Thoreau and Gilbert White
New Age (London), November 15, 1900
Sir, - May I say a few words on a subject briefly alluded to in a recent number of THE NEW AGE – viz. Mr. Robert Blatchford’s strange depreciation of Thoreau in “My Favourite Books”? Mr. Blatchford, nettled by Lowell’s preference of Thoreau’s style to that of Gilbert White, devotes several pages to arguing that, whereas White was a “master,” Thoreau was only an “artist.” Well, that is a matter of opinion, on which every reader is free to think as he likes. But when Mr. Blatchford asserts that, while White was satisfied with loving service of Nature, Thoreau “seems to have expected wages in the shape of public applause,” and that “one resents his thrusting of his puny, greedy, eager soul between one’s gaze and Nature” – it is necessary that some protest should be made against such an unmerited sneer at one of the most single-hearted, self-restrained, and unambitious of men. That Thoreau, who lived his life on a plane to which very few authors have even aspired, who was so uncompromising in his devotion to his own ideals that he cut himself off from every chance of adequate recognition, should be thus described as “a puny, eager, greedy soul,” who expected “wages in the shape of public applause,” is a piece of criticism of which I trust Mr. Blatchford will live to feel ashamed.
Mr. Blatchford’s complaint that Thoreau “shows a greedy eagerness to use the immensities as a background for his own self-portraiture” seems merely to prove that the critic himself has no sympathy with a certain class of genius. It is true that there is what may be called a self-consciousness in such modern poet-naturalists as Thoreau and Jefferies which is absent in the simple old naturalist school of Gilbert White. But it is not true that the “self” portrayed by them is in any sense puny, eager, or greedy; on the contrary, it is the higher and spiritual self of which they speak, and quite as much as part of the immensities of Nature as are the skies or forests. Thoreau, as we know, declined to write essays on natural history pure and simple, on the ground that “he could not detach the external record of observations from the inner associations with which such facts were connected in his mind.” Is he on that account to be accused of a vulgar egotism? If so, the charge must include Shelley, Whitman, Jefferies, and most of the more impassioned writers of modern times.
Even if Mr. Blatchford had not the full understanding of Thoreau which would have made such criticism impossible, a sense of humour should have saved him from strictures which inevitably recoil on himself. For readers of “My Favourite Books” might as justly resent the intrusion of Mr. Blatchford’s personality in the immensities of literature. And I am not aware that Thoreau’s love of self-portraiture took the form of a fronti-piece-portrait in his books.Henry S. Salt
53, Chancery Lane, W.C.