Skip to main content

“this Is A Beautiful World; But I Shall See A Fairer”

July 2024
18min read

Henry David Thoreau died a hundred years ago, leaving behind no material possessions worth speaking of. He had lived a short and, by most criteria, an uneventful life. After graduating without great distinction from Harvard, he had worked in desultory fashion at odd jobs around Concord, Massachusetts: as a schoolteacher, woodchopper, and general handyman. He was coolly disinterested in making money, and the credo of hard work for its own sake was lost on him—“It is not necessary that a man should earn his living by the sweat of his brow,” he once said, “unless he sweats easier than I do.” At his self-built cottage on Walden Pond he proved to his own satisfaction, and to the unending satisfaction of generations of his readers, that life can indeed be simple, beautiful, and—above all—in harmony with nature.

“I went to the woods,” he wrote in Walden (1854), “because I wished to live deliberately…” Unimpelled by the drives of machine civilization, he deliberately ignored its imperatives in favor of more important things: dew glistening on the petals of wildflowers; the ineffable flicker of a swallow’s wing; the distant cry of a mourning dove; the taste of fresh powder snow on a January morning. And with the utmost fidelity, Thoreau recorded his impressions in his journals, moved to language that perhaps has never quite been matched in its power of evoking the world of nature before the inward eye of the reader.

A MERICAN H ERITAGE is pleased to offer here an essay on Thoreau’s last days by Walter Harding, a leading Thoreau scholar, and a portfolio of extraordinary photographs (beginning on page 113) that capture, we think, glimpses of nature very much as Thoreau saw it. These pictures, and the excerpts from Thoreau printed opposite each, are chosen by special arrangement from a book just published by the Sierra Club in San Francisco, entitled “ In Wildness Is the Preservation of the World .” The book contains seventy-two such photographs by Eliot Porter, who also selected the accompanying quotations from Thoreau; Joseph Wood Krutch has provided an introduction.

It was one of the ironies of his life that Henry David Thoreau, the archetype of the American outdoorsman, should have died of that scourge of civilization, tuberculosis. Rarely has there been a man in our history who has become so associated in the popular image with the great out-of-doors. His years spent in his cabin at Walden Pond, his ramblings through the fields and woods of his native Concord, Massachusetts, and his excursions (as he called them in his books) to the Maine woods, Cape Cod, the White Mountains, Quebec, and Minnesota are famous in the annals of our literature. He thought no day worth-while unless the greater part of it were spent outdoors. Yet at the age of only fortyfour, just one hundred years ago this year, he died of tuberculosis.

Although he was plagued with recurring attacks of the disease from his college days in the 1830’s on, we can date the start of his final illness with precision—December 3, 1860. Thoreau spent the afternoon on Fair Haven Hill in Concord studying the growth of hickories and oaks. It was a raw, bleak day, and he caught cold. When, against a doctor’s advice, he insisted on fulfilling a lecture engagement in Waterbury, Connecticut, on the eleventh, the strain of the journey was too much for him. The cold rapidly ,worsened into bronchitis, which in turn reopened the old tubercular lesions in his lungs. He was confined to his house for the rest of the winter.

With the coming of spring doctors urged him to try a drier climate, and he made a futile twomonth journey to Minnesota and back with Horace Mann, Jr., the son of the famed educator. In the early fall of 1861 he seemed briefly to recover somewhat, but within a few weeks there was a relapse. By late November he was confined to the house once more. By mid-December he had failed so much that he could no longer hold a pen and was forced to dictate all his writing to his sister Sophia.

On the nineteenth of December, Sophia wrote Daniel Ricketson, Thoreau’s New Bedford Quaker friend:

The air and exercise which he enjoyed during the fine autumn days, was a benefit to him—he seemed stronger—had a good appetite, and was able to attend somewhat to his writing; but since the cold weather has come his cough has increased and he is able to go out but seldom. Just now he is suffering from an attack of pleurisy which confines him wholly to the house.

His spirits do not fail him, he continues in his usual serene mood, which is very pleasant for his friends as well as himself.

