September 6: Henry David Thoreau left his Walden Pond cabin on this day in 1847, after a stay of two years, two months and two days. “I left the woods for as good a reason as I went there,” Thoreau later concluded. “Perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one.” He goes on in Walden to reflect that his life in the woods had grown customary, his adventure in danger of becoming “the ruts of tradition and conformity.” He went to the woods as a traveler to a voyage, and he had sought the best berth: “I did not wish to take a cabin passage, but rather to go before the mast and on the deck of the world, for there I could best see the moonlight amid the mountains.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson bought the cabin from Thoreau and sold it to his gardener, who had plans to make it his family home. He also had a drinking problem: the plans came to nought, and the cabin, one of the most enduring symbols in the American literary landscape, went through an ignoble devolution, one at which Thoreau would have chuckled. After two years of standing empty, the cabin was sold to a local farmer, who moved it across town and used it as a grain shed; over the next twenty years the roof was removed to build a pigsty, and the wall timbers were used first for a stable, and then to patch a barn. Thoreau himself moved into Emerson’s house, as a sort of handyman-babysitter while Emerson was on a ten-month trip to England. The portrait which biographer Walter Harding paints of this period in Thoreau’s life seems to correct the view that he was always a prickly contrarian:
Thoreau’s great joy was the children…. He would carry Eddy around on his shoulders, make pan’s pipes for the girls from pumpkin stalks, onion tops, or willow shoots, or gather them all around the fire and tell them stories of the adventures of his childhood or of a duel between turtles he had observed on the river or of the battle of the ants he had seen at his Walden cabin. When they tired of stories, he would make pencils and knives disappear and redeem them magically from their ears….
Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.