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Henry David Thoreau and the Sixth Sleepy Hollow Tale

Thoreau and friends continue the walk through Sleepy Hollow Cemetery.

Continuing our walk, we've now climbed the steep path to the world famous Authors Ridge. The first plot on our right is that of the Thoreau family. [Photo 1]

Henry David Thoreau's gravestone [Photo 2], in the left rear corner of the plot, appears a bit brighter than the other stones, as it is the replacement for one stolen by a felonious fan some years ago. Note that corners of the "new" stone have been chipped away by more recent vandals. 

Much more appropriate tokens of remembrance are the stones, coins, and pine cones left at the stone by some of Henry's law abiding fans. Often tributes are left here in the form of notes, letters, or poems (some laminated in plastic) thanking Henry for the salutary effects he has had on their lives and the world generally. Never, in more than 40 years of visiting this spot, in every season of the year, have I seen Henry's stone without such tributes from his countless admirers.

Beside Henry's stone is that of his younger sister Sophia, who illustrated the title page of the first edition of Walden with a sketch of his cabin. Over in the right rear corner is Henry's older sister Helen, an ardent abolitionist.  The front left stone marks the resting place of Henry's father, John, a businessman who ran a Concord sawmill and pencil factory.

The front center stone is that of Henry's mother, Cynthia, also a dynamic leader of the Concord abolitionist movement.  Finally, the front stone on the right is that of Henry's brother John Jr., who died of tetanus (lockjaw), not long after the brothers returned from their expedition commemorated in Henry's book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers.

You may know that Henry David Thoreau was a naturalist, Transcendentalist, environmentalist, surveyor, abolitionist, pioneering conservationist, and author. But Henry had many more interests than that.  He himself added schoolmaster, farmer, house painter, carpenter, mason, and day laborer to his list of vocations. 

Henry's most influential book, Walden, presents his observations of nature and ruminations on life while living two year, two months, and two days in a cabin he built at Concord's Walden Pond. As an abolitionist, he condemned slavery not only in eloquent speeches, but also by personally helping escaped slaves flee to Canada.

Henry advocated individual resistance to unjust government.  When confronted with an unjust law, disobey it, and then accept the consequences, he argued in his Essay on Civil Disobedience.  And he walked that walk by refusing to pay taxes that would have been used to support the Mexican War and the Fugitive Slave Law -- and then went to jail willingly when the sheriff, Sam Staples, decided he had no choice but to lock him up. Henry was quite annoyed when Sam turned him loose the next day after someone, probably Henry's aunt, had paid his taxes.

Not so well known is the fact that Thoreau was not always "Henry David."  He was born "David Henry," but reversed his names after graduating from Harvard College.  Another lesser known fact: while working in the pencil-making business of his father, Henry invented several machines and methods that significantly improved both the process and the pencils.  The family did not patent Henry's inventions, preferring to protect them through secrecy. 

Thoreau is deservedly praised for his meticulous studies of the natural world.  His observations and conclusions on the dispersal of seeds and The Succession of Forests have been validated by modern projects on forest management.  His extensive records of the blooming dates of Concord flora are used today as benchmarks in studies measuring the effects of global warming. 

Less well known is the fact that he and his friend, Edward Sherman Hoar, through carelessness, destroyed a sizeable tract of Concord forest.

One April day in 1844, Henry and Edward set out in a rowboat to explore the Sudbury River.  They stopped for lunch where the river widens into Fairhaven Bay, intending to cook the fish they had just caught.  Their fire, however, ignited some dry grass.  The resulting forest fire consumed over 300 acres of timber, valued at over $2000, before they and town farmers were able to extinguish it. 

Henry would have been in serious trouble were it not for the fact that Edward was the son of Squire Samuel Hoar, Concord's most distinguished citizen (whom we'll hear more of in a future tale).  Walter Harding, in his definitive biography, The Days of Henry Thoreau, suggests that the squire paid reparation to two Concord farmers.  Henry, however, clearly experienced the guilty conscience of a "woods-burner" for years thereafter.

Henry's quotable quotes, from his books and his journals (which totaled more than two million words) are perhaps more relevant today than when he wrote them.  Consider, for example: "The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation."  Or "Our life is frittered away by detail. Simplify, simplify."  Or "In wildness is the preservation of the world."  Or the quotation that Henry himself best personified: "If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away." 

Following a different drummer was, however, not without its costs.  Although loved and respected by Emerson, the Alcotts, and many other Concordians and Transcendentalists, Henry was viewed by many others as an eccentric, reclusive, somewhat disreputable oddball.  Why did he not attend church services?  Why did he go off to live in the woods?  Why, when teaching, did he spare the rod and risk spoiling his students?  Why won't he pay his taxes?  Respectable citizens do not go to jail! 

Ellen Sewall, whom Henry, in his own words, had "always loved," rejected his marriage proposal upon the advice (or order) of her parents. Thoreau's books did not sell well during his lifetime.  He once joked ruefully that he had a library of nearly nine hundred volumes, more than half of which he had written himself.  As recently as 1967 Henry's nonconformity shocked some of his admirers when artist Leonard Baskin depicted him (probably accurately) on a U.S. postage stamp [Photo 3] with shaggy beard and uncombed hair, not the respectable looking gentleman they had pictured.

Would Henry, the man who advised us to "[b]eware of all enterprises that require new clothes" be troubled by such reactions?  I think not.  Recalling that he once said, "[r]ather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth," he might again remind us that "[i]t is never too late to give up your prejudices"

Harry Beyer, a licensed town guide, has lived and walked in Concord since 1966.

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