The Days of Henry Thoreau: A 50th Anniversary Retrospective

The cover of "The Days of Henry Thoreau" by Walter Harding

I am delighted to join in this celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the appearance of Walter Harding’s The Days of Henry Thoreau: A Biography. Like many of my generation who engaged in undergraduate and graduate studies in American history or literature during the late 1960s and early 1970s, I initially met Thoreau in Walden, “Civil Disobedience” (then better known as “Resistance to Civil Government”), and “Walking,” as well as in occasional anthologized snippets from A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, Cape Cod, The Maine Woods, or—a true rarity—in brief encounters with his poems. Then, Harding’s The Days of Henry Thoreau came along in 1965 and was subsequently reprinted with revisions in 1970, 1982, and 1992. Whereas most classroom treatments of Thoreau prior to the 1960s depicted him as a second-rank (or worse) Transcendentalist in comparison with Ralph Waldo Emerson, Harding drew attention to his admirable powers of observation, his devotion to natural history and the environment, and, most especially, his commitment to a variety of social reform that emerged principally in concert with an individual’s personal inner reform. His biography thus served my generation as our first serious scholarly introduction to Thoreau as a genius worthy of our attention in his own right. Indeed, Harding’s version of Thoreau quickly became that of a man literally for our season. In those tortured years that encompassed the Vietnam War, for example, the model of Thoreau’s principled stand in “Civil Disobedience” informed and justified the antiwar and anti-military industrial complex activism of young Americans born at the close of, or shortly after, World War II; during those same years, Walden and any number of Thoreau’s natural history writings served as the needed historical context to justify the call to environmental activism to which Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962) summoned us.

Harding’s own account, in the Introduction to the volume, of his approach to the writing of Days illustrates at once the depth of his commitment to Thoreau as a figure Americans needed to prize and the depth of Harding’s own authorial character as a writer of biography. As an archivist who researched Thoreau’s life through manuscript holdings in various repositories or in private hands, and as an engaged founder of the society that bears Thoreau’s name, Harding, a distinguished professor in every sense, intentionally wrote Days against the grain of the easy and too often laughable classroom dismissals of Thoreau’s importance as an American for our time. I distinctly recall one American literature undergraduate course in the mid 1960s in which the professor stated that Thoreau was a “dangerous man,” not only for his rejection of “work” as essential to the formation of American character and culture, but also for his “pretense” at advocating for a type of radical individualism and a form of simplified living that elevated individual will and thought above the interests of society in order to win an audience for himself. For this professor, still entrenched in American literary history as reported in the 1930s, Emerson was nineteenth-century America’s one and only real public intellectual; for Harding, who quotes Thoreau’s journal for March 25, 1842, to the effect that, “Great persons are not soon learned, not even their outlines, but they change like mountains in the horizon as we ride along,” Days served as his opportunity to observe on our behalf a “particularly notable mountain” in the brief but impressive everyday life of Henry Thoreau. Walter Harding canoeing the Concord River, circa 1969. Courtesy of the Thoreau Society Collections at the Thoreau Institute

Defining his subject as “Thoreau the man,” Harding rejects the apocryphal legends that, unfortunately, still abound in Thoreau mythology in favor of facts; in Days, he repeatedly says that he does not write to prove any particular thesis concerning his subject, but, rather, to allow facts about Thoreau’s life, character, and writings to speak for themselves. Thus, for the first time in modern accounts of Thoreau, The Days of Henry Thoreau presented us with a highly complex person whose thoughts and actions, including those fraught with inconsistencies, illustrated the processes of a life lived according to the “Know thyself” principle of Socratic philosophy in concert with the “Trust thyself” principle of Stoicism. Hardly the cold, socially withdrawn, unemotional eccentric that he had been characterized as so often, most notable about the Thoreau that Harding serves us is a figure whose demonstrable humanity won him friends and followers in his time to an extent that demands remembrance and emulation in our own. Without Harding saying so, in tone Days and the life it captures unfold humanely and conversationally much in the vein of a brand of pedagogy that the professor I recalled above never bothered to master.

