- Historic Sites
“this Is A Beautiful World; But I Shall See A Fairer”
December 1962 | Volume 14, Issue 1
Henry David Thoreau died a hundred years ago, leaving behind no material possessions worth speaking of. He had lived a short and, by most criteria, an uneventful life. After graduating without great distinction from Harvard, he had worked in desultory fashion at odd jobs around Concord, Massachusetts: as a schoolteacher, woodchopper, and general handyman. He was coolly disinterested in making money, and the credo of hard work for its own sake was lost on him—“It is not necessary that a man should earn his living by the sweat of his brow,” he once said, “unless he sweats easier than I do.” At his self-built cottage on Walden Pond he proved to his own satisfaction, and to the unending satisfaction of generations of his readers, that life can indeed be simple, beautiful, and—above all—in harmony with nature.
“I went to the woods,” he wrote in Walden (1854), “because I wished to live deliberately…” Unimpelled by the drives of machine civilization, he deliberately ignored its imperatives in favor of more important things: dew glistening on the petals of wildflowers; the ineffable flicker of a swallow’s wing; the distant cry of a mourning dove; the taste of fresh powder snow on a January morning. And with the utmost fidelity, Thoreau recorded his impressions in his journals, moved to language that perhaps has never quite been matched in its power of evoking the world of nature before the inward eye of the reader.
A MERICAN H ERITAGE is pleased to offer here an essay on Thoreau’s last days by Walter Harding, a leading Thoreau scholar, and a portfolio of extraordinary photographs (beginning on page 113) that capture, we think, glimpses of nature very much as Thoreau saw it. These pictures, and the excerpts from Thoreau printed opposite each, are chosen by special arrangement from a book just published by the Sierra Club in San Francisco, entitled “ In Wildness Is the Preservation of the World .” The book contains seventy-two such photographs by Eliot Porter, who also selected the accompanying quotations from Thoreau; Joseph Wood Krutch has provided an introduction.
It was one of the ironies of his life that Henry David Thoreau, the archetype of the American outdoorsman, should have died of that scourge of civilization, tuberculosis. Rarely has there been a man in our history who has become so associated in the popular image with the great out-of-doors. His years spent in his cabin at Walden Pond, his ramblings through the fields and woods of his native Concord, Massachusetts, and his excursions (as he called them in his books) to the Maine woods, Cape Cod, the White Mountains, Quebec, and Minnesota are famous in the annals of our literature. He thought no day worth-while unless the greater part of it were spent outdoors. Yet at the age of only fortyfour, just one hundred years ago this year, he died of tuberculosis.
Although he was plagued with recurring attacks of the disease from his college days in the 1830’s on, we can date the start of his final illness with precision—December 3, 1860. Thoreau spent the afternoon on Fair Haven Hill in Concord studying the growth of hickories and oaks. It was a raw, bleak day, and he caught cold. When, against a doctor’s advice, he insisted on fulfilling a lecture engagement in Waterbury, Connecticut, on the eleventh, the strain of the journey was too much for him. The cold rapidly ,worsened into bronchitis, which in turn reopened the old tubercular lesions in his lungs. He was confined to his house for the rest of the winter.
With the coming of spring doctors urged him to try a drier climate, and he made a futile twomonth journey to Minnesota and back with Horace Mann, Jr., the son of the famed educator. In the early fall of 1861 he seemed briefly to recover somewhat, but within a few weeks there was a relapse. By late November he was confined to the house once more. By mid-December he had failed so much that he could no longer hold a pen and was forced to dictate all his writing to his sister Sophia.
On the nineteenth of December, Sophia wrote Daniel Ricketson, Thoreau’s New Bedford Quaker friend:
The air and exercise which he enjoyed during the fine autumn days, was a benefit to him—he seemed stronger—had a good appetite, and was able to attend somewhat to his writing; but since the cold weather has come his cough has increased and he is able to go out but seldom. Just now he is suffering from an attack of pleurisy which confines him wholly to the house.
His spirits do not fail him, he continues in his usual serene mood, which is very pleasant for his friends as well as himself.
When Bronson Alcott called on New Year’s Day, 1862, bringing cider and apples, he found Thoreau failing and feeble, but “talkative,…interested in books and men.” They discussed Pliny, Evelyn, and the rural authors. When Alcott mentioned the war, Thoreau spoke impatiently of “the temporizing policy” of the government and blamed “the people too for their indifferency to the true issues of national honor and justice.” But despite Thoreau’s brave talk, Alcott thought it obvious that his days were numbered.
A week later Daniel Ricketson wrote, inviting Thoreau to visit him in New Bedford. But Alcott, at Sophia Thoreau’s request, replied: ”…he grows feebler day by day, and is evidently failing and fading from our sight. He gets some sleep, has a pretty good appetite, reads at intervals, takes notes of his readings, and likes to see his friends, conversing, however, with difficulty, as his voice partakes of his general debility.”