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The Adventures of Henry Thoreau: A Young Man's Unlikely Path to Walden Pond

The Adventures of Henry Thoreau: A Young Man's Unlikely Path to Walden Pond

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by Michael Sims

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Henry David Thoreau has long been an intellectual icon and folk hero. In this strikingly original profile, Michael Sims reveals how the bookish, quirky young man who kept quitting jobs evolved into the patron saint of environmentalism and nonviolent activism.

Working from nineteenth-century letters and diaries by Thoreau's family, friends, and students, Sims


Henry David Thoreau has long been an intellectual icon and folk hero. In this strikingly original profile, Michael Sims reveals how the bookish, quirky young man who kept quitting jobs evolved into the patron saint of environmentalism and nonviolent activism.

Working from nineteenth-century letters and diaries by Thoreau's family, friends, and students, Sims charts Henry's course from his time at Harvard through the years he spent living in a cabin beside Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts.

Sims uncovers a previously hidden Thoreau-the rowdy boy reminiscent of Tom Sawyer, the sarcastic college iconoclast, the devoted son who kept imitating his beloved older brother's choices in life. Thoreau was deeply influenced by his parents-his father owned a pencil factory in Concord, his mother was an abolitionist and social activist-and by Ralph Waldo Emerson, his frequent mentor. Sims relates intimate, telling moments in Thoreau's daily life-in Emerson's library; teaching his neighbor and friend, Nathaniel Hawthorne, to row a boat; exploring the natural world and Native American culture; tutoring Emerson's nephew on Staten Island and walking the streets of New York in the hope of launching a writing career.

Returned from New York, Thoreau approached Emerson to ask if he could build a cabin on his mentor's land on the shores of Walden Pond, anticipating the isolation would galvanize his thoughts and actions. That it did. While at the cabin, he wrote his first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, and refined the journal entries that formed the core of Walden. Resisting what he felt were unfair taxes, he spent the night in jail that led to his celebrated essay “Civil Disobedience,” which would inspire the likes of Gandhi and Martin Luther King.

Chronicling Thoreau's youthful transformation, Sims reveals how this decade would resonate over the rest of his life, and thereafter throughout American literature and history.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In this uneven biography of Henry David Thoreau, Sims (The Story of Charlotte's Web) succeeds in his ambition "to find Henry" rather than "admire the marble bust of an icon," though the portrait that emerges is far from flattering. Focusing primarily on Thoreau's life before he earned renown with Walden, Sims depicts his subject as a spirited young man with a keen eye for observing nature; a devoted brother to his older sibling, John; a freethinker who defiantly rejected religious orthodoxy; and a teacher appreciated by his students because he refused to dole out corporal punishment. At the same time, Thoreau comes across as feckless, unambitious, irresponsible, and incapable of living the life of an independent adult but for the charity of his mentor, Ralph Waldo Emerson. Sims has culled scholarly sources to recreate the early 19th-century landscape of Concord, Mass., and its active social and literary scene, but Thoreau is not always at the center, and in some chapters, not present at all. Consequently, the portrait he paints of the young Thoreau seems sketchy in places. Though he writes with great sympathy for the Bard of Walden Pond, readers may finds themselves agreeing with Nathaniel Hawthorne's assessment of Thoreau as "the most unmalleable fellow alive—the most tedious, tiresome, and intolerable—the narrowest and most notional." Agent: Heide Lange, Greenburger Associates. (Feb.)
From the Publisher

“Sims creates a sensuous natural environment in which to appreciate his subject.” —Kirkus Reviews

“[A] surpassingly vivid and vital chronicle of Thoreau's formative years. As Sims portrays a solemn boy nicknamed "the Judge," we gain fresh understanding of Thoreau's choices and convictions on his way to becoming a seminal environmentalist and civil-disobedience guru.” —Booklist

“[A] lively biography . . . Nature lovers will revel in the vivid descriptions of Thoreau's adventures and mishaps, fromplaying the flute to a mouse, to boat trips on the Concord river . . . Sims explores the development of a bookish and sometimes prickly young man into the icon he is today.” —Financial Times

“An amiable and fresh take on the legendary sage of Walden Pond . . . an animated portrait. Sims has once again proven himself to be a distinctive writer on the subjects of human nature and humans in nature.” —Bookpage

“An affectionate and lively recreation of the world that surrounded [Thoreau].” —Christian Science Monitor, picked as one of the 10 Best Books of February

