Massachusetts

Charles Stearns Wheeler, the Transcendentalist Pioneer Who Inspired Walden

Charles Stearns Wheeler built a shanty in 1836 near Flint’s Pond in Lincoln, Mass., and  the next summer Henry David Thoreau spent six weeks at it.  It is widely accepted today that Thoreau got the idea to build his Walden cabin from his experiences living there.

The recent discovery of the Wheeler-Thoreau Shanty Site by Jeff Craig has been welcomed for revealing important historical details about the shanty. It had become a complete mystery in modern times. Not only did Craig’s discovery reveal the shanty’s exact location, but it also provided critical information about the dimensions, construction and similarities that the shanty had with Thoreau’s cabin at Walden Pond.

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Charles Stearns Wheeler

Charles Stearns Wheeler, Transcendentalist Pioneer

It has been well established the Wheeler shanty influenced Thoreau to build his Walden cabin, but what led Charles Stearns Wheeler to build it in 1836? The historical record is not clear. There are no Wheeler documents in existence today that give us the specific reasons he built his shanty. However, some clues in the historical record do give us insight on why he built it.

In his 1951 biography, Charles Stearns Wheeler – Friend of Emerson, John Olin Eidson states, “In no way did Wheeler show himself the transcendentalist so much as in his experimenting with the back-to-nature philosophy by building and living in a hut on the shores of Flint’s Pond, a half mile from his home and two miles from Walden.  He spent several college vacations in the hut from 1836 to 1842, possibly beginning with the six week vacation in July and August, 1836, between his junior and senior years at Harvard.”

Emerson’s Influence

Wheeler was a transcendentalist under the influence of Emerson when he built his shanty in 1836.  Eidson writes, “Wheeler’s joining the transcendentalists was more an act of allegiance to Emerson than conversion by faith to any new philosophy…His hero worship of Emerson began soon after his first hearing Emerson preach, and his faith never wavered. Their personal association probably began with the editing of Thomas Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus, and led to Wheeler’s joining the transcendental group.”

Wheeler had been actively working with Emerson before Emerson even published his influential essay Nature in September 1836.  Nature helped define the Transcendental movement, and Wheeler was aware of Emerson’s beliefs about finding divinity in nature (and each individual) before the essay was published.  Wheeler also belonged to the Transcendental Club from the beginning, when George Ripley held the first official meeting at his house on Sept. 18, 1836.

The Shanty Setting and Purpose

With Wheeler heavily influenced by Emerson, it is reasonable to assume that Wheeler was at least partially motivated to build his shanty at Flint’s Pond by his transcendental beliefs. By building his shanty on Wheeler land overlooking Flint’s Pond, Charles Stearns Wheeler established an important precedent. He built a dwelling where he would be able to pursue a back-to-nature experiment in outdoor living.  Wheeler himself described the setting for his shanty as “a beautiful and secluded spot, about 15 miles from Boston” in a memorial that Wheeler wrote about his close friend and Harvard classmate Charles Hayward. Hayward had spent time at Wheeler’s shanty during the summer of 1838.

Wheeler’s birthplace, where he grew up in Lincoln, Mass.

Wheeler continued his description of Hayward: “The love of nature, of the country, and of rural enjoyments, were sentiments which were strong in his bosom from childhood. He adds ‘The quiet of Cambridge I shall be sorry to forsake; I hope I have learned from its many beauties of scenery to regard the natural world as something higher than mere trees and stones, –to see something above the material in the beauties around us.  A part of the last summer of his life was spent in a beautiful and secluded spot [at Wheeler’s shanty], about 15 miles from Boston; and it was there that, in communion with Nature and her God, he determined to forsake all lower ambitions, and to devote himself to His service.”

The Natural World

This excerpt from Wheeler’s 1839 memorial to Hayward gives us a clear indication of Wheeler’s transcendental beliefs, and the importance he placed on perceiving “the natural world as something higher than mere trees and stones.” Through this memorial about his friend, Wheeler indirectly gave us the reasons why he built his shanty. Wheeler clearly emphasizes the transcendental connection between Nature and his shanty. He states, “and it was there that, in communion with Nature and her God, he determined to forsake all lower ambitions, and to devote himself to His service.”  For Wheeler, his shanty was a place he could be “in communion with Nature and her God,” and pursue his transcendental aspirations.

Thoreau Followed in Wheeler’s Footsteps

Influenced by the six weeks he spent at Wheeler’s shanty in 1837, Henry David Thoreau built himself a cabin at Walden Pond in 1845. Thoreau originally tried to obtain permission to build his cabin at Flint’s Pond. But he was denied (probably by Lincoln resident Ephraim Flint, who Thoreau severely criticized in The Ponds chapter of Walden).  Charles Eliot Norton, a friend of Emerson’s and a student in one of Wheeler’s classes at Harvard, said Wheeler, “introduced Thoreau to some of her [Nature’s] intimacies to which he had not then attained” (during their sojourn together
at Flint’s Pond).

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Henry David Thoreau

Ellery Channing wrote a letter to Frank Sanborn in 1883 describing Wheeler’s Shanty experiment and Thoreau’s six-week stay there. Channing wrote, “Stearns Wheeler built a ‘shanty’ on Flint’s Pond for the purpose of economy, for purchasing Greek books and going abroad to study. Whether Mr. Thoreau assisted him to build this shanty I cannot say, but I think he may have; also that he spent six weeks with him there. As Mr. Thoreau was not too original and inventive to follow the example of others, if good to him, it is very probable this undertaking of Stearns Wheeler, whom he regarded (as I think I have heard him say) a heroic character, suggested his own experiment at Walden….It seems to me highly probable that Mr. Wheeler’s experiment suggested Mr. Thoreau’s, as he was a man he almost worshipped.”

The Seeds of Walden

Certainly, other reasons contributed to Thoreau’s decision to build his cabin at Walden Pond.  However, the seeds for his Walden cabin experiment were planted by Charles Stearns Wheeler. He forever changed Thoreau’s destiny by helping him realize he wanted to emulate the same outdoor living experiment he had experienced at Flint’s Pond. As Laura Dassow Walls commented in her 2017 biography (Henry David Thoreau: A Life), “Thoreau had dreamed of living in a cabin by a pond ever since his idyllic summer with Wheeler, reading and writing in a shanty overlooking Flint’s Pond—a dream he shared with Margaret Fuller as far back as the autumn of 1841.”

Jeff Craig at the Wheeler shanty site today

The Wheeler shanty was “the birthplace” of the Transcendentalist’s back-to-nature outdoor living experiment. While Wheeler was influenced by Emerson in building his shanty in 1836, Wheeler has the distinction of being the first Transcendentalist to actually do it. It is interesting to speculate how history might have been changed if Thoreau had never known Wheeler, and had not spent six weeks at his shanty in 1837?

For more information about the Wheeler-Thoreau shanty site discovery, click here.

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