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A surprise 200th birthday gift for Thoreau’s bicentennial

Concord Museum
The Concord Museum was recently bequeathed this previously unknown image of Sophia Thoreau.

Given the years of meticulous planning the Concord Museum has put into planning for 2017’s bicentennial of the birth of Henry David Thoreau, curator David Wood certainly wasn’t expecting any birthday surprises.

And yet he received one, a lightning bolt of sorts that almost seems to have come from the ghost of Thoreau himself. Last month, the museum received word of a completely unexpected bequest — a daguerreotype image of Thoreau’s sister Sophia that no one at the museum previously even knew existed.

The daguerreotype will be added to the exhibit “His Ever New Self: Thoreau and His Journal,” which is now on display at the Morgan Library & Museum in New York and will come to the Concord Museum in September.

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“I was just notified by those who were dealing with the estate,” Wood said of the gift from the Geneva Frost Estate in Maine. “I didn’t know the donor and didn’t know of the existence of this image. That this previously unknown image of Sophia should surface just this year and be bequeathed to the Concord Museum is remarkable.”

Concord Museum
An ambrotype of Henry David Thoreau, 1862.
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Sophia Thoreau wasn’t just a random family member, after all. She was the only sibling of Henry David to live out his adulthood with him; brother John and sister Helen both died in the 1840s, whereas Henry David lived and wrote until 1862. In the estimation of Wood and other Thoreau experts, Sophia was primarily responsible for the publication of many of Thoreau’s later works — and for the fact that the Concord Museum owns such an impressive range of Thoreauvian artifacts.

“It is literally the case that every object in the exhibition went through Sophia Thoreau’s hands,” said Wood. “She was [Henry David] Thoreau’s literary and material executor. He distributed some of his own things himself, but Sophia made careful choices about where other things should go. And it seems in retrospect she chose right, because many of those things ended up at the museum.”

Leslie Perrin Wilson, curator of the William Munroe Special Collections at the Concord Free Public Library, was equally thrilled and amazed by the unveiling of the daguerreotype. The library is another repository of Thoreauvian treasures, and Wilson emphasizes how important the little-known Sophia was to her brother’s life, both in childhood and in terms of his development as a philosopher, writer and activist.

“Sophia and Henry had a special connection,” Wilson said. “Neither of them married. After the other two siblings died, it was just the two of them at the family home on Main Street along with their parents. Sophia and Henry shared thoughts and approached things in a similar way. They both exhibited verbal wit and lively personality. They were cut from the same mold.”

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But Sophia’s influence on Henry went beyond their emotional bond. “The Thoreau women — Sophia and their mother, Cynthia — were very involved in the anti-slavery movement,” Wilson said. “They brought Henry along in his thinking about slavery and his willingness to speak out about it.”

Moreover, Sophia is literally responsible for getting Henry’s last works into print. “As Henry was dying of tuberculosis, his [sister] helped him get his manuscripts ready for publication. She was hand-copying passages out of his journal at his direction and inserting them into the manuscript for ‘Walking,’ because he was sort of a micromanager of his writing and didn’t want editors messing around with it after he was gone.”

Wilson hopes too that the significance of a daguerreotype won’t be lost on 21st-century audiences. “People are not always aware of the fact that each daguerreotype is a unique original,” Wilson said. “In the 1840s, when a subject sat for a daguerreotype artist, only one image was created. That makes them very rare. There’s a much better-known daguerreotype of Sophia Thoreau, but this one is different. Her appearance in this one is more human, more direct, more accessible. A little less scary.”

And the timing couldn’t be better, emphasized Carol Thistle, Marketing and Public Relations Director at the Concord Museum. Henry David Thoreau’s actual 200th birthday falls on July 12, and the museum will be making a festive day of it, with “Be Thoreau” decals given to every museum visitor and a chance to sit at a replica of Thoreau’s desk and write him a birthday wish.

The Concord library follows right behind with its own special exhibit, which has its gala opening Friday evening, July 14. The event is titled “Concord, which is my Rome: Henry Thoreau and His Home Town.”

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The new daguerreotype will be placed in a Thoreau exhibit opening at the Concord Museum this fall, next to a quill pen with a label in Sophia’s handwriting that says “The pen Brother Henry last wrote with.”

“This discovery is a well-timed reminder of the wider world out there,” Wood said. “All of our digging around cannot turn up everything. We still have to rely on goodwill and good luck, and that’s just what happened here, with this image coming to us at just this moment.”

Concord Museum
A shagbark hickory leaf inscribed in ink by Sophia E. Thoreau on Oct. 14, 1868.