Remembering The Forgotten People Of Walden

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A view of Walden Pond after the dedication of the U.S. Postal Service's new Henry David Thoreau postage stamp in May. (Elise Amendola/AP)
A view of Walden Pond after the dedication of the U.S. Postal Service's new Henry David Thoreau postage stamp in May. (Elise Amendola/AP)

In the most iconic line of "Walden," Henry David Thoreau writes:

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life.

Thoreau paints Walden Pond as a place where a simpler, more honest life was possible. But for many, those woods were important for a different reason: They were a place where the marginalized and the social outcasts of Concord could live.

Historian and Thoreau biographer Laura Walls says it was an area where you could "live out life on the margins of society, without anybody minding too much.

"It was, if you will, on the wrong side of the railroad tracks," she said. "So to know that about Walden tells us something about Thoreau's intent in going to Walden — to become a part of that community in a real way."

While we remember Thoreau today, on the 200th anniversary of his birth, we have largely forgotten the other members of that community — the African-Americans and the Irish — who also lived by Walden Pond — before Thoreau and alongside him.


Elise Lemire, professor of literature at Purchase College. Author of "Black Walden: Slavery and Its Aftermath in Concord, Massachusetts."

Interview Highlights

On how Thoreau includes the formerly enslaved in his writing

“[Thoreau’s] working hard to situate his cabin site within the middle of this enclave… very specifically in the midst of these three other former home sites. He talks at length about a formerly enslaved man in Concord named Brister Freeman. He talks about the fact that Brister Freeman was formerly owned by Squire Cumming... Squire Cummings was one of the founders of Harvard medical school. He was a very wealthy man and, [in his will], he left money for Harvard.”

On how the formerly enslaved people attempted to make a living

“So, Thoreau provides the name of former enslavers. He provides lots of hints about the kinds of work people did. At one point, for example, he’ll tell you that he wanted to know more about Brister Freeman and another former slave who lived there, a man named Cato Ingraham, but all he could discover there was that “Brister and Cato pulled wool.” One of the things they did to survive was work in the local slaughtering industry, pulling wool out of sheep. But, of course, Thoreau is also playing with words, though, because he also means was they pretended to tip their hat to white people who passed by in a sign of deference.”

“...We’re talking about people who lived on tiny, tiny, slivers of land. Brisol’s the only formerly enslaved person who owned land in Walden Woods and he had an acre of “old field”. Well you can’t raise a family on an acre of field in a subsistence economy.”

On Zilpah White, a formerly enslaved woman, who lived on her own in Walden Woods

“There was a women named Zilpah White who, my research shows, is most likely Brister Freeman’s sister. She had been enslaved nearby at the Codman Estate… in Lincoln. Many of the former slaves at the Codman Estate later, when they were abandoned to their freedom, squatted in Walden Woods. Zilpah White squatted on the edge of the road, the border of the road being public space, and eked out a living as a spinner and as a basketmaker. She lived to be 82-years-old."

“In my mind, and in Thoreau's mind too, she’s a very heroic figure because so many women who’d been enslaved in Massachusetts were unable to move out of the house where they’d been enslaved. And their status didn’t really change. The 1790 census says there were no more enslaved people in Massachusetts but women and older men weren’t moving out of these households. Essentially, their lives continued as they had been. But, she moves out on her own, she makes a go of it. As a result she’s harassed. Thoreau tells us about her house being burned down, she was a victim of arson.”

On why this village of about 15 former slaves failed while Concord thrived

“It has to do with the size of their land. It has to do with the fact that Walden was left wooded because the soil was sandy - you can’t grow food on it, you can’t crop on it - but, also... the kinds of jobs people can get. Everything conspires against them... many children died from malnutrition. It’s quite a heartbreaking story.”

“It is so important to also notice Thoreau understood the difficulties [the formerly enslaved] encountered and he wanted to memorialize them... It’s a story about segregated patterns in Concord and the fact that this community was not able to get a toe-hold but, in the meantime, [they showed persistence.]”

This segment aired on July 12, 2017.



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