Meet Thoreau: Henry Writes His Story

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Henry was a prolific writer, and a perfectionist, too. He had a regular routine of starting with field notes and converting his writing to journal entries, then to lectures, then to essays, and finally to books.

In this section, you will learn about Henry the writer and the process of creation and revision that resulted in Walden. You'll also learn more facts about Henry and unravel the misconception that Thoreau misled readers in Walden.


PencilsHow did Henry become a writer?

"'What are you doing now?' he asked. 'Do you keep a journal?' So I make my first entry today." (1) Thus begins the writings of Henry Thoreau. In 1837, Ralph Waldo Emerson encouraged the twenty year old Henry to begin writing a journal, a practice he would continue for the rest of his life. Henry was a prolific writer; and in 1906, the two million word journal was published in its entirety in fourteen volumes. Henry's journal was his most prized possession and the only one he kept locked up when he went out for walks while living at Walden. The scratched green paint around the keyhole on his desk exposes its heavy use.

Henry experienced his first success publishing his writing in The Dial-as in sundial-a journal started by the Transcendentalist Club in Concord and first edited by Margaret Fuller. Its prospectus stated its purpose, "The Dial, as its title indicates, will endeavor to occupy a station on which the light may fall; which is open to the rising sun; and from which it might correctly report the progress of the hour and the day." (2) The Transcendentalists needed an outlet for their writing since other journals were not as open to their ideas. It eventually failed after four years in 1844 due to the amount of work it took to maintain and the lack of sufficient revenue from subscriptions.

His early success in The Dial exposed Henry to the idea of being a writer, a vocation he identified with very seriously thereafter. In fact, his writing ambitions were a major reason for his move to Walden. He had for some time wanted to create a book from his boating trip with his deceased brother John, but was too easily distracted by his mother's boarders and living in town. Living by himself at a distance and simplifying his life would allow him the opportunity to finally write his first full book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers.

MushroomWhat was Henry's usual method of writing?

Henry's writing went through several stages and many drafts before it became the works that you read today. A basic flowchart of his writing would start with field notes, which were then recorded as journal entries, next transformed into a lecture, afterwards an essay, and eventually part of a book. Though we often think of journals as recording our immediate experience, in Henry's case the journal was a more deliberate creation. He took his field notes with him on walks in nature but typically did not record his experiences as journal entries until that night or even a few days later. The thoughtfulness and quality of his journal writings enabled him to reuse entire passages from it in his lectures and published writings. In his early years, Henry would literally cut out pages or excerpts from the journal and paste them onto another page as he created his essays.

Before publishing his writing, Henry typically presented his essays orally in the form of a lecture. The Concord Lyceum which he had attended even in youth provided the opportunity for him to test out his ideas in front of a live audience, though he did not always appreciated the reception. He expressed his frustration in his journal, writing "I am disappointed to find that the most that I am and value myself for is lost, or worse than lost, on my audience. I fail to get even the attention of the mass. I should suit them better if I suited myself less." (3)

Henry turned the content of his lectures into his essays, such as "Walking," "Civil Disobedience," and "Slavery in Massachusetts." Some of his essays he eventually incorporated into books, such as the essay about the trip he took during his Walden years to Mount Katadhin which eventually became a part of the book Ktaadn, and the Maine Woods.

ManuscriptHow did Henry create the story of his experiment at Walden?

"I heard that some of my townsmen had expected of me some account of my life at the pond," Henry wrote in his journal. (4) The book Walden began as an answer to the inquiry of his neighbors about his life in the woods. As with his other works, Henry kept journal entries throughout his experiment with the intent of developing them into lectures and a book. He wrote the first draft of Walden while living in his house by the pond. Henry was a very active writer during those two years, writing Walden concurrently with the writing of his other book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. His night in jail and trip to Maine also occurred during his sojourn in the woods. He began to write "Ktaadn," an essay about his experience hiking the mountain in Maine, while still living at the pond. Consequently, Walden is not a chronological account of his time at the pond, but a deliberate selection of content suited to the chosen themes of the work.

After leaving Walden Pond, Henry gave a lecture entitled "History of Myself" at the Concord Lyceum. It was popular enough that he was asked to give it again the following week. Much of the speech evolved into "Economy," the opening chapter of the book Walden. For the next few years, Henry traveled the lecture circuit throughout New England giving talks which he revised to form chapters of the book. It took Henry nine years and seven drafts before he published the final version. With each new draft he cut and pasted sections from the previous one and added more writing.

Walden was published on August 9th, 1854. In his journal, Henry played down the event, writing only a few short phrases for the day, "Walden published. Elder-berries. Waxwork yellowing." (5) Emerson, however, wrote in his own journal of Henry's nervous pacing up and down the street. Perhaps Henry tried not to get his hopes up too much for the success of the book. After all, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers was initially an abysmal failure. Henry was forced to take back the books which were not sold, totaling seven hundred out of the one thousand originally printed. Writing humorously of the event in his journal, he quipped, "I have now a library of nearly nine hundred volumes, over seven hundred of which I wrote myself." (6) Walden, in contrast, was a relatively successful book, though it took most of the rest of Henry's life to sell the two thousand books of the first edition. The second edition of Walden came out after Henry died, and the book has never gone out of print since.



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Common Misconception:

Walden misrepresents Henry's real experiences.

Henry never intended for Walden to be a biography or an exact chronology of his time at Walden Pond, but neither did he lie or deceive his readers.


Henry does not pretend to be totally isolated, but tells his readers from the start that he was only half a mile (0.8 kilometers) from the railroad station and a fifth of a mile (300 meters) to the main road to Concord. He states that he went into town "every day or two."


Henry never claims to cook all of his meals at his house. He explains that he "dined out occasionally," but only as often as he ate with friends before moving to Walden.


 As previously discussed, in writing Walden, Henry compressed two years into one and did not include every event, such as his night in jail or trip to Maine. Henry selected content appropriate to the themes of his work, such as solitude, simplicity, nature, and seasons.


Did You Know?

As a wedding gift to Nathaniel and Sophia Hawthorne, Henry planted a garden for them at their new house.

 Henry amazed his companions with his remarkable success in finding Indian arrowheads by nonchalantly leaning over and picking them up off the ground. He would perform this trick in the springtime when the earth was moist and soft, and at locations he knew or suspected to have once been the grounds of Native Americans.

Henry named his boat "Musketaquid," the Native American word for the place where the water flows through the grasses.

 Henry was fascinated with Eastern literature and philosophy, including the sacred writings of Hinduism and the sayings of Confucius.