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The Henry and the Huckleberries Website: About the People in our Story
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thoreau

Henry David Thoreau was originally named David Henry Thoreau (for information on how to pronounce Henry’s last name, see below under Edward Emerson). He was an inventor, a pencil maker, a limnologist (someone who studies lakes, ponds and bodies of fresh water), surveyor, cartographer (someone who makes maps), climatologist (someone who studies climates), carpenter, handy-man, gardener, farmer, house painter, ornithologist (someone who studies birds), botanist (someone who studies plants), ichthyologist (someone who studies fish), entomologist (someone who studies insects) hiker, boat builder, canoeist, flutist, philosopher, lecturer, teacher, abolitionist, transcendentalist, and author. He was also a self-taught naturalist and is regarded today as the first great environmentalist.

 

emerson

Edward Emerson (1844-1930), the son of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Lidian Jackson Emerson, was born in Concord, MA. He was very close to Henry David Thoreau and described him as “the best kind of an older brother.” Henry was his guide and companion on many nature walks and sojourns. The incident when Edward dropped his pail of huckleberries is described in Henry’s diary on August 6, 1853, shortly after Edward’s ninth birthday. Edward graduated from Harvard in 1866, and earned his medical degree from Harvard in 1874. He practiced as a physician in Concord until 1882. He later taught anatomy at the Boston Museum School of Fine Arts and served as superintendent of schools in Concord and was a founder of the Concord (Antiquarian) Museum. He wrote essays, including an important memoir of his father. In 1917, he published “Henry Thoreau as Remembered by a Young Friend.” In the essay, he describes Henry’s manner toward women, children, and humble people as “simple, gentle, friendly, and amusing.”

Edward Emerson is also the source for how Henry David’s last name should be pronounced. He wrote in a letter to Dr. Loring Holmes Dodd, dated October 11, 1918:
We always called my friend Thó-row, the h sounded, and accent on the first syllable.”

[The Goddard Biblio Log, Spring 1973, p. 7] See also >www.walden.org<

 

alcott

Louisa May Alcott (1832-1888) adored Henry David Thoreau, who was sixteen years older than she. As a child, Louisa idolized him. Henry taught her both in school for a short period when she was his student and outside on the many times they spent together walking in the woods. He opened up to her both the rich world of nature and the world of the imagination. As he did for many children, Henry taught her how to identify plants and birds and how to identify animal tracks. His impact on her as a person and a writer is immeasurable. She is known today as the author of Little Women. Henry’s influence can be seen in that work (the character of Laurie might be based in part on Henry) and in its sequel, Little Men, which has a chapter titled “Huckleberries” and in her early works Moods and Flower Fables.

 

Moncure Conway (1832-1907) was a divinity student at Harvard when he met Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. We have “turned back the clock” and made him a child in our story, but he was actually along on the huckleberry party of our story and recounted Edward’s huckleberry mishap in his Autobiography, Memories and Experiences, published in 1904. Conway was born in Virginia to a slave-holding family, but became a staunch abolitionist and a strong advocate for women’s suffrange. He was a minister and lived most of his life in England and France. When he was in London, he also served as Louisa May Alcott’s literary agent there, as well as the agent for Walt Whitman and Mark Twain, among others.

Henry David Thoreau Timeline

July 12, 1817: Henry is born in Concord, MA, where he would spend most of his life.

Henry is educated in the Concord public schools and at a private school called Concord Academy (not the present day Concord Academy). He then goes to Harvard College (Class of 1837).

October 22, 1837: Henry begins writing his journal--something he would continue for the rest of his life, writing some 7,000 pages of entries. He also met Ralph Waldo Emerson.

This same year Henry takes a position as a teacher in the Concord public schools and quit after two weeks due to a conflict with the superintendent on the issue of discipline (he refused to use corporal punishment). He then went to work in his family’s pencil manufacturing business, which was located on Main Street where the Concord Free Public Library is now. Henry invented a new machine for grinding the pencil “lead,” also known as “plumbago” or “graphite.” He was able to grind the plumbago into a fine powder and then combine it with clay to make a very successful pencil lead for writing. Henry also invented other machines to make the process of drilling the hole for the pencil lead easier. The pencils produced by the Thoreau family business were considered the finest made in America. Henry taught himself how to be a land surveyor and even made some of his own surveying instruments.

1838 -1841: Henry starts his own school along with his brother John (the school building was on what is now Middle Street in Concord). The school was closed due to the illness of Henry’s brother, John, who died in 1842. Henry goes back to the pencil factory briefly.

1841-1843: Henry is hired as a live-in handyman by Ralph Waldo Emerson, who is a friend and mentor. During this time, Henry becomes steeped in the ideas of Transcendentalism. He also develops the aspiration to become a writer and publishes a few essays and poems.

1843-1844: Henry moves to Staten Island and works as a tutor to the children of William Emerson (the brother of Ralph Waldo Emerson) and to try to break in as a writer in New York.

1844: Henry returns to Concord. Train service from Boston to Concord begins. Thoreau finds work at the pencil factory dull and living at his parent’s home not conducive to the solitude he wanted for writing, since the family took in “boarders” (the 19th-century equivalent of Air B&B).

1845: Seeking a quiet place where he could retreat, Henry decided to build a small cabin in the woods (many see the origins of the tiny house movement, as well as environmentalism, in Thoreau). Emerson owned some land along the shore of Walden Pond and gave Henry permission to build his cabin there. Henry bought some building materials (including a chicken coop which he dismantled for the wood) and borrowed some tools (from Bronson Alcott and others) and built his little one-room cabin. He moved into it on July 4, 1845. He lived there until September 6, 1847. The cabin was a relatively short walk from town, and he would go into town regularly for supplies, to do laundry, and get a home cooked meal.

