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Thoreau and Money

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Context matters. I will speak about a particular person’s approach to money at a particular time in American history, when materialism was first becoming dominant in our culture. By 1817, when Thoreau was born, the 1776 American Revolutionary generation was aging and dying away. By the time Thoreau went to college our country’s founding generation were gone. In their lifetime the country had achieved independence from England, its population tripled, and Massachusetts had emerged with one of the highest per capita incomes on the planet and with an admirably low level of income inequality. During Henry David Thoreau’s lifetime the industrial revolution would transform life in Massachusetts. The American population would quadruple again, mostly through a massive influx of immigrants, largely desperately poor Irish immigrants, and income inequality would soar. This is the context in which I’d like to talk about Thoreau and money this evening.
His paternal grandfather John Thoreau immigrated to Boston in 1773 from the Isle of Jersey and became a successful Boston merchant and patriot during the Revolutionary War. In 1773 a large part of Boston’s wealthy elite were loyal to king and country, and over the next five years were forcibly compelled into exile by the war, to Canada, England, or the southern colonies, leaving much of their business enterprises and wealth to be acquired cheaply by loyal patriots. By 1787, when Thoreau’s father (also named John) was born, one can reasonably suppose that John Thoreau’s wealth and social standing in Boston was two to three times what it had been in Jersey. Thoreau’s father was bred to this mercantile life. But he did not thrive at it. Perhaps he didn’t have his own father’s sense of timing or good luck in being on the right side of a revolution. By early 19th century wealth had become concentrated among Boston’s elite and John Thoreau the younger was not in that elite group. Over his lifetime he would dissipate the fortune his father built.
Thoreau’s father married well. At the age of 25 he courted and married Cynthia Dunbar, of the Minotts, an old Concord family. So when his new mother in law needed someone to work the family farm, John Thoreau moved his young family down on the farm while continuing with his mercantile pursuits. That is where Henry was born in 1817, the third of four children, to John and Cynthia Thoreau. Virginia Road, where the Minott farm was located, at the time was a winding country way, well beyond the outskirts of the town proper. It was however an idyllic country setting. A good sized brook ran in front of it and it was surrounded by many acres of sunny meadows and shaded woods. Henry thrived in this environment. His father did not. While Henry was still an infant in arms his father moved to Chelmsford to create a business, and when that failed to generate sufficient commerce, tried his hand again at business in Boston. By the time Henry was six his father had returned to Concord, a failed businessman, to set up a pencil factory.
Henry would always prefer the outdoor life. Choosing time spent among the sunny meadows and shaded woods of his childhood over time spent in mercantile endeavors. But the New England economy was rapidly changing, and unless you inherited the farm, which Henry did not, nearly impossible to make a reasonable living on the farm. So at the age of 11 he was enrolled in a college preparatory school. At the age of 16 Henry was accepted at Harvard College, and he graduated at the age of 20, but refused to pay the five dollar fee to receive his diploma (equal to about $150 fee today). While Henry was studying at Harvard, 31 year old Ralph Waldo Emerson came into $24,000 inheritance (equivalent to $750,000 today) from his first wife’s estate, with which he bought a house in Concord, and remarried. Emerson’s move to Concord would enormously impact young Henry’s life trajectory. Emerson’s first book, Nature, was published the year before Henry returned to Concord to live, and its success established Emerson as one of the America’s first professional authors able to make his living from writing and lecturing.
Early 19th century small town America offered limited choices for generating enough income to live: farming, mercantile pursuits, politics, medicine, ministry, teaching, or manual labor. None of these were particularly suited to Henry’s passions but like many early 19th century educated people he would pursue farming, mercantile efforts, teaching, and manual labor at one point or another in his life. For his first three years following Harvard he would teach, first in Concord’s public schools, and then with his brother John a small college preparatory class. John, two years his elder, was Henry’s closest friend. They fell in love with and both courted the same woman, Ellen Sewall, but she would reject them both as offering inadequate financial prospects. If only Henry was able to make his living from writing and lecturing like Emerson! Instead John and Henry embarked on a weeklong excursion boating on the Concord and Merrimack rivers, and camping along its shores, which Henry would turn into his first book. These were idyllic times for young men in their twenties in a prosperous small town.
