A Transcendentalist in New York: Thoreau’s Staten Island Experience

By Patrick Raftery

Most considerations of New York’s literary history involve obvious writers – artists like Brooklyn’s Walt Whitman and Manhattan’s Edith Wharton. New York’s “forgotten borough” – Staten Island – is almost never considered as having any claim to literary history or distinction at all. And yet American writers like Herman Melville, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Henry James and Edwin Arlington Robinson all had connections to the island, whether through family or actually having called the island home at one point in their lives. Of all these writers, it was Thoreau who established the deepest connection to the island”s people, land and, most of all, surrounding ocean.

When Thoreau arrived in May of 1843 with the intention of furthering his nascent literary career, Staten Island was a small farming community a short ferry ride but a veritable world away from neighboring Manhattan. Originally settled by the Dutch, the island was a quiet and rather provincial place that could nonetheless boast of eminent native sons such as business tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt and former United States Vice-President Daniel Tompkins. Ralph Waldo Emerson was also a regular visitor to the island, his brother William living there and serving as county court judge.

But it was Emerson who secured a position for his 25 year-old friend as live-in tutor for the children of his brother, who lived in an area now called Emerson Hill in a house called the Snuggery. Young Henry would spend the next six months tutoring, walking, trying to publish his work and make literary connections, and honing his writing skills. It was an experience that had a definite impact on his career, as well as on his life.

Once settled in the Emerson home, Thoreau quickly developed a routine of rising early enough to take long walks and write before tutoring his three pupils from nine until two. Once tutoring ended for the day the young writer set out on long rambles around the island, exploring many of the old homes of the early Huguenot settlers and immersing himself in the local fauna and flora, which he found so different from that of his native Concord. Thoreau was particularly struck by the beauty of the island’s many giant tulip trees, which were not found in New England. He also had the luck to encounter the 17 year locusts, whose appearance and sounds he vividly described in a letter home to his mother.

The keen and forever curious mind with which Thoreau explored the island led to his becoming something of an expert with regard to many of the trees and plants he encountered. This fact was evidenced when he received a visit from Margaret Fuller – editor of the Transcendentalist journal “The Dial” – that summer and took her on a long carriage ride, pointing out many of his favorite spots as if he”d lived on the island his whole life. So engrossed was Thoreau in his studies of the land that a local farmer once mistook him for a land speculator and asked for his help with the sale of his home. Henry, the future pencil-maker, was no real estate broker, and he promptly declined the proposition.

For all of his delight in Staten Island”s abundant vegetation and wildlife, it was the sea that held the most fascination for the young Transcendentalist. It was, in fact, the one and only time in his life he lived near the ocean, which he found an almost constant presence, even while exploring the farms and woods in the middle of the island. In 1847 he wrote:

When walking in the interior there, in the midst of rural scenery, when there was as little to remind me of the ocean as amid the New Hampshire hills, I have suddenly, through a gap, a cleft, or a “clove road” as the Dutch settlers called it, caught sight of a ship under full sail, over a field of corn, twenty or thirty miles at sea.

This experience of the ocean must have had a profound impact on one so deeply in touch with the majesty and rhythms of nature as Henry David Thoreau. As he was to do later while living next to Walden Pond, Thoreau often simply sat and absorbed the spectacle of the sea, absorbed in what he would call in Walden, “contemplation.” He would spend hours sitting in the remains of an abandoned fort at the mouth of New York Harbor, watching the play of the waves and boats and gulls. This fort is now the site of Fort Wadsworth, one of the oldest still-utilized military sites in the United States.

From that same site, one now sees not only the great Harbor, but the Verazanno Bridge, the Statue of Liberty and the Manhattan skyline. Despite the many man-made changes wrought upon the scene in the last 150 years, it is still easy to look out at the waves and be carried away, sharing in the great writer”s essential human experience of nature.

One should not, however, imagine that Thoreau spent all of his time near the ocean contemplating nature, though that was certainly a large part of his experience. He loved to wander the shore and took pleasure in searching the beaches for curiosities, both natural and otherwise. Once he saved a small puppy from one of the many packs of wild dogs that roamed the beaches, feeding on the carcasses of oxen and horses that washed up on shore. And another time while treating his three pupils to a fishing trip, Thoreau managed to beach his boat, requiring the help of a horse to dislodge it, much to his embarrassment.

In between tutoring and walks, Thoreau also managed to write several essays and translate ancient Greek poems, in this case, works by Pindar. Although his writing output was neither particularly stellar nor prolific, he did produce one piece of note, an essay called “A Winter”s Walk,” which is thought to be one of his first fully mature pieces of writing. In it he sounded a familiar note: the necessity of the woods to the spiritual life of a people. The extent to which this theme figured in his later work hardly needs to be mentioned, so central was it to Thoreau”s life and thought.

While on the island, young Henry also took time to do what he had come to New York to do: pursue publishers for his work. Although he disliked Manhattan with its burgeoning crowds and mass civilization – not surprising for so ardent a naturalist – he realized that that was where the movers and shakers in the publishing world could be found. Fortunately, he also found a great many bookstores and libraries in the great city.

His efforts to find publishers were, however, largely fruitless. The major New York publishing houses weren”t interested in the work of a new and unknown author, connected though he was with Ralph Waldo Emerson. His mentor”s contacts did, however, open some literary doors in the persons of Henry James, Sr. and New York Tribune publisher Horace Greeley. Thoreau and James seemed to enjoy one another”s company, though this meeting took place before James”s conversion to Swedenborg”s philosophy. Greeley”s proved a more lasting friendship; he placed several of Thoreau”s essays in his newspaper and later became an ardent champion of his work and his thought.

In the end, Thoreau grew homesick. He didn”t particularly care for the New York Emersons, whom he found too dull and conventional for his tastes, and his failure to find publishers for his work must have increased his sense that his fortunes were to be found elsewhere. Although for a time he tried half-heartedly to secure a teaching position in a local school, his home visit for Thanksgiving only confirmed the fact that Concord was where he belonged. And so, he finally returned home for good in mid-December, his sojourn on Staten Island a failure that nevertheless produced the essay “A Winter”s Walk”, the connection with Greeley and the knowledge that his heart was and would always be in Concord.

So Thoreau returned to his beloved Concord, soon to embark on his famous experiment in the woods at Walden. But he took with him the resolve to make it on his own terms, a resolve fueled in part by his experience on Staten Island.

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