Today, Henry David Thoreau is best known for two works: Walden, which inspired generations to rethink their relationship with nature and society, and Resistance to Civil Government (also known as On Civil Disobedience), which inspired generations, and even nations, to rethink their relationship with government. Thoreau is praised as a writer, philosopher and naturalist, and credited as an influence by a long line of notable readers, from Leo Tolstoy to Martin Luther King, Jr. But throughout much of the praise, an insight remains missing: Would you tap that?
According to Thoreau’s contemporaries, the answer may have be an emphatic no. His close friend and fellow transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson mentioned that Thoreau lived alone and never married, but it’s the journal of author Nathaniel Hawthorne, a Concord, Massachusetts neighbor, that might explain why: “[Thoreau] is as ugly as sin, long-nosed, queer-mouthed….” Nathaniel’s son Julian is as kind in his own memoir, calling Thoreau a “short, dark, unbeautiful man.” Even nearly 20 years after Thoreau’s death, the Scottish writer Robert Louis Stevenson noted Thoreau’s “thin, penetrating, big-nosed face.”
But not only was Thoreau reportedly homely and short, chances were that he was also not the most fashionable man in 19th century America. According to Emerson, Thoreau “wore straw hat, stout shoes, strong gray trousers,” and this wardrobe was unlikely to change often as Thoreau disdained the vogue. He writes in Walden, “Perhaps we should never procure a new suit, however ragged or dirty the old, until we have so conducted, so enterprised or sailed in some way, that we feel like new men in the old….”
Despite his distaste for fashion, Thoreau did have some flair — if you could call it that. In the winter of 1855, Thoreau grew a neckbeard, which he claimed was for protection against “throat colds,” but also, he insisted, was quite popular with the ladies. Fellow author and Concord resident Louisa May Alcott reportedly pointed out the impossibility of this, mentioning to Emerson that Thoreau’s neckbeard “will most assuredly deflect amorous advances and preserve the man’s virtue in perpetuity.”
Aesthetic handicaps aside, Thoreau did have a romantic life. In 1840, he proposed to Ellen Sewall, the sister of one of his students (at the time, Thoreau and his brother were operating a grammar school), but was rejected, possibly due to the wishes of her father. In 1847, Sophia Ford, teacher of the Emerson children, proposed to him, though he rejected her, possibly due to her own homely appearance. It’s also been speculated that Thoreau was gay, but no evidence has surfaced of any physical intimacy between him and other men.
And though Thoreau may have been regarded as “unbeautiful” during the 19th century, that may no longer be the case today. After all, his writing has ballooned in popularity since his death, and even the awful neckbeard has seen a resurgence in some circles. So what do you think? Henry David Thoreau: writer, philosopher, American icon — would you hit that?
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