When their school venture failed, John turned his efforts to the family pencil making factory, and Henry chose instead work as a day laborer for his neighbors, helping with gardening, fence building, carpentry, and various odd jobs. Henry was a frequent visitor at the Emerson’s house. His childlike spirit made him a perfect companion and playmate for the Emerson’s young son Waldo. Emerson, now 38, was delighted to take long walks with Thoreau talking about his emerging conceptions of transcendentalism. And Ralph Waldo was evidently hopeless at doing odd jobs about the place so his wife Lidian frequently employed Henry, even inviting him in 1841 to move into the spare bedroom as a live in handy man. In 1842 tragedy struck. On January 12 John Thoreau, age 27, died of lockjaw, apparently from a razor cut. Two weeks later the Emerson’s five year old son Waldo died of scarlet fever. The entire household became quite depressed with mourning. To get away from his grief Thoreau, now 26, took a position in Staten Island as a tutor for the children of Emerson’s oldest brother. But Thoreau missed Concord, and became rather ill, so he returned home again to Concord.
In 1844 Henry would help his father build a new house in town, on what is now Belknap Street, the house where he would later write his book Walden. Because they did all the labor themselves this new house cost less than $300 in materials (the equivalent of about $10,000 today). This compares favorably with having a house built for you which with materials and labor could run up to $1000 in 1844 (equivalent to $330,000 dollars today which still seems cheap by today’s standards), but would have been well beyond what a working man could afford without taking on a mortgage or crippling debt. The manufacture of quality pencils remained the Thoreau household’s primary source of income. After John’s death Henry would sometimes take over his brother’s role in manufacturing and with his cleverness would actually significantly improve the process. But this never brought Henry joy.
That year Emerson purchased 14 acres of land about a mile southeast of Concord, a woodlot by Walden Pond, and Henry immediately fell in love with the place. The next spring Henry would begin a small 10’ by 15’ house by the pond, with scavenged parts and his own labor, which he calculated cost him only $28.12 ½ cents, equivalent to $938 today. But here is how it was so cheap. In early spring Thoreau heard of an Irish day laborer who was moving his family away in order to avoid debts he owed his landlord for his land rent and fuel the previous winter. He owned his shanty outright. Thoreau offered to buy and relocate this shanty before the landlord knew what had happened. Thoreau writes, “The bargain was soon concluded, I to pay four dollars and twenty five cents tonight, he to vacate at five tomorrow morning, selling to nobody else meanwhile: I to take possession at six. It were well, he said, to be there early, and anticipate certain indistinct but wholly unjust claims on the score of ground rent and fuel. This he assured me was the only encumbrance. At six I passed him and his family on the road.”
Thoreau says, “I took down the dwelling the same morning, drawing the nails, and removed it pond-side by small cart-loads, spreading the boards on the grass there to bleach and warp back again in the sun.” “I dug a cellar in the side of the hill sloping to the south, where a woodchuck had formerly dug his burrow, down through sumac and blackberry roots, and the lowest stain of vegetation, six feet square by seven deep, to a fine sand where potatoes would not freeze in any winter… It was but two hours work.” Then, in the beginning of May, with the help of some friends he raised the frame of his cabin. By borrowing Emerson’s land, buying most of the building materials from a departing Irishman, scavenging the rest from various farmers and neighbors, and assembling it with the help of friends, Thoreau managed to build a small cabin in the woods for about 5% of the cost of a traditional house. For this he was inordinately proud since at the time he didn’t have a steady income.
