David Henry Thoreau: A Centenary Essay
by Henry S. Salt
I. HENRY D. THOREAU
(July 12, 1817 – May 6, 1862)
It is a little over sixty years since an obscure American writer recorded in his private journal that he had just received a wagon-load of his unsaleable volumes from the publisher. “They are something more substantial than fame,” he wrote, “as my back knows, which has borne them up two flights of stairs. My works are now piled up on one side of my chamber, half as high as my head, my opera omnia. This is authorship; these are the work of my brain. Nevertheless, in spite of this result, sitting beside the inert mass of my works, I take up my pen to-night with as much satisfaction as ever.”
What would Thoreau have said, could he have been forewarned, on that evening, that within half a century an original copy of his rejected book, the “Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers,” would sell for ten guineas; that scraps of his handwriting would fetch more than their weight in gold; and that the foremost of American publishing firms would be planning an edition of his works in twenty volumes? For this is literally what has happened to the reputation of the “Yankee Diogenes” and the “Rural Humbug,” as his contemporaries styled him. Of all the Concord group it is beginning to be seen that Thoreau, the least regarded in his lifetime, will live the longest in the end, by virtue of that rare, pungent, aboriginal flavour of his, which may attract or repel, according to the taste of the reader, but will in no wise suffer itself to be forgotten.
It was, of course, inevitable that so eccentric and uncompromising a nature as Thoreau’s should be misunderstood by the majority of his kinsmen and acquaintances. What could the respectable folk of a New England village make of their strange townsman, who described himself as follows?—
“I am a schoolmaster, a private tutor, a surveyor, a gardener, a farmer, a painter (I mean a house-painter), a carpenter, a mason, a day-labourer, a pencil-maker, a glass-paper maker, a writer, and sometimes a poetaster. My present employment is to answer such orders as may be expected from so general an advertisement as the above. That is, if I think fit, which is not always the case, for I have found out a way to live without what is commonly called employment or industry, attractive or otherwise. Indeed, my steadiest employment, if such it can be called, is to keep myself at the top of my condition, and ready for whatever may turn up in heaven or on earth.”
As we know him now, we see in this statement an admirable description of Thoreau’s genius, but to his contemporaries, with a very few exceptions, it must have seemed to be a mere wilful aberration. We recall, for example, an occasion, recorded in the Journal, when Thoreau’s father, that practical, unobtrusive old man, made protest against his son’s waste of time, as he considered it, in making sugar in a neighbouring maple-wood, when he could have obtained it more cheaply in Concord, and received for answer that his occupation, far from “taking him from his studies,” was his study—he felt, after it, “as if he had been to a university.” In like manner even Emerson complained that Thoreau, lacking ambition, “instead of engineering for all America, was the captain of a huckleberry party”; while Lowell, less sympathetic and less scrupulous, misrepresented the Walden episode as an attempt at “an entire independency of mankind.” But such misapprehensions, inevitable once, are less pardonable now, when the fuller publication of Thoreau’s works has corrected the earlier impressions of him, and has shown him in a clearer light to those who desire to understand him. We can see now that, as an original thinker and idealist, he did “engineer for all America,” in a sense other and better than that which Emerson intended—that he built from his countrymen, and for us, a priceless viaduct of thought, to lead us on from the sophisms and falsities of a too complex civilisation to a simpler and happier mode of living.
The process of this recognition of Thoreau has been a slow but sure one. As in the case of every great writer who has had a message to deliver, it was as artist that he first won unwilling homage from those who detested his views. “With every exception,” said Lowell, the most hostile of his critics, “there is no writing comparable with Thoreau’s in kind that is comparable with it in degree. His range was narrow, but to be a master is to be a master. There are sentences of his as perfect as anything in the language, and thoughts as clearly crystallised.”
