Harvard Notes By Jeff Benitz
One oddity to growing up in New England is you take writers for granted.
When Herman Melville writes about New Bedford and Nantucket, when Sylvia
Plath writes about Wellesley or the steps of Widener Library in Harvard Yard,
when Nathaniel Hawthorne writes about Salem, you have been there. They
write about your own stomping grounds. Even if a writer is not from New
England, it seems at one point they have traveled through and it leaks into
July 12th, was the birthday of Henry David Thoreau (properly pronounced
“Thoro”) known mostly for Walden and another book Civil Disobedience. In
New England you know of his other books about Cape Cod and his travels to
Maine and Mt. Wachusett. On the one hand you gain a certain amount of awe
for the descriptive and perceptive powers of a good writer. You’ve stood at
the same spot and to explain it as well seems impossible. However, on the
other hand, there is myth breaking. Sure, Thoreau was born in Concord and
went to Harvard College. But, when you look at his life he was a leach.
Basically, he found Ralph Waldo Emerson, a wealthy man, and lived off of him
(Emerson encouraged him as a protégé). He worked for him and when he
went on his grand experiment at Walden Pond, it was Emerson’s land he built
his shack on (where he stayed a mere two years). Instead of the great
wilderness, when you stand on the shore of Walden Pond you realize there is
a railroad track that goes by the corner of the pond and that the center of
town is 1 mile away. The main road that skirts the pond was there too. All
winter ice cutters worked on their harvest, cutting blocks from the pond that
were sent around the world. Concord is an old town and all this predated his
Thoreau was no mink trapper in the outreaches of Siberia. Does this take
away from his writing? No. But it does give one perspective. Nothing like the
leisure of a remittance lifestyle to give one time for reflection. One point of
reflection is when he was arrested for not paying his poll taxes. The one night
he spent in jail in civil protest led to a legendary story around Concord.
Apparently, Emerson, walking by the jailhouse said to Thoreau through the
window, “Henry, what are you doing in there?” To which Thoreau replied,
“The right question is, Ralph, why are you out there?” A reference to Thoreau’
s standing up for his convictions against slavery, taxes, etc.
Walden Pond was a regular visit for us. If you went during the day you could
have the ranger give a tour and see the replica cabin. Unfortunately, it’s
become near impossible to visit Walden Pond due to popularity. It is as
congested as a Calcutta market. So what we did is go after dark when the
park was closed. We’d sneak in and go skinny-dipping with girls and then lay
back under the same moonlight Thoreau did and discuss Transcendentalism.
This was particularly nice on sweltering July nights. Walden Pond is one of
the coldest and deepest (102 ft, 31 m) ponds in Massachusetts. It is spring
fed from the bottom and never warms up much.
The talk would often turn to other 19th century writers and how many had
perished prematurely from Consumption (Tuberculosis). It was hard to figure
what mankind lost. Henry David Thoreau died at age 45.