A Transcendentalist at Work

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

Thoreau's garret
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.

Everything in it has been removed, down to the walls and wide pine floorboards. None of the things Thoreau owned, not even the bookcases he made from river driftwood, are there. (The Alcotts, among other owners, removed them before the place was protected as a landmark.) Bare as it is, though, I detect a faint sign of its former inhabitant, something akin to the “trace of intelligence” Thoreau sensed one winter morning in a still and silent wood. There were animal tracks in the snow, but Thoreau felt he could detect another trace of sentient life. Did it not amount, he asked in his Journal, to “the track of a higher life than the otter’s, a life which has not gone by and left a footprint merely, but is there with its beauty … to exhilarate and recreate us?”

For a man dedicated to elevating himself, the garret was perfect. You ascend stairs as narrow as those in a lighthouse and step into an airy abode with views of Concord’s treetops and rivers, and the forests and blue hills beyond. The town had fewer trees and buildings then, so Thoreau could see the Sudbury River wind through meadows, a permanent mirror to the sky, and cows “in a pasture on the side of Fair Haven Hill, a mile and a half distant.” Through the garret’s two western windows, he could see the sunset. Two more windows face east, toward Concord center. There was no view to the south, toward Walden, but Thoreau hardly needed to be reminded of it: he spent much of his first four years here writing the final drafts of his book about his experiment by the pond—twice as long as he spent living it.

The garret was Thoreau’s upper empire—his refuge, library, and natural history lab. He did his work up here, rested here, played with his cat, Min (who once jumped out one of its windows), got away from the world, and dreamed of other worlds. The windows made his sanctum seem spacious. Room to think was necessary for Thoreau. “If I were confined to a corner in a garret all my days, like a spider,” he wrote on October 31, 1850, “the world would be just as large to me while I had my thoughts.”

As a rule, Thoreau didn’t write about his home life in his journal, preferring to record his thoughts and observations of nature. But he could not avoid mentioning his attic—he often called it his “chamber”—with some frequency because of the many hours he spent looking out its windows. In September, he watched cottony milkweed pods sail past. In spring, he observed the trees leaf out, and he opened his windows to hear chipping sparrows, young robins, and swallows. In summer, he watched hawks circle in the sky and smelled the season’s savory scents, which, as he noted, reach “even to poets’ garrets.” On July 23, 1852, he wrote, “I sit at my window to observe the sun set. … A roseate redness, clear as amber, suffuses the low western sky about the sun, in which the small clouds are mostly melted, only their golden edges still revealed.”

In June 1853, Thoreau looked out his window through a spyglass at distant woods that until then had been only a mass on the horizon. It pleased him, he wrote, to “bring them so near” and “individualize” single treetops.

The imperfections in a particular tree-top more than two miles off were quite apparent. I could easily have seen a hawk sailing over the top of the wood, and possibly his nest in some higher tree. Thus to contemplate, from my attic in the village, the hawks circling about their nests above some dense forest or swamp miles away, almost as if they were flies on my own premises!

He could even distinguish “a taller white pine with which I am well acquainted, with a double top rising high above the surrounding woods, between two and three miles distant, which, with the naked eye, I had confounded with the nearer woods.”

It was just the right view for a curious and sweeping mind. “What is it that I see from one mile to two miles distant in the horizon on all sides from my window, but the woods, which still, almost without exception, encircle our New England towns,” he wrote on January 22, 1852.

They still bound almost every view. They have been driven off only so far. Where still wild creatures haunt. How long will these last? Is this a universal and permanent feature? Have the oldest countries retained it? Is it not an interesting and important question whether these are decreasing or not? Look out what window I will, my eyes rest in the distance on a forest! Is this fact of no significance? Is this circumstance of no value?

Thoreau did more than look, of course. From the garret, he set out on his storied walks, and in it he stored what he brought home: wildflowers, bird eggs, rocks, cocoons, lichens, gnawed pine cones, animal pelts and bones, acorns, odd bits of wood, Indian arrowheads, and many other curiosities, including, in the winter, frozen frogs and other small creatures he hoped to revive by his stove. Mounted on a wall were moose antlers and snowshoes from his trips to Maine. It was to the garret in 1853 that Thoreau lugged the 706 unsold copies of A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers that his “publisher, falsely so called,” had returned. The failure of his first book was humbling, but in typical manner he joked stoically about it. “They are something more substantial than fame, as my back knows, which has borne them up two flights of stairs to a place similar to that to which they trace their origin,” he wrote, adding his famous quip that he now had a library of 900 volumes, 700 of which he wrote himself. The books were piled waist high in his room. “Is it not well,” he asked, “that the author should behold the fruits of his labor?” Thoreau found fault with the publishing world, but he never lost faith in himself as a writer. In 1862, just before he died, that faith was repaid when he learned that his first book was being reissued.

His attic suite was larger than his famous cabin, but it bore similarities to it. It offered solitude but also proximity to friends and his extended family. Initially two of his father’s sisters, then later two of his mother’s, lived in the Yellow House. Thoreau spent part of each evening with his family, often listening to Sophia play the piano. He tracked the revolution of the seasons from his airy perch almost as easily as he did by the pond. He slept on the same rattan cot he used at Walden and wrote at the same green pine desk, turning out while on Main Street the vast bulk of his prodigious literary output—the final Walden drafts, 13 of the 14 published volumes of his two-
million-word Journal, as well as his essays and books on natural history, slavery, and his travels in Maine and on Cape Cod.