Thoreau writes, “I began to occupy my house on the 4th of July, as soon as it was boarded and roofed, for the boards were carefully feather-edged and lapped, so that it was impervious to rain, but before boarding I laid the foundation of a chimney at one end, bringing two cartloads of stones up the hill from the pond in my arms.” This was to be Thoreau’s happy nest. He claims “the same fitness in a man’s building his own house that there is in a bird’s building its own nest.” He says, “Who knows but if men constructed their dwellings with their own hands, and provided food for themselves and families simply and honestly enough, the poetic faculty would be universally developed, as birds universally sing when they are so engaged?” This simple accomplishment brought Thoreau great joy! He had built with scavenged materials essentially what would pass as a tool shed or tree house for boys. Thoreau was equally pleased with his worn out unfashionable clothes which he used to make a strong statement against the emerging materialism of his time.
He calculates what he spent to build his cabin was equivalent to what a Harvard undergraduate annually pays to rent a room which is barely larger than Thoreau’s cabin. With, Thoreau notes, the “inconvenience of many and noisy neighbors, and perhaps a residence in the fourth story.” Thoreau is altogether negative about the economics of college students. He says, “The student who secures his coveted leisure and retirement by systematically shirking any labor necessary to man obtains but an ignoble and unprofitable leisure, defrauding himself of the experience which alone can make leisure fruitful.” He doesn’t wish to turn college students into day laborers but he wishes for them to take life seriously. He says, “I mean they should not play at life, or study it merely, while the community supports them at this expensive game, but earnestly live it from beginning to end.” A focus on economy leads to a focus on meaning, understanding the way the world works, without bankrupting the student’s father to pay the college student’s bills. Thoreau never did pay the remainder of his outstanding college bills. He defaulted. Which is probably what he would recommend to today’s college students who are graduating with way too much debt. Debt leads to wage slavery.
Thoreau devotes the entire first chapter of Walden to his economy while living at the pond, whereby he says I “earned my living by the labor of my hands alone”. This is where he wrote the book he would publish as A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. Where he developed his passion for observing nature and his environment making him perhaps America’s first and foremost environmentalist. But what did he write about money? He wrote New England mercantilism and consumerism are a prison for a man’s soul. To quote: “I have traveled a good deal in Concord; and everywhere in shops, and offices, and fields, the inhabitants have appeared to me to be doing penance in a thousand remarkable ways… The twelve labors of Hercules were trifling in comparison with those which my neighbors have undertaken; for they were only twelve, and had an end.” Any desire to maintain a certain standard of living was a curse. He wrote, “Most men, even in this comparatively free country, through mere ignorance and mistake, are so occupied with the factitious cares and superfluously course labors of life that its finer fruits cannot be plucked by them.” Wage slavery is death.
Yet being poor is no picnic. Thoreau writes: “Some of you, we all know, are poor, find it hard to live, are sometimes as it were, gasping for breath… It is very evident what mean and sneaking lives many of you live… lying, flattering, voting, contracting yourselves into a nutshell of civility or dilating into an atmosphere of thin and vaporous generosity, that you may persuade your neighbor to let you make his shoes, or hat, or his coat, or his carriage, or import his groceries for him; making yourself sick, that you may lay up something against a sick day, something to be tucked away in an old chest, or in a stocking behind the plastering, or, more safely, in the brick bank; no matter where, no matter how much or little.” Trying to get financially ahead is a fool’s errand. Thoreau had almost a biblical notion, that every day laborer should earn $1 a day, no matter how long or short their day, and learn to live on that.
Yet for Thoreau inheriting money was also no blessing. He writes: “I see young men, my townsmen, whose misfortune it is to have inherited farms, houses, barns, cattle, and farming tools; for these are more easily acquired than got rid of. Better if they had been born in the open pasture and suckled by a wolf, that they might have seen with clearer eyes what field they were called to labor in. Who made them serfs of the soil? Why should they eat their sixty acres, when man is condemned to eat only his peck of earth? Why should they begin digging their graves as soon as they are born? They have got to live a man’s life, pushing all things before them, and get on as well they can.” Having provided this brief compass of his neighbors, and found them all wanting, Thoreau concludes in Walden “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” What then is a person to do? To live simply so others may simply live.
