Jesse Cross


Upon the tenth anniversary of their graduation from Harvard University, the members of the Harvard class of 1837 were sent a survey asking them to state, among other things, their current occupation. One member of this class, Henry David Thoreau, undoubtedly encountered this request while in a peculiar frame of mind. Thoreau responded to the survey on September 30, 1847, less than four weeks after he had left the small home he had occupied for two years at Walden Pond. Once again a "sojourner in civilized life," as he would put it in Walden, Thoreau responded to his alma mater by listing no less than thirteen different occupations. "I am a Schoolmaster," Thoreau explained, "a Private Tutor, a Surveyor - a Gardener, a Farmer - a Painter, I mean a House Painter, a Carpenter, a Mason, a Day-Laborer, a Pencil-Maker, a Glass-paper Maker, a Writer, and sometimes a Poetaster."

Of these many alleged professions, the one that would actually provide much of Thoreau's income over the years - his work as a surveyor - is also one of the least considered or analyzed aspects of Thoreau's identity. As Patrick Chura observed in his recent book, Thoreau the Land Surveyor, "Thoreau's literary stock has risen steadily in the twentieth century, but interest from literary researchers [in Thoreau's work as a surveyor] has been intermittent at best." This neglect of Thoreau-as-surveyor is unfortunate for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that it has left incomplete the task of studying the interesting and complex relationship Thoreau bore to the property regimes and property theories of his day. Scholars frequently have been content to focus upon Thoreau's famous critiques of contemporary property regimes in the opening chapter of Walden, where Thoreau describes ownership as part of a larger economic system that had engulfed New England and that he found detestable. As Thoreau's long career as a surveyor reveals, however, the relationship must be more complex than this. His work as a surveyor made him into an agent of the existing property regime, yet the man we see in much of Thoreau's writing is aloof and triumphant, a far cry from someone who understands himself to be an agent of a regime he detests. How can this be?