Henry David Thoreau Says Walden Embodies Transcendentalism

A famous letter and the only one we can find of Thoreau ever having reached the market referencing transcendentalism; It represents an important moment in his life

He knows he has an important message: “I have thoughts to offer which I think will be as worthy of their attention,” and will speak before a Boston audience for the first time

The subject will be “reality rather transcendentally treated. It lies still in ‘Walden or Life...

Read More

Henry David Thoreau Says Walden Embodies Transcendentalism

A famous letter and the only one we can find of Thoreau ever having reached the market referencing transcendentalism; It represents an important moment in his life

He knows he has an important message: “I have thoughts to offer which I think will be as worthy of their attention,” and will speak before a Boston audience for the first time

The subject will be “reality rather transcendentally treated. It lies still in ‘Walden or Life in the Woods.’”

Higginson, the recipient, illustrated this very letter in his book about the history of transcendntalism and sold this letter in 1907, and described its importance then

This is the earliest letter mentioning Walden to reach the market since 1909, when one sold at Anderson Galleries

In March 1845, William Ellery Channing told Thoreau, “Go out upon that, build yourself a hut, & there begin the grand process of devouring yourself alive. I see no other alternative, no other hope for you.” Two months later, Thoreau embarked on a two-year experiment in simple living on July 4, 1845, when he moved to a small house he had built on land owned by Emerson in a second-growth forest around the shores of Walden Pond.

Thoreau left Walden Pond on September 6, 1847. Over several years, as he worked to pay off his debts, he continuously revised the manuscript of what he eventually published as Walden, or Life in the Woods in 1854, recounting the two years, two months, and two days he had spent at Walden Pond. The book compresses his time at Walden into a single calendar year, using the passage of the four seasons to symbolize human development.

Thoreau gave 63 or so lectures in his lifetime. But from 1838 to 1848, then, he was virtually unknown as a lecturer outside Concord.This changed dramatically late in the fall of 1848 when, through a fortuitous series of events, he was given an opportunity to read his first Walden lecture outside the Concord area. A year and a half earlier (that is, in the first two months of 1847, while still living at the pond) he had read parts of the earliest draft of his Walden manuscript before both the lyceum in Concord and the lyceum in neighboring Lincoln. In the intervening months he revised and expanded his manuscript into three lectures that formed what he called “a course of lectures on Life in the Woods.”

The name of the course itself — “Life in the Woods” — would likely attract people’s interest, as would the general subject. Thoreau struggled with lecturing. He was not by most accounts a great speaker, but he had a message that resonated. He was unsure, in spite of this, of the worthiness of his message in front of large and educated audiences, in the large cities, particularly Boston.

Thomas Wentworth Higginson was an American Unitarian minister, publisher, author, abolitionist, and soldier. He was active in the American Abolitionism movement during the 1840s and 1850s, identifying himself with the militant wing. He was a member of the Secret Six who supported John Brown. During the Civil War, from 1862–1864, he served as colonel of the 1st South Carolina Volunteers, the first federally authorized black regiment. He was also Thoreau’s earliest dedicated devotee. Later he would have a famous correspondence with Emily Dickinson.

Autograph letter signed, Concord, April 2, 1852, to Higginson, mentioning Walden, transcendentalism, and the message his life has to deliver to others. “Dear Sir, I do not see that I can refuse to read another lecture, but what makes me hesitate is the fear that I have not another available which will entertain a large audience, though I have thoughts to offer which I think will be as worthy of their attention. However, I will try, for the prospect of earning a few dollars is alluring. As fas I can foresee, my subject would be reality rather transcendentally treated. It lies still in “Walden or Life in the Woods.” Since you are kind enough to undertake the arrangements I will leave it to you to name an evening of next week – decide on the most suitable room and advertise (?) – if this is not taking you too literally at your word.

“If you still think it worth the while to attend to this, will you let me know as soon as may be what evening will be most convenient.”

On February 18, 1907, Higginson sold this very letter to Boston book dealer P.K. Foley. He recalled the lecture as he did so. “It has a biographical interest, as relating to his first appearance before a Boston audience and held in a small cheap room in Tremont Row….Mr. Alcott tried to get them to the other end of the room, saying to them “This is his book which he is reading; this is his life. We ought all to be interested in a man’s life, ought we not? But they generally clung to their evening papers.”

Higginson also described the event in more detail. “The scene of the lecture was to be a small hall in a court … opening from Tremont street, opposite King’s Chapel, the hall itself being leased by an association of young mechanics, who had a reading-room opening out of it. The appointed day ushered in a furious snow-storm before, which the janitor of the building retreated in despair, leaving the court almost blockaded. When Thoreau and I ploughed through, we found a few young mechanics reading newspapers; and when the appointed hour came, there were assembled only Mr. Alcott. Dr. Walter Channing and at most three or four ticket-holders. No one wished to postpone the affair and Mr. Alcott suggested that the thing to be done was to adjourn to the reading-room, where, he doubted not, the young men would be grateful for the new gospel offered; for which he himself undertook to prepare their minds. I can see him now, going from one to another, or collecting them in little groups and expounding to them, with his lofty Socratic mien, the privileges they were to share. “This is his life; this is his book; he is to print it presently; I think “ve shall all be glad, shall we not, either to read his book or to hear it?” Some laid down their newspapers, more retained them; the lecture proved to be one of the most introspective chapters from “Walden”. A few went to sleep, the rest rustled their papers; and the most vivid impression which I retain from the whole enterprise is the profound grati­tude I felt to one auditor (Dr. Walter Channing), who forced upon me a five-dollar bill towards the expenses of the disastrous entertainment.”

One of the young mechanics in Thoreau’s audience that stormy evening said to another within Thoreau’s hearing. What does he lecture for? Thoreau confessed later that the remark “made me quake in my shoes.”

“Thoreau’s Lectures Before Walden” describes the advertisements and reviews. “An advertisement placed by Higginson in the 5 and 6 April 1852 Boston Daily Advertiser stated: “MR. H. D. THOREAU, of Concord, by request of many of the auditors of his first (private) lecture in this city, will read a second lecture on Life in the Woods, on TUESDAY EVENING, April 6th, at COCHITUATE HALL… at 7 P.M. Admittance 25 cent… Essentially the same ad appeared in the 5 and 6 April Boston Daily Evening Transcript, the one substantive difference being that this ad announced the starting time as “7 l/2 p.M.”

A note on rarity: Letters of Thoreau are uncommon. Only a handful have reached the market in the past few decades. Letters of his mentioning Walden are even more so.

There is only one other letter we can find ever having reached the market where he characterizes the nature of the subject of Walden, and this is the only one where he mentions transcendentalism (“transcendentally”). The last time a letter of Thoreau mentioning the title of the book, Walden or Life in the Woods, reached the market was in 1909. This is the earliest letter referencing Walden to reach the market in more than a century. Only a small handful ever have.

Frame, Display, Preserve

Each frame is custom constructed, using only proper museum archival materials. This includes:The finest frames, tailored to match the document you have chosen. These can period style, antiqued, gilded, wood, etc. Fabric mats, including silk and satin, as well as museum mat board with hand painted bevels. Attachment of the document to the matting to ensure its protection. This "hinging" is done according to archival standards. Protective "glass," or Tru Vue Optium Acrylic glazing, which is shatter resistant, 99% UV protective, and anti-reflective. You benefit from our decades of experience in designing and creating beautiful, compelling, and protective framed historical documents.

Learn more about our Framing Services