The Life of Henry David Thoreau
Animal World (a journal of the RSPCA), December 1890
The Life of Henry David Thoreau. By H. S. Salt (Bentley and Son, New Burlington Street, 8vo, 315 pp., 14s.)—Our large engraving on the first page of this number shows at a glance one of the characteristics of the poet-naturalist whose life has been admirably written by Mr. Salt. The scene chosen by our artist is in the Forest of Walden, where, retreating from the busy world, Thoreau built a hut and made a home, his only companions being the wild animals, trees, and plants around him. He was born in the village of Concord, Massachusetts, in 1817, and died in 1862, when, consequently, he was only forty-five years of age. Of short stature, firmly built, light complexion, strong serious blue eyes, and grave aspect and mind, he was not dependent for happiness on social life; he loved the solitude, and cared for the society of only few of his fellow-men, among whom Emerson was chief. It is said of his parents that “the Thoreaus had won general respect among their neighbours by their humanity, thoughtfulness, and unaffected simplicity of living.” Henry David was educated at the village school, the Concord Academy, famous for its successful teaching of Greek; at sixteen he left home for Harvard University, where after four years he “refused to take his degree on the ground that five dollars was too high a price to pay for the honour.” Mr. Salt says that “When only seventeen he had become convinced of the utility of ‘keeping a private journal or record of thoughts, feelings, studies, and daily experience,’ with a view to ‘settling accounts with one’s mind,’ an introspective tendency which grew stronger and stronger with increasing years.” While quite a boy he had written that “the principle which prompts us to pay an involuntary homage to the infinite, the incomprehensible, the sublime, forms the very basis of our religion.” It was his delight before going to Harvard, he tells us, to monopolise a little gothic window overlooking the garden at the back of his father’s house, which stood on the main street of Concord village, and there, especially on quiet Sunday afternoons, to muse in undisturbed reverie.
“Then I used,” he says, “with eyes upturned, to gaze upon the clouds, and allowing imagination to wander, search for flaws in their rich drapery, that I might get a peep at that world beyond, which they seem intended to veil from our view.” Often in the early dawn he would stroll with his brother John, to whom he was devotedly attached, to the “Cliffs,” a rocky ridge which overhangs the river Concord where, a couple of miles above the village, it swells into Fairhaven Bay; and there, seated on the summit, “catch the first ray of the morning sun, as it gleamed upon the smooth, still river, wandering in sullen silence far below. . . . . His devotion to Concord was already a fixed and unalterable sentiment, which sometimes exhibited him in a softer and more emotional mood than was customary to his stern, self-repressed nature. While he was still at college he happened one day to ask his mother what profession she would advise him to choose. She replied that he could buckle on his knapsack and roam abroad to seek his fortune in the world. The tears rose to his eyes at this suggestion, and his sister Helen, who was standing by, tenderly put her arm round him, and said—“No, Henry, you shall not go; you shall stay at home and live with us.” So fully were these words verified that twenty years later we find him still living at Concord, and writing to one of his friends that he had a “real genius for staying at home.”
No wonder that such a youth developed into a poet-naturalist. After trying school teaching at the Concord Academy for two years, and trade when he had abandoned teaching because he objected to cane the boys, he gave himself up to the study of nature, though he carried on his father’s business for the benefit of the family when made necessary by his father’s death. He says: “I have tried trade, but found it would take me ten years to get under way in that, and that then I should probably be on my way to the devil.” Instead of making money he wrote
Great God, I ask then for no meaner pelf
Than that I may not disappoint myself;
That in my action I may soar as high
As I can now discern with this clear eye.
And so we find him lecturing on literary subjects, writing poems, and spending “at least one half day in the open air, to watch the dawns and the sunsets; to carry express what was in the wind; to secure the latest news from forest and hill-top, and to be ‘self-appointed inspector of snow storms and rain storms.’”
He was anything but idle and indulgent. Emerson testifies that “he preferred, when he wanted money, earning it by some piece of manual labour agreeable to him, as building a boat or a fence, planting, grafting, surveying, or other short work or long engagements. With his handy habits and few wants, his skill in woodcraft, and his powerful arithmetic, he was very competent to live in any part of the world.”
