The Writings of Henry D. Thoreau Dunshee Ambrotype of Thoreau, 1861 (Courtesy Concord Museum)
What's New About the Project About Thoreau's Writings About Thoreau Resources for Research
"Double row of Arbor Vitae, near Battle Ground, May 18, 1902" (Courtesy Concord Free Public Library)
Frequently Asked Questions
Life and Times of Henry David Thoreau
Reflections on Walden
Further Reading

In the answers which follow, full bibliographic information is given the first time a work is cited in FAQs. Subsequently, a short title is used.

What happened to the house Thoreau built at Walden?

On September 6, 1847, Thoreau left the house which he himself had built and in which he had lived for two years, two months, and two days. Emerson then bought the house from Thoreau and resold it to his gardener, Hugh Whelan, who intended to convert it into a cottage for his family. Whelan's drinking problems, however, prevented him from completing the necessary modifications and the house remained empty until 1849, when it was purchased by James Clark, who then moved it across town to his own farm and used it for grain storage. The roof was removed in 1868 and used as part of a pigsty, and in 1875 the floor and remaining timbers were made into a stable shed. Later, timbers from the collapsed shed were used to patch up the Clark barn. One replica of the house has been erected across Route 126 from Walden Pond, and another was built at the Thoreau Institute in 2001. Contact the Thoreau Institute for information about visiting the reconstruction.

Source: Walter Harding, The Days of Henry Thoreau (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1970), 222-224.

Are there any photographs of Henry D. Thoreau?

photo - The Dunshee Daguerreotype

Thoreau is known to have sat for two photographers. On June 18, 1856, in response to a request by an admirer named Calvin Greene, Thoreau sat for a daguerreotype image at the Benjamin D. Maxham studio in Worcester, MA. In addition to Greene's daguerreotype, Thoreau had two other images made for friends H.G.O. Blake and Theophilus Brown. Today, Blake's copy is in the Berg Collection of the New York Public Library. The Greene copy is in the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. The third image is owned by the Thoreau Society and exhibited at the Thoreau Institute in Lincoln, MA.

In 1861 Thoreau sat for another photographic image, this time for friend Daniel Ricketson, at the establishment of E. S. Dunshee in New Bedford, MA. Two ambrotypes were made at that time, one of which is owned by the Concord Museum. The other has not surfaced since it was sold at auction in 1924.

A daguerreotype which could be a sixth image of Thoreau was discovered in an antique shop in Newport, RI, in 1993. Although there are similarities between this image and those known to be of Thoreau, much research and testing remain to be done before it can be declared to be Thoreau's.

All of the known likenesses of Thoreau are reproduced in "A Thoreau Iconography," by Thomas Blanding and Walter Harding, published in Studies in the American Renaissance, ed. Joel Myerson (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1980), 1-35.

Is there a time line available for the life of Henry D. Thoreau?

The most extensive time line of Thoreau's life is Ray Borst's The Thoreau Log: A Documentary Life of Henry David Thoreau, 1817-1862 (New York: G. K. Hall, 1992), over six hundred pages of information about day-by-day events in Thoreau's life. Shorter chronologies can be found in Thoreau: Collected Essays and Poems (New York: Library of America, 2001), 645-656; The Cambridge Companion to Henry David Thoreau, ed. Joel Myerson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), xv-xvi; and The New Thoreau Handbook, ed. Walter Harding and Michael Meyer (New York: New York University Press, 1980), xiii-xv.

How did Thoreau die? Where is he buried?

Thoreau died on May 6, 1862, at the age of 44. He had contracted a bad cold while counting tree rings in December of 1860; he died of tuberculosis. Funeral services were held in the First Parish Church in Concord, MA, and he was buried in the New Burying Ground, at the foot of Bedford Street, where his brother John, his sister Helen, and his father were also buried. Later the graves of all of the members of the immediate family, Henry's included, were moved to "Author's Ridge" in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery.

Sources: Robert D. Richardson, Jr., Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986), 385-389, and Raymond Adams, "Thoreau's Burials," in American Literature 12 (March 1940): 105-107. Thanks to Leslie Wilson of the Concord Free Public Library for tracking down the latter reference.

Was Thoreau involved in the Underground Railroad?

Yes. In Walden, Thoreau includes among his visitors:

runaway slaves with plantation manners, who listened from time to time, like the fox in the fable, as if they heard the hounds a-baying on their track, and looked at me beseechingly, as much as to say,--

"O Christian, will you send me back?"

One real runaway slave, among the rest, whom I helped to forward toward the northstar. (Walden, ed. J. Lyndon Shanley [Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1971], 152)

The Thoreau family home in Concord was also part of the Underground Railroad. Thoreau's mother--and all of the relatives who resided at the house--were active in the local antislavery movement. In his Journal, Thoreau gives several accounts of assisting fugitive slaves on their way north. He hid them, drove them to the train station, bought their tickets, and sometimes even accompanied them to the next station. To Set This World Right: The Antislavery Movement in Thoreau's Concord (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2006), by Sandra Harbert Petrulionis, explores the history and ramifications of Thoreau's involvement in the antislavery movement.

