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Henry D. Thoreau
by [?]

He moved better than he knew.

John Thoreau’s wife was Cynthia Dunbar, a tall and handsome woman, with a ready tongue and nimble wit. Her attentions were largely occupied in looking after the affairs of the neighbors, and as the years went by her voice took on the good old metallic twang of the person who discusses people, not principles.

Henry Thoreau was the third child in the family of seven. He was born in an old house on the Virginia Road, Concord, about a mile and a half from the village. This house was the home of Mrs. Thoreau’s mother, but the Thoreaus had taken refuge there, temporarily, to escape a financial blizzard which seems to have hit no one else but themselves.

John Thoreau was assisted in the pencil-making by the whole family. The Thoreaus used to sell their pencils down at Cambridge, fifteen miles away, and Harvard professors, for the most part, used the Concord article in jotting down their sublime thoughts. At ten years of age, Thoreau had a furtive eye on Harvard, directed thither, they say, by his mother. All the best people in Concord, who had sons, sent them to Harvard–why shouldn’t the Thoreaus? The spirit of emulation and family pride were at work.

Henry was educated principally because he wasn’t very strong, nor was he on good terms with work, and these are classic reasons for imparting classical education to youth, aspiring or otherwise.

The Concord Academy prepared Henry for college, and when he was sixteen, he trudged off to Cambridge and was duly entered in the Harvard Class of Eighteen Hundred Thirty-seven. At Harvard, his cosmos seemed to be of such a slaty gray that no one said, “Go to–we will observe this youth and write anecdotes about him, for he is going to be a great man.” The very few in his class who remembered him wrote their reminiscences long years afterward, with memories refreshed by magazine accounts written by pious pilgrims from Michigan.

In college pranks and popular amusements he took no part, neither was he a “grind,” for he impressed himself on no teacher or professor so that they opened their mouths and made prophecies.

Once safely through college, and standing on the threshold (I trust I use the right expression), Henry Thoreau refused to accept his diploma and pay five dollars for it–he said it wasn’t worth the money.

In his “Walden,” Thoreau expresses his opinion of college training this way: “If I wished a boy to know something about the arts and sciences I would not pursue the common course, which is merely to send him into the neighborhood of some professor, where everything is professed and practised but the art of life. To my astonishment, I was informed when I left college that I had studied navigation! Why, if I had taken one turn down the harbor I would have known more about it.”

It is well to remember, however, that Thoreau had no ambitions to become a navigator. His mission was simply to paddle his own canoe on Walden Pond and Concord River. The men who really launched him on his voyage of discovery were Ellery Channing and Ralph Waldo Emerson–both Harvard men. Had he not been a college man, it is quite probable he would never have caught the speaker’s eye. His efforts in working his way through college, assisted by his poverty-stricken parents, proved his quality. And as for his life in a shanty on the shores of Walden Pond, the occurrence is too commonplace to mention, were it not for the fact that the solitary occupant of the shanty was a Harvard graduate who used no tobacco.

Harvard prepares a youth for life–but here is a man who, having prepared for life, deliberately turns his back on life and lives in the woods.

A genuine woodsman is no curiosity, but a civilized woodsman is. The tendency of colleges is to turn men from Nature to books; from bonfires to stoves, steam-heat and cash-registers; but Thoreau, by reversing all rules, suddenly found himself, and others, explaining his position in print.