Text and images by George Cassidy Payne
Born in Concord, Massachusetts (1817-62), Henry David Thoreau is an unlikely addition to my New York writer’s series. BELOW Thoreau attended Harvard (1833-37) and spent his “career” as a schoolteacher, land surveyor, pencil maker, and author in his hometown. But Thoreau does have a visceral connection to the Empire State that led directly to his revolutionary literary and social experiment at Walden Pond.
In July 1844, Thoreau hiked alone through Adams, Massachusetts (birthplace of Susan B. Anthony), and ascended Mt. Greylock on a route known today as the Bellows Pipe Trail. As Thoreau describes it, “My route lay up a long and spacious valley called Bellows, because the winds rush up or down it with violence in storms, sloping up to the vertical clouds between the principle range and lower mountain…It seemed a road for the pilgrim to enter upon who would climb to the gates of heaven.”
In A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, published in 1867, he recounted the journey mainly from a poetic and sensory perspective. He even called it a digression. But I think it’s fair to say that he was in a fragile psychological state. Struggling to find outlets for his writing, he was 27 and full of grief and self-doubt. Two years before, his younger brother John died as a result of an infection received from shaving. Added to his woes was a rejected marriage proposal to a distant cousin who he adored. He was also evading the scorn of his townsmen back in Concord after he had accidentally set fire to 300 acres of woodland. In every sense of the word, Thoreau was a depressed young man. He was also ripe for an epiphany. What Greylock had to offer, did not disappoint.
At the top of the mountain stood an observatory erected by the students of the Williamstown College (today Williams College), and Thoreau had the mountain to himself. At nightfall, he covered himself with a door to keep warm and went to sleep. When he awoke from this metaphorical coffin, the world was completely different. “As the light in the east suddenly increased, it revealed to me more clearly the new world into which I had risen in the night, the new terra firma perchance of my future life… There was not a crevice left through which the trivial places of Massachusetts, or Vermont or New York, could be seen, while I still inhaled the clear atmosphere of a July morning” if it were July there… All around beneath me was spread a hundred miles on every side, as far as the eye could reach, an undulating country of clouds. … It was such a country as we might see in dreams, with all the delights of paradise. … It was a favor for which to be forever silent to be shown this vision.”
At the time, Thoreau may have experienced this moment of kinship with the clouds and mist as another example of nature’s glory. But knowing what we do about Thoreau’s journey as a writer, naturalist, and philosopher, this moment of transcendence “above storm and cloud,” can be viewed as a turning point. His subsequent tour of the magisterial Catskills in NY, where he had time to process what had occurred at Greylock, completed the metamorphosis. When he returned home, he received a letter from a friend named Isaac Hecker, dated 31 July 1844.
It was not altogether the circumstance of our immediate physical nearness, tho this may [have] been the consequence of a higher affinity, that inspired us to commune with each other. This I am fully sensible since our separation [sic]. Oftentimes we observe ourselves to be passive or cooperative agents of profounder principles than we at the time ever dream of.
I have been stimulated to write to you at this present moment on account of a certain project which I have formed in which your influence has no slight share I imagine in forming. It is to work our passage to Europe, and to walk, work and beg, if needs be, as far when there as we are inclined to do . . .
Thoreau responds to Hecker on 14 August 1844:
I am glad to hear your voice from that populous city and the more so for the tenor of its discourse. I have just returned from a pedestrian excursion, some what similar to that you propose, parvis componere magna, to the Catskill mountains . . .
Channing wonders how I can resist your invitation, I, a single man—unfettered—and so do I . . . I hope you will find a companion who will enter as heartily into your schemes as I should have done.
I am really sorry that the Genius will not let me go with you, but I trust that it will conduct to other adventures, and so if nothing prevents we will compare notes at last.
In light of what we know about his transformation in the Berkshires and Catskills, Thoreau’s decision to turn down an invitation to visit Europe is more than a polite decline attributed to traveler’s fatigue or lack of interest. As I see it, this was a symbolic decision which confirmed the presence of divine providence working in the life of a great American artist on the verge of breaking out.
In other words, what he discovered in the mountains of Western Mass and Eastern New York, gave him the self-confidence and clarity of purpose needed to find physical healing, self-acceptance, and creative inspiration. It is not unreasonable to posit that these experiences prepared him for his new life in Concord and eventually set the stage for Walden. If he felt compelled to go off to Europe to escape his reputation or “find himself” somewhere far away from home in a different country and culture, the following lines may never have been written:— “Where I Lived, and What I Lived For,” from Walden
George Payne is a social worker, philosopher, poet, and freelance writer. He has a B.A. in History from St. John Fisher College.ON OTHER NEW YORK WRITERS
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