A Still-Born Book
Some Unpublished Letters of Henry D. and Sophia E. Thoreau: a Chapter in the History of a Still-Born Book is the title of a handsomely-printed volume of which a small edition (150 copies) has just been issued by the Marion Press, Jamaica, Queensborough, New York, under the editorship of Dr. Samuel A. Jones, who by his bibliography and other services has earned the gratitude of Thoreau students. The “still-born book” is the first edition of the now famous Week on the Concord River, the bulk of which, some 700 copies, were returned by the publisher as unsaleable, and were stacked by Thoreau in the attic of his father’s house at Concord, as described by him in a characteristic passage: “I have now a library of nearly nine hundred volumes, over seven hundred of which I wrote myself.” A copy of this edition, as Dr. Jones tells us, “now finds warm welcome to the selected of private libraries at eighteen dollars.”
It was a desire to obtain a copy of the despised and rejected Week that brought a Michigan reader into correspondence with Thoreau in 1856; and it is Thoreau’s letters to his western admirer that are now printed for the first time, set in the framework of a racy editorial comment which, unlike most efforts of that sort, greatly enhances the effect. The letters, which are six in number, and date from 1856 to 1859, are of no special significance, but throw an interesting side-light on the character of the writer—the indomitable spirit of simplicity and self-reliance that speaks through all his works. Here is a brief sentence: “I shall consider it a greater success to interest one wise and earnest soul than a million unwise and frivolous.”
Dr. Jones’s volume is mainly of the esoteric order, and appeals rather to the special class of Thoreau students than to the general reader; it contains, however, one hitherto unpublished letter from Froude to Thoreau which is of wider interest. It appears that Thoreau, who was known to Froude through Emerson, had sent him a copy of the Week, in acknowledgement of which the author of The Nemesis of Faith, then lately published, replied as follows:
Manchester, September 3, 1849.
Dear Mr. Thoreau,—I have long intended to write to you, to thank you for that noble expression of yourself you were good enough to send me. I know not why I have not done so, except from a foolish sense that I should not write until I thought of something to say that it should be worth your while to read. What can I say to you except express the honour and the love I feel for you – an honour and a love which Emerson taught me long ago to feel, but which I feel now “not on account of his word, but because I myself have read and know you.”
When I think of what you are—of what you have done as well as what you have written—I have the right to tell you that there is no man living upon this earth at present whose friendship or whose notice I value more than yours.
What are these words! Yet I wished to say something—and I must use words, though they serve but seldom in these days for much but lies.
In your book and in one other from your side of the Atlantic, Margaret, I see hope for the coming world; all else which I have found true in any of our thinkers (or even yours) is their flat denial of what is false in the modern popular jargon; but for their positive affirming side they do but fling us back upon our own human nature to hold on by that with our own strength. A few men here and there do this, as the later Romans did; but mankind cannot, and I have gone near to despair. I am growing not to despair, and I thank you for a helping hand.
Well, I must see you some time or other. It is not such a great matter which these steam bridges. I wish to shake hands with you and look at brave men in the face. In the meantime I will but congratulate you on the age in which your work is cast: the world has never seen one more pregnant. God bless you!—Your friend (if you will let him call you so), J. A. FROUDE
Other interesting matter is to be found in the book – an entertaining glimpse, for example, of the whimsical Ellery Channing, easily recognised under the mask of “X. Y. Z.” The true and tender nature of Sophia Thoreau is shown from her letters; and the Appendix preserves a valuable record of “Two Visits to Concord, from an Old Diary” (presumably that of Thoreau’s Michigan correspondent), which gives a picture of Thoreau-land as seen, after the master’s death, by one of the earliest of its pilgrims. Of Thoreau’s literary circle there will soon remain but a memory. Both Harrison Blake and Daniel Ricketson—the “Mr. B.” And “Mr. D. R.” Of the Letters—have recently died, and Ellery Channing, still living in Concord at an advanced age, is now the sole survivor of Thoreau’s compeers.
Henry S. Salt
The Academy, March 11, 1899