Henry David Thoreau was born in Concord, Massachusetts on this date in 1817. The writer and philosopher lived an incredibly short life; he died in May 1862 just shy of his 45h birthday. To put that into perspective, his death occurred in the middle of General McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign. I have always wondered what Thoreau might have had to say about the Civil War had he lived through its entirety. Walt Whitman gave us “Drum Taps” and “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” at the war’s end, and then went on to live another twenty-seven years after Appomattox. Thoreau was a mere two years older than Whitman.
Perhaps intellectually Thoreau did not have the sensibility to live in and understand Gilded Age America, much in the way Theodore Roosevelt’s 1919 death spared him having to live through the Roaring Twenties and Jazz Age, to which Roosevelt would have been constitutionally unsuited. So, maybe it’s for the best that Thoreau died when he did before the full tragedy of the war unfolded. This was we remember him as we do with the transcendentalists and for the influence he later had on Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and others.
A few weeks ago I began subscribing to The Atlantic. Given certain things taking place in our world today it has never been more important to support journalism. One of the things I find most beneficial about the periodical, in addition to its great stable of contributors, is its historical memory. The Atlantic has been in publication since 1857, the year of a great financial panic and depression. Three years later came Lincoln’s 1860 presidential victory and soon thereafter the Civil War. Here is the magazine’s online author page for one Henry David Thoreau.
(photograph by George F. Parlow/Library of Congress)