When Bronson Alcott called on New Year’s Day, 1862, bringing cider and apples, he found Thoreau failing and feeble, but “talkative,…interested in books and men.” They discussed Pliny, Evelyn, and the rural authors. When Alcott mentioned the war, Thoreau spoke impatiently of “the temporizing policy” of the government and blamed “the people too for their indifferency to the true issues of national honor and justice.” But despite Thoreau’s brave talk, Alcott thought it obvious that his days were numbered.

A week later Daniel Ricketson wrote, inviting Thoreau to visit him in New Bedford. But Alcott, at Sophia Thoreau’s request, replied: ”…he grows feebler day by day, and is evidently failing and fading from our sight. He gets some sleep, has a pretty good appetite, reads at intervals, takes notes of his readings, and likes to see his friends, conversing, however, with difficulty, as his voice partakes of his general debility.”

His old Worcester friends, H. G. O. Blake and Theophilus Brown, skated down the river from Framingham to visit Thoreau in midJanuary—a journey they repeated several times in the succeeding months. Brown said of the visit: We found him pretty low, but well enough to be up in his chair. He seemed glad to see us. Said we had not come much too soon.…There was a beautiful snowstorm going on the while which I fancy inspired him, and his talk was up to the best I ever heard from him,—the same depth of earnestness and the same infinite depth of fun going on at the same time.

…Blake asked him how the future seemed to him. “Just as uninteresting as ever,” was his characteristic answer. A little while after he said, “You have been skating on this river; perhaps I am going to skate on some other.” And again, “Perhaps I am going upcountry.”…

He seemed to be in an exalted state of mind for a long time before his death. He said it was just as good to be sick as to be well…

About this time Thoreau received a letter from Myron Benton, a young poet from Leedsville, New York, saying that news of Thoreau’s illness had affected him as if it were that of a personal friend whom he had known a long time. He said he had read and reread Thoreau’s books with ever fresh delight and asked what progress he had made on a work in “some way connected with natural history,” which Emerson had mentioned in a short interview in Poughkeepsie two years before. (This was probably Thoreau’s never-completed Atlas of Concord .)

It was mid-March before Thoreau was able to answer Benton’s letter, and then, dictating to his sister, he said: I have intended to answer before I died, however briefly. I am encouraged to know, that, so far as you are concerned, I have not written my books in vain.…You ask particularly after my health. I suppose that I have not many months to live; but, of course, I know nothing about it. I may add that I am enjoying existence as much as ever, and regret nothing.

As ill as he was, Thoreau nevertheless continued his literary work. Early in February a request came from James T. Fields for Thoreau to submit some of his writings to the Atlantic Monthly . Ticknor & Fields, the publishers of Walden , had purchased the Atlantic in 1859. In June, 1861, Fields had taken over its editorial direction. Since James Russell Lowell, who had arbitrarily censored one of Thoreau’s essays earlier, no longer had any connection with the magazine, Thoreau was happy to accede to Fields’ request. But, remembering his unpleasant experience with Lowell, he said, “Of course, I should expect that no sentiment or sentence be altered or omitted without my consent,” and carefully asked how much Fields would be willing to pay.

He apparently received a satisfactory answer and on February 20 submitted a manuscript based on his lecture on “Autumnal Tints.” Fields accepted it and asked for another essay more appropriate to the spring season. He also suggested that he would be interested in bringing Walden back into print. (It had been out-of-print for several years.) Thoreau immediately replied that he would soon send along another essay, and that not only would he be very happy to see Walden back in print, but that he had 146 bound copies and 450 unbound copies of his first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers , in his attic—a hint to Fields that he would like to see the earlier book republished too.