“I confess I picked up this biography not because of a burning interest in Thoreau . . . but because I loved Michael Sims' previous book about E. B. White and the writing of Charlotte's Web. Sims made White's youthful world of 1920s New York come alive and he does the same thing here for Thoreau's Concord. . . . The Adventures of Henry Thoreau is a rich, entertaining testament to the triumph of a young man who never comfortably fit in, but who made a place for himself, nonetheless.” —Maureen Corrigan, Fresh Air

“A well-researched and richly detailed portrait . . . The Henry David Thoreau portrayed here is no ‘marble bust of an icon.' He's restless, prickly and possessed of a relentless intellectual curiosity--a complex, fully realized human being. With this picture in mind, anyone who admires Thoreau's life and work will view him with fresh eyes.” —Shelf Awareness

“Sims offers intriguing sidelights and memorable details . . . [he] helps us to see Thoreau as a colorful, crotchety human being.” —Washington Post

“Sims gracefully captures what he calls Thoreau's ‘ecstatic response to nature.'” —Wall Street Journal

“[A] highly readable book . . . draws from an impressively broad range of early writings from those who knew Thoreau personally, and the result is indeed a very human 'Henry' as opposed to, as Sims notes, 'a marble bust of an icon.” —CHOICE

Kirkus Reviews
Delving into the observations of people around Thoreau, such as family, other transcendentalists and townspeople, as well as the famed writer's works, Sims (The Story of Charlotte's Web: E.B. White's Eccentric Life in Nature and the Birth of an American Classic, 2011, etc.) aims to flesh out this uniquely American genius. An ecstatic observer of nature, an admirer of the Native American ways, practical builder and idiot savant, Thoreau was both a local boy schooled in the marvels of the natural scenery of the Concord River and a Harvard-educated scholar; he was erudite yet mocked for his homespun ways. With parents who seemed to have been extremely understanding of their son's unconventional proclivities--his father had made a good living manufacturing pencils; his mother was a vocal opponent to slavery--young Thoreau tried his hand at teaching, like his other siblings, but quit due to the fact that he could not whip the children. Tramping about with his beloved older brother, John, Thoreau also grew more intimate with the "calm and lyrical revolutionary," Ralph Waldo Emerson, who had moved into Concord with his wife and family in 1835 and suggested that the young freethinker keep a journal. While Emerson had a profound effect on Thoreau, the younger man also touched the poet as having "as free & erect a mind as any I have ever met." Their deepening understanding encouraged Emerson's other protégés, like Nathaniel Hawthorne, to overcome their initial criticism of Thoreau's uncouthness, and his generous mentor allowed Thoreau to live in his home and even build a shack on his newly purchased acres around Walden Pond, where Thoreau would reside for two-plus years. Building his chapters with deliberate, sometimes-tertiary detail, Sims creates a sensuous natural environment in which to appreciate his subject, as the "quirky but talented young man named Henry evolve[d] into an original and insightful writer named Thoreau." Ably directs readers back to the primary works of Thoreau and his contemporaries.

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A Young Man's Unlikely Path to Walden Pond



Copyright © 2014 Warren Berger
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-62040-195-8



When Henry was a child, a schoolmate accused him of stealing his knife. Henry knew the culprit's identity, but instead of exposing him he said flatly to his accusers, "I did not take it." A few days later the thief was revealed.

"I knew all the time who it was," said Henry. "The day it was taken I went to Newton with Father."

"Why," demanded his exasperated mother, "did you not say so at the time?"

Staying on his own track, as usual, Henry repeated stubbornly, "I did not take it."

He was a thoughtful boy, considered intelligent and perceptive, even though, after being awarded a school medal for geography, he asked his mother, "Is Boston in Concord?" Once he solemnly asked Phebe Wheeler, mistress of the infant school, "Who owns all the land?" A few years later, Mrs. Wheeler was teaching a private class for older children, mostly girls, and looked up in surprise to find Henry and his older brother John barefoot in the doorway. The public school term had ended and Cynthia Thoreau sent her boys to Mrs Wheeler's so that they might absorb a few more days of knowledge.

