Thoreau's Path in New York City
MY admiration for Thoreau is unbounded. For his wisdom. For his life of independence. For his greatness as a writer.
Imagine my surprise and delight to learn that this quintessential man of the country, this "self-appointed inspector of snow-storms and rain-storms, ... surveyor, if not of highways, than of forest paths," lived for a time in that most urban of places, New York - my city.
Thoreau traveled from Concord, Mass., to New York City at least seven times during his life. Some of his trips were in connection with the pencil business which his family owned. On one trip, he went out to Myrtle Avenue in Brooklyn to meet Walt Whitman; it was a coming together of two towering figures in American letters - the poet of the city and the prose-poet of the country.
On his trips to New York City, Thoreau acted like any other tourist. He walked along Fifth Avenue, admiring the houses, and went to museums, where he saw "sculptures and paintings innumerable." He made frequent visits to Barnum's Museum. There he came upon a herd of giraffes, referred to in his "Journal" as "camelopards." He browsed in "antique" bookstores along Fulton Street in lower Manhattan. He attended the opera. Being Thoreau, in the midst of all this bustle, he managed to spot a muskrat swimming across a pool of water.
Thoreau's stays in the city usually were of a few day's duration, except for his second visit, in 1843, when he stayed from May to December. He had come to New York to tutor Ralph Waldo Emerson's young nephews, with whose family he lived on Staten Island, and to explore possible writing opportunities with publishers.
He enjoyed walking around Staten Island. A few days after his arrival in the spring of 1843, he wrote home: "I have already run over no small part of the island, to the highest hill, and some way along the shore. From the hill directly behind the house I can see New York, Brooklyn, Long Island, the Narrows, through which vessels bound to and from all parts of the world chiefly pass.... Far in the horizon there was a fleet of sloops bound up the Hudson, which seemed to be going over the edge of the earth. ..."
He loved the sea, describing it as "very solitary and remote." He saw men drag up their boats on the sand with oxen. He saw "great shad nets spread to dry, crabs and horse-shoes crawling over the sand." Now he heard the roar of the sea, "and not the wind in Walden woods."
To his sister, Sophia, Thoreau wrote of the trees and flowers on Staten Island. The fields were fragrant from the aroma of cedar. He admired the tulip trees. The woods were filled with honeysuckle. The season was far more advanced than in Concord. By May, "The apricots growing out of doors are already as large as plums. The apple, pear, peach, cherry and plum trees, have shed their blossoms."
But Staten Island was not New York City. Only in 1898 did it become a borough of the city, and to this day it remains a very different place from Manhattan. While Thoreau could relate to rural Staten Island, he found New York City a less congenial place.
To Emerson, he wrote, "I don't like the city better, the more I see it, but worse." And to his mother: "I do not like their cities and forts, with their morning and evening guns, and sails flapping in one's eye. I want a whole continent to breathe in, and a good deal of solitude and silence, such as all Wall Street cannot buy, - nor Broadway with its wooden pavement."
Because, as Thoreau wrote to Emerson during this period, he always sought to be "as much the pupil as I can be," he used his time in New York to see a great deal of the city. Thoreau shared one thing in common with New Yorkers: He loved to walk. He walked along the same avenues - those great arteries of the city - that I walk along today, and on those avenues he saw some of the same buildings that I see today. He saw the same rivers that I see, though none then were spanned by bridges. He saw the sun set
over the Hudson River. ("The sun sets on some retired meadow, where no house is visible, with all the glory and splendor that is lavishes on cities...," he was to write later in his essay "Walking.")
I have always lived in New York City. Each walk along the streets, each sight of familiar buildings, each view of the city's rivers binds me closer to my city. But for Thoreau, the city never took hold of his heart. In New York he remained a man of Concord, just as I, when visiting Concord, remain a New Yorker. He wrote to his family, "I carry Concord ground in my boots and in my hat, - and am I not made of Concord dust?"
Homesick, and with not much to show for his pursuit of publishers, Thoreau left New York City to return to Concord in mid-December, 1843. Nineteen months later he moved to Walden Pond.