On February 28 Thoreau submitted an essay which he had entitled “The Higher Law.” It was derived from a lecture that he had been delivering for nearly a decade, sometimes under the title of “Getting a Living” and sometimes as “What Shall It Profit [a man if he gain the whole world but lose his own soul]?” After paying Thoreau one hundred dollars for the essay, Fields, perhaps fearing that it might be confused with the chapter entitled “Higher Laws” in Walden , complained that he did not like the title. They soon agreed on a new title—“Life without Principle”—but the essay was not published in the Atlantic until October of 1863. They also agreed to the reprinting of Walden in a new edition of 250 copies (actually 280 were printed just a few weeks after Thoreau’s death), and Thoreau’s request that the subtitle or Life in the Woods be dropped was followed.

On March 11 Thoreau returned the proofs of “Autumnal Tints” (published in the October, 1862, Atlantic ) and submitted his essay on “Walking.” It was immediately accepted and published in the June, 1862, Atlantic . On April 2 Thoreau submitted “Wild Apples” (published in November, 1862), and asked Fields if he had come to any decision about republishing A Week . On April 12 Fields purchased all the unsold copies—bound and unbound—of the book and two months later reissued them with a new title page as a second edition. (Oddly enough he neglected to remove the advertisement at the rear announcing that Walden would “soon be published.”)

A tribute to Thoreau that must have been particularly enheartening to him was the appearance in the April Atlantic of Bronson Alcott’s “The Forester,” saying, in part: I had never thought of knowing a man so thoroughly of the country as this friend of mine, and so purely a son of nature.…He has come nearer the antique spirit than any of our native poets, and touched the fields and groves and streams of his native town with a classic interest that shall not fade.…

One shall not meet with thoughts invigorating like his often: coming so scented of mountain and field breezes and rippling springs, so like a luxuriant clod from under forest-leaves, moist and mossy with earth-spirits.…He seems one with things, of Nature’s essence and core, knit of strong timbers, most like a wood and its inhabitants.…

I know of nothing more creditable to his greatness than the thoughtful regard, approaching to reverence, by which he has held for many years some of the best persons of his time, living at a distance, and wont to make their annual pilgrimage, usually on foot, to the master,—a devotion very rare in these times of personal indifference, if not of confessed unbelief in persons and ideas.

Although Thoreau is not mentioned directly by name in the essay, the many references to Walden Pond and to a book on the rivers made its subject perfectly obvious to his friends and acquaintances.

Daniel Ricketson, reminded of Thoreau by the appearance of Alcott’s “Forester” and word of the forthcoming republication of Walden , started a weekly series of letters to Thoreau noting the progress of the spring. On March 23 he wrote of the arrival of the robin, the bluebird, the, song sparrow, and the cowbird, and on the thirtieth of the coming of the purple finch and some of the warblers. He added the quaint suggestion that Thoreau’s health might improve if he would only move where he could breathe in the fragrance of the pines, saying, “I have heard of people much improved in health who were afflicted in breathing, from this source…” He even suggested a particular pine grove near Plymouth, some seventy miles southeast of Concord.

On the seventh of April Sophia Thoreau replied to Ricketson, reporting that her brother …is now the embodiment of weakness; still, he enjoys seeing his friends, and every bright hour he devotes to his manuscripts which he is preparing for publication. For many weeks he has spoken only in a faint whisper. Henry accepts this dispensation with such childlike trust and is so happy that I feel as if he were being translated, rather than dying in the ordinary way of most mortals…

On the thirteenth, Ricketson wrote again: “Truly you have not lived in vain—your works, and above all, your brave and truthful life, will become a precious treasure to those whose happiness it has been to have known you, and who will continue to uphold though with feebler hands the fresh and instructive philosophy you have taught them.”

Thoreau, though, was disturbed that Ricketson did not come to Concord to see him. When he learned that it was because Ricketson feared his own ability to endure the strain of seeing Thoreau’s emaciated appearance, Thoreau whispered to his sister, “Now Ricketson ought to come and see me; it would do him good.”

But Thoreau’s other friends and neighbors did not shy away. Emerson dropped in frequently to talk of chickadees, the behavior of the river, the ice on Walden Pond, and the arrival of the spring birds. On March 23 Sam Staples, who fifteen years before had placed Thoreau in jail, dropped in for a visit. He later told Emerson that he had “never spent an hour with more satisfaction. Never saw a man dying with so much pleasure and peace.” He thought Thoreau to be “serene and happy” and lamented that “very few men in Concord know Mr. Thoreau.”