Thoreau invites us to “consider for a moment what most of the trouble and anxiety which [he has] referred to is about, and how much it is necessary that we be troubled, or at least careful.” He says, “It would be some advantage to live a primitive and frontier life, though in the midst of an outward civilization, if only to learn what are the gross necessities of life and what methods have been taken to obtain them; or even to look over the old day books of the merchants, to see what it was that men most commonly bought at the stores, what they stored, that is, what are the grossest groceries.” Thoreau would have each man buy only that which he cannot make himself, and then only when it truly is worth having, so as to not waste one’s breath or life working in order to buy something unnecessary to your life. He writes, “By the words necessary of life, I mean whatever, of all that man obtains by his own exertions, has been from the first, or from long use has become, so important to human life that few, if any, whether from savageness, or poverty, or philosophy, ever attempt to do without it.” If you can live without it, you don’t need it, and you need not spend your life working for it.
Thoreau writes “the necessaries of life for man in this climate may, accurately enough, be distributed under the several heads of food, shelter, clothing and fuel; for not till we have secured these are we prepared to entertain the true problems of life with freedom and a prospect of success. Man has invented, not only houses, but clothes and cooked food; and possibly from the accidental discovery of the warmth of fire, and the consequent use of it, as first a luxury, arose the present necessity to sit by it.” Thoreau notes, “We observe cats and dogs acquiring the same second nature.” Imagine what Thoreau would say about our 21st century necessities: such as a TV, a car, a smart phone, and a computer. What was once unheard of, became a luxury, and has become a necessity for everyone no matter what their income level. Henry might say we have unwittingly made ourselves all wage slaves. Rather than being able to live a life of mind and spirit, free from want.
He says, “Most of the luxuries, and many of the so-called comforts of life, are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind. With respect to luxuries and comforts, the wisest have ever lived a more simple and meagre life than the poor.” He counts himself among the wisest. He says, “The ancient philosophers, Chinese, Hindu, Persian, and Greek, were a class which none has been poorer in outward riches, none so rich in inward.” Through contemplation man should build up treasures in heaven, and care not for worldly goods which can rot, be stolen by thieves, or at very least become a prison to ourselves. We rightly associate with Thoreau the notion that to simplify one’s life is the heart of wisdom, the goal of all those who understand the meaning of life. He says when a wise man “has obtained those things which are necessary to life, there is another alternative than to obtain [mere] superfluities; and that is, to adventure on life now, his vacation from humbler toil having commenced.” Thoreau’s measure of a man and his money was how frequently his money allowed him to take a vacation from humble toiling to simply experience life to its very depths.
Life is to be engaged! Thoreau writes “To anticipate not the sunrise and the dawn merely, but, if possible, nature herself! How many mornings, summer and winter, before yet any neighbor was stirring about his business, have I been about mine! No doubt many of my townsmen have met me returning from this enterprise, farmers starting for Boston in the twilight, or woodchoppers going to their work. It is true, I never assisted the sun materially in his rising, but, doubt not, it was of the last importance only to be present at it.” The key is to be fully present to life in all of its meanness and all of its glory. In thinking about his move to Walden Pond Thoreau says, “I determined to go into business at once, and not wait to acquire the usual capital, using such slender means as I had already got. My purpose in going to Walden Pond was not to live cheaply, nor to live dearly there, but to transact some private business with the fewest obstacles; to be hindered from accomplishing which for want of a little common sense, a little enterprise and business talent, appeared not so sad as foolish.” Today we’d call Henry David Thoreau a nature entrepreneur and Walden Pond his grandest venture!
