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Rochester Teacher Wrote to Thoreau, Who Replied With Book, Gratitude

Part two of two: "Walden" author Henry David Thoreau to Rochester correspondent Calvin H. Greene: "I like the name of your county — may it grow men as sturdy as its trees."

In 1856, Henry David Thoreau was delighted to learn that news of his book, Walden, had reached “far off Michigan” when a young man from Rochester wrote to the author seeking to purchase an earlier work.

With that one letter, Calvin Harlow Greene began a four-year correspondence with Thoreau that evolved into personal visits with Thoreau’s family and the acquisition of a significant piece of Thoreauvian history.

Thoreau’s Walden

Walden by Henry David Thoreau is one of the world’s most recognized literary works. It was written during the two years Thoreau lived alone in the woods in the 1840s away from general society in a cabin near Walden Pond, not far from his home in Concord, Mass.[1]

Various published accounts about the book state that Thoreau intended to live alone so as to spend time reflecting on the joys of simple living and independence while working and living off the land around him. Though he lived alone, it’s been noted that Thoreau wasn’t a recluse as he received visits from both family and friends and frequently walked to Concord to hear the latest news and make small purchases.

Thoreau was an ardent believer in Transcendentalism, a philosophical movement borne from growing dissatisfaction with the cultural and political landscape of the mid-19th century. Thoreau’s desire to abandon luxuries and live more simply, organically and spiritually was inspired by that philosophy, which attracted a litany of notable writers and reformers of the time including, Margaret Fuller, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman and Amos Bronson Alcott, father of Little Women author Louisa May Alcott. [2]

According to historians Eric Foner and John A. Garraty in The Reader’s Companion to American History, Transcendentalists “sought to replace a religion of forms and observances with a warmer, more intuitive life of the spirit.”

Published in 1854, seven years before the start of the American Civil War, Walden reached a wide audience, as reviews of the book were published in newspapers far and wide and read by many all across the county, including Greene of Rochester, who not only was inspired by Thoreau’s writing, but became acquainted with the author, his family and many of the Transcendentalist figures of the time. [3]

U.S. Navy officer makes a surprising connection

The story of Greene’s correspondence with Thoreau was first reported by Thoreau scholar Dr. Samuel Jones of Ann Arbor, who published several of Thoreau’s letters to Greene along with Greene’s journal entries in a publication titled Some Unpublished Letters of Henry D. and Sophia E. Thoreau in 1899.

More recently, Greene’s story has been researched and recorded by John C. Rosemergy, who grew up in Rochester and who, like Greene, considered Thoreau a personal hero ever since he read his books while attending high school in the 1930s.

“I discovered the pages of Walden in our little Avon Township Library,” Rosemergy wrote in his unpublished paper, “Great God, What a Man!” Notes Concerning Calvin Harlow Green.

In Walden and other books by Thoreau – long since gone from the library shelves – Rosemergy noticed Greene’s signature. Though he took note of the name, he gave it little thought until 1945 when, as an officer in the U.S. Navy, Rosemergy saw Greene’s name mentioned in an article in the University of Michigan’s Quarterly Review. Written by a Dr. Williams, an English professor at the university, the article noted that Thoreau had a “western correspondent” named Calvin H. Greene from Rochester, MI.

That surprising discovery inspired Rosemergy's lifetime interest in Greene and search for more information about the Rochester resident's correspondence with Thoreau. 

The story of Calvin H. Greene

According to Rosemergy, Greene was born in Covington, New York, in 1817 and traveled to Rochester some years later. He married Esther Burbank in September 1842 and they had two sons, H. Harlow, who died at age 16, and W. Harvey who later built the building that is now home to at 311 Main St., where he operated a furniture and undertaking business.

In Rochester, Calvin Greene owned and operated a saw and cider mill on the Clinton River. According to Rosemergy, the mill was situated on the south side of the river near what is now the southwest intersection of Livernois and Avon roads. Greene’s home was nearby. Though the mill and home no longer exist, Rosemergy suggests that traces of Greene’s millrace are still near the site.