Could you suggest ideas and sources for studying Thoreau's philosophy of living a spiritual life?

A good place to begin is the collection of Thoreau's letters to Harrison Gray Otis Blake in Letters to a Spiritual Seeker, edited by Bradley P. Dean (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2004). The New Thoreau Handbook by Walter Harding and Michael Meyer offers many insights into this topic, particularly chapter 4, "Thoreau's Ideas." Robert D. Richardson's Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind, is helpful as well. Two more recent sources have addressed this issue: Alan D. Hodder's Thoreau's Ecstatic Witness (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2001) and David M. Robinson's Natural Life: Thoreau's Wordly Transcendentalism (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2004). Older sources include: David Lyttle, Studies in Religion in Early American Literature: Edwards, Poe, Channing, Emerson, Some Minor Transcendentalists, Hawthorne and Thoreau (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1983); Kenneth Walter Cameron, Emerson and Thoreau as Mythologists, or Building One's Spiritual World (Hartford: Transcendental Books, 1997); Catherine Albanese, ed., The Spirituality of the American Transcendentalists: Selected Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Amos Bronson Alcott, Theodore Parker, and Henry Thoreau (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1988); Arthur Versluis, American Transcendentalism and Asian Religions (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993).

Did Thoreau ever write about his first love? Is there any indication that he fell in love more than once in his lifetime?

Thoreau wrote about love in general and one relationship in particular in his Journal during 1839-1840 when he was quite smitten with Ellen Sewall; his brother John was also in love with her. Prior to meeting Sewall in July 1839, he wrote a short poem about love which he included in his Journal entry for January 20, 1839 (Journal 1: 1837-1844, ed. Elizabeth Hall Witherell et al. [Princeton: Princeton University Press], 66). He met her on July 20, 1839, and "By July 25 he was beyond poetry" (Walter Harding, The Days of Henry Thoreau, 95). On that day he wrote in his Journal, "There is no remedy for love but to love more" (Journal 1, 81). Early in November of 1840, after John had proposed to Ellen and been rejected, Thoreau wrote her a letter in which he proposed. The letter no longer survives, but it is likely that his November 1, 1840, Journal entry was related to that letter. It reads:

I thought that the sun of our love should have risen as noiselessly as the sun out of the sea, and we sailors have found ourselves steering between the tropics as if the broad day had lasted forever. You know how the sun comes up from the sea when you stand on the cliff, and does'nt startle you, but every thing, and you too are helping it. (Journal 1, 193).

Thoreau's daily Journal from July 1839 to November 1840 includes many entries related to his feelings of love for Ellen Sewall. Following her father's wishes, Sewall turned down Thoreau's proposal, but Harding reports that Thoreau carried her memory with him to the end. In 1862, shortly before he died, Thoreau is reported to have said to his sister, Sophia: "I have always loved her" (Walter Harding, The Days of Henry Thoreau, 104).

As to whether Thoreau fell in love more than once, a good source of information is Harding's Days; he deals with this topic in chapter 6. Harding discusses others for whom Thoreau developed great affection, including Lucy Jackson Brown and Mary Russell. Henry Seidel Canby also wrote of the Sewall episode and others in his Thoreau (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1939), 110-128.

There has been speculation as to whether Thoreau was homosexual. The best discussion of this is found in Walter Harding, "Thoreau's Sexuality," in Journal of Homosexuality, 21.3 (1991): 23-45. See "Was Thoreau gay?" in these FAQs.

Did Thoreau really start a major forest fire accidentally, and how old was he at that time?

Yes, Thoreau did accidentally set a fire that he says burned over a hundred acres. It was on April 30, 1844; he was 26 at the time. Thoreau and Edward Hoar, son of Concord's leading lawyer and wealthiest citizen, were cooking a dinner of fish they had caught. They made their fire by the shore of Fair Haven Pond, and the surrounding grass caught and spread the fire, which was quickly out of control. For more information, see Journal 3: 1848-1851, ed. Robert Sattelmeyer, Mark R. Patterson, and William Rossi (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990), 75-78 and Annotation 75.16-78.19; see also Walter Harding, The Days of Henry Thoreau, 159-162. Thoreau's description in Walden of the inhabitants of Concord following the fire bell owes something to his Journal account of his own experience (Walden, 93).

What is the correct pronunciation of "Thoreau"? Is the emphasis on the first or the second syllable?

If you go to Concord today, you can hear people pronounce Thoreau's name as he and his family almost certainly did--they put the accent on the first syllable, and the "o" is short, so it sounds like "thorough." The current pronunciation in Thoreau's hometown is significant: the community has remained essentially residential since Thoreau's time, and the longtime residents are likely to have learned their pronunciation from those who learned it from those who knew the family.

Another piece of evidence is the fact that one of Thoreau's correspondents, Daniel Ricketson, sometimes addressed him in letters as "Mr. Thorough" or "Mr. Thoroughly Good," apparently playing on the pronunciation as an indication of character.

Was Thoreau fluent in any language other than English?

Thoreau was quite fluent in French and Latin, and read them almost as easily as he read English. He also read Greek, German, Italian, and Spanish. The level of his ability in speaking these languages is not known.

