A New “Portrait” of Henry David Thoreau?

Carte-de-visite of Samuel Rouse's 1854 portrait of Henry. From the AAS cartes-de-visite collection.
Carte-de-visite of Samuel Rowse’s 1854 portrait of Henry. From the AAS cartes-de-visite collection.

Last week we announced a new AAS web resource consisting of four journals kept by Edmund Quincy Sewall Jr. between 1837 and 1840, plus an introductory essay.  The journals include a description of Edmund’s life in Concord, Massachusetts, in the spring of 1840 while he was attending John and Henry David Thoreau’s Concord Academy and boarding in the Thoreau household.

Although both of the Thoreau brothers appear in the Concord portion of Edmund’s journals, John is mentionedmuch more frequently than Henry. It was John who took Edmund boating, walking, studying birds, and shooting, whereas Henry’s involvement with the boys was generally only in the classroom. Horace Hosmer, who was a student at the Academy at the same time as Edmund, later recalled, “John was a genuine athlete. He would throw somersaults, wrestle with the boys, jump high, walk on his hands, laugh, shout, and roll over on the grass in mock fights at recess, but in the school room the discipline was almost military, but no boy was ever struck or scolded so that any other scholar could hear what was said.”[1] Conversely Hosmer thought that “as a teacher Henry was ‘merciless’ i. e. the thing to be done must be done correctly. He was rigidly exacting…he was hated.”[2]

238245_0001The boys’ dislike for Henry resulted in at least one prank, when the boys cut the schoolhouse bell’s rope and rang the bell from the belfry while Henry was walking to the school.[3] In 1886, Concord native John Shepard Keyes recalled that “the boys made much fun of [Henry]. A picture of a booby in an almanac [in 1839] resembled him so much that it was cut out and shown round among his scholars as a likeness! and it did resemble him more than most caricatures.”[4] A search in AAS’s preeminent collection of American almanacs quickly yielded the image in question, in The Old American Comic Almanac: 1839 (Boston: S. N. Dickinson, 1838).[5] The image is in a piece called “Ornithology,” which depicts four men as birds (see below).

Left: "Ornithology"
Left: Full page with “Ornithology” piece. Right: Detail of the “Booby” image.

While not actually a portrait of Thoreau, the 1839 “booby” image in the Old American Comic Almanac was a sufficiently good likeness that Concord Academy students could see their teacher in it. This image is some fifteen years earlier than the earliest known portrait of Thoreau, the drawing made by Samuel W. Rouse in 1854, and thus a significant piece of visual evidence regarding Henry Thoreau as a young man.

Next week: What was the Thoreau household like in 1840 when Edmund boarded there as a student?

[1] Remembrances of Concord and the Thoreaus: Letters of Horace Hosmer to Dr. S. A. Jones, ed. George Hendrick (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1977), 15.
[2] Remembrances of Concord and the Thoreaus, 131.
[3] Walter Harding, The Days of Henry Thoreau (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1965), 86.
[4] “John Shepard Keyes on Thoreau,” Thoreau Society Bulletin 103, Spring 1968, 2.
[5] I found the “booby” image in this way in 2002 while in the early stages of researching the Thoreau brothers’ Concord Academy for background information for Edmund’s journals. While preparing this blog post I discovered that the image had been found independently by Mark Gallagher, editor of the Thoreau Society Bulletin, and published in the Summer 2015 issue of the Bulletin (Mark Gallagher, “The Identification of Thoreau’s ‘Booby,’​”​ Thoreau Society Bulletin, 290 (Summer 2015): 6-7.)

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Tom Knoles

Marcus A. McCorison Librarian and Curator of Manuscripts

3 thoughts on “A New “Portrait” of Henry David Thoreau?”

  1. Dear Tom:

    I am writing a new book entitled “Views From a Pond: Walden Revisited” with high resolution images of Walden Pond(s) accompanied with selected passages from Walden. I would like permission to use your
    recent (new) Portrait of Henry Thoreau in the frontispiece of the book. I have rendered my own sketch
    of Thoreau taken from an old daguerreotype which is quite morose; – yours is much younger and pleasant
    in nature. I will give the American Antiquarian Society credit in Acknowledgements as usual, and in a footnote, if you require that also. Thank you

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