The Times Literary Supplement, September 2, 1904
TO THE EDITOR OF THE TIMES
Sir,—The writer of the article on Thoreau which appeared in The Times on August 26 seems to have overlooked one or two points which are essential to a right understanding of the subject. In the first place, he speaks of Thoreau’s residence at Walden as “the one great achievement in his life.” But so far from being in itself an achievement, this period of seclusion—only two years out of the twenty of his active manhood—was rather a novitiate, an apprenticeship in serious thought. Thoreau’s true achievement was not the Walden episode, nor yet his protest against the Massachusetts Government for its encouragement of slave-holding, nor even the splendid incident of his championship of John Brown at the moment when every other voice was silent, but that rare fidelity to a high ideal which enabled him to live his life on a consistent level to which few other writers have attained.
Secondly, objection is made to the tone of Thoreau’s writing as noisy, contemptuous, and defiant. Well, it is as useless to dispute about tones as about tastes, but it appears to me that no reader can have penetrated very far into the secret of Thoreau’s style who has not realized that under his barbed epigrams and keen invasive humour (your critic ignores the fact of his humour altogether) there lies a very deep and genuine tenderness. “My greatest skill,” he wrote, “has been to want but little. For joy I could embrace the earth. And then I think of those amongst men who will know that I love them, though I tell them not.” I cannot but think that to miss this undertone in Thoreau is to miss the chief clue to this subtle and elusive temperament.
Yours faithfully,Henry S. Salt