He wrote, “I have always endeavored to acquire strict business habits; they are indispensable to everyman. If your trade is with the [Chinese] Celestial Empire, then some small counting house on the coast, in some Salem harbor, will be fixture enough. You will export such articles as the country affords, purely native products, much ice and pine timber and a little granite, always in native bottoms [boats]. These will be good ventures.” Thoreau thoroughly understood the mercantilism of his day even if he chose not to build his life around it. He even said, “I have thought Walden Pond would be a good place for business, not solely on account of the railroad and the ice trade; it offers advantages… it is a good port and a good foundation.” Yet Henry David’s passions and interests lie in an entirely different direction from maximizing his money. He will limit his dependence on money to subsistence living.
Like his father, and grandfather before him, Henry David Thoreau’s attitudes about money were shaped by his times. The year Thoreau graduated from Harvard was one of the greatest financial recessions in American history. The panic of 1837, like our recent 2008/09 recession, was caused by a collapsing real estate bubble, so the people who lost everything were the people who borrowed heavily to buy or build their houses. This is why Thoreau is so proud of helping build his father’s house, and his little cabin, without resorting to mortgages or debt. The recession of 1837 lasted seven years so America was just starting to emerge from a deeply depressed economy when Thoreau took to the woods. Banks had stopped lending and foreclosed on mortgages that were in arrears. Unemployment rates for young people, like Thoreau and his college classmates, peaked at over 25% unemployed. For the first time in 50 years the federal government refused to redeem the American dollar for gold. No one knew what this might mean for money. Thoreau seems to have concluded that being financially self-sustaining, while living for today, was the only possible prudent policy.
He wrote, “However, if one designs to construct a dwelling-house, it behooves him to exercise a little Yankee shrewdness, lest after all he find himself in a workhouse… an almshouse, a prison, or a splendid mausoleum instead. Consider first how slight a shelter is absolutely necessary. I have seen Penobscot Indians, in this town, living in tents of thin cotton cloth, while the snow was nearly a foot deep around them.” Thoreau would abhor taking on debt his entire life. He valued his freedom too much to risk it in borrowing money to pay for what he could do without. He firmly believed, and said, “The cost of a thing is the amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately, or in the long run.” Too many things cost too much by this measure. Better to build your own cabin from scavenged parts.
Thoreau calculates, “An average house in this neighborhood costs perhaps eight hundred dollars, and to lay up this sum will take from ten to fifteen years of the laborer’s life, even if he is not encumbered with a family – estimating the pecuniary value of every man’s labor at one dollar a day, for if some receive more, others receive less – so he must have spent more than half his life commonly before his wigwam will be earned. If we suppose him to pay a rent instead, this is but a doubtful choice of evils. Would the savage have been wise to exchange his wigwam for a palace on these terms?” For Thoreau the answer is clearly no. Working to pay off debts is not what living is for. Far better to help his father build a sizable house for less than half that cost or even better to construct his tiny cabin from used parts for only $28.12 ½ cents.
He says, “When I consider my neighbors, the farmers of Concord, who are at least as well off as the other classes, I find that for the most part they have been toiling twenty, thirty, or forty years, that they may become the real owners of their farms, which commonly they have inherited with encumbrances, or else bought with [borrowed] money… What has been said of the merchants, that a very large majority (97%) are sure to fail, is equally true for the farmers…? Bankruptcy and repudiation are springboards from which much of our civilization vaults and turns its somersaults, but the savage stands on the inelastic plank of famine.” Thoreau did not choose the famine of the indigent, he was willing to work for his supper, but he felt only despair for the Concord farmer. He wrote, “And when the farmer has got his house, he may not be the richer but the poorer for it, and it be the house that has got him.”
