Re-Thinking Thoreau: Between the Lines of His Life and Work

“There is a difference between a person’s “recorded” history… and their “lived” history.” Ann Fessler, Author/Artist

A little-known dark side exists to Henry David Thoreau most historians avoid when describing the life of this notable literary figure. Thoreau’s books have rightfully established his image as a loner marching to the beat of a different drum, an advocate of civilized disobedience against injustice, and as the 19th-century nature writer whose research helped launch the environmental movement.

Yet, from our vantage point more than 150 years after his passing, false assumptions surrounding Thoreau’s life and work have swelled into an erroneous folklore. For example, many Thoreau admirers believe Henry David Thoreau was a famous author in his day, and that he dropped out of society and went deep in the woods to live off the land. They also presume he could freely choose a site at Walden Pond and build a small cabin for himself where, in peaceful solitude, he wrote his book, Walden. Inaccuracies such as these, and others, sit at the foundation of what has become our modern Thoreau “mythology.” More significantly, an even bigger issue has been kept out of the public eye regarding the state of Henry’s mental health.

In the shadows of his more popular writings, Henry Thoreau left behind over twenty years of extensive daily journals, and in those private reflections he confessed to frequent episodes of a depression so crippling more than once it brought him to the brink of suicide. Not unlike countless people today, young and older, Henry had difficulties with self-esteem, personal relationships, social acceptance, and mood disorders. We’ve all seen upbeat, inspirational Thoreau quotes printed on a variety of products, but Henry’s journals contain some shocking thoughts not likely to be considered for bumper stickers or t-shirts. His January 16, 1843 entry disclosed a surprising cheerlessness: “What am I at present? A more miserable object one could not well imagine.” And on January 15, 1857 Henry gave us a peek at his tendency for the morbid: We are all ordinarily in a state of desperation; such is our life; oft-times it drives us to suicide.” Many disturbing comments haunt the pages of Thoreau’s journals.

Without a doubt, this aspect of Thoreau’s character must have influenced his writing in some way, and when we learn a veiled undercurrent of melancholy occasionally flows through his prose and philosophy, we need to take that into account when attempting to understand him.

Facts and Falsehoods

As a starting point for sorting out fiction from fact, during his lifetime (1817–1862), Thoreau was not famous. Any success or notoriety he achieved while alive was minimal at best. It would take more than a half-century after Thoreau’s death for his writing to just begin to be recognized as the masterpieces they are.

As far as the loner-living-in-the-woods legend goes, Thoreau did not entirely drop out of society nor did he go deep into the woods to live off the land. Walden certainly gives that impression, but Walden Pond was only a twenty-minute walk from Thoreau’s family home in Concord Village. Concord natives living at that time mention in their letters and diaries that Henry frequently went home for meals, visited friends, took extended trips and dined at the homes of locals during the years he lived at Walden Pond. He also needed employment while at Walden and was occasionally hired as surveyor, gardener and house painter, as well as continuing to struggle as an unrecognized, novice writer.

Another thing to consider: Could any of us today go to a random lake or pond and take it upon ourselves to clear land and build a cabin without permission from the owner of the land? Of course not. Be assured, this “real estate” fact was just as valid in 1845 as it is in our time. The truth is, Thoreau had to rent the land where he built his cabin.

But the most universal fallacy about Thoreau is the widespread assumption that while he lived at Walden Pond he wrote his celebrated book, Walden. Not true! Thoreau did not write Walden while living at Walden Pond. He wrote an entirely different book while he was there. Henry didn’t write Walden until several years after the time he spent at the pond basing that book on notes and recollections he gathered during his stay.

Emotional Imbalances

Professor Arnold Weinstein explains how easy it is for us to look back and imagine Thoreau writing “in peaceful solitude” at Walden Pond. He says, “There is something deeply seductive about finding a “free space” beyond culture.” The truth is, however, Henry’s hibernation at the pond was never intended to be a passive vacation or retreat. Thoreau clearly states in his book that he went to Walden, “…to transact some private business,” and several historians now agree Henry’s “private business” was to separate himself from social distractions to resolve a serious despondency that was consuming him. In short, one of the main reasons Thoreau withdrew to the woods was to find a way to reconstruct his life.