Thoreau was pathetically interested in the world of nature by-passing him that spring. On a cold morning he tried vainly to scrape the frost from the windowpane, saying with utter sadness, as he failed, “I cannot even see outdoors.” He often asked his sister to throw open the doors to the adjacent room so that he could admire her conservatory of potted plants. And learning that young Edward Emerson was planning a trip to the Far West, he urged him to find an Indian who could tell the secret of the making of stone arrowheads. When he learned that some boys in the neighborhood had been robbing birds’ nests, he requested that they be called into his sickroom and asked them if they knew “what a wail of sorrow and anguish their cruelty had sent all over the fields and through the woods.”

But he did not lose his sense of humor. He told Sanborn that whenever his corpulent, full-faced aunt came to his chamber door to inquire about his welfare, he thought her to be “the rising full moon.” When someone commented how little his hair had grayed, even in his illness, he replied: “I have never had any trouble in all my life, or only when I was about fourteen; then I felt pretty bad a little while on account of my sins, but no trouble since that I know of. That must be the reason why my hair doesn’t turn gray faster. But there is Blake; he is as gray as a rat.”

When Grindall Reynolds, the minister of Concord’s First Parish Church, called and found him still working on his manuscripts, Thoreau “looked up cheerfully and, with a twinkle in his eye, whispered…‘You know it’s respectable to leave an estate to one’s friends.’ ” In going over his writings he noted mistakes in his published books and asked Ellery Channing to have an error in A Week corrected. As late as thirteen days before his death, finding it difficult to rouse himself for work, he complained that he could not see to correct his Allegash paper—the final chapter in The Maine Woods —saying, “It is in a knot I cannot untie.”

Thoreau realized fully that the end was near. He told Channing that he could never feel warm again, that he had no wish to live except for the sake of his mother and sister, and that “it is better some things should end.” To Bronson Alcott he said, “I shall leave the world without regret.” And when Edmund Hosmer told him of seeing a spring robin, Thoreau replied, “Yes! This is a beautiful world; but I shall see a fairer.” He was greatly moved by the attentions of his friends and neighbors. He “came to feel very differently toward people,” one of them reported, “and said if he had known he wouldn’t have been so offish.”

The devotion of his friends [said his sister Sophia] was most rare and touching; his room was made fragrant by the gift of flowers from young and old; fruit of every kind which the season afforded, and game of all sorts was sent him. It was really pathetic, the way in which the town was moved to minister to his comfort. Total strangers sent grateful messages, remembering the good he had done them. All this attention was fully appreciated and very gratifying to Henry; he would sometimes say, “I should be ashamed to stay in this world after so much had been done for me, I could never repay my friends.”

Remembering how much Thoreau had enjoyed their music box when they had first moved to Concord twenty years before, the Hawthornes brought it to his sickroom. Mrs. Alcott sent over some spearmint from her garden to be used as a tonic, saying in a note to Mrs. Thoreau, “I wish I had some delicacy for the dear patient—but we have none of those things usually so grateful and appetising to the sick.”

When Thoreau learned that some of the boys of the neighborhood had brought him some game to eat, he asked, “Why did you not invite them in? I want to thank them for so much that they are bringing me,” and added, “Well I declare; I don’t believe they are going to let me go after all.”

In his last illness [recalled a child of the neighborhood] it did not occur to us that he would care to see us, but his sister told my mother that he watched us from the window as we passed, and said: “Why don’t they come to see me? I love them as if they were my own.” After that we went often, and he always made us so welcome that we liked to go. I remember our last meetings with as much pleasure as the old playdays.

When Thoreau heard a wandering street-singer playing some tune of his childhood on a hand organ in the streets outside, tears came to his eyes and he said, “Give him some money! Give him some money!”