Greene’s love of literature must have been well-known around Rochester as Rosemergy points to a newspaper clipping from 1873, which stated:

“Here dwells a man of simple tastes and habits, daily joining the rough life of the lumberman to tenderest communion with Emerson, Parker, Curtis and Hawthorne. “He is a passionate lover of Henry Thoreau and Margaret Fuller.”

Rosemergy also notes that Greene taught school at the private Avon Lyceum in 1856 and served as principal when the school became public the following year.

Greene reads Walden

Walden sold well when it was published and, as Rosemergy suggests, it’s possible that Greene became interested in Thoreau’s works after reading a review in a newspaper.

“Greene subscribed to the New York Tribune,” Rosemergy writes. “In the summer of 1854 the paper published a review of Walden and reported that the book was soon to be published. The reviewer ... quoted substantial passages from unbound pages.” 

According to Rosemergy, Greene “wrote immediately to the Boston publisher, Ticknor & Fields to purchase a copy” of Thoreau’s book.

In 1902, Annie Russell Marble noted in Thoreau: His Home, Friends and Books that Greene “was much impressed by the courage and lofty ideals” of Thoreau and that he was an “ardent admirer of free, original thought and also an earnest student of nature.”

In reading Walden, Rosemergy notes, Greene noticed the title of Thoreau’s earlier work, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers and, unable to find a copy of the book to purchase, he wrote to Thoreau “who had been forced to purchase all unsold copies from the publisher.”

Thoreau wrote to Greene in January 1856 – a letter which was reprinted by Jones in Unpublished Letters and referenced by Rosemergy.

“I am glad to hear that my 'Walden' has interested you – that perchance it holds some truth still as far off as Michigan,” wrote Thoreau. “The 'Week' has so poor a publisher that it is quite uncertain whether you will find it in any shop ... The price is $1.25. If you care enough for it to send me that sum by mail (stamps will do for change), I will forward you a copy by the same conveyance.”

In a follow-up letter to Greene written on Feb. 10, 1856, Thoreau conveyed a rather humble, self-deprecating tone and referenced Greene’s residence in Oakland County.

“You may rely on it that you have the best of me in my books, and that I am not worth seeing personally, the stuttering, blundering clod-hopper that I am,” wrote Thoreau. “I like the name of your county – may it grow men as sturdy as its trees. Methinks I hear your flute echo amid the oaks. Is not yours, too, a good place to study theology?”

And so began Greene’s four-year correspondence with Thoreau.

Additional sources reviewed for this article:

: Thoreau and Greene continue to exchange letters. Greene asks Thoreau to send an image of himself, and the author obliges. Later, Greene visits Concord.

Bennet Bracey November 15, 2011 at 03:23 PM
Interesting article on a number of levels. For one I am a Rochester teacher and was interested in the story. I was more interested when I read of the location of the mill mentioned as being at the southwest corner of Livernois and Avon. My wife's grandparents and eventually her parents and aunt and uncle owned that entire corner property until it was eventially sold to the city of Rochester Hills a number of years ago. Three homes were built on the property by the family and one remains that my wife grew up in that was the environmental education center but now has a tenant using it. It is a beautiful property with the river running through it. Thanks for the article.
fulgenzimama.com November 15, 2011 at 05:31 PM
Fascinating stuff! Can't wait to read more of the letters.
Brendan McGaughey November 16, 2011 at 01:11 AM
Nice article. Thoreau is a favorite of mine!
Tiffany Dziurman Stozicki November 16, 2011 at 01:56 AM
How interesting! That's a great connection. Thank you!
Tiffany Dziurman Stozicki November 16, 2011 at 01:58 AM
One of my all time favorite Rochester stories!
Tiffany Dziurman Stozicki November 16, 2011 at 01:59 AM
Thanks, Brendan! He's definitely one of my favorites, too.
RH Mom November 18, 2011 at 03:06 AM
Great research and story!
Mimi Zwolak November 28, 2011 at 06:59 PM
Very interesting! I just read Walden last year and am now a big Thoreau fan. Great article.

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