As early as 1840 Thoreau was admitted into the inner circle of which Emerson, Alcott, and Margaret Fuller were the chief representatives, and used to attend the conversations in Emerson’s house, which were attended by many advanced thinkers from Boston and Cambridge; and in 1841 he became an inmate of Emerson’s household. His host (writing to a mutual friend) says: “He is to have his board for what labour he chooses to do, and he is thus far a great benefactor and physician to me, for he is an indefatigable and very skilful labourer. Thoreau is a scholar and a poet, and as full of buds of promise as a young apple tree.” We must not dwell on the intimacies he formed, nor on the love for Emerson, which is charmingly described in this volume, but proceed at once to the reasons which impelled Thoreau to settle in the woods. Mr. Salt writes:—
We may surmise that in 1844, after the conclusion of his education engagement in Staten Island, he was still more decidedly bent on putting his favourite plan into execution; and that he thoughts now reverted to Walden Woods as the place most suitable for his purpose. Alcott’s experiment at “Fruitlands,” although unsuccessful in a pecuniary sense, had doubtless stimulated Thoreau’s inclination to a forest life; and Emerson himself, while sceptical, in the main, as to the wisdom of such enterprises, had bought land on both sides of Walden Pond, with the idea of building a summer-house. Ellery Channing, who in his youth had made trial of a rough backwoods life, was of course taken into his friend’s confidences respecting this retirement to the woods. “I see nothing for you in this earth,” he wrote in 1845, “but that field which I once christened ‘Briers’; go out upon that, build yourself a hut, and there begin the grand process of devouring yourself alive. I see no alternative, not other hope for you. Eat yourself up; you will eat nobody else, nor anything else.” Encouraged by these exhortations, and firmly trusting the promptings of his own destiny, Thoreau determined in the spring of 1845, being now in his twenty-eighth year, to build himself a hut on the shore of Walden Pond, and there live for such time, and in such a manner, as might best conduce to his intellectual and spiritual advantage. The objects of his retirement have been so misunderstood that they will bear repetition in his own words:
“Finding that my fellow citizens were not likely to offer me any room in the court-house, or any curacy of living anywhere else, but that I might shift for myself, I turned my face more exclusively than ever towards the woods, where I was better known. I determined to go into business at once, and not wait to acquire the usual capital, suing such slender means as I had already got. My purpose in going to Walden Pond was not to live cheaply nor to live dearly there, but to transact some private business with the fewest obstacles. . . . I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear to me; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live to sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.”
Walden was, in fact, to Thoreau what Brook Farm was to others of the transcendentalists—a retreat suitable for philosophic meditation, and the practice of a simpler, hardier, and healthier life.
The building of his hut, and all the circumstances attending his settlement in this wood are graphically narrated in the volume. Nothing can exceed the interest which the reader feels in these descriptions, which remark applies to the details of his daily life in his new residence; also, to his arrest for refusing to pay taxes, some friend paying the charge, when Thoreau proceeded straight from the prison door, ignoring the meaningless glances of his fellow-townsmen, to finish his errand in the wood, and was soon in command of a huckleberry party, on a hill two miles from Concord, from which spot he characteristically said “the State was nowhere to be seen.” Mr Salt describes the next change as follows:—
Meanwhile, as the seasons passed on, the daily walks on which Thoreau had from his boyhood set such store were by no means forgotten; hermit through he might be, he was still above all things the poet-naturalist. “No weather,” he says in “Walden,” “interfered fatally with my walks, or rather my going abroad, for I frequently tramped eight or ten miles through the deepest snow to keep an appointment with a beech-tree, or a yellow-birch, or an old acquaintance among the pines.” In 1847 he had some correspondence and personal intercourse with Agassiz , who had come to the States in the preceding autumn, and paid more than one visit to Concord. On several occasions collections of fishes, turtles, and various local fauna were sent to Agassiz by Thoreau, of whose knowledge and observation the great naturalist formed a high opinion. In one way, however, Thoreau differed widely from other members of the same profession, for, through a naturalist, he had discarded the use of the gun and the trap before he lived in the woods, his field-glass being the only weapon of attack which he now carried in his excursions. “As for fowling,” he says, “during the last years that that I carried a gun my excuse was that I was studying ornithology, and sought only new or rare birds, but I confess that I am now inclined to think that there is a finer way of ornithology than this. It requires so much closer attention to the habits of the birds that, if for that reason only, I have been willing to omit the gun.” Fishing was the only sport which he did not abandon, and even on this point his conscience was already uneasy, and he had discovered that he could not fish “without falling a little in self-respect.” Nevertheless the hunting instinct, restrained for the time, was still dormant in him, and was ready to break out on occasion. “He confessed,” says Emerson, “that he sometimes felt like a hound or a panther, and if born among Indians, would have been a fell hunter. But, restrained by the Massachusetts culture, he played out the game in the mild form of botany and ichthyology.” During all his walks over the fields and forests together, he never fastened the door of his hut; yet he never missed anything but a volume of Homer, and “was never molested by any person but those who represented the State.” His longest absence from Walden seems to have been the fortnight he spent in Maine, in September, 1846, when, in company with a cousin who was residing at Bangor, he explored the recesses of the Maine woods, ascending the mountain Ktaadn, and made personal acquaintance with some of the native Indian hunters, whose habits he was never weary of studying.