As long as he could possibly sit up, he insisted on his chair at the family table, and said, “It would not be social to take my meals alone.” When he could no longer negotiate the stairs even with assistance, he requested that the little cane bed he had used at Walden be brought down and placed in the front parlor. ”…This room did not seem like a sick-room,” said his mother. “My son wanted flowers and pictures and books all around here; and he was always so cheerful and wished others to be so while about him.”

Sleeplessness often bothered him. He wished his bed were in the form of a shell so that he might curl up in it. At night he asked that the lamp be set on the floor and the furniture arranged so that he could amuse himself watching the fantastic shadows. He refused opiates, telling Channing that “he preferred to endure with a clear mind the worst penalties of suffering, rather than be plunged in a turbid dream of narcotics.” But when he did sleep he was troubled with strange dreams. “Sleep seemed to hang round my bed in festoons,” he told Channing. And he reported a pitiful dream he had “of being a railroad cut, where they were digging through and laying down the rails, —the place being in his lungs.” Nevertheless he kept up his good spirits.

During his long illness [said Sophia] I never heard a murmur escape him, or the slightest wish expressed to remain with us; his perfect contentment was truly wonderful. None of his friends seemed to realize how very ill he was, so full of life and good cheer did he seem. One friend, as if by way of consolation, said to him, “Well, Mr. Thoreau, we must all go.” Henry replied, “When I was a very little boy I learned that f must die, and I set that down, so of course I am not disappointed now. Death is as near to you as it is to me.”

Some of his more orthodox friends and relatives tried to prepare him for death, with but little satisfaction to themselves. When an old friend of the family asked “how he stood affected toward Christ,” he replied that “a snow-storm was more to him than Christ.” When his aunt asked him if he had made his peace with God, he answered, “I did not know we had ever quarrelled, Aunt.” Just a few days before the end, Parker Pillsbury visited the sickroom: He was very weak and low [says Pillsbury]; he saw but very few more setting suns. He sat pillowed in an easy chair. Behind him stood his patient, dear, devoted mother, with her fan in one hand, and phial of ammonia or cologne in the other, to sustain him in the warm morning. At a table near him, piled with his papers and other articles related to them and to him, sat his sister, arranging them, as I understood, for Ticknor and Fields, who had been to Concord and bought the copyright.

When I entered Thoreau was looking deathly weak and pale. I saw my way but for the fewest words. I said, as I took his hand, “I suppose this is the best you can do now.” He smiled and only nodded, and gasped a faint assent. “The outworks,” I said, “seem almost ready to give way.” Then a smile shone on his pale face, and with an effort he said, “Yes,—but as long as she cracks she holds” (a common saying of boys skating).

Then I spoke only once more to him, and cannot remember my exact words. But I think my question was substantially this: “You seem so near the brink of the dark river, that I almost wonder how the opposite shore may appear to you.” Then he answered, “One world at a time.”

On the fourth of May, Alcott and Channing came to call. Alcott came away certain, as he says, that Thoreau had “not many days of his mortality to give us.” On the fifth they returned again and found that he was “very weak but suffered nothing and talked in his old pleasant way, saying ‘it took Nature a long time to do her work but he was most out of the world.’ ” As they left, Alcott stooped over and kissed him. “It was affecting,” says Channing, “to see this venerable man kissing his brow, when the damps and sweat of death lay upon it, even if Henry knew it not. It seemed to me an extreme unction, in which a friend was the best priest.”

That evening Thoreau received a last letter from Daniel Ricketson which his sister read to him. Ironically it said: “I hope this will find you mending , and as I hear nothing to the contrary, I trust that it may be so that you are.” A “Mr. B——” had volunteered to sit up the night with him, but Henry wanted his old friend Edmund Hosmer, and he was sent for. In the morning (May 6) when Hosmer was ready to leave, Thoreau called his sister and asked her to give him a copy of one of his books.

