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Thoreau & Ellen Sewall

From Walter Harding, The Days of Henry Thoreau, Chapter Six

First published in The Thoreau Society Bulletin, under the title "Stories"

I can't stop thinking about some of these stories from 19th century American literature. I keep on reading biographies of the same people. Lives long ago, but close enough that they seem very real in their dark clothes. Because some of them wrote so well, that whole territory of time feels still alive. For example, the story of Thoreau and Ellen Sewall.

They'd known each other before, but they were only children then. And when the Sewall family came to Concord in July, 1839, for a two-week summer vacation, things were different. She was seventeen now, and Henry twenty-two. Oh, those are good ages. Can you remember what seventeen and twenty-two were like? And what the seventeen year old girl was like, when you were the shy twenty-two year old guy?

They spent a lot of time together in those two weeks, though they were rarely if ever alone. He took her for rides in his boat on the river, though Aunt Prudence went along. He took her to see the giraffe that came to Concord on tour. A classic date. I can picture them standing there looking at the giraffe. I remember going on dates like that.

And when the young people hung out together in groups, one of the things they did, under the cover of an interest in phrenology, was to feel each other's skulls. It must have been exciting, putting your hands on the head of someone of the opposite sex--Henry, putting his hands on Ellen's hair, and feeling around on the lovely contours of her head. No doubt he was trying to give her a compliment, but when he said that her head had no bumps at all, the others laughed, because in phrenology no bumps would mean that she was either a genius or an idiot. I like to think of those young people feeling each other's skulls.

The next summer, he apparently got her out in the boat alone, and he played his flute for her as they drifted on the river. He wrote in his journal: "The other day I rowed in my boat a free, even lovely young lady, and as I plied the oars, she sat in the stern, and there was nothing but she between me and the sky. So might all our lives be picturesque if they were free enough."

Then he turned that into verse, and sent her the poem:
"Up this pleasant stream let's row
For the livelong summer's day,
Sprinkling foam where'er we go
In wreaths as white as driven snow.
Ply the oars! away! away!"

Well, it's not--
"Wild nights--Wild nights!
Were I with thee
Wild nights should be
Our luxury!
Rowing in Eden--
Ah--the Sea!
Might I but moor--tonight--
In thee!"
--but it's the same boat.

The problem was, Thoreau's brother John was falling in love with her too, and in a brotherly dynamic hard for us to understand, the younger brother deferred to the older. And Ellen accepted John's proposal at first, probably because she was too surprised to turn him down, but her parents were old-line conservative Unitarians, and they wouldn't have her marrying into the Emersonian crowd. Ellen, meanwhile, decided that it wasn't John, but Henry, that she preferred. This is all complex, and shadowy too; there are mysteries here that will never be explained. But after John was rejected, Henry proposed, by letter, and then, after suspense and more parental influence, he was, by letter, turned down too. Later Ellen wrote, "I never felt so badly at sending a letter in my life." But she turned him down.

She cut the pages from her diary from that summer and fall, but she missed a later entry where she referred to the poem about being in the boat on the river, where she said: "That was the first piece Henry gave me in 'days long passed,' 'in years not worth remembering.' I wonder if his thoughts ever wander back to those times when the hours sped so pleasantly and we were so happy. I think they do. I little thought then that he cared so much as subsequent events have proved."

I don't mean to be overly curious about other people's love lives, but the truth is, Ellen Sewall was pretty. You can see it in a daguerreotype from 1840-- her long jaw, her oddly bobbed hair exposing her ear, and the slight smile on her lips, unusual in a portrait at that time--and the way she's gazing off to the side, thinking of something else. There's something sexy about beauty in daguerrotypes--all that freshness, captured on that day long ago.... In any case, it's easy to see why she caught Henry's eye, and John's eye, and others' eyes, and the eye of the guy she married, Joseph Osgood, a Unitarian minister. They seem to have had a good marriage. Years later, Ellen told her children that she would have married him even if her parents had objected.

There are other details. Years later, after Henry had died, she kept his picture on her living room wall. I guess that's not so unusual--she admired his writing. On Henry's side, two months after the rejection, he wrote, "To sigh under the cold, cold moon for a love unrequited, is to put a slight upon nature; the natural remedy would be to fall in love with the moon and night, and find our love requited." Which is pretty much what he did, and pretty much how it worked out for him. Two days later he wrote: "Disappointment will make us conversant with the nobler part of our nature." For all the controversies about Thoreau and his quirky, complicated personality, I think we can give him that: He had plenty of conversations, both serious and light-hearted, with the nobler part of his nature.

But that wasn't the end of it. He would see Ellen occasionally for the rest of his life! He knew her husband! He stopped and visited with them on his way to Cape Cod! When Rev. Osgood came to preach in Concord once, Henry didn't go to the service of course, but he did take the man who was married to Ellen on a walk around Walden Pond.

Now it is time to say that I am aware that Walter Harding wrote an essay called "Thoreau's Sexuality," in response to the criticism that his biography had been written as if Freud had never existed; I feel sure that, in his great fairness and allegiance to truth, he would have written it even without the criticism. I know that Thoreau said some negative things about marriage, for example, kicking a skunk cabbage once and saying, "There--marriage is like that." From the first time I read Walden, "Higher Laws" rubbed me the wrong way, and the paragraphs on chastity, sensuality, and "generative energy" had a sort of clanging sound.

I'm aware there has been a good deal of attention to Thoreau's sexuality, and what he did with it; his many highly physical admiring descriptions of males, and his few of women. And of course his descriptions of nature are often sexual, and sometimes pretty wild: "Nature...lies at length, exposing her flanks to the sun. I feel as if I could...stroke and kiss the very sward, it is so fair." As Harding pointed out, one of the things that Thoreau had a gift for was sublimation. If you want to talk about Freudian imagery, there are many interesting examples, for instance, "If there were but one erect and solid standing tree in the woods, all creatures would go to rub against it."

All of this is long ago. But what I want to say is, let's not exaggerate his woodenness. Let's give him credit for great dignity, and self-control that could break your heart.

There's another detail, which I'm sure you already know: that when he was dying his sister mentioned Ellen's name, and he said, "I have always loved her. I have always loved her."

Make of it what you will. So many of Thoreau's words move me, and stay with me. But none I think more than those, spoken in his last days, that last winter and spring on his deathbed--"I have always loved her. I have always loved her."

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