HARVARD AND THOREAU

 

Like countless students before and since, Henry David Thoreau, Class of 1837, had his problems with Harvard. It was too fixed on drilling and grades for him, his classmates were too rowdy, and on the whole he would rather have been in the woods of Concord. Indeed, he was in those woods, he wrote in his class book, for “hours that should have been devoted to study.”

In 1840, he dismissed the unearned master’s degree that Harvard offered him, as it did then to all alumni three years after graduation. “Let every sheep keep its skin,” he sniffed. And when Ralph Waldo Emerson said that Harvard taught all the branches of knowledge, Thoreau replied: “Yes, all the branches and none of the roots.”

Now, however, as we celebrate the bicentennial of his birth, on July 12, 1817, it is clear that his protest should not be taken too seriously. Harvard profoundly influenced Thoreau and helped make him who he was, whether he said so or not.

As a student, he devoured its books, reading many of them outside of classes. The library was also indispensable to his later literary career and work as a naturalist. Thoreau told Emerson’s son Edward that Harvard’s library was the “the best gift” the College had to offer. At Harvard he also began his habit of copying passages that struck him, filling 20 “commonplace” notebooks with a million words.

Thoreau was introduced to Transcendentalism when he read Emerson’s new manifesto, “Nature,” in his senior year, became acquainted with “Hindoo” and other Eastern writings, and developed his interest in poetry and in European languages while at Harvard. By the time he left, he could read Greek, Latin, Italian, German, and French.

Thoreau studied the ancient Greek and Roman writers intensely, an immersion that formed his belief that the world of which the poets Homer and Virgil sang is no different from the world today. His love of the classics would also suffuse his writing: While it was often about plants and ponds, Homer, Cicero, and Pliny were never far behind.

David Henry Thoreau, as he was then known, entered Harvard on Aug. 30, 1833, at age 16. The College had fewer than 20 professors or instructors, cost $179 a year, and can scarce be imagined physically on today’s megalopolis campus. It consisted of six brick buildings clustered on the west side of the Yard, across from First Parish Church. All classes were held in Massachusetts Hall. There were three dormitories (Hollis, Holworthy, and Stoughton), the chapel, and Harvard Hall, which held 50,000 books.

Students were given cannonballs to heat and use as bed warmers during cold weather. They lost points, and thus scholarship money, in President Josiah Quincy’s elaborate ranking system if they rolled them down the stairs, which they did anyway, or failed to appear in the unheated chapel for prayer at 6 a.m. (In a liberalizing gesture, this was moved to a half-hour before sunrise in winter.) Dining was not today’s varied affair: only coffee or tea and rolls, which Thoreau said tasted like wool, morning and evening, with a midday dinner of meat.

A fellow student’s poison-pen description of Thoreau walking with downcast eyes and a disdainful expression created the perception that he was morose and aloof at Harvard, but later findings have cast doubt on this. The Thoreau scholar Raymond Adams, writing about the spirited letters Thoreau exchanged with classmates who became close friends, said he “took pleasure in college life” and was not as unhappy as people thought.

Ronald A. Bosco, the editor of numerous scholarly works related to Transcendentalism and guest curator of a new Thoreau exhibit at Harvard’s Houghton Library, agrees. “Thoreau made lasting friends at Harvard and enjoyed much of the learning process,” if not its regimented style. He also “remained connected to the College through its library” after leaving Harvard. Thoreau successfully petitioned for borrowing privileges in 1849.

Thoreau’s reserve may have contributed to the misperception. While he wrote in his class book that his fellow students had a place “in my heart,” he said it was “too sacred a matter” to speak of directly. Instead, he quoted the Scottish poet Robert Burns on the pain of being severed from friends.

But it is true that in many ways Harvard and Thoreau were ill-suited. He didn’t want to go, and he never liked being away from rural Concord. “Though bodily I have been a member of Harvard University, heart and soul I have been far away among the scenes of my boyhood,” he wrote in his class book, “scouring the woods, and exploring the lakes and streams of my native village.”

The cost of Harvard was hard on his family, which caused him to take a leave to teach school in his third year. No sooner was he back than he had to withdraw again, this time for illness, a preliminary bout with tuberculosis.


This class book of “David Henry Thoreau” bears the Harvard student’s wandering thoughts about his bucolic home, as well as a short poem at the bottom. 

But Thoreau’s main beef with Harvard was its emphasis on drilling and rote memory, rather than what he identified as true teaching. He said the College fostered “superficial scholarship” instead of critical thought. Quincy’s arcane, and hated, marking system, which rated students on daily recitations, chapel attendance, and general behavior as well as compositions and tests, especially irked him. Thoreau was one of 34 members of his class who asked Quincy in 1834 to abolish it.

The faculty was small, but it was distinguished. Thoreau had high regard for Edward Channing, professor of rhetoric. Thoreau said he learned to express himself during three years of English with Channing — a rare compliment from him to the College. Thoreau was also impressed by Henry Ware, a liberal Unitarian whose appointment as professor of theology in 1805 caused a fracture with Harvard’s orthodox Puritans. One of the very rare times that Thoreau attended the First Parish Church in Concord as an adult was when Ware preached there in 1840. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who joined the faculty when Thoreau was a senior, deepened his interest in German literature and poetry.

He gained an introduction to natural history his senior year when he studied with Thaddeus William Harris, the College librarian and an early entomologist. Harris called him an enthusiastic student of insects but said it was unfortunate that he had just read “Nature.” Thoreau would have made a fine entomologist, Harris said, “if he hadn’t been ruined by Emerson.”

Cornelius Conway Felton, with whom Thoreau took three years of Greek grammar, composition, and literature, deepened his love of the classics. Felton was distinguished as a teacher of Greek, but he did not distinguish himself as a judge of character in his estimate of Thoreau. He was “a scholar of talent,” Felton said, “but of such pertinacious oddity in literary matters, that his writings will probably never do him any justice.”

Bosco observed that for all its positive influences, Harvard was not where Thoreau was primarily educated. Noting that “Melville admitted that the sea was his college,” he said, “Thoreau truly began his serious intellectual development as a student of Concord and nature.”

In later life, Thoreau never let up on Harvard. In 1854, he mocked claims the College made about the practical application of spherical geometry, which he had studied. “To my astonishment I was informed on leaving college I had studied navigation!” he wrote. “Why, if I had taken one turn down the harbor I should have known more about it.” Instead of helping Harvard, he said, men should consider giving money to their towns to preserve and protect a huckleberry patch.

But Thoreau’s intellectual growth at Harvard was evident at his graduation, at which he was entitled to speak by his grades. In his oration, he sounded some of the themes he would embed in his classic book “Walden” around 15 years later. The “commercial spirit” of the day, he said, rested on a love of wealth that made people selfish and greedy. The world would be a better place, he said, if people “made riches the means and not the end of existence.”

“The sea will not stagnate, the earth will be as green as ever, and the air as pure,” he said in the Yard on Aug. 30, 1837, long before the planet’s pollution became a fixture in graduation speeches. “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.”

Thoreau also ventured that people erred by working six days and resting one — a thought he would develop at length in the “Economy” chapter of “Walden.” “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.”

His classmates’ bacchanal parties roared into the night, but without Thoreau. After receiving his diploma, he returned home to Concord and to his natural studies.

Advertisements

4 thoughts on “HARVARD AND THOREAU

  1. Any fool can live in the woods alone and have their family bring food. “enthusiastic student of insects ” Thoreau seemed a man-child who ran away from life. Emerson seems a bigoted egotist. I don’t know.

    “Thoreau also ventured that people erred by working six days and resting …” He was a grown man; lazy to the bone? We could forget they existed. I would be fine without them. I don’t like or respect their work very much at all.

    Liked by 1 person

    • YOU CAN REPUBLISH OUR POSTS!
      Since https://venitism.wordpress.com is a free-content blog, there are no copyright entanglements, and you can republish our posts without charge. Every day, we publish more than thirty posts. If you like our content, you are interested in it, or you want to single it out for mockery, then you can feature it on your web page, print it in your newsletter, or hang a copy on a wall and throw darts at it! Copy-paste, reprint, translate, make derivative works as you please. Anyone copying our content will be a very good friend of ours! We would greatly appreciate a link to our blog.
      Venitism is a first-in-class content-free business blog that provides warp speed, on the ground reporting from anywhere in the world. We arm our readers with ideas that help them become smarter, more creative, and more courageous in their work. To do that, we enlist the foremost experts in business, collaborating to express their thoughts in the most influential way possible.
      New ideas in business are rare and precious, and one of the primary reasons readers turn to our blog. Readers come to us not only to stay on top of new developments in business thinking, but also to change the way they and their organizations actually do things. Our readers enjoy accurate, original reporting, untainted by establishment spin.

      Like

  2. Ralph Waldo Emmerson has been voted many times over as the singlemost person who influenced American thought in the 20th Century and David Henry Thoreau running a few steps behind. They were both unconventional geniuses. Thoreau advocating of more leissure time for men is not any different from that of Karl Marx, perhsps even of the Christian teaching who quips, “What does it profiteth a man to inherit the whole world and lose his own soul?”

    He wrote extensively and that was his calling. He wondered in the woods trying to pick that which Nature communicated. It is a deeply solitary life normally suffered by all geniuses. Nature speaks in silence, and to pick its voice, one has to be alone.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Since https://venitism.wordpress.com is a free-content blog, there are no copyright entanglements, and you can republish our posts without charge. Every day, we publish more than thirty posts. If you like our content, you are interested in it, or you want to single it out for mockery, then you can feature it on your web page, print it in your newsletter, or hang a copy on a wall and throw darts at it! Copy-paste, reprint, translate, make derivative works as you please. Anyone copying our content will be a very good friend of ours! We would greatly appreciate a link to our blog.

      Venitism is a first-in-class content-free business blog that provides warp speed, on the ground reporting from anywhere in the world. We arm our readers with ideas that help them become smarter, more creative, and more courageous in their work. To do that, we enlist the foremost experts in business, collaborating to express their thoughts in the most influential way possible.

      New ideas in business are rare and precious, and one of the primary reasons readers turn to our blog. Readers come to us not only to stay on top of new developments in business thinking, but also to change the way they and their organizations actually do things. Our readers enjoy accurate, original reporting, untainted by establishment spin.

      Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s