This may stand as an expression of the best literary judgment of Thoreau for the past quarter-century; and in the wake of this frank appreciation of the stylist there has been growing up the slower but not less certain appreciation of the man. It has taken half-a-century to do it, but we are at last beginning to get rid of certain false notions concerning Thoreau by which the minds of his readers have been obsessed—notably the stubborn conviction that he was a mere disciple and imitator of Emerson, whereas, in fact, though deeply indebted to Emerson in his youth, his mature intellect was wholly independent and self-centred. Again, what was from the first grasped by the few is now being recognised by the many, that a live book such as “Walden” cannot have been written by a “skulker” (such was Stevenson’s term), or by a misanthrope, or by a “stoico-epicurean adiaphorist,” as a Scotch professor, who so far forgot himself as to attempt to analyse Thoreau, has learnedly described him. The fiction of a selfish, indifferent, or even misanthropic Thoreau, so studiously cultivated by some of his critics, is shattered by a knowledge of the noble part which he played as an abolitionist—as the abolitionist who spoke the first public word on behalf of the imprisoned John Brown at that supreme crisis. “Was it Thoreau or Lowell,” asks Wentworth Higginson, “who found a voice, before the curtain fell, after the first act of that drama, upon the scaffold of John Brown? It was on this occasion that Thoreau quoted Marvell’s lines, so applicable to his own action:
“When the sword glitters o’er the judge’s head,
And fear has coward churchmen silenced,
Then is the poet’s time; ‘tis then he draws,
And single fights forsaken virtue’s cause.”
Nor can the fiction of a hard, stocial Thoreau, for which Emerson himself is largely responsible, inasmuch as it was by this too partial editing of the “Letters” and “Poems” that the excessive idea of Thoreau’s “stoicism” was generated and fostered, survive a reading of the delightful “Familiar Letters,” first edited by Mr. F. B. Sanborn in 1894, and now reprinted with enlargement in the “Walden” edition, or of many human glimpses in the Journal.
Why is it, then, that Thoreau the thinker is still knocking at the gate where Thoreau the writer has been admitted? Plainly, because the message brought by him was in some respects a disturbing one, and unwelcome to the majority of those who heard it; because his philosophy makes too severe a demand on the conscience of his readers. For Thoreau is not a naturalist only, like White or Waterton, nor a simple child of nature like Borrow; but he is, as his friend and biographer, Channing, so aptly named him, a “poet-naturalist,” one who sees nature through the medium of human aspirations. Nor is this inconsistent, as might at first be thought, with the belief elsewhere expressed by him that man is not the sole object of concern to nature and the universe; for it has to be remembered that the “human” element was regarded by Thoreau as a property not of mankind alone, but also of the lower races, and of nature, which is the parent of all. “Shall I not have intelligence with the earth?” he asks, “Am I not partly leaves and vegetable mould myself?”
What, then, are the “ideas” for which Thoreau stands in American literature? It is difficult to express them in a word, for if we say “simplicity”—the word which perhaps most nearly comprehends his views—there is a danger that it will be taken, as it often is, to imply a mere simplification of living. “To what end,” he asks in one of his letters, “do I lead a simple life at all? That I may teach others to simplify their lives, and so all our lives be simplified merely, like an algebraic formula? Or not, rather, that I may make use of the ground I have cleared, to live more worthily and profitably?” The intention of “prescribing rules” was expressly disavowed by him; it was not his wish to induce the luxuriously minded to abandon their luxuries, but rather to spur the sluggish minds to think for themselves and so to follow their own personal tastes instead of the traditional prejudice. Individuality of judgement lies at the very root of his simplification. His intensely alert and thrifty nature, barded with keenest insight into the sophistries of custom, led him to the simple life (if we may still use that much-maligned term) of which he was the chief modern exponent. In Thoreau’s creed, the natural life is to be lived as well as eulogised; and, as it is here that he comes to grips with conventional habit, as no other writer has done, it is not surprising that on this point he has been more persistently misapprehended.
Published: The Humanitarian League, 1917