Young Henry was not adept at interpreting facial expressions, and often he failed to look at the face of the person with whom he was speaking. Earnest thinking aloud became his hallmark. At the age of three he was told that, like the pious heroes of the catechism, he must someday die. He took the news calmly. Later, however, as he came indoors from sledding, he announced that he did not want to die and go to heaven, because he could not carry his sled with him. Other boys had told him that because the sled's runners were wood instead of iron, it was "not worth a cent." He was used to owning unimpressive toys and clothes. Mrs. Thoreau made John's shirts and pantaloons out of their father's castoffs, and most of Henry's were further handed down from John. The single time he received new boots he was so excited he wore them to bed.

Constrained as usual by the family's shortage of money, Henry once carried a basket of young chickens to be sold to an innkeeper as food. In front of him, in order to immediately return the basket, the man took out one cheeping, fluffy chick at a time and efficiently wrung each fragile neck. The boy showed no emotion. At an early age his solemnity and frequent lack of expression inspired lawyer Samuel Hoar, Concord's leading citizen and a neighbor of the Thoreaus, to nickname Henry "the Judge." His parents said that as a baby he had suffered baptism by the Reverend Ezra Ripley, minister of Concord's First Parish Unitarian Church, without tears.

Stoic one moment, Henry might be timid the next. Thunder would send him running to his parents' room, where he would announce preemptively from the doorway, "I don't feel well." Other village children knew that Henry never let tree or mudbank slow his investigation of anything that sparked his single- minded curiosity, but they also knew that when racing after a quarry he might not pause to help a friend across a ditch. Henry was woven of contradictions. He loved to sing and dance but hated parades.

As a small boy, Henry shared a trundle bed with John, crowded by his longer limbs. Mrs. Thoreau would pull their fl at bed, which rode on casters, out from under the parents' high four-poster. A trundle bed made economical use of a room, especially in rented houses, with two sleeping areas stacked in the space of one and the lower tucked out of sight during the day. Its lat drawerlike structure, however, couldn't accommodate a full straw or feather mattress and wound up padded only with blankets, barely superior to a pallet on the floor.

After a day of exploring outdoors, the boys would tumble into their hard bed and soon John would be fast asleep. Henry, in contrast, often lay awake thinking or daydreaming. Once Mrs. Thoreau came back upstairs long after putting the boys to bed, only to find Henry lying beside his sleeping brother and staring out through the parted curtains at the clear night sky.

"Why, Henry dear," she exclaimed, "why don't you go to sleep?"

"I have been looking through the stars, to see if I couldn't see God behind them."

As they grew older, skinny John became the handsome brother, with his sisters' wavy brown hair and large dark eyes. His rounder, less pronounced features usually wore an open expression seldom seen on Henry's solemn, big-nosed face. John was more popular, not awkward or difficult as Henry could be. Both were imaginative, trusting children, as were their sisters Helen and Sophia. Helen (born only five months after her parents' wedding in 1812) was five years older than Henry, John two years older, and Sophia two years younger.

Each Christmas Eve, Mrs. Thoreau reminded them to hang their clean stockings on the hearth. During the night, she explained, Santa Claus, a generous and good-natured sprite who lies through the air astride a broomstick, would come down the chimney. On Christmas morning naughty children found a stocking stuffed with a rotten potato, a letter of reprimand from Santa, and possibly even a rod with which they might be whipped. Once John's Christmas dreams were smashed by the discovery of a stinking potato and a letter, which he was too young to read, so he had to suffer through someone else's recital of his faults. The rod, however, was too small for use, so clearly it was intended as a warning. Good children, in contrast—and most of the time John was considered a well-behaved child, perhaps especially after this warning from above—could look forward to a stocking sagging with sweet-scented doughnuts and sugarplums. One year John determined to wait up for this elusive benefactor. He slumped in a low chair by the fireplace, staring up the chimney, and kept his eyes open a full hour after his usual bedtime. The next morning he woke in his own bed to discover that Santa crept in after the sentinel dozed.

On Christmas as well as Thanksgiving, Mrs. Thoreau invited poor neighbors and friends to join her family for a modest holiday repast. Although few people gave significant gifts, Christmas was slowly gaining in importance as a holiday. In December 1823, two days before Henry's sixth Christmas, an anonymous poem called "A Visit from St. Nicholas" appeared in the Troy, New York, Sentinel. It was widely reprinted. The author—later identified as Clement Clark Moore—borrowed details from the traditional British notion of Father Christmas and the American idea of Santa Claus, both of which drew upon folklore inspired by the generosity of the historical fourth-century Saint Nikolaos of Myra. Moore also drew from Washington Irving's vivid sketch of St. Nicholas in his 1809 History of New York, which Irving had published under one of his pen names, Diedrich Knickerbocker.

