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Henry David Thoreau (July 12, 1817 – May 6, 1862)

In essays, journals, and poems, Henry David Thoreau recorded impassioned expressions of the beauty and the agony of love between men.

Thoreau was born in Concord, Massachusetts, on July 12, 1817. He attended the newly founded Concord Academy and, after taking several leaves from his studies to earn money and to regain his health after his first attack of tuberculosis, went on to graduate from Harvard with the class of 1837.

Thoreau is perhaps best known for his stay at Walden Pond, chronicled in Walden (1854), and his night in jail after refusing to pay a poll tax to a government that supported the Mexican War and endorsed slavery. He wrote about this latter act of protest in "Resistance to Civil Government," popularly known as "Civil Disobedience," an essay that has inspired many, including Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.

In addition to Walden and his well-known speeches and essays on antebellum social concerns, he wrote A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1849), based on a canoe trip he took with his brother, John.

Thoreau kept voluminous journals and wrote essays about nature, perception, and science, many of which were published posthumously. These include The Maine Woods, Cape Cod, and the recently compiled Natural History Essays and Faith in a Seed.

Thoreau died May 6, 1862, of tuberculosis, the same disease that had earlier killed both his brother and father.

Biographers remain undecided about Thoreau's sexuality. He never married. He proposed to Ellen Sewall in 1840, but she rejected his offer. Some believe he was a "repressed" homosexual and others that he was asexual and remained celibate all of his life.

But his Journals, his essay "Chastity and Sensuality," and the long discourse on "Friendship" in A Week are prolific expressions of the beauty, and the agony, of love between men.

Some of these discussions are said to refer to his brother or to Ralph Waldo Emerson. Others clearly refer to two men whom Thoreau found particularly attractive: Tom Fowler, whom Thoreau chose as a guide on a trip to the Maine woods; and Alek Therien, the Canadian woodchopper who visited Thoreau at Walden Pond.

The passion evident in his discourses on love and friendship, and the utter lack of reference to women in his writings, has made Thoreau of great interest to scholars of gay and lesbian literature. Jonathan Katz included a section on Thoreau in his Gay American History. Walter Harding, the distinguished Thoreau scholar, argued quite convincingly in 1991 that Thoreau's "actions and words . . . indicate a specific sexual interest in members of his own sex."

Complicating matters concerning Thoreau's sexuality is historical research suggesting that homosexual identity is a late nineteenth-century phenomenon. But, as Michael Warner suggests, Thoreau's writing resists normalization even within nineteenth-century "rhetorics of romance and sexuality."

Although Thoreau may not have identified as "homosexual" in the way a twentieth-century gay man might, his rhetoric of sexual difference strikes a chord with gay readers and anticipates an emerging homosexual identity: "I love man with the same distinction that I love woman--as if my friend were of some third sex--some other or some stranger and still my friend" (Journal 2:245).

Given the complexity of Thoreau's meditations on relationships between men, and the historical complexity of homosexual identity, Thoreau's writing will be a source of great interest to gay and lesbian literary studies for many years to come.

Citation Information
Author: Diggs, Marylynne
Entry Title: Thoreau, Henry David
General Editor: Claude J. Summers
Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Culture
Publication Date: 2002
Date Last Updated November 23, 2002
Web Address www.glbtq.com/literature/thoreau_hd.html
Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL 60607
Today's Date May 6, 2013
Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.
Entry Copyright © 1995, 2002 New England Publishing Associates

Further Readings:

Walden by Henry David Thoreau
Paperback: 208 pages
Publisher: Wilder Publications; Reprint edition (November 24, 2008)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 160459294X
ISBN-13: 978-1604592948
Amazon: Walden
Amazon Kindle: Walden

Walden is one of the best-known non-fiction books ever written by an American. It details Thoreau's sojourn in a cabin near Walden Pond, amidst woodland owned by his friend and mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson. Walden was written with expressed seasonal divisions. Thoreau hoped to isolate himself from society in order to gain a more objective understanding of it. Simplicity and self-reliance were Thoreau's other goals, and the whole project was inspired by Transcendentalist philosophy. As pertinent and relevant today as it was when it was first written.

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Tags: author: henry david thoreau, gay classics, literary heritage
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