Henry David Thoreau

Henry David Thoreau

I WAS glad to hear lately from Mr. Howard Williams that in the forthcoming new edition of his “Ethics of Diet” a place is to be assigned to Thoreau. This is as it should be, for if it be true, as I urged in the last number of this journal, that food reformers should pay careful attention to the writing of the English “nature - school” as represented by Edward Carpenter, it is no less important that Thoreau, the most distinguished American exponent of the gospel of Simplicity, should not be overlooked. Though no complete edition of Thoreau’s works has yet been published in England, it cannot be said, in view of the list of cheap volumes now issued by Mr. Walter Scott, that it is difficult for anyone to obtain a competent knowledge of him; and to know Thoreau is to know one of the greatest thinkers and writers of the present century. I am not going to attempt in this article to argue Thoreau’s case in reply to those critics (Lowell, for instance) who, through lack of sympathy with his ideas, have utterly failed to understand him. I have done that fully elsewhere, and must ask my present readers to take my word for it that Thoreau was by no means the morbid recluse or misanthrope that he has been depicted, but a man, despite his rugged exterior and uncompromising speech, of deep feeling and humanity. What I propose chiefly to discuss is the particular question of Thoreau’s attitude towards Vegetarianism.

Doubtless it was the “transcendentalist” movement that first turned his attention to food reform. Bronson Alcott, one of the chief members of the Emersonian circle at Concord, to which Thoreau was admitted in his early manhood, was an ardent Pythagorean, as indeed were not a few of the “apostles of the newness,” as the transcendentalists were sometimes styled. To us who now look back, and see what great progress Vegetarianism has made during the last half-century, it seems strange that this part of the idealist philosophy should have been treated by critics as even more impracticable than the rest. The contemptuous references to the vegetarian Alcott in Carlyle’s Letters to Emerson are among the unhappiest of Carlylean utterances; and even in the recent “Life of Bronson Alcott” (1893) we find Dr. Harris writing of the “fanatical elements” in Alcott’s system, “vegetarian notions, derived perhaps from Jamblichus, Life of Pythagoras and from Porphyry’s treatise on abstention from animal food”—a feeble remark which is the only allusion in the book to a subject which played an important part in Alcott’s career. Emerson himself, always more speculative than practical, appears to have had vague leanings towards a reformed diet, which, as I have been told by one of the surviving members of the Concord group, once took shape in an almost comically ill-judged attempt to dispense with flesh food, his “trial” consisting of a diet of bread and water for a week, after which he decided to discontinue the experiment. Thoreau, however, was of far stronger moral fibre than Emerson in these matters, and was not the man to allow any prejudice or custom to deter him from practising what he deemed the best. “There is a certain class of unbelievers,” he says in his paradoxical way, “who ask me if I can live on vegetable food alone; and to strike at the root of the matter at once—for the root is faith—I am accustomed to answer such that I can live on board nails. If they cannot understand that, they cannot understand much that I have to say.”

What most strongly attracted Thoreau, in diet as in others things, was simplicity. When asked what dish he preferred at table, he is said to have replied, “the nearest”; and if due allowance be made for his contradictory habit, this answer may be accepted as fairly typical of the man. He would not be troubled, or let others be troubled, to provide what was superfluous and far-fetched. “He liked and used the simplest food,” says Emerson, “yet when someone urged a vegetable diet, Thoreau thought all diets a very small matter, saying that the man who shoots the buffalo lives better than the man who boards at the Graham House.” The same authority tells us that “he ate no flesh, he drank no wine, he never knew the use of tobacco”; but he was not by any means consistent in his vegetarian practice, for at his father’s table, and when on travel, he lived as others did. He told a friend (from whom I have the statement) that, wherever he might be, he should accommodate his taste to the diet of the country, and would eat blubber among the Esquimaux; and as a matter of fact he did eat some unappetizing Indian messes. For solid food, when making expeditions into the wild Maine forests, where all provisions had to be carried, he decided that it was not worth while to take anything but hard bread and pork, “whatever your tastes and habits may be.” In his early days he had been a sportsman and fisherman, and though he wholly discarded the use of the gun and found, when he analyzed his feelings, that he could not use the fishing-rod without a certain loss of self-respect, he continued at times, in his open-air life and wanderings, to catch himself “a mess of fish” for his dinner. It is well to bear these things in mind; because, though they detract from Thoreau’s merits as a humane dietist, they perhaps add to the force of his personal protest against the horrors of flesh-eating. At any rate it was no “sentimentalist,” but one acquainted with all the uses of rough hard life whose testimony is now to be quoted.

In Thoreau’s earliest book, the “Week on the Concord River,” he has recorded how a sudden compunction fell on his brother and himself for having shot a pigeon and some squirrels for their dinner. “It did not seem to be putting this bird to its right use to pluck off its feathers, and extract its entrails, and broil its carcass on the coals; but we heroically persevered, nevertheless, waiting for further information. The carcasses of some poor squirrels, however, the same that frisked so merrily in the morning, which we had skinned and emboweIled for our dinner, we abandoned in disgust, with tardy humanity, as too wretched a resource for any but starving men. It was to perpetuate the practice of a barbarous era. With a sudden impulse we threw them away, and washed our hands, and boiled some rice for our dinner.”