Even so, Thoreau was most concerned about the growing income inequality in America. The inherent injustices of the current economic system. He saw rich merchants and moneylenders become richer, while farmers toiled from dawn to dusk merely to save their farms, smaller merchants like his father are driven out of business, and the poor are increasingly pushed to the margins. In 1845 poor Irish families, who had been imported to work on the railroad, were now unemployed, and abandoned to abject poverty, lived in shacks along the rail lines. He saw capitalism was failing the poor. Thoreau writes, “To know this I should not need to look farther than to the shanties which everywhere border our railroads, that last improvement in civilization; where I see in my daily walks human beings living in [pig] sties, and all winter with the door open, for the sake of light, without any visible, often imaginable, woodpile, and the forms of both old and young are permanently contracted by the long habit of shrinking from the cold and misery, and the development of all their limbs and faculties is checked.”
Thoreau saw money as a way to save his life for matters he cared about. He says some suggest he could travel to Fitchburg for the day on the train, a distance of thirty miles, for a ninety cent fare, but he is smarter about money than that. He says 90 cents is almost a day’s wages. He could make a pleasant day of walking the thirty miles, and then spend a pleasant evening in Fitchburg, while you would spend the day working at manual labor to earn your train fare, arriving in Fitchburg no sooner than he would, and you would have missed the best part of the day. He says, “This spending the better part of one’s life earning money in order to enjoy a questionable liberty during the least valuable part of it reminds me of the Englishman who went to India to make a fortune first, in order that he might return to England to live the life of a poet.” With money or not, the poet is lost, and therefore the life he wished to fund.
Thoreau contrasts most men’s approach to earning money with his own approach. He writes, “Before I finished my house, wishing to earn ten or twelve dollars by some honest and agreeable method, in order to meet my unusual expenses, I planted about two acres and a half of light sandy soil near [the cabin] chiefly in beans, but also a small part with potatoes, corn, peas, and turnips. The whole of [Emerson’s wood] lot contains elven acres, mostly growing up to pines and hickories, and was sold the preceding season [to Emerson] for eight dollars and eight cents an acre.” Working at his small field a couple of hours every day, he calculates the financial value of his first year’s crop to be $23.44, and his costs of farming this small plot to be $14.72 ½ cents, earning Thoreau $8.71 ½ cents for his labor, nearly the cost of an acre of this marginal farmland. Thoreau says, “I was more independent than any farmer in Concord, for I was not anchored to a house or farm, but could follow the bent of my genius, which is a very crooked one, every moment.” This is heavenly independence and financial self-sufficiency as Thoreau understands it.
Of course Thoreau often socializes and eats at the Emerson’s house, and weekly goes for dinner at his mother’s house in town, but these costs are not counted as his expenses. And when he adds what he spends for food he cannot grow, rice, molasses, rye meal, Indian meal, pork, flour, sugar, lard, apples, etc., he finds he spent another $8.74 his first eight months at the pond, more than he made selling his vegetables. He also needed to replace some clothes, shoes, oil, and household utensils, costing another $10.41 over the first eight months. He supplemented his $23.44 of farm revenue with $13.34 earned by day-labor, even so his experiment in nature consumed $25.22, nearly all the money he had saved since college, mostly for the cost of his cabin. But he had an adventure, and at the end of eight months, a nice cabin in the woods, on a property he had enhanced by living on it. Without further need to buy, rent or furnish his home, Thoreau “found that by working six weeks in a year as a day laborer, I could meet all the net expenses of living. The whole of my winters, as well as most of my summers, I had free for study.” He contrasts this with his experience at school teaching where he worked much longer hours and his annual expenses of living about equaled his entire take home pay. At the pond he had to forgo many luxuries, but he didn’t seem to miss them. He lived his life in balance and in nature.
He says, “In short, I am convinced, both by faith and experience, that to maintain one’s self on this earth is not a hardship but a pastime, if we live simply and wisely.” Thoreau recalls, “One young man of my acquaintance, who has inherited some acres, told me that he thought he should live as I did, if he had the means. I would not have anyone adopt my mode of living on any account; for, beside that before he had fairly learned it I may have found another for myself. I desire that there be as many persons in the world as possible; but I would have each one be very careful to find out and pursue his own way, and not his father’s or his mother’s or his neighbor’s instead. The youth may build or plant or sail, only let him not be hindered from doing that which he tells me he would like to do.” Let every person find their own tune to march to.