At seven o’clock he became restless and asked to be moved. Judge Ebenezer Rockwood Hoar arrived with a bouquet of hyacinths from his garden. Thoreau smelled them and said he liked them. His selfpossession did not forsake him. A little after eight he asked to be raised up. The last few weeks of his life he had been working over his Maine Woods papers and his thoughts continued on his writing to the end. The last sentence he spoke contained but two distinct words: “Moose” and “Indian.” As his mother, his sister, and his Aunt Louisa watched, his breathing grew fainter and fainter, and without the slightest struggle he died at nine o’clock. Sophia said, “I feel as if something very beautiful had happened,—not death.”

Plans were immediately started for the funeral. Emerson insisted that it be held in the First Parish Church (Unitarian), though many of his friends protested that Thoreau would have felt such a service inappropriate after his “signingoff” from the church as a young man. And Mrs. Hawthorne complained, “I ought to be at his funeral for the sake of shewing my deep respect and value for him to others, though I could better mourn him at home.”

Alcott planned the service, patterning the arrangements on those Thoreau himself had made for the John Brown memorial service in Concord three years before. When Alcott called at the home to talk over the plans, Sophia showed him Thoreau’s face. He thought Thoreau looked as he had last seen him, but of a tinge of paler hue. Emerson, meanwhile, prepared the eulogy and wrote to various friends, asking them to attend the funeral and inviting them to a very early dinner at his home.

The service was held at three on the afternoon of May 9. Alcott, who was Concord’s school superintendent, left word with his teachers to dismiss all the children, and many of them thus attended the funeral. The church was filled. Hawthorne and his family were there, as were the faithful Blake and Brown from Worcester, James T. Fields and his wife, and Bronson Alcott and his daughters Anna and Louisa May, among others. Daniel Ricketson, too appalled with grief, did not attend.

The casket, in the church vestibule, was covered with wildflowers. Inside it was a wreath of andromeda—his favorite flower. As the church bell tolled Thoreau’s forty-four years, the mourners walked in procession to the church. The service opened with selections from the Bible read by the Reverend Grindall Reynolds, minister of the church. A hymn written by Channing and printed for the occasion was sung “plaintively” by the choir.

Emerson read an extensive eulogy. It started off on a negative note: He was a protestant à l’outrance , and few lives contain so many renunciations. He was bred to no profession; he never married; he lived alone; he never went to church; he never voted; he refused to pay a tax to the State; he ate no flesh, he drank no wine, he never knew the use of tobacco; and, though a naturalist, he used neither trap nor gun.…

It cost him nothing to say No; indeed he found it much easier than to say Yes.

But it ended on a more appropriate, more positive note: The scale on which his studies proceeded was so large as to require longevity, and we were the less prepared for his sudden disappearance. The country knows not yet, or in the least part, how great a son it has lost. It seems an injury that he should leave in the midst his broken task, which none else can finish,—a kind of indignity to so noble a soul, that it should depart out of Nature before yet he has been really shown to his peers for what he is. But he, at least, is content. His soul was made for the noblest society; he had in a short life exhausted the capabilities of this world; wherever there is knowledge, wherever there is virtue, wherever there is beauty, he will find a home.

Alcott read some passages from Thoreau’s writings, and the service closed with a prayer by the Reverend Mr. Reynolds.

A new procession was formed to follow the coffin as it was carried by six fellow townsmen to the grave. Most of the town’s four hundred schoolchildren walked in that procession. Thoreau was buried in the New Burying Ground, at the foot of Bedford Street. As Emerson turned away from the newly filled grave, he murmured, “He had a beautiful soul, he had a beautiful soul.”

Louisa May Alcott afterward wrote to Sophia Foord (who many years before had proposed marriage to Thoreau):
It seemed as if Nature wore her most benignant aspect to welcome her dutiful & loving son to his long sleep in her arms. As we entered the church yard birds were singing, early violets blooming in the grass & the pines singing their softest lullaby, & there between his father 8c his brother we left him, feeling that though his life seemed too short, it would blossom & bear fruit for us long after he was gone, & that perhaps we should know a closer relationship now than even while he lived.

Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.