The Widening Gyre

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Signs of the Times

Henry David Thoreau

(Henry David Thoreau) is a singular character -- a young man with much of wild original nature still remaining in him; and so far as he is sophisticated, it is in a way and method of his own. He is as ugly as sin, long-nosed, queer-mouthed, and with uncouth and somewhat rustic, although courteous manners, corresponding very well with such an exterior. But his ugliness is of an honest and agreeable fashion, and becomes him much better than beauty.

(Nathaniel Hawthorne, The American Notebooks, Randall Stewart, ed., pp. 166-168. Copyright 1960 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College)

The Woods at Walden Pond

Pictures taken in early May 1996
Fed up with the distractions of his father's pencil making business, Henry David Thoreau set out to find some peace and quiet to work on his first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. Lucky for us, Ralph Waldo Emerson offered him free use of his woodlot along the northern shore of Walden Pond.

Thoreau began planning for his 10' by 15' house in March. The frame went up in May. And he was ready to move in on the 4th of July. The interior of the house was furnished with a bed, a table, a small desk and lamp, and three chairs -- "one for solitude, two for friendship, three for society."

While at Walden, Thoreau walked, studied, wrote, traveled and even hosted an anti-slavery fair.

In 1846, Thoreau stayed in jail overnight for refusing to pay his poll tax as a protest against his state's role in upholding slavery. In his 1849 essay Resistance to Civil Government, Thoreau states "I did not for a moment feel confined and the walls seemed a great waste of stone and mortar."

Of course, his stay in jail was among the shortest in Middlesex County's history. And like Bronson Alcott before him (who was jailed for the same reason), someone else paid his poll tax (Carlos Baker, Emerson Among The Eccentrics, New York: Viking Press, 1996, p.269).

Thoreau's Cabin

While at Walden, Thoreau strove to reduce his needs and to work efficiently. "The cost of a thing" says Thoreau, "is the amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run."

In his essay Walden (found in The Cambridge Companion To Henry David Thoreau edited by Joel Myerson, Cambridge University Press, 1995, p. 99), Richard J. Schneider notes that Thoreau's cabin is the antithesis of the fancy homes admired by many New Englanders.

This did not keep Thoreau from visiting those self-same homes. And, sometimes, his own house "being so small, he had 'the difficulty of getting to a sufficient distance' from his guests whenever they 'began to utter the big thoughts in big words'" (Carlos Baker, Emerson Among The Eccentrics, New York: Viking Press, 1996, p.270).

Cost of Materials for Thoreau's House (from Walden)

  • Board's: $8.03 1/2, mostly shanty boards
  • Refuse shingles for roof and sides: $4.00
  • Laths: $1.25
  • Two second-hand windows with glass: $2.43
  • One thousand old brick: $4.00
  • Two casts of lime: $2.40. That was high.
  • Hair: $0.31. More than I needed
  • Mantle-tree iron: $0.15
  • Nails: $3.90
  • Hinges and screws: $0.14
  • Latch: $0.10
  • Chalk: $0.01
  • Transportation: $1.40. I carried a good part on my back.
  • In all: $28.12 1/2
  • These are all the material excepting the timber, stones and sand, which I claimed by squatter's right.

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