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Thoreau, Henry David (1817-1862)  

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.

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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.

Marylynne Diggs

     

 
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literature >> Overview:  American Literature: Nineteenth Century

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    Bibliography
   

Gozzi, Raymond, ed. Thoreau's Psychology: Eight Essays. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1983.

Harding, Walter. The Days of Henry Thoreau: A Biography. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1982.

_____. "Thoreau's Sexuality." Journal of Homosexuality 21.3 (1991): 23-45.

Katz, Jonathan. Gay American History: Lesbians and Gay Men in the U.S.A. New York: Avon-Discus, 1978.

Wagenknecht, Edward. Henry David Thoreau: What Manner of Man? Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1981.

Warner, Michael. "Walden's Erotic Economy." Comparative American Identities: Race, Sex and Nationality in the Modern Text. Hortense J. Spillers, ed. New York: Routledge, 1991. 157-174.

 

    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  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 1995, 2002 New England Publishing Associates  
 

 

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