Modern-day medical experts have used Thoreau’s journals to build a “personality profile” of Henry, a way to listen to him talk about his life. In their after-the-fact assessments of Thoreau, psychologists Richard LeBeaux and Raymond Gozzi, psychiatrist Michael Sperber and others have concluded he suffered from severe bi-polar disorder, post-traumatic stress, mood swings, underlying depression, and struggles with his sexual orientation. And…we have evidence Henry was fully aware of these disturbances. Here, in his January 7, 1857 journal entry, Thoreau self-diagnosed his psychological imbalance: “My waking experience always has been, and is such, an alternate Rough and Smooth. In other words…it is Sanity and Insanity.”

The point here is not to paint a negative picture of Thoreau. Actually, when Henry was on the upside of his manic-depressive temperament he displayed an astounding sense of optimism and wisdom, an aspect of his writing that has always resonated with readers.

Dr. Sperber brightens the analysis further by telling us, “Despite the mental afflictions Thoreau suffered beginning in childhood, he maintained a positive attitude. Although Thoreau was severely depressed at times, it was never for long. Thoreau was challenge- oriented. Whatever did not destroy him he believed, would contribute to his strengths.”

Rock Bottom

Henry lived during a time when medical attention and prescription drugs were not available to those struggling with their emotions. Out of necessity, then, he needed to find a way to meet the “challenge” of his misery. Henry didn’t do this alone; he had the help and support of a mentor.

Seven years in Thoreau’s life, from 1840 through 1847, were pivotal in his psychic salvation. Between the ages of 21 and 28, Henry was in a state of continual deterioration. Any one of his troubles taken alone would have been manageable, but the layering of multiple anxieties proved to be too much for him to handle. Denial was not an option.

Henry found if he ignored what was upsetting him, the related emotions would somehow resurface at a later time as over-reactions to other, unrelated events. The sudden loss of his brother John in 1842 was the cataclysmic event that broke Henry’s spirit. At that point, his downward spiral progressed for many months in a seemingly unstoppable plummet to rock bottom.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, Henry was fortunate to have the nationally-known author/philosopher, Ralph Waldo Emerson, fourteen years his senior, as a neighbor and family friend. In fact, during and after Thoreau’s college years Emerson was Henry’s private writing coach. In poet Robert Bly’s Iron John: A Book About Men, Bly explores the cross-cultural history of how boys have been initiated into maturity since the earliest times. Many ancient societies believed young men needed the efforts and active intervention of older men to transition into adulthood. By the 19th century this aspect of social development was losing ground, and subsequently such guidance was lacking in Thoreau’s home. Emerson would be the one to step in and become the male authority figure to guide Henry out of this period.

Emerson witnessed first-hand the slow decline of his promising disciple, and he sensed Henry needed to get away from a trying home life and into different surroundings. In 1841 he offered Thoreau a live-in job at his home in Concord, and Henry accepted. There he worked as handyman and domestic aid as well as sitter to Emerson’s young children. In exchange, Henry was furnished with a room, fed, and most importantly, provided with the time and environment to focus on his writing. Years earlier, at the beginning of Emerson’s tutorial work with Henry, he suggested Henry keep a daily journal. Journal writing gave Henry an early glimpse of his special talent for self-expression and introduced him to the powers writing held for releasing feelings.

Healing at Walden Pond

Henry’s journals reveal a long-time aspiration he had to some day camp by a pond or lake, and in that tranquility, study and document the natural world. Emerson in all likelihood was aware of Henry’s dream, and this may have prompted his purchase of land along the shores of Walden Pond. The timing of the purchase is suspicious. Emerson bought the parcel in the autumn of 1844, and in the spring of 1845 he offered to rent the property to Henry giving him permission to build a private live/work cabin on the banks of the pond. Their rental agreement was for Henry to clear brush and trees from the lot and plant a bean field, then turn the harvest over to Emerson who would sell the crops at market and retain the profits. This convenient arrangement gave Henry the mornings to work in the bean field, and the afternoons and evenings for the cultivation of his writing.

It did not happen over night, but within a few months of living at Walden, Henry had a breakthrough. Rather than write about nature, as he originally planned, his first project was a book-length memorial to his deceased brother John recalling in detail their boating trip a few summers before John’s passing. A Week on the Concord and Merrimac Rivers is the book Henry wrote while residing at Walden Pond.

It was a way for Henry to be with his brother once again and to relive the time they spent together during that summer voyage. With Emerson’s influence, Henry had learned how to “write-out” the grief in his heart and send it off to live inside a work of art instead.

Henry was hooked. He poured himself into his writing and found it eased his mental blocks and opened him up to life. Whatever troubled Henry on any given day was exorcised from his emotional life and exiled to the written word. The tactic worked so well, Thoreau became hyper-graphic for the remainder of his life.

