Study Guide

Henry David Thoreau Friendship & Tragedy

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Friendship & Tragedy

Thoreau was part of a group called the Transcendentalist Club, a group of like-minded thinkers including Margaret Fuller, Bronson Alcott and Emerson, who met occasionally at Emerson's home. In 1840, the group founded a journal called The Dial. In the four years of the journal's existence, Thoreau contributed dozens of essays, poems and translations. In 1841 Thoreau moved into Ralph Waldo Emerson's home. He earned his keep by gardening, doing handyman work around the house and looking after the Emerson children while their father was on one of his many lectures tours around the U.S. and abroad.

On New Year's Day 1842, John Thoreau Jr. nicked his finger with his razor while shaving. It was a tiny, minor cut, but in the days before the tetanus vaccine it was deadly. The cut became infected, and within a week the tissue had turned black and stiff. John Jr. suffered lockjaw, an agonizingly painful condition. On 11 January, 27-year-old John Jr. died of tetanus in his brother Henry David's arms. John Jr. was Thoreau's best friend and his elder brother by two years. He was so devastated by his death that he developed psychosomatic symptoms of lockjaw himself, though he recovered in a few days. He closed Concord Academy.

Thoreau spent the next few years working at his family's pencil factory, taking on odd jobs and hiking around the lush New England woods. (On one such hike, he accidentally started a forest fire that consumed about 100 acres of Concord's Walden Woods. Oops.) He found sanctuary and peace in nature that town life could not offer him. Then in 1845, Emerson proposed that Thoreau replant trees on some property he owned on Walden Pond. Walden was sort of an urban forest, with lots of activity from local people, and many of the native trees had been cut down. Emerson's suggestion would change Thoreau's life.

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