Thoreau's "Journey West:"  The Men

     The 1861 trip that led Henry David Thoreau & Horace Mann, Jr., from Massachusetts to Minnesota

 

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Henry David Thoreau

Horace Mann, Jr.

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     Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862)
, author of A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers and Walden; or, Life in the Woods, spent the last few years of his life conducting scientific research in his neighborhood. He studied tree succession and the dispersion of seeds. But by the time he was in his 43rd year, he was not in good health. At various points during the course of his lifetime, he showed signs of suffering from what was called "consumption." Now we know the malady as tuberculosis, a disease of the lungs. In the nineteenth century, consumption was widespread enough to be responsible for one out of every five deaths. Most people recognized its symptoms and had many friends, relatives or acquaintances who were afflicted with it.

     In the mid-1800s, travel was a popular recommendation to men who carried the effects of consumption. Doctors -- not yet knowing that tuberculosis was contagious -- thought a change in climate would be good for their patients. Thoreau got this same advice in the spring of 1861, after he could not shake the cold he caught from his friend Bronson Alcott the previous December. So he had some decisions and some plans to make.

     Horace Mann, Jr. (1844-1868), was the oldest of the three sons of famed educator Horace Mann and his wife, Mary Peabody Mann. The elder Horace died in Yellow Springs, Ohio in 1859, after helping to establish Antioch College; and upon his death, Mrs. Mann moved her family back to its native Massachusetts and to the town of Concord. At first they rented "The Wayside" from Mary's sister and brother-in-law, Sophia and Nathaniel Hawthorne, who were then in Europe. And when the Hawthornes returned to Concord, the Manns moved into their own house on Sudbury Road, just a few blocks away from the Thoreau house on Main.

     As he grew older, Horace became more interested in exploration and the natural world. He was an avid reader and an amateur scientist. At Antioch, he had access to the school's professors and laboratories. Now in Concord, he could explore the town's woodlots and fields and learn about nature firsthand from Henry Thoreau. He soon began to bring gifts for Thoreau's examination, mainly dead birds and animal skeletons. By that time, the older man had eschewed killing animals in order to study them. Perhaps he forgave Horace for his youth, exuberance, and scientific inclinations, and didn't lecture him on the subject. Horace's energy and persistence paid off. When H.G.O. Blake and Ellery Channing both turned down the invitation to accompany Thoreau on his westward journey, it was Horace Mann, Jr., who was selected instead. He was just 17 years old.

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2014 Corinne H. Smith