While living at Walden Pond Thoreau remained quite active. He raised beans and potatoes and sometimes worked as a handyman for his fellow townspeople as carpenter, gardener, and surveyor. He wrote his first draft of his book A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers and like Emerson went on the paid lecture circuit. Thoreau lectured on life in the woods but never made much money at it. He had frequent visits from Hawthorne, Emerson and Alcott, plus many others who would travel out from Boston to visit with him, often marveling that he could live on so little, but none offering to try it themselves. He was a frequent fixture at small town Concord social occasions despite his eccentric clothes. Yet he could also get up in the morning, with a yearning to go sauntering, setting out in a westerly direction shortly after dawn, and discover as night begins to fall that he finds himself already in Fitchburg. Or as he writes in Walden: “Sometimes, in a summer morning, having taken my accustomed bath, I sat in my sunny doorway from sunrise until noon, rapt in a reverie, amidst the pines, hickories and sumac, in undisturbed solitude and stillness, while the birds sang around and flitted noiseless through the house, until by the sun falling in at my west window, or the noise of some traveler’s wagon on the distant highway, I was reminded of the lapse of time.” Thoreau refused to be a slave for wages, for the manufacture of pencils, or even for his farm and pastoral way of life.
On July 12, 1847 Henry David Thoreau turned 30. He sold his cabin which was moved to be used for storage on a farm, and eventually scavenged for replacement parts, coming full cycle to how it began. That September, Thoreau moved back into his old room at the top of the stairs in Emerson’s house, while Emerson left on a lecture tour to England. His manuscript for A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, which was dedicated to his deceased brother John, never could find a publisher. So after four years of trying, Thoreau borrowed funds from friends to publish 1000 copies of the book, at his own expense, in 1849. Imagine how taking on this debt must have pained him, but failing to honor his brother hurt considerably more, and he could not establish himself as a professional writer without books in print. Four years later, as he prepared to publish Walden, his publisher made him take back 700 some volumes which hadn’t sold. Thoreau joked he had a library of nearly 900 volumes, over 700 of which he had written himself.
On September 6, 1847 Thoreau would move back to his parent’s house on Concord’s Main Street while he spent much of the next seven years rewriting and revising the journals that would become Walden. He expected it would secure his livelihood as a full time writer and lecturer. He completed the fourth draft in 1852 and the fifth draft the following year. In January 1854 his seventh draft was accepted, by April he was reviewing printer’s proofs, and in August his masterpiece was published. While Walden established Thoreau’s reputation as a writer and naturalist in Concord, commercially it was a flop, selling only slightly better than his first book. Thoreau was back to earning money by making pencils and surveying work. Through his education and through attention to detail Thoreau became Concord’s most trusted land surveyor.
During this period he began to travel more widely beyond Concord, to Cape Cod, Vermont, New Hampshire, the Maine woods, and even Canada. A camping excursion in the Maine woods in 1853 would become the basis for his third book. From his many walks and careful study of nature Thoreau was increasingly regarded as a leading authority on Concord’s natural history. In Walden Thoreau attempts to show how to be free from wage slavery to material things. During Thoreau’s lifetime labor saving devices such as the iron tipped plough, inland transportation canals (such the Erie Canal), woodworking lathes, the electromagnetic motor, the cotton gin, the sewing machine, threshing machines, electric power tools, vulcanized rubber, and the telegraph were invented and sold but he saw no evident increase in his neighbor’s leisure time. Thoreau was not a fan of industrialization for he felt it enslaved rather than freed mankind. He may have been prescient.