Before The Days of Henry Thoreau appeared in print, perceptions of Thoreau’s life drawn narrowly from his writings, as opposed to hard biographical scholarship on Thoreau as a subject, fundamentally shaped Americans’ understanding of his life and its relation to his work. The few modern exceptions to this characterization that appeared in print prior to Days include Joseph Wood Krutch’s Henry David Thoreau (1948), Leo Stoller’s After Walden: Thoreau’s Changing Views on Economic Man (1957), and Sherman Paul’s The Shores of America: Thoreau’s Inward Exploration (1958). Yet notwithstanding these significant earlier approaches to Thoreau’s life and work, the distinction that Harding’s work enjoys over them is that it is the first to treat the entire Thoreau, emphasizing the reality of a man whose literal days stretched from his birth to his death but whose life consisted of a seamless interplay of works and days as one, much in the vein of Hesiod’s Works and Days. Harding’s Days consequently becomes a chronology of Thoreau’s everyday experiences that captures and illustrates the evolution of his thought and personal aspirations; his commonplace engagement with his neighbors and other contemporaries—both the famous and the obscure—as well as with nature, science, history, philosophy, politics, and Asian sources that ultimately informed his metaphysics; his literal and figurative surveying of humankind and the larger landscape around him; and the activism born of conscience with which he sized up and worked to improve the America struggling through the heady times that characterized national progress in the mid-nineteenth century as well as in those times of shame, which Thoreau believed would always call genuine progress into question as long as slavery, excessive devotion to capitalism, and concepts such as Manifest Destiny were invoked to measure the progress of American life.

There is no overstatement in saying that the appearance of The Days of Henry Thoreau in print inspired in a generation of scholars and their students a desire to approach Thoreau’s life and works in dramatically new contexts. More than any earlier treatment of Thoreau’s principal works, Harding’s reliance on Thoreau’s journal, for instance, opened an avenue previously unexplored in detail by scholars other than editors into the inner workings of his subject’s mind and his ongoing daily activities, and, at the same time, the journal provided extensive background for appreciating Thoreau’s literary productions as extensions of his work as a scholar and naturalist whose texts emerged out of his own immersion in nature. Similarly, Harding’s reliance on archival research demonstrated for scholars and students how newly accessioned manuscripts, particularly correspondence, memoirs, and remembrances by Thoreau or his contemporaries, offered excitingly fresh avenues into the subtleties of Thoreau’s life and personality and enhanced opportunities for new readings of his major writings. Developing these lines of inquiry for the first time, the then nascent and now ongoing Princeton edition of the Writings of Henry D. Thoreau (1971–) was provided a model for documentation that insisted upon sound biography being as crucial to the editorial enterprise as were the theories of Fredson Bowers or W.W. Greg; a scholar such as Richard Lebeaux could feel intellectually empowered to perform an extended Eriksonian analysis of early Thoreau’s inner life in Young Man Thoreau (1977); and, certainly, in the most impressive biography of Thoreau that followed upon Harding’s, Robert D. Richardson’s Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind (1986) developed the trajectory of Thoreau’s intellectual life in prose that showed readers exactly how Thoreau’s mind was shaped by his contemporary and more distant sources in philosophy and ethics, science, and natural history. Even Harding continued to press forward with new readings of Thoreau; in his “Afterword to the 1992 Edition” of The Days of Henry Thoreau, where he humanely explored his subject’s sexuality in some depth, Thoreau was introduced into the theoretical discussions of gender and sexual preference that were then emerging in humanistic and social science disciplines.

Reflecting on the personal experience of his long study of Thoreau, Walter Harding once remarked that he remained perennially struck by his subject’s “aliveness.” For sure, his thirty years’ engagement with The Days of Henry Thoreau: A Biography made that aliveness tangible for Harding, but since its first appearance in 1965 through its final revised edition in 1992 this biography has also created the conditions for almost two full generations of its readers to experience Thoreau’s aliveness for themselves and put into writing and practice their own encounters with one of the nineteenth century’s most remarkable Americans. One has only to glance at the annual bibliographies that report new publications on Transcendentalism to appreciate how Thoreau has assumed a prominent center-stage position in all accounts of that movement and how gifted teachers, readers, and scholars continue to celebrate his inward and outward explorations and their relevance for our own time.

Ronald A. Bosco is Distinguished Research Professor of English and American Literature at the State University of New York at Albany. A past-president of the Thoreau Society (2000–2004), he is the founder and first chairman of the Friends of Walden Pond, an outreach activity of the Thoreau Society in collaboration with the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation (2001–2005). He received the Thoreau Society Medal in 2004.