Oftentimes history distills the entirety of a life into caricature — Genghis Khan as a barbarian; Cleopatra VII as a seductress; Napoleon Bonaparte as a ruthless emperor making up for his vertical inadequacies.
And so it is with Henry David Thoreau — the 19th-century author and philosopher is often remembered as a recluse and a malcontent, based solely on his two-year, back-to-the-land experiment in Concord that led to his famous book, “Walden.’’
But if time tells us anything, it’s that lives have many dimensions — and that is what the Freedom’s Way National Heritage Area hopes to emphasize with the launch of a program exploring the complexities of Thoreau’s life beyond the legendary pond and surrounding woods.
“He’s got a reputation for being very connected to Concord and Walden, which of course he was,” said Corinne H. Smith, an Athol-based historian whose book, “Westward I Go Free: Tracing Thoreau’s Last Journey,” came out earlier this year. “But he did travel a fair amount in his lifetime.”
“In Thoreau’s Footsteps” is a multiyear venture launched this summer by Freedom’s Way — which is headquartered in the Devens area and extends to 45 cities and towns in Massachusetts and New Hampshire — and supported by local historical societies and cultural councils. It entails a series of events aiming to illustrate Thoreau’s travels throughout the region, as well as his passion for nature, science, and philosophy.
The last events this season will commemorate his connection to Ayer (in his day known as Groton Junction).
At 7 p.m. Thursday, Smith will give a talk at Ayer Town Hall, and on Sept. 29, historic interpreter Richard Smith (no relation) will portray Thoreau as a 19th-century guide on a nature walk along the Nashua River Rail Trail.
Previous events have taken place in Concord, Fitchburg, Medford, Westminster, and at Mount Wachusett in Princeton.
“It’s almost like Concord is finally sharing Henry Thoreau with the rest of New England,” said Richard Smith, who has been portraying him since 1999, and now does it full time, with roughly 90 events this year at Walden Pond and at colleges, high schools, churches, and libraries.
Because Thoreau was so meticulous and dedicated to keeping up his daily journal, researchers know he visited at least 39 of the 45 towns in the Freedom’s Way National Heritage Area, Corinne Smith said.
One of his most notable local travels took place in 1842, when he walked with a friend from Concord to Mount Wachusett. Along the way, the pair passed through Acton, Maynard, Stow, Bolton, Lancaster, and Sterling; and on the way back, they meandered through Harvard and Boxborough.
Meanwhile, he lectured in Amherst, N.H., Bedford, Lincoln, and Medford, and cruised along several local rivers, including the Concord, Sudbury, Assabet, and Merrimack.
As Smith explains it, Thoreau walked at first to get to his destinations; but as the railroads flourished, he took full advantage of them. (This is contrary to the belief, she noted, that he was a Luddite.)
And that’s where he developed his connection with Ayer; at the time, Smith said, it was a major railroad hub, with at least three trains going back and forth to Worcester each day. She estimates that he visited the town at least 22 times.
“No matter where Henry wanted to go west of Concord, he always had to go through Ayer,” she said. But he didn’t write specifically about the town, as “he was often on his way somewhere else.”
Meanwhile, he also visited Maine and Cape Cod, and made at least four trips to Mount Monadnock in New Hampshire. And Smith’s 400-plus-page book details his last great excursion, to Minnesota alongside Horace Mann Jr. in the summer of 1861, when the country was embroiled in war. When he returned to Concord, he only lived another nine months before dying of tuberculosis.
“He never would have lived anywhere else, he loved his hometown,” Smith said. But at the same time, she said, “he was more of a traveler than people give him credit for.”
And also much more complex and multitalented than many people realize.
Richard Smith, for his part, describes Thoreau as the best writer of the transcendentalists (a philosophical movement in New England in the 1830s and ’40s that emphasized the inherent goodness of man and nature and the corruptive nature of society), a “troublemaker” who questioned authority, admittedly “kind of weird,” and also incredibly spiritual and possessing a great sense of humor.
“He was a total iconoclast — he did his own thing and didn’t care what anybody thought. I find that most attractive about him,” Richard Smith said.Continued...