Article - Winter 2020

A Transcendentalist at Work

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Thoreau spent his last dozen years in this garret, making sense of what he could see from his windows

By Richard Higgins | December 2, 2019
Thoreau's garret, where he wrote <em>Walden</em>, is normally empty, but a replica of his writing desk is sometimes placed there for a special occasion. (Richard Higgins)
Thoreau's garret, where he wrote Walden, is normally empty, but a replica of his writing desk is sometimes placed there for a special occasion. (Richard Higgins)

Can we detect any echo of a life gone by, any trace of a spirit, in the places where a person lived? No, I ordinarily think. Though I am inclined toward religion, I am a brazen rationalist when it comes to spirit rapping, séances, and such. But as I walk through the garret where Henry David Thoreau spent the last 12 years of his life, where he finished Walden and wrote most of his Journal, I am not so sure. The rooms are completely empty, yet there is something here.

Thoreau’s iconic cabin at Walden Pond has been exhaustively documented. Even its nails are treated like holy relics. The third-floor garret, however, is rarely visited because the house has remained private since he and his family owned it. Yet I doubt any place outside the natural world exudes Thoreau’s spirit more.

Thoreau lived at 255 Main Street, Concord, from August 29, 1850, to his death on May 6, 1862. His parents and sister Sophia lived below him, as did various aunts at different times, in addition to the boarders his mother, Cynthia, took in. (The family also sheltered runaway slaves in 1851 and 1853.) The 1820 structure, which Thoreau called the Yellow House, is now the Thoreau-Alcott House, Louisa May Alcott having bought it after Sophia’s death in 1876. The elegant main floors, now grandly expanded, are furnished with handsome colonial and Victorian antiques. Thoreau’s spare apartment above, which I recently had a chance to visit and photograph, is strikingly different.

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