Thoreau’s Example

Not only limited to those who are writers, projecting personal concerns into any type of work, as Henry did, has proven medical and psychological benefits. We can channel confidential, negative emotional material into any creative, heart-felt act, into and through anything we produce or create. It does work. We must keep in mind this remedy is not meant as a cure-all for what we now understand is a complicated disorder, but learning to transfer some of our inner hurt into outer handiwork can be one more tool in an ongoing process.

Every year new books about Henry David Thoreau are released, those added to the hundreds of other Thoreau-related books published over the past fifty or sixty years. Why? What is the attraction? One answer may lie in his mystique. Henry did not blatantly announce his private intentions in his writing. Again, most likely at Emerson’s guidance, he wisely buried his true thoughts and feelings between the lines. As a result, successive generations of readers continue to try to decipher Thoreau.

Bly tells us when a young person is properly initiated into maturity, into a culture or society, his or her deepest “inner pains” will turn out to be the source of their greatest gift to civilization. In Thoreau’s case, seven years after his therapeutic stay at Walden Pond, his book Walden was published. Written in the frame of mind and from the point of view of one who had risen from the depths of darkness and returned to the land of the living, the theme, or gift, of Walden is an open invitation for readers to follow Henry’s lead. Thoreau suggests his readers to “wake up” to who they are and to what really matters in life. Our, “…true reform can be undertaken any morning before unbarring our doors,” he tells us. At the close of Walden Henry concludes, “Only that day dawns to which we are awake.” In other words, the day we acknowledge our difficulties.

It’s important we consider the example Henry set for us by recognizing he had a problem and taking the initiative to reform his health. When one person takes steps to heal, our entire human race benefits, as the world-changing effects of Thoreau’s influence confirms. Professor Weinstein believes, “Walden is about the making of a human being. It’s about the making, or the re-making, of Henry David Thoreau.”

“Everybody is looking for a way to change the world,” says Eckhart Tolle. “Well,” he adds, “…you can not change the world until there is a change in your own state of consciousness. Nothing is more important than that.”

Henry must have been on the same page of this theory when he wrote in Walden, “I can do two-thirds of the reform of the world…myself.” Now there’s a quote for a t-shirt!

Works Cited

Bly, Robert, Iron John: A Book About Men. NY, NY: Random House, 1990.

Gozzi, Raymond D., (ed.), Thoreau’s Psychology: Eight Essays. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1983. Lebeaux, Richard, Young Man Thoreau. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 1975.

Sperber, Michael, Henry David Thoreau: Cycles and Psyche. Higganum, CT: Higganum Hill Books, 2004. Thoreau, Henry David, The Journal of Hendry D. Thoreau. NY, NY: Dover Publications, 1962.

Thoreau, Henry David, Walden. Hertfordshire, UK: Wordsworth American Library, 1995.

Tolle, Eckhart. The Power of Presence, “Practicing Presence.” Louisville, CO: Sounds True, 2018.

Weinstein, Arnold, “Walden: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow,” (audio lecture). Chantilly, VA: The Teaching Co., 1997.

Weinstein, Arnold, Morning, Noon, and Night: Finding the Meaning of Life’s Stages Through Books. NY, NY: Random House, 2011.

Additional Works Referenced

Canby, Henry Seidel, Thoreau. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin/Riverside Press, 1939. Harding, Walter/Meltzer, Milton, A Thoreau Profile. Lincoln, MA: The Thoreau Society, 1998.

Johnson, Linck C., Thoreau’s Complex Weave: The Writing of “A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers”. Charlottesville, VA: The University Press of Virginia, 1986.

Johnson, Robert A., Owning Your Own Shadow: Understanding the Dark Side of the Psyche. NY, NY: Harper Collins, 1991. Myerson, Joel, (ed.), A Cambridge Companion to Henry David Thoreau. NY, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1995. Paul, Sherman, The Shores of America: Thoreau’s Inward Exploration. Chicago, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1972


John Roman

John Roman is the author of The Art of Illustrated Maps (Simon & Schuster/HOW Books, 2015), as well as an award-winning illustrator. He’s written for Communication Arts magazine, The Artist’s Magazine, Drawing, Professional Artist, Print, The Concord Saunterer (an annual journal of Thoreau-related studies) and has been teaching at Boston’s Massachusetts College of Art and Design since 1993. Roman’s “Re-Thinking Thoreau” is part of a larger Henry David Thoreau project in progress. See John’s work at: johnromanillustration.com