Mapping Thoreau Country

Try to get into Widener Library.


Harvard College in 1828.

Thoreau was graduated from Harvard in 1837, having achieved marks sufficient to land him a part in commencement exercises.  He was chosen to speak, along with two other students, on "The Commercial Spirit of Modern Times" and took the opportunity to sound themes that remained constant in his writings for the rest of his life.  The twenty-one-year-old Thoreau exhorted his listeners:

"Let men, true to their natures, cultivate the moral affections, lead manly and independent lives; let them make riches the means and not the end of existence, and we shall hear no more of the commercial spirit. The sea will not stagnate, the earth will be as green as ever, and the air as pure. This curious world which we inhabit is more wonderful than it is convenient; more beautiful than it is useful; it is more to be admired and enjoyed than used. The order of things should be somewhat reversed; the seventh should be man's day of toil, wherein to earn his living by the sweat of his brow; and the other six his Sabbath of the affections and the soul, — in which to range this widespread garden, and drink in the soft influences and sublime revelations of Nature." — The Writings of Henry David Thoreau: Familiar Letters, edited by Franklin Benjamin Sanborn, Bradford Torrey, 9.

Looking back on his student days in a letter to the Class Secretary, he echoed these remarks, stressing that he had learned more from his interactions with nature than from sitting in lecture halls:

"Though bodily I have been a member of Harvard University, heart and soul I have been far away among the scenes of my boyhood.  Those hours that should have been devoted to study have been spent in scouring the woods and exploring the lakes and streams of my native village. Immured within the dark but classic walls of a Stoughton or a Hollis, my spirit yearned for the sympathy of my old and almost forgotten friend, Nature." — H.D. Thoreau, quoted in Memorials of the Class of 1837 of Harvard University38.

Thoreau's preference for outdoor exploration did not translate into a rejection of scientific tools and equipment that could only be utilized in laboratories or housed in educational institutions.  His keen interest in astronomy, combined with his work as a professional surveyor, led him to correspond with William Cranch Bond, who had established a state-of-the art observatory at Harvard in 1843.  In 1851, as an outgrowth of his efforts to gain an understanding of magnetic variation, he visited Bond's observatory, an exercise in scientific investigation that seems much more in tune with his labor as a surveyor of natural phenomena than of the roads and woodlots of Concord.

While he did not think much of his Harvard diploma, he prized his access to the Library, which he preserved after his graduation by haranguing Josiah Quincy, President of the College, to whom he turned when the librarian refused to grant him privileges.  As R.W. Emerson recounted in his remembrance of Thoreau, first published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1862:

On one occasion he went to the University Library to procure some books. The librarian refused to lend them. Mr. Thoreau repaired to the President, who stated to him the rules and usages, which permitted the loan of books to resident graduates...and to some others resident within a circle of ten miles' radius from the College. Mr. Thoreau explained to the President that the railroad had destroyed the old scale of distances, — that the library was useless, yes, and President and College useless, on the terms of his rules, — that the one benefit he owed to the College was its library, — that, at this moment, not only his want of books was imperative, but he wanted a large number of books, and assured him that he, Thoreau, and not the librarian, was the proper custodian of these. In short, the President found the petitioner so formidable, and the rules getting to look so ridiculous, that he ended by giving him a privilege which in his hands proved unlimited thereafter. —R.W. Emerson, "Biographical Sketch," Excursions (1863), 13.

"What does education often do? It makes a straightcut ditch of a free, meandering brook." — H.D. Thoreau, Journal, 1850.