History of the Thoreau Society

Thoreau's cabin site

Thoreau's cairn at Walden pond

Ellery Channing astutely noted that Thoreau's "senses lived twice," by which he meant both that Thoreau had the pleasure of original sight, sound, and touch, and that there was a later experience of memory preserved in his writing.  Channing knew that Thoreau believed that what has been preserved can live again. From Thoreau's time to ours, many individuals—acting separately and collectively—have worked to preserve the details of Concord as Thoreau knew and loved it and to pursue the meanings that he found in the physical world.  Preservation was a potent word for him, for it meant literally to protect the wild, and, at the same time, to hand down a way of seeing and thinking about the Concord landscape.

The first and best-known landscape marker dedicated to Thoreau’s memory is the cairn that Bronson Alcott and Mary Newbury Adams originated in June of 1872.  "The tribute thus rendered to our friend may, as the years pass, become a pile to his memory," wrote Alcott.  He was right: the cairn has been a pilgrim’s shrine almost since its first stone was placed, as the photographic record shows.  In 1881, Walt Whitman added his stone in memory of the man who had early recognized the New Yorker’s genius.  Fittingly, when the Thoreau Society was organized in July of 1941, its members made a similar pilgrimage, as visitors still do today.  

 Unlike the cabin, Thoreau’s bean-field had no cairn, for its exact location remained surprisingly obscure.  The late Bradley P. Dean’s work on the field at Walden suggests how the existence of rich subject collections has preserved key knowledge from one person to another, often from one generation to another.  For a number of years, Concord residents worried that the general area known as the "bean-field" was endangered by urban development, but no one knew precisely what the field’s boundaries were.  Herbert Gleason and Allen French worked to make a more precise determination, but Dean brought everything together.  Starting with Thoreau’s own descriptions in Walden and in his letters and then moving from Edward Waldo Emerson’s 1920 letter to Harry A. McGraw in the Thoreau Society collections to letters, photographs, and clippings among Ruth Wheeler’s papers at the Concord Free Public Library, Dean was able to document the location of the bean-field.  Appropriately, he published the results of his investigation in one of the society’s publications, the Concord Saunterer, in the issue celebrating the sesquicentennial of the appearance of Walden. 

But a physical marker like the cairn or a discovery like that of the actual boundary of the bean-field represents only one means of recognizing and perpetuating the significance of place.  Those who were closest to Thoreau -- Emerson, Ellery Channing, Sophia Thoreau and H. G. O. Blake -- carefully preserved his manuscripts, thus beginning a tradition of the discovery and rediscovery of the original sources that embody Thoreau’s response to the landscape.  At sessions of the Concord School of Philosophy during the 1880s, Blake read passages from volumes of Thoreau’s manuscript journal to audiences composed of both Concordians and pilgrims drawn to the town by the promise of high thinking.  And as early as October 25, 1895 -- when some seventy-five people (among them George Bradford Bartlett, Alfred Winslow Hosmer, Frank Sanborn, Walton Ricketson, and Kate Tryon) met at the Sudbury Road studio of sculptor Daniel Chester French specifically to share reminiscences about Thoreau -- those with a particular interest in the author have sought opportunity to talk about his life, work, and world.  Such activities, along with the letters, memoirs, and essays of collegial Thoreauvians, have furthered the development, transmission, and interpretation of the documentary record.

The essay above on Thoreau's cabin site was extracted from the exhibition text for the collaborative Concord Free Public Library / Thoreau Society display "Reconstructing Thoreau's World," which was on view in the CFPL gallery from October through December 2007.  Permission to quote at length must be obtained from both the Library and the Society.

HuckleberryThoreau Society Formed, 1941 

A major collective effort came in July of 1941, when a mixed group of academics and enthusiasts joined forces to found the Thoreau Society, which is today the oldest and largest single-author society in the United States.  Since its founding, members of the society have come together once a year in Concord to discuss Thoreau’s ideas and their lasting importance, as earlier Concordians did.  In addition to the gatherings, the society has published occasional books and pamphlets written by its members, augmenting the written record that continues in its two periodical publications (The Thoreau Society Bulletin and The Concord Saunterer).  This record celebrates and enlarges our understanding of Thoreau’s legacy and of the world he inhabited.

From the first days of the Thoreau Society, the organization’s members have devoted themselves to the exploration and preservation of knowledge of the Thoreauvian landscape through the active collection of documentation.  Founding members such as academics Walter Harding and Raymond Adams (who taught at the State University of New York at Geneseo and the University of North Carolina, respectively) and local historians and Concord residents Ruth Robinson Wheeler and Allen French all gathered research materials about Thoreau’s world and made sure that information within was transmitted to those who had need for or interest in it.  As part of the collections of the Thoreau Society and of the William Munroe Special Collections, the materials that these and other Thoreauvians assembled -- including manuscripts, printed items, photographs, and ephemera -- continue to promote the passage of landscape information from one person to another. 

Walter Harding

The Thoreau Society has more than once actively sought to preserve the pond and woods that Thoreau made famous.  Beginning in 1957, for example, it made a mighty attempt to keep the Middlesex County Commissioners from despoiling Walden by building a bathhouse and establishing a large new swimming beach on the northeast shore of the pond.  Arriving in Concord for the society’s Annual Gathering that year, members were stunned to find that one hundred and fifty trees had been cut down, soil pushed out into the pond, and a road for ambulance access cut.  They mobilized to form the Save Walden Committee.  Chaired by Gladys Hosmer of Concord, the committee fought the expensive and nationally publicized "Battle of Red Cross Beach" for three years.  Finally, in 1960, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled that the county had acted against the terms of the gift of Walden property to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts by the Emerson family and other donors.  That struggle shows that dedicated people will not easily surrender the landscape to destruction.  But for such efforts to succeed, subsequent generations require the support of rich and varied documentation like that held by the Thoreau Society and the Concord Free Public Library to create an accurate and convincing picture of the historic landscape and its importance.  The person-to-person transmission of information through documentation, then, possesses a more than academic dimension -- a relevance to environmental activism as well as usefulness for scholarship.