Many people, however, were unfamiliar with the idea of Santa Claus. Christmas was not an official holiday. At school on one Christmas Day, the Thoreau children asked a girl what sort of treats Santa Claus had brought her. She didn't understand the question. Patiently the boys explained the rewards they had received, and even showed her some of the candy. Her father was a shop owner, the skeptical girl replied, and she had watched Mrs. Thoreau purchase that candy only the day before. Outraged, disbelieving, Henry and John raced home after school to interrogate their mother. She confessed all. The children never again hung up their stockings and never again found sugarplums and doughnuts on Christmas morning.

Henry enunciated R's with a Gallic burr. His father's family hailed from Jersey of the Normandy coast, source of the French surname whose accent in the New World had migrated from the second to the first syllable, evolving into thorough. They led the French-dominated island after Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes in 1685, making Protestantism again illegal, and in time Henry's grandsire became a privateer along the Atlantic coast of North America. One neighbor who knew the Thoreau ancestry considered Henry's quiet tradesman father not only a gentleman but a French one, from snuff box to shrug. French support during the Revolutionary War lent cachet to their lineage, and nothing enlivened a family tree like the pirate that Henry's grandfather had been.

Christened David Henry, he was named for his father's brother David, who died a few weeks after Henry's birth on the twelfth of July 1817. He was born in an upstairs bedroom that faced the sunrise, in the home of his mother's mother, Mary Jones Dunbar Minot, in quiet farmland between the Concord River and the Lexington Road. A second family occupied the other end of the house. An old building of unpainted gray boards, with a steep roof that almost touched the ground in the rear, it stood alone by the winding Virginia Road, a mile and a half east of Concord. Cynthia grew up there. Her father died when she was a child and she was raised by her mother and grandmother. Her grandmother told how her second husband, Captain Jonas Minot, would leave a glass of fresh milk on the night-stand beside their bed, for when he woke during the night—until one morning she rose to find the glass still full and Jonas cold beside her.

The house stood on a grassy, unfenced plot amid sprawling meadows and peat bogs, facing a brook that ran into the nearby Shawsheen River, a tributary of the Merrimack. During the day, at home with three children, Cynthia could hear little other than birdsong, grasshopper buzz, the gabble of geese, and the lazy sound of cattle lowing. She felt less lonely when she heard a neighbor cheerfully whistling to his team of oxen. Night was even more still. Sometimes Cynthia got up long after dark and sat on the doorstep, where the loudest sound was in the house behind her—a clock counting the hurrying minutes.

Beginning in 1818, when Henry was little more than a year old, the family lived in Boston and such suburbs as Chelmsford. Mr. Thoreau worked as a sign painter, sold groceries, and—after getting a license that required a character testimonial from Reverend Ripley back in Concord—sold ardent spirits. He also worked in nearby Salem with an inventor and chemist named Joseph Dixon, who had recently begun making pencils.

The family moved back to Concord in the spring of 1822, a few months before Henry turned five. One of his earliest memories was a vision of a beautiful lake that his family took him to visit shortly afterward. Called Walden Pond, it was about half a mile wide and three-quarters of a mile long, surrounded by hills clothed in thick woods, pine sprinkled with oak and maple. After the sometimes frightening bustle and clamor of Boston—Henry was sensitive to noise—he loved the pond's quiet seclusion, where only sunshine and shadow seemed to vary a stilled, enchanted landscape. He began to daydream about this haven as if he had read of it in a fable.

To many residents, the village of Concord lived up to its name—a harmonious setting, if lacking grandeur. The Sudbury and Assabet meandered through meadow and bog, finally uniting to form the Concord River. Its wandering course provided no sandy shores, permitting meadows to grow to the edge. As a boy, Henry loved the fields and woods beside the river and considered the land itself generous. Walnut and chestnut trees rained nuts for easy gathering. Thorny briars of sweet blackberries crowded the roadsides, and the pastures were fringed with huckleberry bushes. Henry could not resist berries and ate his way along many a pathless hillside. This bountiful land and gentle confluence had drawn both Indians and Europeans. In early days, the fur trade thrived on a dense population of beaver, marten, fox, and otter. Moose and bears were plentiful. Descendants of settlers who organized wolf hunts, Concord farmers now thronged to cattle shows.

