Bruce Museum marks Thoreau’s bicentennial
GREENWICH — The Bruce Museum this month is honoring the bicentennial of Henry David Thoreau’s birth.
The famed writer, philosopher and naturalist was born 200 years ago Wednesday, on July 12, 1817.
“I’ve been a fan of Thoreau for at least 20 years,” said museum Collections Manager Tim Walsh. “His writings and studies resonated with me ... he’s fascinating.”
Inspired by the anniversary to curate an exhibit about Thoreau, Walsh was fortunate that the Bruce owns original pieces in its own collection — two letters and a couple of flowers picked by Thoreau on Mt. Monadnock in New Hampshire are at the heart of the museum’s celebration of the “Walden” author.
The curator’s favorite item, he said, is a letter to Lidian Emerson, in part because it was misplaced in the museum’s archives for years. Its location wasn’t recorded although it had been in the collection for decades.
“I’d looked for about a year and a half,” Walsh said. “With something that small, it could be lost for years.”
Finding it was a major occasion for the keeper of history.
“It’s one step away from Thoreau,” Walsh said.
More important was what the letter potentially said about its writer.
“(A)s I started to translate — Henry’s handwriting is notoriously terrible — it seemed like a love letter” to Lidian, Walsh said.
It is widely believed that Thoreau did not have any romantic relationships in his life, but his writing could indicate otherwise. After finding the document about a year ago, Walsh found that he wasn’t the only person who thought it was a love letter.
“I thought maybe it was an unknown letter,” he said. “But on the Thoreau Society’s web page I found it was one of his most controversial writings. Some say he was in love with Ralph Waldo Emerson’s wife.”
Another piece, a 1903 letter from Annabel Adams Goan to Dr. Edward Fuller Bigelow, the Bruce Museum’s first curator, describes the history behind the memorial cairn where Thoreau’s Walden cabin had once been.
Bigelow appreciated Thoreau’s work and met Goan at a lecture, after which he encouraged her to write the history of how the cairn was created.
“The other materials (in the display) are from a local Thoreau enthusiast,” Walsh said on Tuesday, referencing a photo of Bigelow and his daughter, Pearl Agnes, visiting the cairn, and a variety of stacked texts.
“There are a lot more books written about him after his death, than by him,” Walsh said. “He wasn’t aware of his success and it’s a shame he never got to experience it — there were something like 750 of his own books in his 900-book library collection.”
That was because Thoreau had to buy them all back from the publisher after they didn’t sell.
Walsh said the three items from the Bruce’s collection are being shown together for the first time since about 1945. They were given to the Bruce in 1927.
Although the letter to Lidian Emerson could spark up an old controversy, Walsh said the gifts present another mystery.
They “came from a woman, Agnes Bell Clark, from Stamford,” he said. “I have looked everywhere and cannot figure out, who was she and what connection did she have to him?”
“Henry David Thoreau: A Bicentennial Celebration” will be on display at the Bruce until July 31.
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