The Natural Thoreau

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IN RECENT YEARS, biographers of Henry David Thoreau have begun to speculate more openly about the sexual orientation of “the patron saint of environmentalists,” a man who never married in an age when marriage was de rigueur. “Of our classic American writers Henry David Thoreau is the supreme poet of doubleness, of evasion and mystery,” wrote Joyce Carol Oates in an article in The New York Times on May 1, 1988. Was one of the writer’s evasions his authentic sexual nature?

Henry Thoreau

One of Thoreau’s principal biographers, Walter Harding, was chided by a reviewer of his 1965 work, The Days of Henry Thoreau: A Biography, for “writing as if Sigmund Freud had never existed.” Twenty years later, Harding finally felt able to write about Thoreau’s sexuality in an afterword to the second edition (Dover, 1982):

I have become convinced that there is evidence of a strong homoerotic element in Thoreau’s personality—though I should add that to the best of my knowledge no factual evidence of homosexual activity on Thoreau’s part has been uncovered—and that it helps to explain a number of curious facts about his life and facets of his personality and even suggests in the tensions growing out of the conflict between his sexuality and the repressive attitudes of the society in which he lived a possible source of some of his creativity.

Harding, who died in 1996, made an extensive search through Thoreau’s journals and other writings to document this conclusion from quotations related to the subjects of sex and marriage. There are many passages in which Thoreau notes with approval the physiques of men and boys whom he encounters, with never a mention of women. Harding noted that a number of Thoreau’s close friends commented upon his lack of interest in women, his abhorrence of marriage, and his preference for celibacy.

In previous years, when homosexuality was a taboo subject for many biographers, much was made of Thoreau’s hopeless proposal to Ellen Sewell in 1840—after she had already rejected a similar offer of marriage from his brother John. It was speculated that Henry’s heart was so broken that, if he could not have Ellen as a wife, he would seek no one else. What seems more likely is that the gesture to Ellen was part of Henry and John’s brotherly competition and a way to demonstrate that Henry was man enough to make an offer of marriage.

In his 1975 book Gay American History, Jonathan Katz speculates that Thoreau did love a member of the Sewell family, but it was Ellen’s eleven-year-old brother Edmund, with whom Thoreau sailed and hiked for five days in June 1839. Two days after Edmund’s departure, he wrote a poem entitled “Sympathy”:

Lately, alas, I knew a gentle boy,
Whose features all were cast in Virtue’s mould,
As one she had designed for Beauty’s toy,
But after manned him for her own stronghold.

So was I taken unawares by this,
I quite forgot my homage to confess;
Yet now am forced to know, though hard it is,
I might have loved him, had I loved him less.

Each moment, as we nearer drew to each,
A stern respect withheld us farther yet,
So that we seemed beyond each other’s reach,
And less acquainted than when first we met.
We two were one while we did sympathize,
So could we not the simplest bargain drive;
And what avails it now that we are wise,
If absence doth this doubleness contrive?

Eternity may not the chance repeat,
But I must tread my single way alone,
In sad remembrance that we once did meet,
And know that bliss irrevocably gone.

If I but love that virtue which he is,
Though it be scented in the morning air,
Still shall we be truest acquaintances,
Nor mortals know a sympathy more rare.

Katz also mentions Thoreau’s friendship with his classmate at Concord Academy and his roommate at Harvard, Charles Stearns Wheeler, who died tragically at age 26 while a student in Leipzig. Thoreau spent a college vacation with Wheeler in a cabin on Sandy Pond in Lincoln, Mass. Thoreau later approached the Flints, who owned much of the land around that and another pond in the area, asking permission to build a similar cabin for himself on their property. They declined his request, but the idea obviously culminated in Henry’s cabin on Walden Pond on property purchased by Emerson. Katz does not imply an intimate relationship with Wheeler other than to suggest that a poem written the following year may have been inspired by their friendship.

There have also been suggestions of a love affair between Thoreau and Lidian Emerson, fifteen years his senior, during the time when Ralph Waldo was away in England. I suspect that he thought of her as a caring mother figure. Doubtless she thought of him fondly as the affectionate playmate and caregiver to her children and as the household handyman rather than as an object of sexual desire. They shared a love for her husband and were disappointed by his inability to return the affection that they (and others) craved. Lidian suffered from depression during her husband’s absence and often took to her bed at such times.

