Alcott usually referred to it as a “hermitage” and in one Journal entry he even called Thoreau’s house “a wigwam.”

[61]        I know of four replicas of Thoreau’s house in the area.  My favorite is the one at Walden Pond, because it has replicas of Thoreau’s furniture and a working wood stove.  I can proudly say that I have spent probably more time in that house than anyone.  When Henry says the house was tightly shingled and plastered, he wasn’t kidding!  I’ve been in that house in all sorts of weather; when the winter winds are howling and snow is flying, I can assure you that that house, with a nice fire in the stove and my oil lamp lit, is truly a charming, cozy place.  I can see why Thoreau lived there!

[62]        My one complaint about the replica: it doesn’t have a closet and Thoreau very specifically mentions having one in his house.  I assume that his closet would have been on the rear wall, between the fireplace and the side wall, like in many New England homes.  But as Barksdale Maynard points out, was the chimney inside the house, or on the outside like the replica shows?  This would affect the placement and size of the closet.  As detailed as Thoreau was about the building of his house, this was one of the minor details he left out of his writings.  He also fails to mention his…toilet facilities.  Common sense tells me he had an outhouse somewhere near his house and I have to believe he had a chamber pot as well.

[63]        In Walden, Thoreau mentions that he had “twenty five or thirty souls, with their bodies, at once under my roof,” and I can honestly say that that can be done because I have done it also.  A 10’ x 15’ house doesn’t seem all that small actually, even when you have a crowd inside it.

[64]        When Thoreau started to build his house in March of 1845, he borrowed an axe.  Common belief is that the axe belonged to Bronson Alcott and Alcott said as much in 1880.  But several others claim to be the lender, including (no surprise) Ellery Channing.  Some have suggested it was actually Emerson’s axe that Thoreau borrowed.  Several accounts, however, all point to Bronson Alcott as the owner, which, according to Thoreau was “the apple of the owner’s eye.”

[65]        As Mr. Alcott said in 1880: “When he [Thoreau] projected the Walden cabin he came to me and said, ‘Mr. Alcott, lend me an axe,’ and with this he built the temple of a grand primeval man.” The rest, of course, is history.

[66]        As you can see, the story of Thoreau’s first year at Walden is, like any good story, a combination of fact and fancy, non-fiction and mythology.  While, as an historian, I am sometimes miffed the mythology can overshadow the facts, I have to admit that the mythology of Thoreau’s life at Walden is what attracted me to him in the first place.

[67]        In my mind, the real story of the real Henry Thoreau is much more interesting than the stories and rumors that surround his two-year sojourn.  But I also have come to realize that Thoreau himself is responsible for the “idealized Thoreau” that most people know, because he himself idealized his sojourn in parts of Walden.  Historians have always grappled with this problem: How much of Thoreau in Walden is Henry Thoreau and how much is just a character named “Henry Thoreau”?  So really, it’s no wonder that some people (including me many years ago) come to the Pond for the first time expecting some sort of Middle Earth/Valhalla experience. But once the reality of the place sets in, do we love Walden Pond – or Thoreau – any less? Of course not.

[68]        I’d like to include one last period account of a visit to Thoreau in 1847.  Written by Frederich Llewellyn Hovey Willis, it goes like this:

“[Henry] was talking to Mr. Alcott of the wild flowers in Walden Woods when, suddenly stopping he said: 'Keep very still and I will show you my family.' Stepping quickly outside the cabin door, he gave a low, curious whistle; immediately a woodchuck came running towards him from a nearby burrow.  With varying note, yet still low and strange, a pair of grey squirrels were summoned and approached him fearlessly.  With still another note several birds, including two crows, flew towards him, one of the crows nestling upon his shoulder … he fed them all from his hand, taking food from his pocket, and petted them gently for our delighted gaze, and then dismissed them by different whistling, always strange and low and short, each little wild thing departing instantly at hearing its special signal.”
[69]        How much of this really happened?  How much is mythology or misremembrance?  In this one story we have all the elements that have created both an idealized and a real Henry Thoreau over the years.  Did this event really occur at Walden?  Or is it just more Thoreau myth-building, a charming story by an old man about a long dead friend?  Is this the real Henry Thoreau, even in this story?  Does it really matter?

Also by Richard Smith: Henry Thoreau and the Wreck of the St. John

Thoreau Reader:  Home - Walden