Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Sophia Thoreau

Sophia - born two hundred years ago (June 24, 1819) - was the person most responsible for making Henry David Thoreau posthumously famous. Henry was one of four children born to John and Cynthia (Dunbar) Thoreau, in birth order Helen, John Jr., HDT and Sophia. None of them married. All of them taught at one time in their lives. All died relatively young, even for that era: Helen at age 37, tuberculosis, John Jr. at age 26, tetanus, HDT at age 44. Sophia survived her famous brother by 14 years before dying at age 57, from tuberculosis.    

Daguerreotype of Sophia Thoreau, ~1855 
Sophia was two years younger than Henry David. While Helen was described as the quiet Thoreau, Sophia was known to be talkative and opinionated, with a dramatic wit. Their mother and their aunts were all active abolitionists and members of the Concord Ladies’ Antislavery Society. Sophia and her sister also belonged to the Middlesex County Antislavery Society. At an 1844 convention they signed a petition in favor of dissolving the country rather than being party to a country with states where slave ownership was legal. Prominent abolitionists visiting Concord - Parker Pillsbury, Loring Moody, and John Brown among them - made their way to the Thoreau home. The family provided lodging and aid to fugitive slaves. Henry’s antislavery activism rested on the long-time commitment of the women of his family.

After John Jr. died in 1842 and Helen in 1849, Sophia and Henry grew closer. They were both living in their parents’ house (Henry having done his stint at Walden Pond 1845-47). They would collect plant specimens together, make berry-picking excursions in season, and Sophia would occasionally accompany Henry on boat trips up the Concord, Sudbury and Assabet rivers. Both helped out in the family’s pencil and graphite businesses.

Henry David Thoreau died May 6, 1862, having attained only limited recognition in his own time. It was during Henry’s decline from tuberculosis and after his death that Sophia made the largest contributions to his literary legacy. She served as nurse and companion after an 1860 bout with bronchitis exacerbated his disease. She assisted in writing his letters and preparing his manuscripts for publication. In a lengthy 2016 article by Kathy Fedorko, titled “Henry’s brilliant sister”, a case is made that Sophia alone edited her brother’s essay collections for publication after his death as “Excursions”, “The Maine Woods”, “Cape Cod” and “A Yankee in Canada”. (Previously, more credit had been given to Ralph Waldo Emerson and William Ellery Channing, with little or no acknowledgement of Sophia’s contributions.)

After the death of her mother in 1872, Sophia spent the last three years of her life in Maine, with relatives, during the declining illness that finally took her life in 1876. Before dying she had entrusted her brother’s journals first to Bronson Alcott, who failed to follow her instructions about their care. She consequently deposited them in the Concord Free Public Library in 1874, along with many books and memorabilia that had been Henry’s. Sophia’s will dictated that the journals go to Harrison Gray Otis Blake, who saw to the publication of more content from the journals in the 1880s.

Portion of Thoreau’s poem “Fair Haven”, copied
onto leaves (1868). Click on photos to enlarge. 
Sophia was an artist and musician. Her drawing of the cabin by the pond was chosen by Henry for the cover page of the first edition of “Walden; or, Life in the Woods”. Sophia left behind one odd piece of memorabilia - five shagbark hickory tree leaves on one twig bear sixteen lines of poetry from her famous brother. Created October 13, 1868 (six years after his death). The poem – “Fair Haven” refers to a widening of the Sudbury River, on the border between Concord and Lincoln, and also to the hill on the east side of the river. The last four lines of the poem are “And when I take my last long rest,/And quiet sleep my grave in,/What kindlier covering for my breast,/Than thy warm turf Fair Haven.” The leaves are in the Concord Library archives.


In passing, Thoreau’s given name was David Henry Thoreau, after his recently deceased paternal uncle, David Thoreau. But since everyone always called him Henry, he decided after finishing college that he would prefer to go by Henry David.

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