All of Thoreau’s relationships with women were with ones much older than himself or obviously off limits. He was close to his sisters and his mother as well as to Lidian. There is no evidence of an attraction to any other women. Emerson recorded in his journal that Thoreau blushed when he passed through the Emerson kitchen under the gaze of female servants. Living there also was Elizabeth Hoar, the beautiful fiancée of Emerson’s dead brother Charles. And while they often both lived in the Emerson household at the same time, there’s no evidence of the kind of flirtatious banter that one might have expected between a young unmarried man and a single woman in such a situation. Elizabeth wrote of Henry: “I love Henry, but I cannot like him; and as for taking his arm, I should as soon think of taking the arm of an elm tree.” Thoreau, in turn, wrote of Elizabeth in a letter from Staten Island when he was living with Waldo’s brother: “And EH—my brave townswoman to be sung of poets—if I may speak of her whom I do not know.”

Thoreau’s best friend in Concord, after his brother John, was Edward “Ned” Hoar, Elizabeth’s brother and the third son of Concord’s leading citizen, Samuel Hoar, lawyer and congressman. Edward was five and a half years younger than Thoreau. The two enjoyed hiking through the woods and paddling on the rivers together, sharing those experiences of nature that were central to Thoreau’s sense of self.

Edward, 21 and home from his senior year at Harvard for a few days, was Henry’s companion on April 30, 1844, when they inadvertently started a fire that burned 800 acres of valuable fields and woods, plus sixty stacked cords of firewood. While the respectable citizens of Concord were attending a town meeting, Henry and Edward had rowed up the Sudbury River to Fairhaven Bay, where they stopped to cook some chowder made from a fish they’d caught. There had been no rain for weeks, and a spark from their fire set the dry grass ablaze. Despite their efforts to dowse the fire, a warm south wind fanned the flames and quickly spread them through neighboring fields. Edward rowed back to town for help, and Henry ran through the woods to call for assistance, but then observed the progress of the fire from Fairhaven Cliff while waiting for more help to arrive. Only Squire Hoar’s influence saved them from prosecution, and he paid the owners of the property for the damage, estimated at $2,000. For many years afterward, Concord folk viewed Henry Thoreau with suspicion. They could not understand why, after all of the sacrifices made by his family to send him to Harvard, he hadn’t made more of himself.

Soon after the fire, in rebellion from his overly strict parents, Edward ran away to California with a ne’er-do-well friend. But after a short stay, he returned home and dutifully completed his undergraduate degree at Harvard. Edward followed in the footsteps of his father and others in his family and began the study of law at Harvard, but later earned his law degree from Columbia and was admitted to the bar in New York in 1848, when he was 25 years old. Briefly returning home to Concord, he soon returned to California and joined the Gold Rush.

It is well known that the 1848 Gold Rush attracted a transient population of young men who, once in California, were less likely to conform to social and sexual mores than in their hometowns. California was seen as a place of high adventure for many young men, a place to break away, to begin anew. It may have been a convenient place of escape for Edward, too, while struggling with his sexual identity and deciding whether to follow in the family profession. After spending some time panning for gold, Edward set up a law office in San Francisco. In 1851, he became the first District Attorney of Santa Barbara County. He held the position for only a year, as an 1883 county history suggests, making a vague reference to his “social habits at the time that rather militated against his advancement.” Michael Redmon, of the Santa Barbara Historical Society, believes that the reference to “social habits” was code for homosexual behavior.

Except for one brief visit to the family for Thanksgiving, Edward did not return to Concord until 1857, following his estranged father’s death and, perhaps, the prospect of an inheritance. He was Thoreau’s companion that year on a trip through Maine that’s memorialized in The Maine Woods, in which they traveled 325 miles in a canoe with the Indian guide Joseph Polis. In July 1858, the two spent seventeen days on a botany expedition to the White Mountains, for which Edward bore the cost of the horse and wagon used for the trip.

Soon after that, Edward urged his older sister Elizabeth to take the trip to Europe that she had always dreamed of, and in October 1858, he accompanied her and their next-door neighbor, the 37-year-old spinster Elizabeth Pritchard, on an extended tour. During their stay in Florence, Edward unexpectedly married Miss Pritchard one day after his 35th birthday. There had been no previous romantic interest between the two prior to this trip. One can only speculate that Edward realized he would have to conform outwardly to social expectations in order to claim his share of the Hoar estate upon returning to Concord. It does bear some of the markings of a marriage of convenience. Of course, as a married man, he would no longer be at liberty to go on long expeditions with his buddy Thoreau.

