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A letter from Henry David Thoreau

In 1841, Henry David Thoreau responded to an advertisement for a teaching job at Perkins.

Exerpt of handwritten letter from Henry David Thoreau.

Did you know that Henry David Thoreau applied for a teaching position at Perkins in 1841? A young man at the time, the now famous transcendentalist, author, and philosopher had been a teacher for several years. Shortly after this letter, Thoreau became more closely connected with Ralph Waldo Emerson, his friend, neighbor, and mentor. His famous stay at Walden Pond would begin in 1845.

On March 9, 1841, Thoreau wrote: 

Concord, Massachusetts 

March 9, 1841

Sir:

I observed in your paper of March 5 an advertisement for an assistant teacher in a Public Institution etc. As I expect to be released from my engagement here in a fortnight, I shall be glad to hear further of the above – if the vacancy is not already filled. 

I was graduated from Cambridge in ‘37, previous to which date I had some experience in school-keeping and since have been constantly engaged as an instruction – for the first year as principal of the Academy here, and, for the last two, as superintendent of the classical department alone. 

I refer you to Samuel Hoar, Esq., Rev. R.W. Emerson, or Dr. Josiah Barlett of the town, or to President Quincy of Harvard University. 

Yours respectfully, 

Henry D. Thoreau 

After graduating from Harvard College (which he refers to as “Cambridge”), Thoreau worked briefly as a teacher in the Concord public school before resigning “because of a dispute with his superintendent over how to discipline the children” (Schneider). The following year, Thoreau opened his own progressive grammar school with his brother John, Concord Academy. The school was closed in 1841 when John became ill and Thoreau could not continue to operate the school on his own. The closing is likely the “engagement” he refers to being “released from” in his letter to Perkins. 

Handwritten letter from Henry David Thoreau. Transcript is above.

At the time, Perkins (then called the New England Institution for the Education of the Blind) was still a relatively new school. While Perkins was chartered in 1829, the first students were not enrolled until 1832 after extensive preparations were made and educational materials collected by Dr. Howe. Between 1832 and 1841, the school’s enrollment grew from just 6 students to 67. By 1847, 101 students were enrolled. With the increasing number of students and interest in the school, Howe was frequently looking to hire more teachers. 

The text of the letter was published in a 1960 issue of The Lantern along with a caveat that remains in place today: “We can only speculate on the reasons Dr. Howe might have had for rejecting this application and on the possible effects on Perkins which his appointment might have had.” 

Works cited:

Suggested citation

Coit, Susanna. “A letter from Henry David Thoreau.” Perkins Archives Blog, Perkins School for the Blind, Watertown MA. February 13, 2024.

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