Often the Thoreaus took their children on picnics to Walden Pond, Fair Haven Pond, Nawshawtuct Hill, and the banks of the Assabet. Shorter jaunts led to the copse between Main Street and the river. On these outings the children—Helen, the oldest, then John and Henry, and finally little Sophia—explored the woods while John Senior and Cynthia built up a temporary stone fireplace and started a fire and cooked supper. It was said around Concord that tall, talkative Cynthia was so determined to imbue her children with a love of the outdoors that one of her offspring came close to being born on Nawshawtuct Hill.

For the first three years back in Concord the Thoreaus lived in a handsome brick house on Main Street owned by Deacon Parkman, next door to Judge Samuel Hoar. Henry's father enjoyed village life. His family had first moved to Concord at the turn of the century, when he was around twelve, and he knew its business as well as anyone—including past business, because he researched the history of the region. He liked to sit with friends at the post office or in a shop and read the newspaper and discuss the world. He recalled family history—how when very young he would eat breakfast with his father, the son eating the bottom half of a biscuit, the father the top; how he apprenticed to a cooper whose business was later destroyed by the Revolutionary War; and how his own father described a cannonball striking so close by that it cast sand into his face.

While Henry's father enjoyed sitting quietly and talking about the past, Henry raced around with boyish energy. He loved the first ball games of early spring, cavorting in the russet fields near Sleepy Hollow as the last snow melted into mud. When not playing snap-the-whip or the knife game mumble-the- peg, Concord boys played chaotic, rule-free ball games, including a version of cricket. They could learn to swim at Thayer's swimming hole, with its gravel beach that gently slanted for twenty or thirty feet down into the water, and afterward sprawl on the bank and exchange insults while the sun dried them. Forced indoors by rain or snow, they could turn to backgammon, hunt-the-slipper, and blind man's buff.

Despite occasional illnesses, Henry's adventurous childhood led him to think of himself as strong and resilient, and he was impatient with those less rugged. As they grew, the Thoreau boys' free-roaming lives invited adventure. They were good friends with two of their schoolmates, the Hosmer brothers from rural Derby's Bridge—Benjamin and Joseph. Ben especially was close to them, stealing whatever time he could from his apprenticeship to a shoemaker. Black-haired, black-eyed Ben was a restless, wiry boy whom Henry and John enviously considered the best whistler, runner, and stone thrower they knew. Ben also wore a reputation for courage. Once, when he and friends were chased across a field by an angry bull, Ben turned on it and, like David facing Goliath, flung a stone that hit it between the eyes so hard it staggered and fell to the ground. Another time, a friend who couldn't swim fell into a pond and panicked. Although he didn't know how to swim either, young Ben grasped a mooring loop on the boat dock, slipped into the water, and awkwardly maneuvered around until his friend could grab Ben's legs and pull himself out of the water.

The Hosmer boys ate many meals at the Thoreau house and sometimes spent the night. Mrs. Thoreau remarked that whenever she heard doors slamming or found them left open, she would soon hear one of her boys call out, "Ben has come, Mother!"

Young people were charmed by Henry's talkative and welcoming mother, who was renowned for her sweet puddings and pies, and quiet John Senior was a tradesman with the gracious manners of a gentleman. During lean times, meat might not be seen on the Thoreau table, but there was always a wide array of vegetables from the garden and the melon patch, as well as aromatic fruit. The scent of Mrs. Thoreau's fresh bread filled the house. When her daughters were young, she removed luxuries such as sugar, tea, and coffee from the weekday menu, and with the savings funded their piano lessons.

Some mornings Henry and John would grab food for a picnic lunch, explain to their mother that they would not be home until dark, and race outdoors with their friends. At nightfall they came trudging back. Usually they were mud-splashed and tired, full of stories about what they had seen at Egg Rock or Fairhaven Hill or even four miles away at Lincoln, or perhaps on the waters of the nearby Sudbury River or Walden Pond.


Excerpted from THE ADVENTURES OF HENRY THOREAU by MICHAEL SIMS. Copyright © 2014 Warren Berger. Excerpted by permission of BLOOMSBURY.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Michael Sims is the author of the acclaimed The Story of Charlotte's Web, Apollo's Fire: A Day on Earth in Nature and Imagination, Adam's Navel: A Natural and Cultural History of the Human Form, and editor of Dracula's Guest: A Connoisseur's Collection of Victorian Vampire Stories and The Dead Witness: A Connoisseur's Collection of Victorian Detective Stories. He lives in western Pennsylvania.

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