previous next

VII: Henry David Thoreau

There has been in America no such instance of posthumous reputation as in the case of Thoreau. Poe and Whitman may be claimed as parallels, but not justly. Poe, even during his life, rode often on the very wave of success, until it subsided presently beneath him, always to rise again, had he but made it possible. Whitman gathered almost immediately a small but stanch band of followers, who have held by him with such vehemence and such flagrant imitation as to keep his name defiantly in evidence, while perhaps enhancing the antagonism of his critics. Thoreau could be egotistical enough, but was always high-minded; all was open and above-board; one could as soon conceive of self-advertising by a deer in the woods or an otter of the brook. He had no organized clique of admirers, nor did he possess even what is called personal charm,--or at least only that piquant attraction which he himself found in wild apples. As a rule, he kept men at a distance, being busy with his own affairs. He left neither wife nor children to attend to his memory; and his sister seemed for a time to repress [68] the publication of his manuscripts. Yet this plain, shy, retired student, who when thirty-two years old carried the unsold edition of his first book upon his back to his attic chamber; who died at forty-four still unknown to the general public; this child of obscurity, who printed but two volumes during his lifetime, has had ten volumes of his writings published by others since his death, while four biographies of him have been issued in America (by Emerson, Channing, Sanborn, and Jones), besides two in England (by Page and Salt).

Thoreau was born in Boston on July 12, 1817, but spent most of his life in Concord, Massachusetts, where he taught school and was for three years an inmate of the family of Ralph Waldo Emerson, practicing at various times the art of pencil-making — his father's occupation — and also of surveying, carpentering, and housekeeping. So identified was he with the place that Emerson speaks of it in one case as Thoreau's “native town.” Yet from that very familiarity, perhaps, the latter was underestimated by many of his neighbors, as was the case in Edinburgh with Sir Walter Scott, as Mrs. Grant of Laggan describes.

When I was endeavoring, about 1870, to persuade Thoreau's sister to let some one edit his journals, I invoked the aid of Judge Hoar, then [69] lord of the manor in Concord, who heard me patiently through, and then said: “Whereunto? You have not established the preliminary point. Why should any one wish to have Thoreau's journals printed?” Ten years later, four successive volumes were made out of these journals by the late H. G. O. Blake, and it became a question if the whole might not be published. I hear from a local photograph dealer in Concord that the demand for Thoreau's pictures now exceeds that for any other local celebrity. In the last sale catalogue of autographs which I have encountered, I find a letter from Thoreau priced at $17.50, one from Hawthorne valued at the same, one from Longfellow at $4.50 only, and one from Holmes at $3, each of these being guaranteed as an especially good autograph letter. Now the value of such memorials during a man's life affords but a slight test of his permanent standing,--since almost any man's autograph can be obtained for two postage-stamps if the request be put with sufficient ingenuity;--but when this financial standard can be safely applied more than thirty years after a man's death, it comes pretty near to a permanent fame.

It is true that Thoreau had Emerson as the editor of four of his posthumous volumes; but it is also true that he had against him the vehement [70] voice of Lowell, whose influence as a critic was at that time greater than Emerson's. It will always remain a puzzle why it was that Lowell, who had reviewed Thoreau's first book with cordiality in the “Massachusetts Quarterly Review,” and had said to me afterwards, on hearing him compared to Izaak Walton, “There is room for three or four Waltons in Thoreau,” should have written the really harsh attack on the latter which afterwards appeared, and in which the plain facts were unquestionably perverted. To transform Thoreau's two brief years of study and observation at Walden, within two miles of his mother's door, into a life-long renunciation of his fellow men; to complain of him as waiving all interest in public affairs when the great crisis of John Brown's execution had found him far more awake to it than Lowell was,--this was only explainable by the lingering tradition of that savage period of criticism, initiated by Poe, in whose hands the thing became a tomahawk. As a matter of fact, the tomahawk had in this case its immediate effect; and the English editor and biographer of Thoreau has stated that Lowell's criticism is to this day the great obstacle to the acceptance of Thoreau's writings in England. It is to be remembered, however, that Thoreau was not wholly of English but partly of French origin, and was, it might [71] be added, of a sort of moral-Oriental, or Puritan Pagan temperament. With a literary feeling even stronger than his feeling for nature,--the proof of this being that he could not, like many men, enjoy nature in silence,--he put his observations always on the level of literature, while Mr. Burroughs, for instance, remains more upon the level of journalism. It is to be doubted whether any author under such circumstances would have been received favorably in England; just as the poems of Emily Dickinson, which have shafts of profound scrutiny that often suggest Thoreau, had an extraordinary success at home, but fell hopelessly dead in England, so that the second volume was never even published.

