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In the Beginning

In the early 1930s in Bridgewater, Massachusetts, a boy named Walter Harding was inspired by an “exceptionally good” teacher of American literature, named Esther O’Hara. Harding visited Concord and began reading authors like Emerson and Hawthorne. When he read Walden for the first time, “I said to myself, ‘I’m home at last; I’m home at last.’”

In 1939, in the spring of his senior year of college, Walter Harding found an “almost pristine set” of the 11-volume Riverside edition of Thoreau at a “decrepit old bookstore in Providence.” He took the 11 volumes with him to his first job, as the principal of a grammar school in Northfield, but found no one there he could talk about Thoreau with. He set out in search of fellow Thoreauvians.

“The first really positive response,” he wrote later, “came from the Rev. Roland D. Sawyer.” Sawyer suggested organizing a gathering in Concord on Thoreau’s birthday: July 12, 1941. When Harding and Sawyer arrived, “we were astonished to find the little hall jammed to bursting point with a hundred people!”

Raymond Adams, a Thoreau scholar at the University of North Carolina, was among those who read papers and poems. The gathering met at the Colonial Inn to view glass slides of Herbert W. Gleason’s photographs of Concord, hand-colored by Gleason’s wife. In the afternoon they decided to organize a Thoreau Society, and elected Adams as president and Harding as secretary.

That fall, Harding began graduate school at the University of North Carolina. He and Adams drew up by-laws for the new organization, and in October the first issue of the Thoreau Society Bulletin was published: a one-page mimeographed sheet.

Publications

Of the three major biographies of Thoreau published since World War II, all were written by members of the Thoreau Society. The Days of Henry Thoreau by Walter Harding appeared in 1966. Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind by Robert D. Richardson Jr. was published in 1986. Henry David Thoreau: A Life by Laura Dassow Walls arrived in 2017 to mark the bicentennial year of Thoreau’s birth.

The Thoreau Society Bulletin continues to be a vibrant vehicle for reporting on upcoming events and new discoveries in and about the world of Thoreau. Since 1966, The Concord Saunterer has been the leading academic journal of Thoreau studies.

Archives

The Society’s collections began not with the leaves of a manuscript but with actual leaves. In 1948, Ruth Wheeler arranged the purchase of part of Thoreau’s herbarium, including pressed specimens of 75 flowers, ferns, and leaves.

Since then, the Society has amassed major collections of maps, letters, manuscripts and other Thoreauviana. Our holdings include the papers of our cofounders Walter Harding and Raymond Adams, and of Roland Wells Robins, who discovered the remains of Thoreau’s cabin at Walden in 1945. New donations continue to enhance the value of the collections.

The Thoreau Society archives are available to researchers at the library of the Thoreau Institute in the town of Lincoln, Massachusetts, next door to Concord and located amid the Walden Woods. To facilitate the use of these collections, the Society supports two modest fellowships awarded annually: one for graduate students, a second for scholars and writers generally.

Protecting Thoreau Country

In 1957, when Walden Pond was threatened by destructive development, the Thoreau Society helped found the Save Walden Committee, which three years later won a verdict from the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts affirming the priority of “preserving the Walden of Emerson and Thoreau.”

Three decades later, when another proposed development threatened the integrity of the Walden Woods, the leadership of the Society formed the Thoreau Country Conservation Alliance and sparked the successful preservation of this natural environment under the stewardship of the Walden Woods Project. The Thoreau Society and our members have also been instrumental in protecting other Concord locales, from the Estabrook Woods and Great Meadows to Gowing’s Swamp.

Following in Thoreau’s footsteps, the Thoreau Society has taken particular interest in the Maine woods. We have forged a partnership with the Penobscot Nation, whose people and territory Thoreau encountered in his travels and whose tribal historian, James E. Francis, is an honorary advisor to our Board of Directors.

The Society operates the Shop at Walden Pond and leases office space from the Thoreau Farm Trust at Thoreau Farm, Birthplace of Henry D. Thoreau.

Honoring Leaders

The Society recognizes writers, artists, social activists, and intellectual leaders, who have made important contributions to knowledge about Thoreau and applied his legacy to contemporary affairs. Some of the world’s leading writers, historians, and environmentalists have been honored as keynote speakers at our Annual Gathering, including Lawrence Buell, Lewis Hyde, Leo Marx, Laura Dassow Walls, and Terry Tempest Williams, and historian Ibram X. Kendi.

The Thoreau Society Medal, inaugurated in 1998, is the organization’s highest honor, awarded to individuals who have made “sustained, essential contributions to the legacy and vitality of Thoreauvian studies and ideals through extraordinary scholarship or service.” Honorees have included notable environmentalist and authors (Paul Brooks, Terry Tempest Williams, E.O. Wilson), scholars and editors (Joel Myerson, Elizabeth Witherell), and public figures (the late US Senator Paul Tsongas).

Since 2001, scholarship on Thoreau has been recognized by the Walter Harding Distinguished Achievement Award, and service to our mission by the Thoreau Society Distinguished Service Award.

The Society also administers the Henry David Thoreau Prize for Literary Excellence in Nature Writing, founded by the naturalist Dale Peterson. Since its establishment in 2010, the Prize has honored some of the leading nature writers of our time, including E. O. Wilson, Gary Snyder, Peter Matthiessen, Diane Ackerman, Mary Oliver, George Schaller, Robin Wall Kimmerer, and Dr. Jane Goodall.

Making New Connections

Writing in the age when the sciences diverged from the humanities in specialized academic pursuits, Thoreau recognized no disciplinary boundaries. Neither does the society carrying on in his name.

We welcome speakers and writers with a diversity of interests similar to Thoreau’s, including the late Bradley P. Dean, who promoted Thoreau’s achievement as a proto-ecologist, the biologist Richard D. Primack, who used Thoreau’s meticulous records of plants to track the course and impact of climate change, the geologist Robert Thorson, who established Thoreau’s importance as a student of hydrology, and scholars of race relations such as Sandra Harbert Petrulionis and Elise Lemire, who uncover the racial history of Concord and beyond.

As we promote knowledge about Thoreau’s life and writings, the Thoreau Society builds connections to scholars and translators of his works beyond US borders. In recent years Thoreau’s works have appeared in Armenian, Czech, Farsi, and Spanish. Thoreau Society members have ventured beyond Concord to participate in symposia on “Thoreau from Across the Pond” in Lyon, France (2017) and on “Uses and Abuses of Thoreau at 200” in Gothenburg, Sweden (2018), and on “Thoreau & the Nick of Time” in Reykholt, Iceland (2022).

As Many Different Persons as Possible

In Walden, Thoreau wrote, “I desire that there may be as many different persons in the world as possible.” The Thoreau Society likewise recognizes that the contributions of all will continue to result in a more vital organization and a more vital world.

The Thoreau Society is committed to diversity and inclusion, and welcomes people of all ages, ethnicities, gender expressions and identities, origins, physical abilities, races, religions, and sexual orientations.

Read about some of our milestones

Get news from the Thoreau Society and learn about ways you can help preserve Thoreau Country as part of our common heritage and as the embodiment of Thoreau’s landmark contributions to social, political, and environmental thought.

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Educating people about the life, works, and legacy of Henry David Thoreau, challenging all to live a deliberate, considered life—since 1941.

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Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this article do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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