Massachusetts had grown 35% during the 1840’s. Because of the new textile mills the rivers were becoming polluted by industrial byproducts and human waste. The heavy traffic on the Fitchburg railroad meant the shallow west end of Walden Pond needed to be filled in order to build a stronger embankment for the rails. The poor seemed to be left behind in destitution without land or livelihood, in Concord’s rural areas. Many of Concord’s elite made fortunes in railroad stocks, including Emerson, but Thoreau was appalled at the costs of modernity. He came increasingly to despise the rich, the landowners, and those who amassed great wealth. When the financial crisis of 1857 wiped out the value of many of those railroad stocks, Emerson would take to traveling nearly full time on the lecture circuit to replace his lost income from his railroad dividends, but Thoreau would be increasingly disdainful of American capitalism.
People often died of infectious diseases in those times. Thoreau took ill in1855, nearing 40 and shortly after his second failed attempt to live as an author, he contracted tuberculosis on his travels. His many years inhaling lead dust and fine wood particles while working in the pencil factory seems to have weakened his lungs. In 1861 he was bedridden with bronchitis which aggravated his latent tuberculosis. On May 6, 1862, at the age of 44, Thoreau died. His memorial service was held at the First Parish Church in Concord, with Emerson giving the eulogy, and he was buried at Sleepy Hollow cemetery surrounded by wild flowers. The world did not change much because of Henry David Thoreau, though perhaps his life was a turning point, whose impact is best seen 150 years later. He wrote: “As a single footstep will not make a path upon the earth, so a single thought will not make a pathway in the mind. To make a deep physical path, we walk again and again. To make a deep mental path, we must think over and over the kind of thoughts we wish to dominate our lives.” What thoughts dominated Thoreau’s life?
Thoreau had a contempt for those who lusted after material things. He damned new clothes, fine possessions, and luxuries of any kind. He did not worry much about money, either his lack of it, or need to acquire it. Thoreau could make even his friends feel guilty. Emerson, who often used his inherited wealth to help Thoreau, Alcott, Hawthorne, and the rest out financially when in need, was known to get up and leave the room when Thoreau began to become sanctimonious about money. Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote about Thoreau that “in his presence one feels ashamed of having any money, or a house to live in, or so much as two coats to wear.” Thoreau was equally contemptuous of Hawthorne’s accepting political appointments, whether as the custom inspector at Salem, MA, or as American consul in Liverpool, England, as a way to supplement his income from writing. Thoreau was an irascible purist. He found he could meet his simple needs by the help of family and friends augmented by day labor for no more than a portion of the year.
What about money? There are far more important things in life than money. I’ll leave Thoreau the final word from his opening paragraph of his Higher Laws chapter in Walden. He writes: “As I came home through the woods with my string of fish, trailing my pole, it being quite dark, I caught a glimpse of a woodchuck stealing across my path, and felt a thrill of savage delight, and was strongly tempted to seize and devour him raw; not that I was hungry then, except for the wildness he represented. Once or twice, however, while I lived at the pond, I found myself ranging the woods, like a half-starved hound, with a strange abandonment, seeking some kind of venison which I might devour, and no morsel could have been too savage for me. The wildest scenes had become unaccountably familiar, I found in myself, and still find, an instinct towards a higher, or, as it is named, spiritual life, as do most men, and another toward a primitive rank and savage one, and I reverence them both. I love the wild not less than the good.” Henry David Thoreau lived as America was beginning to industrialize, taming the wild for the domesticated, and he didn’t like it. Too much was being driven for too many by a love of money. He felt to live in balance with nature and the earth we must simply live simply. That is deep wisdom that rings even truer today than 150 years ago. Thank you.


  1. I heard this as a presentation last evening. Great talk with many new “context” insights to a man I thought I knew a lot about already. Very stimulating & happy to get to review it again. “Context matters”


  2. Thanks for integrating 19th-C. economic conditions into our understanding of Thoreau, Jim. Much appreciated! And I so enjoyed your warm, expressive style. Thank you for thinking this topic up in the first place! It was a very enjoyable evening.


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