Lowell speaks of Thoreau as “indolent” ; but this is, as has been said, like speaking of the indolence of a self-registering thermometer. Lowell objects to him as pursuing “a seclusion that keeps him in the public eye” ; whereas it was the public eye which sought him; it was almost as hard to persuade him to lecture (crede experto) as it was to get an audience for him when he had consented. He never proclaimed the intrinsic superiority of the wilderness, as has been charged, but pointed out better than any one else has done its undesirableness as a residence, ranking it only as “a resource and [72] a background.” “The partially cultivated country it is,” he says, “which has chiefly inspired, and will continue to inspire, the strains of poets such as compose the mass of any literature.” “What is nature,” he elsewhere says, “unless there is a human life passing within it? Many joys and many sorrows are the lights and shadows in which she shines most beautiful.” This is the real and human Thoreau, who often whimsically veiled himself, but was plainly enough seen by any careful observer. That he was abrupt and repressive to bores and pedants, that he grudged his time to them and frequently withdrew himself, was as true of him as of Wordsworth or Tennyson. If they were allowed their privacy, though in the heart of England, an American who never left his own broad continent might at least be allowed his privilege of stepping out of doors. The Concord school-children never quarreled with this habit, for he took them out of doors with him and taught them where the best whortleberries grew.

His scholarship, like his observation of nature, was secondary to his function as poet and writer. Into both he carried the element of whim; but his version of the “Prometheus bound” shows accuracy, and his study of birds and plants shows care. It must be remembered that he antedated the modern school, classed [73] plants by the Linnaean system, and had necessarily Nuttall for his elementary manual of birds. Like all observers, he left whole realms uncultivated; thus he puzzles in his journal over the great brown paper cocoon of the Attacus Cecropia, which every village boy brings home from the winter meadows. If he has not the specialized habit of the naturalist of to-day, neither has he the polemic habit; firm beyond yielding, as to the local facts of his own Concord, he never quarrels with those who have made other observations elsewhere; he is involved in none of those contests in which palaeontologists, biologists, astronomers, have wasted so much of their lives.

His especial greatness is that he gives us standing-ground below the surface, a basis not to be washed away. A hundred sentences might be quoted from him which make common observers seem superficial and professed philosophers trivial, but which, if accepted, place the realities of life beyond the reach of danger. He was a spiritual ascetic, to whom the simplicity of nature was luxury enough; and this, in an age of growing expenditure, gave him an unspeakable value. To him, life itself was a source of joy so great that it was only weakened by diluting it with meaner joys. This was the standard to which he constantly held his contemporaries. [74] “There is nowhere recorded,” he complains, “a simple and irrepressible satisfaction with the gift of life, any memorable praise of God. . . . If the day and the night are such that you greet them with joy, and life emits a fragrance, like flowers and sweet-scented herbs, -is more elastic, starry, and immortal,--that is your success.” This was Thoreau, who died unmarried at Concord, Massachusetts, May 6, 1862. [75]

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License.

An XML version of this text is available for download, with the additional restriction that you offer Perseus any modifications you make. Perseus provides credit for all accepted changes, storing new additions in a versioning system.

hide Places (automatically extracted)
hide People (automatically extracted)
hide Dates (automatically extracted)
Sort dates alphabetically, as they appear on the page, by frequency
Click on a date to search for it in this document.
1870 AD (1)
May 6th, 1862 AD (1)
July 12th, 1817 AD (1)
hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: