Sunday, August 12, 2012

From the Trenches: Mother Nature's Son

Some of the world's greatest writers never become famous in their own lifetimes. One of America's best never made much money with his writing, and by the time he died only two of his books were in print...because he paid for them himself. 

Henry David Thoreau, who was born David Henry, paid to have 1,000 copies of his book A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers printed...less than 300 sold. He built himself a shack in the woods after being schooled at Harvard, and many of his contemporaries thought he was quite odd. Maybe they weren't wrong -- but he was still a brilliant writer.

It just took a long time for anyone to realize it. 

Into the Woods

He was born in Concord, Massachusetts and went to Harvard in 1833 to study science, philosophy, math, rhetoric and the classics. But as an adult, Thoreau decided he wanted to escape the polished atmosphere of city living...and all the rest of society. 

In his own words, Thoreau went out into the woods "to live deliberately." He built a shack on a friend's land out by Walden Pond, to learn what he couldn't learn in college...and to write. He was told in 1845 to "build yourself a hut" and then to begin "the grand process of devouring yourself alive" by Ellery Channing. Thoreau followed the advice and just two months later, he was in the woods.

Here he wrote A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, but couldn't find a publisher. It was Thoreau's friend, Ralph Waldo Emerson, who suggested that Thoreau self-publish. He did, but very few copies of the book sold. He left Walden Pond in 1847 and worked to pay off various debts he'd earned. For years, he worked on his second book, Walden, which talked about his adventured in the woods. 

Today, it is considered to be a very important book. It's studied, and re-studied, and cited as a fantastic work of literary art. Back then...well, opinions were slightly different.

Publishers and critics weren't really interested in Henry David Thoreau. He wrote for himself instead, keeping journals and writing essays to the very last day of his life. Bedridden with ill health for weeks, Thoreau wrote frantically until the very end. His only fans were a few close friends who believed in his writing. They were the only ones who did.

Friends like Ellery Channing and Harrison Blake helped to publish some of Thoreau's very prolific writings after his death. The first were published in 1906, and slowly began to grow in popularity. It wasn't until the 1920s that literary critics began to discover him, and his talent. Today, the international Thoreau Society is dedicated to honoring and spreading awareness about his vast writings, in particular his famous Walden.

Henry David Thoreau wrote in the writing trenches when no one really considered him a writer...and he kept on writing, even after he failed at it commercially. He died with very little money, but he did have a circle of friends who believed in his genius. They were right, and because they kept trying everyone now knows the name Henry David Thoreau. He waited a lifetime to share his books, and never benefited from his patience. But the rest of the world did, and I'm pretty sure he would be pretty happy with that.

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  1. I read "Walden" some years ago and I was so enthusiastic about it, that I started introducing it to my friends; almost none of them shared my view!
    Although this fact didn't affect at all my opinion, I was wondering what was the matter.
    Today that I read this article on Thoreau, I felt fully vindicated and this why I want to thank Ms Varden.
    I also want to add that I found every article on this blog very interesting and helpful and I wish I had more time to leave more comments, but actually this is not possible at this moment.
    I'll be back, though...

  2. Thanks, Kate! I'm glad you liked the post and the rest of the blog.