Source: F. B. Sanborn, The Life of Henry David Thoreau (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1917), 260.

What did Thoreau say about Harvard and the "roots of knowledge"?

According to Walter Harding's The Days of Henry Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson once noted that most of the branches of learning were taught at Harvard, to which Thoreau replied: "Yes, indeed, all the branches and none of the roots" (51).

Did Thoreau ever witness a game of baseball being played?

In an April 10, 1856, Journal entry, Thoreau refers to ball games played on the fields around Concord:

Fast day-- Some fields are dried sufficiently for the games of ball--with which this season is commonly ushered in. I associate this day, when I can remember it, with games of base-ball played over behind the hills in the russet fields toward Sleepy Hollow where the snow was just melted & dried up.--& also with the uncertainty I always experienced whether the shops would be shut--whether we should have an ordinary dinner an extraordinary one--or none at all--and whether there would be more than one service at the meeting house--this last uncertainty old folks share with me.-- This is a windy day drying up the fields--the first we have had for a long time

Whether the ball game that Thoreau remembers is what is today called "baseball" is a point open to debate. Thanks to Timothy Trask (Brockton, MA) and Donald Ross (Univ. of Minnesota)

Was "Henry David Thoreau" his real name?

Yes . . . and no. Thoreau was christened "David Henry" on October 12, 1817, three months after his birth on July 12. Between his birth and christening, his paternal uncle David died, and the newest member of the family was named after him. Thoreau reversed the order of his names after graduating from Harvard in 1837. Although he never filed the legal petitions to make the change formal, he persisted in signing himself "Henry David" until his death--often to the amusement of his neighbors.

Source: Walter Harding, The Days of Henry Thoreau, 11, 54.

Was Thoreau gay?

Thoreau's sexuality has long been a subject of speculation; even his contemporaries commented on his apparent lack of interest in conventional romance. The most exhaustive examination of the evidence on both sides of this question is Walter Harding's article, "Thoreau's Sexuality," published in the Journal of Homosexuality, 21.3 (1991): 23-45. Basing his conclusions mostly on evidence from Thoreau's Journal, Harding suggests that Thoreau's affectional orientation was probably homosexual, though there is no evidence that he was physically intimate with either men or women. Although Thoreau proposed marriage to one woman (and was proposed to by another), Harding concludes that the preponderance of the evidence indicates that he had a fundamental attraction to other men, an attraction sublimated through his writing and his passion for nature.

What did Thoreau do for a living?

Thoreau's first job after graduating from Harvard was as a teacher in the Concord Center School. After two weeks, a visiting member of the school committee questioned his standard of discipline and recommended corporal punishment; Thoreau arbitrarily chose several students and feruled them, and later that day he resigned his position. For almost a year he worked in the family pencil factory while he looked for another teaching position. In September 1838 he began his own school, the Concord Academy; by the end of the first term, he had enough pupils to hire another teacher, and his brother John left his teaching job in Roxbury and joined Henry. The Concord Academy closed in April 1841 due to John's failing health, and Thoreau lived in the Emerson household for two years, exchanging room and board for work in the garden and around the house. In 1843, Thoreau spent several months on Staten Island, tutoring William Emerson's oldest son and trying, with little success, to make connections with New York publishers.

He returned to his family and to the pencil factory, and contributed several innovations. The business changed focus in the early 1850s to supply finely ground graphite in quantity for electrotyping, a printing process that had emerged in 1849. After their father's death on February 3, 1859, Thoreau and his sister Sophia assumed control of the enterprise. In the early 1850s, Thoreau's skill as a land surveyor became widely known and surveying became another important source of income for him. In addition, he saw surveying as an opportunity to pursue his real interest: observing the natural world around him. Describing his sighting of a brown thrasher while surveying, he writes in the Journal: "Surveying seemed a noble employment which brought me within hearing of this bird" (April 30, 1856). Thoreau published two books in his lifetime and gave a number of lectures, but he did not earn enough from these activities to support himself.

In 1847, Thoreau responded to a questionnaire from the secretary of his Harvard class with this description of his pursuits: "I am a Schoolmaster--a Private Tutor, a Surveyor--a Gardener, a Farmer--a Painter, I mean a House Painter, a Carpenter, a Mason, a Day-Laborer, a Pencil-Maker, a Glass-paper Maker, a Writer, and sometimes a Poetaster" (The Correspondence of Henry David Thoreau, ed. Walter Harding and Carl Bode [New York: New York University Press, 1958], 186).

Source: Walter Harding, The Days of Henry Thoreau.

What poem did Thoreau write in jail?

Thoreau was jailed on July 23 and 24, 1846, for refusing to pay his poll tax. There is no documentary evidence that he wrote a poem (or anything else) during the one night he spent in the Concord jail, and none of the poems he wrote that year relates to that experience. He does discuss his night in jail in his famous essay, "Resistance to Civil Government" (published in 1866 as "Civil Disobedience") and mentions the fact that other prisoners had written verses, a circular of which his cellmate shows him. See Journal 2: 1842-1848, ed. Robert Sattelmeyer (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984), 262-264.

Revised July 2017