In Boston, the past and the present carry on in parallel. The steps we take as we hurry for the T or head to a coffeeshop to meet friends trace those who came before us, maybe even in sync. Once such literary place, where numerous authors have made their homes over the year, is Beacon Hill, and in this series we’ll take you on a tour of Four Doors of Pinckney Street.
#4 Pinckney Street: Henry David Thoreau
Most well-known for living in the woods for two years, Henry David Thoreau was an essayist, a naturalist, a surveyor, a teacher, an abolitionist, and a pencil innovator, who lived a simple life in and around Concord. Of him, friend William Ellery Channing wrote, “There is Thoreau…give him sunshine and a handful of nuts, and he has enough.”
Born in Concord in 1817 to John, a pencil maker, and Cynthia, Thoreau’s early years were filled with movement, and his journals record his family’s various residences. In 1818 the family moved to Chelmsford, where his father “kept shop and painted signs,” and then in 1821 the family moved to Boston: “In Pope’s house, South End (a ten-footer) five or six months… Day-book [the record his grandfather kept] says, ‘Moved to Pinkney Street (Boston), September 10, 1821, on Monday;’ Whitwell’s house, Pinkney Street, to March, 1823.” After the short stint in Boston, the Thoreaus moved back to Concord. Thoreau would return to the area in 1833 to start college at Harvard.
After graduating, Thoreau returned to Concord to teach, but left over a moral disagreement with the expectation that teachers would whip their students. Instead, Thoreau and his brother started the Concord Academy, a non-traditional school that include experiential as well as classroom learning, but the experiment ended after Thoreau’s brother died. It was upon his return to Concord that Thoreau met Ralph Waldo Emerson, arguably the most influential presence in his life, to whom he became a handyman, a protege, and a friend. Thoreau began contributing pieces to The Dial then, a Transcendentalist literary magazine run by Margaret Fuller, and began work on A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers.
In 1845, Thoreau moved to a small cabin on the edge of Walden Pond to begin an experiment in simplified living, going to the woods to “live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life.” He continued to write, socialize, and even travel while living at Walden, and spent the night in jail for refusing to pay a poll tax, an experience that would lead to his essay “Civil Disobedience.” In 1847 he left the cabin and moved back in with the Emerson family, crafting what would become Walden, or Life in the Woods, published in 1856.
Thoreau continued to write - though gained little notoriety in his lifetime - and traveled. He also became a land surveyor, mapping Concord and the area, lectured, and innovated with methods of pencil-making. He died in 1862, unknown outside of his community, or unknown really in the ways that he’s viewed today. Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience” influenced Ghandi and Martin Luther King Jr., among others; his nature writings were rediscovered by the environmentalist movement; his works have had effects on authors, artists, psychologists, anarchists, and more, into the 20th century and today.
The two years he spent in Boston living on Pinckney Street, from age four to six, had no lasting impact on him. But maybe it did. Maybe, in remembering the crowded streets of Boston, Thoreau at a young age made a decision about his life, as he reflects on the city in this passage in Walden:
What do we want most to dwell near to? Not to many men surely, the depot, the post-office, the bar-room, the meeting-house, the school-house, the grocery, Beacon Hill, or the Five Points, where men most congregate, but to the perennial source of our life, whence in all our experience we have found that to issue, as the willow stands near the water and sends out its roots in that direction.
In a strikingly ironic twist to Thoreau’s philosophy, #4 Pinckney Street’s Zillow listing notes that while the residence was "once home to Henry David Thoreau, this townhouse has been meticulously updated to offer central air, smart house technology and rare private garage for a compact car.”
Sanborn, F. B., ed. Familiar Letters of Henry David Thoreau. Cambridge: The Riverside Press, 1894.
Thoreau, Henry David. Walden, or LIfe in the Woods. New York: Penguin, 1980.