Wheeler-Minot Farmhouse, 341 Virginia Rd, Concord, MA 01742
Thoreau Cabin Site, Pond Path, Concord, MA 01742
Sleepy Hollow Cemetery Concord, Middlesex County, Massachusetts, USA
Henry David Thoreau (July 12, 1817 – May 6, 1862) was an American essayist, poet, philosopher, abolitionist, naturalist, tax resister, development critic, surveyor, and historian. Wrote Marylynne Diggs in The Gay and Lesbian Literary Heritage: “Biographers remain undecided about Thoreau’s sexuality … . Some believe he was a ‘repressed’ homosexual and others that he was asexual … . But his Journals, his essay ‘Chastity and Sensuality,’ and the long discourse on ‘Friendship’ in A Week are prolific expressions of the beauty, and the agony, of love between men.”
A leading transcendentalist, Thoreau is best known for his book Walden, a reflection upon simple living in natural surroundings, and his essay "Civil Disobedience" (originally published as "Resistance to Civil Government"), an argument for disobedience to an unjust state. Thoreau took Ralph Waldo Emerson's lofty model of platonic love as his own. He used this model to explain the emotional attraction he felt for certain men who came into his life, like the Canadian woodcutter Alek Therian, whom Thoreau would encounter in his walks around Walden Pond. In the summer of 1839, Thoreau was smitten by the young brother of a family friend, Edmund Sewall, who was in Concord for a visit. The love poem, "Lately, Alas I Knew a Gentle Boy", written to the object of his affection is remarkable for its candor.
Thoreau's books, articles, essays, journals, and poetry amount to more than 20 volumes. Among his lasting contributions are his writings on natural history and philosophy, in which he anticipated the methods and findings of ecology and environmental history, two sources of modern-day environmentalism. His literary style interweaves close observation of nature, personal experience, pointed rhetoric, symbolic meanings, and historical lore, while displaying a poetic sensibility, philosophical austerity, and Yankee attention to practical detail. He was also deeply interested in the idea of survival in the face of hostile elements, historical change, and natural decay; at the same time he advocated abandoning waste and illusion in order to discover life's true essential needs.
He was a lifelong abolitionist, delivering lectures that attacked the Fugitive Slave Law while praising the writings of Wendell Phillips and defending the abolitionist John Brown. Thoreau's philosophy of civil disobedience later influenced the political thoughts and actions of such notable figures as Leo Tolstoy, Mahatma Gandhi, and Martin Luther King Jr.
Thoreau is sometimes referred to as an anarchist. Though "Civil Disobedience" seems to call for improving rather than abolishing government—"I ask for, not at once no government, but at once a better government"—the direction of this improvement points toward anarchism: "'That government is best which governs not at all;' and when men are prepared for it, that will be the kind of government which they will have."
Thoreau never married and was childless. He strove to portray himself as an ascetic puritan. However, his sexuality has long been the subject of speculation, including by his contemporaries. Critics have called him heterosexual, homosexual, or asexual. There is no evidence to suggest he had physical relations with anyone, man or woman. Some scholars have suggested that homoerotic sentiments run through his writings and concluded that he was homosexual. The elegy Sympathy was inspired by the eleven-year-old Edmund Sewell, with whom he hiked for five days in 1839. One scholar has suggested that he wrote the poem to Edmund because he could not bring himself to write it to Edmund's sister, and another that Thoreau's "emotional experiences with women are memorialized under a camouflage of masculine pronouns", but other scholars dismiss this. It has been argued that the long paean in Walden to the French-Canadian woodchopper Alek Therien, which includes allusions to Achilles and Patroclus, is an expression of conflicted desire. In some of Thoreau's writing there is the sense of a secret self. In 1840 he writes in his journal: "My friend is the apology for my life. In him are the spaces which my orbit traverses". Thoreau was strongly influenced by the moral reformers of his time, and this may have instilled anxiety and guilt over sexual desire.
Walt Whitman's sexual poems had a seductive and unnerving effect on Henry David Thoreau. With Bronson Alcott (the write Louisa May Alcott's father) and Sarah Tyndale, he trekked in 1856 to visit the poet in New York in order to confront the daring word worker in his native habitat. "That Walt Whitman... is the most interesting fact to me at present," Thoreau wrote privately to a friend a short time later. "I have just read his second edition of Leaves of Grass (which he gave me) and it has done me more good than any reading for a long time." But Thoreau was also alarmed: "There are 2 or 3 pieces in the book which are disagreeable to say the least, simply sensual. He does not celebrate love at all. It is as if the beasts spoke. I think that men have not been ashamed of themselves without reason."
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