Thus two summers and two winters passed by, fruitful in quiet meditation and ripening experience, though offering few incidents which call for special remark. When the summer of 1847 had arrived he began to feel that the object for which he retired to Walden was now sufficiently accomplished, and that it was time for him to return to the more social atmosphere of the village. His period of retirement had not been wasted or misspent, for he had learnt by his experiment two great lessons concerning the practical life and the spiritual. First, “that to maintain one’s self on the earth is not a hardship, but a pastime, if we will live simply and wisely,” it being his own experience that he could meet all the expenses of the year by six weeks of work. Secondly, “that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavours to live life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours; in proportion as he simplifies his life the laws of the universe will appear less complex, and solitude will not be solitude, nor poverty poverty, nor weakness weakness.” He had put his transcendental philosophy to the test, and the result had not disappointed him; he was no longer the “parcel of vain strivings” which he had pictured himself in his youthful poem, but he had now firm ground beneath his feet, and a clear object towards which to direct his course in the future.
On 6th September, 1847, he left Walden, and again took up his residence in his father’s household at Concord. “I left the woods,” he says, “for as good a reason as I went there. Perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one.” “Why did I leave the woods?” he wrote in his journal a few years later. “I do not think that I can tell. I do not know any better how I came to go there. I have often wished myself back. Perhaps I wanted change. There was a little stagnation, it may be, about two o’clock in the afternoon. Perhaps if I lived there much longer, I might live there for ever. One might think twice before he accepted heaven on such terms.” So he quitted his heaven of transcendental seclusion, to return to the purgatory of village society. The hut in which he had spent so many pleasant hours became the habitation of a Scotch gardener; a few years later it was bought by a farmer, and removed to another quarter of the Concord township, where it was used as a small granary and tool-house till some time after the death of its architect and original inhabitant.
It will be well for the reader to learn that this unsocial man could bend to children and animals, who he loved equally, perhaps.
Reference has already been made to his sympathy with children, and his remarkable power of interesting and amusing them. He would tell them stories, sing to them, and play on his flute, or perform various pieces of jugglery for their entertainment—an accomplishment which he had probably learnt from his eccentric uncle, Charles Dunbar, in whose oddities he always took much interest. But it was in the huckleberry expeditions that his services were in greatest request, for then he would drive the hay-cart in which the children journeyed to the hills where the berries abounded,—and who knew each knoll and dingle so intimately as Thoreau?—“leading the frolic with his jokes and laughter as they jolted along.” When we read the delightful accounts of his kindness and helpfulness on these occasions, we know how to estimate the charges of misanthropy and churlishness. “Though shy of general society,” says the writer of the reminiscences in Fraser, “Thoreau was a hero among children, and the captain of their excursions. He was the sine qua non of the Concord huckleberry party, which is in that region something of an institution. To have Thoreau along with them was to be sure of finding acres of bushes laden with the delicious fruit. . . . A child stumbles and falls, losing his carefully gathered store of berries; Thoreau kneels besides the weeping unfortunate, and explains to him and to the group that nature has made these little provisions for next year’s crop. If there were no obstacles, and little boys did not fall occasionally, how would berries be scattered and planted? And what would become of huckleberryings? He will then arrange that he who has thus suffered from the general good shall have the first chance at the next pasture.”
His extraordinary sympathy with animals was one of the most singular and pleasing features in Thoreau’s character. Like St. Francis, he felt a sense of love and brotherhood towards the lower races, and regarded them not as brute beasts, without sensitivity or soul, but as possessing “the character and importance of another order of man.” He protested against the conceited self-assurance with which man set down the intelligence of animals as mere “instincts,” while overlooking their real wisdom and fitness of behaviour. “They were his townsmen and fellow-creatures,” whose individuality must be recognised as much as his own, and who must be treated with courtesy and gentleness. “There was in his face and expression,” says Mr. Conway, “a kind of intellectual furtiveness; no wild thing could escape him more than it could be harmed by him. The gray huntsman’s suit which he wore enhanced this expression. . . . The cruellest weapons of attack, however, which this huntsman took with him were a spyglass for birds, a microscope for the game that would hide in smallness, and an old book in which to press plants.”