Thoreau also warmed himself with a stove, as he did by the pond, and kept the garret as sparse and functional as he kept the cabin. When he moved in at age 33, it had, in addition to bed and desk, only a bureau and two chairs. Gradually, he shaped it to his needs. In 1855, he gathered wood from the river to build a bookcase for 44 gilt-edged books of “Oriental” wisdom he received from his English friend Thomas Cholmondeley. The shelves were “neatly framed and varnished, with steel engravings adorning the ends,” according to his friend and walking companion Ellery Channing. Thoreau also used driftwood to make bins and cabinets for his specimens. On his visits to the garret, Channing found “the friendly wreck” of wood drying by the stove for such purposes.

The garret’s old-fashioned, 12-pane windows are original, but the current configuration of the space is not. Sometime after 1877, the Alcott family divided it into four small rooms around a central hall. They also may have enclosed the staircase and built the railing around it. The wall that divided the two rooms on the western side, where Thoreau had his bed, was later removed, as can be seen by a faint line on the floor, but the eastern side remains as two small rooms. The front one is a bathroom with a toilet and clawfoot tub. It was likely all one open space when Thoreau lived here.

That he did live here for so many years, going about his daily life and on his daily cosmic quest, is challenging to imagine in this now-empty, squeaky-clean space. Other than the 19th-century wrought-iron hinges and latches on the doors, it could be the attic of any house of the time. The woodwork gleams with fresh paint, making its storied past more implausible still.

I squat against a wall and look across his bedroom, knowing that Thoreau trod these floors countless times, yet I see only empty space. Then a ray of the sunlight breaks in, and I see multitudinous flecks of dust dancing in the beam. I’m amazed that the dust, so invisible a moment ago, appears in constellations before me. Thoreau believed that there was always more about a place than we see, and there is more here, I’m convinced, than these motes. There is, somehow, a faint imprint of Thoreau’s life—nothing as clear as the cellar holes he found at Walden, but still a sign of its former inhabitant.

It is, for me, a sudden, keen sense of Thoreau’s faithfulness, perseverance, and discipline, the breadth of his aspiration and the magnitude of his accomplishment. Although he decried the blindness, greed, and superficiality he sometimes saw in people, Thoreau also knew that we, too, were part of nature, part of the wild, and that nature was ultimately good, that it arced, with fits and starts, toward renewal. That faith was inextinguishable and sustaining for him.

He rose early, usually before dawn, to go out and experience that reality, to investigate it, and then came home to record in his journal what he saw and learned. He wanted to get it down faithfully, not knowing the end result of his endeavors, and he did so nearly every day, despite setbacks, such as illness and bouts of depression, for the 11 years and eight months he lived here, until he was too weak from consumption to hold a pencil. At that point, around February 1862, he was brought downstairs to the front parlor, where, besieged by coughing fits, he continued to revise his manuscripts, at times dictating changes to Sophia. Still he looked forward, asking the Atlantic Monthly what he—what his mother and Sophia, that is—would get for his pieces.

But while he lived in the garret and pursued his quest, he also emptied the chamber pot, did household chores, wrote business letters, and dealt with all the dross and details of life that can entrap us—or that grab hold of me at least and divert me from where my better self seeks to go. “My desire for knowledge is intermittent, but my desire to bathe my head in atmospheres unknown to my feet is perennial and constant,” Thoreau wrote, and he did not let the quotidian curtail that aspiration.

Could it all be in my head, this imprint of Thoreau’s life I sense in the garret, the pilgrim desire I feel to take off my shoes and bow? I spent a long time working with his Journal to write a book, during which I felt I got to know him. It was as if I could sense the person beneath the words—an affective connection I allowed despite its imaginary nature. I came to deeply respect that person. I reveled in his genius as a writer, laughed at his wry humor, admired the nobility of his thought, and respected his view of the ultimately spiritual nature of human life. I appreciated his inner struggles with personal loss and writerly fame, with his relationships to others and his place in the world. If he wasn’t always fully honest or forthcoming on these topics, I forgave him. For one thing, neither am I, and for another, Thoreau left enough hints about his inner life in his daily journal entries. His Journal is, if nothing else, the “simple and sincere account of his own life” that Thoreau required of every writer. It is therefore, as it must be, a “distant land” to every reader, as he wrote in Walden—and yet it is one whose broad woods, fields, and shores I came to recognize and to admire.

So, yes, I was looking for Thoreau’s imprint. I climbed the stairs with the same “tiptoe of expectation” with which he once followed fox tracks in the snow as if “on the trail of the spirit” of the woods, expecting “soon to catch it in its lair.” But if the trace of Thoreau I sensed was only in me, does that matter? Doesn’t it mean I was ready to receive whatever effluence or memory or spirit emanated from those rooms, prepared to see what, perhaps to another person, was not there? Didn’t I have it in my eye before I set off? After all, on that morning in the still winter wood, Thoreau wondered if there wasn’t something there “to guide a man on his pilgrimage,” some intelligence, “whether in the snow or the earth, or in ourselves.” If I am, then, a pilgrim, and this ordinary attic a shrine, am I not the better judge? It is the looking, Thoreau said, that enables us to see.

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Richard Higgins is the author of Thoreau and the Language of Trees. A writer and editor, he lives in Concord, Massachusetts.


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