July 1846: In July (either the 23rd or 24th) of 1846, Henry spends a night in the Concord jail. He was on a visit into town from Walden on his way to pick up a shoe getting repaired at the cobbler, when he was arrested by the tax collector, Sam Staples, for his failure to pay his poll tax, which he had not paid for several years. [It was actually against the law to arrest someone for this, but that did not stop Mr. Staples, who had even offered to pay Henry’s tax for him, but Henry had refused the offer.] Staples was also the constable (sheriff) and the jailer. Henry had stopped paying the tax because he thought it was being used to support the Mexican-American war and to expand slavery into the American Southwest (though he was not correct in this assumption). A local poll tax at this time was levied on every voter. Henry was not the first Concordian to be arrested for failing to pay his poll tax. Louisa May Alcott’s father, Bronson Alcott, had been arrested for this offense in January, 1843. In Massachusetts at this time, the maximum poll tax that could be assessed was $1.50 per year (equivalent to about $45 in today’s dollars). The jail at the time was an old stone building, built in 1789 by the stone mason John Parke. It was not a pleasant place to be. Even in July, it would have been damp, musty, and cool. Henry was released the next day, when an unidentified woman (possibly his aunt, Maria Thoreau) paid his tax. Henry was angry about having to leave the jail, because he had been hoping to use his imprisonment to raise awareness about the war. His essay “Civil Disobedience” was inspired by this experience, which in turn inspired many non-violent activists, including Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mahatma Ghandi. Despite the incident, Staples and Henry were friends until the end of Thoreau’s life.

Huckleberries come in at the end of Henry’s jail experience. He writes in his book Walden:
"One afternoon, near the end of the first summer, when I went to the village to get a shoe from the cobbler’s, I was seized and put into jail, because, as I have elsewhere related, I did not pay a tax to, or recognize the authority of, the State which buys and sells men, women, and children, like cattle at the door of its senate-house... I was released the next day, obtained my mended shoe, and returned to the woods in season to get my dinner of huckleberries on Fair Haven Hill.” (Walden, p. 190)

The Thoreau family was strongly committed to the anti-slavery movement. They were active members of the underground railroad and assisted many slaves along the way to freedom.

Also in the summer of 1846, Thoreau spent a month away from Walden canoeing and hiking in the Maine woods, even climbing Mt. Katahdin in Maine. He would write about these experiences in “Ktaadn and the Maine Woods.”

1847-1850: After his time living in his cabin at Walden Pond, Henry lives again with the Emerson family while Ralph Waldo Emerson is in Europe on an extended lecture tour.

August 1850: Henry moves back into his parents’ house on Main Street in Concord, living in the attic. He worked in the pencil factory, did surveying work, worked as a carpenter, house painter, day laborer, and published essays and several books. He started to give lectures. He also continued writing in his journal. Despite all of the various directions in which his interests and activities took him, he managed to walk in the Concord woods most afternoons.

In the 1850’s electrotyping printing became widely used, and the family shifted their business from making pencils into supplying their “plumbago” to printing houses.

August 6, 1853: The actual date of the huckleberry party upon which we have based our story. Henry led huckleberry parties throughout his adult life, including during the time he was at Walden. Using Louisa May Alcott’s reality fiction technique, we have set the story during the time when Henry was living in his cabin. We have kept Edward around the age he was in 1853 and put Louisa and Monty (Moncure Conway) around the age they would have been in August 6, 1845, the fictional date of our story.

1859: Henry’s father, John Thoreau, dies. Henry has to take over running the family business.

1860: At some point during his college years, Henry had contracted tuberculosis. In 1860, Henry develops a bad cold that became bronchitis. In an era before antibiotics, this is a great stress to his tubercular lungs. He deals with poor health for the remainder of his life.

May 6, 1862: Henry dies from tuberculosis at the age of 44.

Moncure Conway wrote the following about his time with the children of Concord and the huckleberry party in our story in particular (Autobiography, pp 133-134):

I managed to make friends with the Concord children. Never had small town a more charming circle of lovely little ones. The children of Emerson, of Judge Rockwood Hoar, of the Loring and Barrett families, mostly girls between ten and twelve years, were all pretty and intelligent, and as it was vacation time they were prepared for walks, picnics, boating, etc. Other of their elders beside myself found delight in the society of these young people, especially Thoreau. He used to take us out on the river in his boat, and by his scientific talk guide us into the water-lilies Fairyland. He showed us his miracle of putting his hand into the water and bringing up a fish. I remember Ellen Emerson asking her father, " Whom shall we invite to the picnic ? " his answer being " All children from six years to sixty."

Then there were huckleberrying parties. These were under the guidance of Thoreau, because he alone knew the precise locality of every variety of the berry. I recall an occasion when little Edward Emerson, carrying a basket of fine huckleberries, had a fall and spilt them all. Great was his distress, and our offers of berries could not console him for the loss of those gathered by himself. But Thoreau came, put his arm around the troubled child, and explained to him that if the crop of huckleberries was to continue it was necessary that some should be scattered. Nature had provided that little boys should now and then stumble and sow the berries. “We shall have a grand lot of bushes and berries on this spot, and we shall owe them to you.” Edward began to smile.

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