The strange influence which Thoreau was able to exercise over beasts, and birds, and fish was doubtless chiefly due to the power of his humane sympathy, partly, also, to his habits of patient silence and watchfulness, in which he resembled the hermits of the Middle Ages. Emerson tells us that “he knew how to sit immovable, a part of the rock he rested on, until the bird, the reptile, the fish, which had retired from him, should come back and resume its habits, nay, moved by curiosity, should come to him and watch him.” His hut at Walden was inhabited by other creatures beside himself; the birds would flit fearlessly through the room; the red squirrel raced over the roof, while moles and hares stabled in the cellar; and chickadees perched on the armfuls of wood which he carried across his threshold. Once, as he was hoeing in a garden, a sparrow alighted on this shoulder, which he regarded as “a greater honour than any epaulet he could have worn.” Nor was this all, for his mingled firmness and sympathy enabled him to take all sorts of liberties with the wildest of wild creatures. “Snakes coiled round his leg, the fishes swam into his hand, and he took them out of the water; he pulled the woodchuck out of its hole by the tail, and took the foxes under his protection from the hunters.” A story is told how a squirrel, which he had taken home for a few days in order to observe its habits, refused to be set at liberty, returning again and again to its new friend with embarrassing persistence, climbing up his knee, sitting on his hand, and at last gaining the day by hiding its head in folds in his waistcoat—an appeal which Thoreau was not able to withstand.
Thoreau was essentially a “poet-naturalist,” as Ellery Channing entitled him, and not a man of science. He was, indeed, an honorary member and correspondent of the Boston Natural History Society; but he declined, as a rule, to write memoirs of his experiences in this branch of study, on the ground that he could not properly detach the mere external record of observation from the inner associations with which such facts were connected in his mind—in a word, the natural history of the subject could not be separated from poetry and idealism. His whole method, as we have seen, was different from that of the scientific anatomist; he observed, but he did not kill, making it his object to hold his bird “in the affections” rather than in the hand. His diaries testify to the immense diligence and keenness of his communion with nature, and his unflagging interest in the seasons and all they bring with them. “As a child looks forward to the coming of the summer, so could we contemplate with quiet joy the circle of the seasons returning without fail eternally.” He noted and recorded the habits of animals, the tracks of the fox and otter, the migrations and song of birds, the croak of frogs and chirp of crickets, the spawning and nests of fishes, the blossoming of flowers, the fall of leaves, the height of the river, the temperature of ponds and springs, and innumerable other phenomena of out-door life. Like all true naturalists, he loved birds, and many are the entries in his journal respecting the kinds that are native at Concord—the bobolink, the robin, the song-sparrow, the whip-poor-will, the cat-bird, and the blue bird, which, as he beautifully said of it, “carries the sky on its back.” He loved to be awakened in the early summer mornings by the song of birds, and nothing cheered him so much in the midst of a winter storm as bird’s chirp or whistle. Other favourite creatures were the bull-frog and the little “peeping hyla”; while the huge snapping-turtle, the eggs of which he sometimes hatched in his yard, was, in Channing’s phrase, “his pride and consolation.” “If Iliads are not composed in our day,” said Thoreau, “snapping-turtles are hatching and arrive at maturity.”
The neighbourhood of Concord, with its wide tracts of meadow and woodland, was a fine field for the naturalist; and Thoreau, in his characteristic love of paradox, was fond of asserting that it surpassed all other places as a centre of observation—a foible for which he was gently bantered by Emerson. He talked about nature, it was wittily remarked, “as if she had been born and brought up at Concord.”
