HENRY DAVID THOREAU, American writer, philosopher born (d: 1862); In the fall of 1856, when he was thirty-nine years old, the author of Walden found “a rare and remarkable fungus, such as I have heard of but never seen before. The whole length [is] six and three quarter inches. It may be divided into three parts, picus, stem and base, — or scrotum, for it is a perfect phallus. One of those fungi named impudicus, I think. In all respects, [it is] a most disgusting object, yet very suggestive. It was as offensive to the eye as to the scent, the cap rapidly melting and defiling what it touched with a fetid, olivaceous, semi-liquid matter. In an hour or two the plant scented the whole house wherever placed, so that it could not be endured.
“I was afraid to sleep in my chamber where it had lain until the room had been well ventilated. It smelled like a dead rat in the ceiling, in all the ceilings of the house. Pray, what was Nature thinking of when she made this? She almost puts herself on a level with those who draw in privies.”
Both Mohandas Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. credited Thoreau with inspiring their nonviolent activism with his 1849 essay now called “Civil Disobedience.”
“Thoreau was a great writer, philosopher, poet,” wrote Gandhi, “and withal a most practical man, that is, he taught nothing he was not prepared to practice in himself. He was one of the greatest and most moral men America has produced.” Dr. King insisted that “Civil Disobedience,” which he first read as a student at Morehouse College, was his “first contact with the theory of nonviolent resistance… Fascinated by the idea of refusing to cooperate with an evil system, I was so deeply moved that I re-read the work several times…The teachings of Thoreau came alive in our civil rights movement.”
Thoreau’s sexuality has long been a subject of speculation; even his contemporaries commented on his apparent lack of interest in conventional romance. The most exhaustive examination of the evidence on both sides of this question is Walter Harding’s article, “Thoreau’s Sexuality,” published in the Journal of Homosexuality (1991). Basing his conclusions mostly on evidence from Thoreau’s Journal, Harding suggests that Thoreau’s affectional orientation was probably homosexual, though there is no evidence that he was physically intimate with either men or women.
Although Thoreau proposed marriage to one woman (and was proposed to by another), Harding concludes that the preponderance of the evidence indicates that he had a fundamental attraction to other men, an attraction sublimated through his writing and his passion for nature.
It’s fascinating that his journals never mention women and some of whose essays express his thoughts on the relations of men. 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 wood-chopper who visited Thoreau at Walden Pond (more on that in a bit).
In 1991, a quarter of a century after publishing his biography of Thoreau, his biographer Walter Harding, added an important postscript to his analysis of his subject: an essay in the Journal of Homosexuality arguing that Thoreau had “a specific sexual interest in members of his own sex.” This aspect of Thoreau’s sensibility has remained strangely quarantined from mainstream Thoreau scholarship, despite Harding and scholars such as Henry Abelove, Jonathan Ned Katz, and Michael Warner.
Another Thoreau biographer, Robert Richardson, has consistently downplayed it and is so allergic to all things Freudian that he took the precaution of omitting Thoreau’s childhood and adolescence from his biography. Telling.
Of course, Thoreau could not have thought of himself as a homosexual as we understand the term, but as a careful reader of Darwin and a close observer of nature, Thoreau wondered what it meant that he dispersed no seed of his own. (He half-asserted, half-speculated in his journal that “The end of marriage is not the propagation of the species— If you & I succeed there will have been men enough—any more than the object of the blossom is to mature the seed.”) He also knew that in his relationships with men, his emotions were often more turbulent and demanding than his partners: “Methinks that I carry into friendship the tenderness & nicety of a lover,” he admitted in his diary.
Most touchingly in 1854 Thoreau wrote in Walden of a visit paid him by a wandering French-Canadian wood-chopper Alex Therien. So taken was Thoreau with this rugged laborer–“a true Homeric or Paphlagonian man,” as he put it in his journal–and so eager was he “to fasten [him]self like a blood-sucker… to any full-blooded man that [came his] way,” that he indulged in a moment of “Homerotic” fantasy: he asked the woodsman to read to him from the Iliad, and in particular “Achilles’ reproof to Patroclus for his sad countenance.”
Throughout his life Thoreau was falling in and out of love with his male acquaintances. He meditated on the higher meaning of male friendship in his notebooks. He never married.