A Personal Recollection
by John Davies
The interest of the Thoreau Society in Henry Salt rests of course mainly in the fact that he wrote a biography of Thoreau, a biography, it may be added, that is still regarded by many as the best account of Thoreau considered as the man who had somewhat to say to his fellows on the important question of whether their lives need to be as desperate as they are.
It is not difficult to see why Salt should have been so profoundly attracted to Thoreau’s writings as to take up the task of publishing the life of an author then so little known and read in England.
The fact is that the two men showed marked similarities in character, outlook and aim, and oddly enough in the means available to them for the carrying out of that aim. Salt, like Thoreau, having graduated at a university, tool up school teaching, and when apparently well-set fore a successful academic life, comfortably protected from the rude outside world, finding himself in disagreement with the educational system, with characteristic refusal to compromise, resigned his mastership at Eton, and settled with his wife in a small country cottage in Surrey, there to follow his literary and political bent, and from then on to the end of his life to live in a quite humble circumstances as regards outward conditions.
Mentally and intellectually, however, and here also the resemblance to Thoreau will be noted, Salt enjoyed the company and friendship of many of the most notable writers and thinkers of his date, including Shaw, Edward Carpenter, and W. H. Hudson, and, as secretary for many years of the Humanitarian League, he met, and had the friendly support of Russell Wallace, Thomas Hardy, George Meredith, G. K. Chesterton and many other writers and thinkers.
More than anything else, Salt was a man of letters, and from leaving Eton at the age of 33, he deliberately set about the business of authorship, achieving, as his many publications prove, considerable skill in lucid expression.
Besides the life of Thoreau, his writings include an excellent biography of Shelley — “Poet and Pioneer,” lives of Richard Jeffries, James Thomson (B. V.), the writer of “City of Dreadful Night;” DeQuincey and others. “Seventy Years among Savages” sounds as if it might be a treatise on anthropology, but, as “The Times” critic wrote, “The savages, gentle reader, are you and I.” The book is virtually an autobiography written after he had reached seventy years of age. Other works are translations from Lucretius and of Virgil’s “Aenid;” “Memories of Bygone Eton;” “Animal Rights;” “The Logic of Vegetarianism,” and, written at nearly the end of his life, “The Creed of Kinship.” This last may be said to sum up Salt’s matured and considerable views, indeed, an address which was read at his funeral service, and that he had written for that purpose contains the following: “And when I say that I shall die as I have lived, rationalist, socialist, pacifist and humanitarian, I must make my meaning clear. I wholly disbelieve in the present established religion; but I have a very firm religious faith of my own — a Creed of Kinship I called it — a belief that in years yet to come there will be a recognition of the brotherhood between man and man, nation and nation, human and sub-human, which will transform a state of semi-savagery as we have it, into one of civilization.”
There can be little doubt that Salt’s literary reputation suffered from his having felt himself compelled to devote himself to a few particular causes such as Socialism and Humanitarianism, but that was the urge he felt and it was not in his nature to compromise. Thoreau says, “No way of thinking or doing, however ancient, can be trusted without proof,” and Salt couldn’t help challenging a number of venerable ways of thinking and doing with which he did not see eye to eye.
No note on Salt would be complete without an emphasis on his sly humor a never-failing source of delight to his visitors. Once when we called on him when he was about 85, he related how, earlier that day he had had the annual visit from the representatives of the commercial concern by whom his annuity was paid, adding, “The nice young man tried to conceal his disappointment at finding me still alive.” In his last few years, he made frequent references to his having outstayed his time, and having become a burden to all his friends, and once playfully suggested that one of us should arrange for an euthanasia, adding regretfully, “But of course nothing kills the vitality of a salt.” Again, when discussing the justification for his title “Seventy Years among Savages,” he said, “But I suppose we have reason to be thankful that they have given up cannibalism.”
Salt never tired of discussing Thoreau and trying to get the essential meaning of his writings, and it is an instance of his unfailing modesty hat he would ask for, and give his whole attention to opinion on points which he was clearly more competent to judge than his friend.
Henry Stephens Salt was born in India in 1851, the son of a Colonel of Artillery. Brought at an early age to England, he went to Eton and later to Cambridge, where he hailed a first class in the classical tripos of 1875 and won a gold medal for Greek epigram. That he was quite a notable scholar is shown by his appointment to a mastership at Eton, and there is no doubt that he would have gone far in the academic career if he had chosen to stay in it. He died on 19th April 1939.
Conscious of course of his privileges of birth, education, and intellectual associations, there was never the slightest sense of superiority; he early espoused the then unpopular cause of Socialism, being one of the first members of the Social Democratic Federation. He dressed as a “no account man” and could never be induced to put on anything special for an occasion. At a time when so many of our unemployed, receiving weekly pay from the Ministry of Labour under the jibes in our press as “on the dole,” he often asserted that he himself was on the dole, the chief source of his income being unearned.
A thoroughly satisfactory occasion was that on which with Salt beside him on the platform, Gandhi related to a large London audience gathered under the auspices of the London Vegetarian Society, how as a young student in London he had been influenced by a book written by Salt to mend his ways in the matter of his diet. It was through another little book edited by Salt that Gandhi first became acquainted with Thoreau’s essay “Civil Disobedience” which so influenced the great champion of Indian freedom in his resistance movement.
He was a cultured sane and charming man, and so amicable a host as to make those frequent trips from London to Brighton to see Henry Salt even when towards the last months of his life he was ill and frail, among the most cherished of life’s memories.
Editor’s Note: Mr. John Davies of Caterham, Surrey, England, was one of Henry Salt’s closely friends in his last years.
Published: The Thoreau Society Bulletin, Number 29, October 1949