For a full description of his personality and character, literary life of Concord after leaving Walden, his excursions, closing years, doctrines and writings, we must refer the reader to Mr. Salt’s volume, which is as engrossing as a well-constructed novel, and instructive, withal. It does not fail to correct wrong impressions respecting this eccentric but good genius, whose whole life was one of sympathy with nature and a protest against the pomps and vanities of society. It was because he was passionately fond of wild birds, of beasts and fishes, that he could entice the blue jay, the shyest of the featured creation to perch upon his shoulders, and could take fishes out of the stream. In “Walden,” one of his best-known works, he writes:—
My forest resounded at intervals with the note of the chickadee, the blue-jay, the woodpecker, with the scream of the fish-hawk and eagle, the loud laugh of the loon, and the whistle of ducks heard along the solitary streams. At night the hooting of owls and howling of wolves sounded weird-like through the forest’s depths, and abodes of the moose, the bear, the caribou, the wolf, the beaver, and the Red Indian. Who shall describe the inexpressible tenderness, the immortal life of the grim forest, where Nature is ever in her spring, and the moss-grown trees enjoy a perpetual youth? Two years since I passed some weeks with a friend up the Caucomgomoc River. While observing the moose at midnight, we found ourselves suddenly surrounded by wolves. So at least my friend thought, and the noise justified the opinion. It seemed as if a hundred demons had broken loose, and then all was still again. My friend supposed that there were at least twenty wolves in the adjoining wood, but I knew better. Presently the pack ran across an open glade illuminated by the moon, and there were but three of them.
The mice which haunted my house were not the common ones, which are said to have been introduced into this country, but a wild native kind not found in this village. I sent one to a distinguished naturalist, and it interested him much. When I was building, one of these had its nest underneath the house, and before I had laid my second floor, and swept out the shavings, would come out regularly at lunch time and pick up the crumbs.
At length, as I leaned with my elbow on the bench one day, it ran up my clothes and along my sleeve, and round and round the paper which held my dinner, while I kept the latter close, and dodged and played at bo-peep with it, and when at last I held still a piece of cheese between my thumb and finger, it came and nibbled it, sitting in my hand, and afterwards cleaned its face and paws, like a fly, and walked away.
A phœbe soon built in my shed, and a robin for protection in a pine which grew against the house. In June the partridge—which is so shy a bird, led her brood past my windows, from the woods in the rear to the front of my house, clucking and calling to them like a hen, and in all her behaviour proving herself the hen of the woods. . . . . It is remarkable how many creatures live wild and free, though secret, in the woods, and still sustain themselves in the neighbourhood of towns suspected by hunters only. . . . Commonly, I rested an hour or two in the shade at noon, after planting, and ate my lunch and read a little by a spring, which was the source of a swamp and a brook, oozing from under Brister’s Hill, half a mile from my field. The approach to this was through a succession of young pitch pines, into a larger wood about the swamp. Here, in a very secluded and shaded spot, under a spreading white pine, there was yet a clean firm sward to sit upon. I had dug out the spring and made a well of clear, gray water, where I could dip a pailful without soiling it, and thither I went for this purpose almost every day in midsummer when the pond was warmest. Thither, too, the woodcock led her brood, to probe the mud for worms. . . . . There, too, the turtle doves sat over the spring, or fluttered from bough to bough. . . . . You only need sit long enough in some attractive spot in these woods that all its inhabitants may exhibit themselves to you by turns.
Page, another biographer, says of his communion with animals, that—
Wild birds, he was wont to repeat with pride to his intimate friends, after he had been two or three months in the woods, ceased to be afraid of him, and would come and perch upon his shoulder, and sometimes on his spade. He deemed the honour thus bestowed on him by the birds to be greater than anything an emperor could bestow.
Emerson, who was never tired of speaking or writing of him, testifies that:—
It was a pleasure to walk with him. He knew every path and track, and one must submit to such a guide, and the reward was great. Under his arm he carried an old music-book to press plants; in his pocket his diary and pencil, a spy-glass for birds, microscope, jack knife, and twine. He wore a straw hat, stout shoes, strong gray trousers, to brave shrub oaks and smilax, and to climb a tree to see a hawk’s or squirrel’s next. . . . . His intimacy with animals suggested what Thomas Fuller records of Butler, the apiologist, that “either he had told the bees things or the bees had told him.” Snakes coiled round his leg; the fishes swam into his hand, and he took them out of the water; he pulled the woodchuck out of its hole by its tail, and took the foxes under his protection from the hunter’s.
In commending this volume to animal lovers, we must confess that its pages from beginning to end have been a source of pleasure. It is easy to carp when a critic is displeased; easier still to say that a previous writer has disposed of the subject, and this book contains nothing new, which we deny, because Mr. Salt’s work, both as regards facts and analysis, descriptions and delineations, is new and valuable, and commands unqualified praise. The printing is also superior, which makes perusal agreeable.