Edward apparently never again practiced law. He and his wife purchased a farm in nearby Lincoln after the birth of their only child, a daughter whom they named Florence in remembrance of the city of their marriage. Later, they also lived in Europe for some time. Thoreau willed about a hundred of his specimens of grasses and sedges to Edward, with whom he had often botanized both in Concord and on their long trips together. After his death, Florence Hoar presented her father’s collection of 1,000 plant specimens to the New England Botanical Club in 1912, which included those of Thoreau (now at the University of Connecticut Herbarium). His brother’s biographers wrote of Edward, “His knowledge of flowers and birds, his adventures of travel and California life, his knowledge of books and his refined nature, kindly though sensitive and shy, made him a charming companion to the few who had the privilege of knowing him.”

After Thoreau’s death, Edward said of his friend, in a curious statement: “Thoreau was intensely a moralist, to him everything was valuable according as it appealed to the moral sentiment.” The writer went out of his way to present himself as an ascetic puritan, but he seems to protest too much, and occasionally something else leaks out. As Joyce Carol Oates observed (in The New York Times, May 1, 1988): “Though sexuality of any kind is foreign to Walden, chastity is evoked as a value, and a chapter that began with an extravagant paean to wildness concludes with a denunciation of the unnamed sexual instincts: ‘I hesitate to say these things, but it is not because of the subject,—I care not how obscene my words are,—but because I cannot speak of them without betraying my impurity.’”

Or this: it seems his married friend William Ellery Channing irked Thoreau by telling sexual jokes, as noted in his journal of April 12, 1852. “I lose my respect for the man who can make the mystery of sex the subject of a coarse jest, yet, when you speak earnestly and seriously on the subject, is silent. … Impure as I am, I could protest and worship purity.”

But was Thoreau “gay”? Much depends upon one’s interpretation of 19th-century attitudes and statements about sexuality. Adam Goodheart, commenting on the intimate relationship between Abraham Lincoln and Joshua Speed in the 1830’s, observed the following (in The New York Times, Nov. 25, 2010): “In the 19th century, the boundary between comradeship and sexuality—never a perfectly sharp one—was especially blurry. The true nature of Lincoln and Speed’s youthful relationship in Springfield will no doubt be debated for a long time to come. Certainly it is hard to imagine two people sleeping together for four years—especially two large men in a small 19th-century bed—without a great deal of physical intimacy.” The same can be imagined when one considers the amount of time that Henry Thoreau and Edward Hoar spent together while traveling in remote wilderness areas.

As Harding suggests, it seems reasonable that Thoreau’s belief that “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation” might have arisen not only from his own inability to find a vocation to his liking but also to an inability to empathize with the men around him who toiled to support a wife and family. Of course, we may never know the true nature of Thoreau’s sexuality, but hypothesizing that he was gay helps to explain a number of facts about his singular life choices and his eccentric personality. It may also have been a source of his creativity and his ability to step outside of the dominant culture and view the world from a novel vantage point.

I am grateful for the suggestions of Prof. Robert A. Gross, James L. and Shirley A. Draper Professor of Early American History at the University of Connecticut, who kindly read a draft of this article.


References

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. The Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks. Edited by William H. Gilman, et al. Harvard University Press, 1960.
Harding, Walter. “Thoreau’s Sexuality” in The Journal of Homosexuality, Vol. 21(3) 1991.
Harding, Walter. The Days of Henry Thoreau: A Biography. Dover Publications, 1982. (First published by Knopf, 1965.)
Katz, Jonathan Ned, Gay American History: Lesbians and Gay Men in the USA. Thomas Y. Crowell Co., 1976.
Maxfield-Miller, Elizabeth. “Elizabeth of Concord: Selected Letters of Elizabeth Sherman Hoar to the Emersons, Family, and the Emerson Circle (Part One).” In Studies in the American Renaissance, edited by Joel Meyerson. University Press of Virginia, 1984.
Thoreau, Henry David. Correspondence. Edited by Walter Harding and Carl Bode. NYU Press, 1958.

 

Paula Ivaska Robbins is the author of The Royal Family of Concord: Samuel, Elizabeth, and Rockwood Hoar and Their Friendship With Ralph Waldo Emerson (2003).

 

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