STEINBERG: Thoreau at 200; more to the man than a shack by a pond

SHARE STEINBERG: Thoreau at 200; more to the man than a shack by a pond

American philosopher and naturalist Henry David Thoreau is being honored with a stamp on the 200th anniversary of his birth. | AP Photo

Henry David Thoreau’s father owned a pencil factory.

In between failing as a teacher and a writer, Thoreau worked in that factory. From the day in 1845 he moved to Walden Pond, where his fans will flock Wednesday to mark the bicentennial of his birth on July 12, 1817, to the day he left, J. Thoreau and Co. churned out high-quality pencils.

Ironic. Thoreau is remembered best as an early bard of appreciating nature. On Sunday, the New York Times described a line he uttered in a speech — “In wilderness is the preservation of the world” — as “eight words that in coming decades helped save that Maine woods, Cape Cod, Yosemite and other treasured American landscapes.”

They ignored the pencils that underwrote his work. I know why. It spoils the cherished image, to have Thoreau calling for preservation of trees out of one corner of his mouth and promoting the transformation of trees into pencils out of the other.

Or does it?

Do the two values, conservation and business, have to contradict? Our government certainly thinks so. The Trump administration began with a wholesale slaughter of environmental regulations. Dropping out of the Paris climate agreement is only the most visible. Clean water rules that keep mining and metal companies from pouring waste into streams are being relaxed. Ditto for clean air regulations. And we don’t have to worry about alarming increases in pollution statistics, since the EPA, now headed by one of its fiercest critics, is going to stop collecting certain air quality data.


Thoreau describes the type perfectly: “He knows nature but as a robber.”

Thoreau had a gift for piercing concision. That is why I like him, despite his frequent descent into piety. He used his own experience. You need to be in line to inherit a pencil factory to write a sentence like: “I see young men, my townsmen, whose misfortune it is to have inherited farms, houses, barns, cattle, and farming tools; for these are more easily acquired than got rid of.”


“Walden” was published in August 1854, and 11 months later, Walt Whitman “Leaves of Grass.” Talk about a good year in publishing. Thoreau knew Whitman well enough to help his mother bake cakes.

Whitman liked Thoreau, though found him conceited and doubted his attachment to nature: “I do not think it was so much a love of woods, streams, and hills that made him live in the country, as from a morbid dislike of humanity.”

The pair sometimes strolled through Brooklyn together, arm in arm, heading toward the ferry to Manhattan, Thoreau disdaining the low crowd around them. The two had a “hot discussion about it” since Whitman celebrated rather than scorned all humanity, high or low, from all walks and trades, sometimes having sex with the strangers he encountered.

This troubled Thoreau. While he described Whitman as ‘the greatest democrat the world has seen . . . a remarkably strong though coarse nature, of a sweet disposition” there were those awkward naughty bits of “Leaves of Grass” to deplore.

“There are two or three pieces in the book which are disagreeable to say the least,” Thoreau wrote to a friend. “Simply sensual. He does not celebrate love at all. It is as if the beasts spoke.”

“It is as if the beasts spoke.” A sentence of marvelous clarity, though still missing the point. Thoreau loved nature, but Whitman included humanity within nature’s scope. When our birthday boy writes “The better part of the man is soon ploughed into the soil for compost,” he means it as a bad thing. Whitman spins the inevitable differently: “I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love. If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.”

Thoreau died at 44. He hoped to escape the shadow of that pencil factory, and has, leaving the map of his escape route. But just as preserving nature and fostering business are linked, so it takes friends to enjoy fruitful solitude. It was his mentor, Ralph Waldo Emerson, remember, who loaned Thoreau the ax he used to frame his cabin, located on property Emerson owned at Walden Pond.

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