By the time he came to write “Walden; or, Life in the Woods,” the “further information” had been vouchsafed. The chapter on “Higher Laws” is a most remarkable one, and all humanitarians should be acquainted with it. For though Thoreau’s standpoint differs somewhat from ours, inasmuch as his stubbornly optimistic nature compels him to reverence the primitive, rank, and savage instincts, no less than the higher and more spiritual ones, the strength of his testimony is perhaps, as I said, rather enhanced than diminished on this account. “There is something,” he says, “essentially unclean about this diet and all flesh, and I began to see where housework commences, and whence the endeavour, which costs so much, to keep the house sweet and free from all ill odours and sights. Having been my own butcher and scullion and cook, as well as the gentleman for whom the dishes were served up, I can speak from an unusually complete experience. The practical objection to animal food in my case was its uncleanness; and, besides, when I had caught and cleaned and cooked and eaten my fish, they seemed not to have fed me essentially. A little bread or a few potatoes would have done as well, with less trouble and filth. I believe that every man who has ever been earnest to preserve his higher or poetic faculties in the best condition has been particularly inclined to abstain from animal food, and from much food of any kind. . . . It may be vain to ask why the imagination will not be reconciled to flesh and fat. I am satisfied that it is not. Is it not a reproach that man is a carnivorous animal? True, he can, and does live, in a great measure, by preying on other animals; but this is a miserable way—as any one who will go to snaring rabbits, or slaughtering lambs, may learn—and he will be regarded as a benefactor of his race who shall teach man to confine himself to a more innocent and wholesome diet. Whatever my own practice may be, I have no doubt that it is part of the destiny of the human race, in its gradual improvement, to leave off eating animals, as surely as the savage tribes have left off eating each other when they came into contact with the more civilized.”

These humane views on the subject of diet, and his practice in so far as it coincided with these views, were regarded by most of Thoreau’s contemporaries, and are still regarded by many belated critics as a mere eccentricity or whim. In reality they were quite essential to his genius as poet-naturalist and nature-lover, the founder of the modern school of sympathetic observation, as contrasted with the older hanging-drawing-and-quartering methods of the sportsman-scientist. No one in recent times has equalled Thoreau in closeness or sympathy with all forms of animal life—yet some of the very people who praise him for this quality ask us to believe that his vegetarian tendencies are not to be seriously considered! Really these cautious admirers of the great humane naturalist pay a poor compliment to his shrewd instinct and reasoning powers. So acute a thinker as Thoreau could not fail to see the important bearing of the food question on the whole relationship of man with the lower animals. You cannot both eat your cake and have it, says the proverb; and in the same way we cannot both eat the animals and hold them permanently in our affections.

I cannot conclude this article better than by quoting a short anecdote about Thoreau, and a little poem of his own writing, neither of which have hitherto appeared in print. The former I copy from a letter lately received by me from a friend at Concord, Thoreau’s native place:—

“I heard the other day a story, which I thought might interest you, of Thoreau’s readiness to give the children any points in Natural History. I was in one of the stores here, in town, when a gentleman said ‘You have been having something to say about Thoreau; did you know him?’ ‘No.’ I replied, ‘I never saw him that I know of.’ ‘Well,’ he said, ‘I have many a time. I used to work at Sam Barrett’s mill when a boy, and Thoreau used to come up there quite often. One warm spring day he came in, while a lot of boys were there who wanted me to go up to the pond swimming with them, but I was afraid of the water-snakes, and would not go. Thoreau told me they would not hurt me, but I was still afraid. He then asked if there were any out then. I thought there might be, so we shut off the water and went up, and found one about three feet long, sunning itself. Thoreau went up to it carefully, picked it up, and showed us boys that it had no sting in its tall, that the head was formed in such a way that it could not bite, and that it was perfectly harmless. Since then, I have never been afraid of them.’ A pretty practical lesson on the harmlessness of the snake.”

The verses, which are just a pleasant bit of doggered, of no value, except as giving a fresh glimpse of Thoreau, were written by him for a little boy, the younger brother of the girl whom he loved. They are entitled, “The Bluebirds,” and bear this dedication: “To Master G.W.S., in consideration of his love for animated Nature, the following poem is inscribed by the Author”:—

“In the midst of the poplar that stand by our door
We planted a bluebirds’ box,
And we hoped, before the summer was o’er,
A transient pair to coax.

One warm summer day the bluebirds came,
And lighted on our tree;
But at first the wanderers were not so tame,
But they were afraid of me.

They seemed to come from the distant south
Just over the Walden Wood,
And skimmed along with open mouth,
Close by where the Bellows stood.

Warbling they swept the distant cliff,
And they warbled it over the lea,
And now o’er the blacksmith’s shop in a jiff
Did they come warbling to me.

They came and sat on the box’s top,
Without looking into the hole,
And only from this side to that did they hop
As ’twere a common well-pole.

But they knew all the while ’twas a house to let,
And they knew they wanted to hire;
But they took no pains the house to get,
Nor yet would they retire.

Methinks I had never seen them before,
Nor indeed had they seen me;
Till I chanced to stand by our back-door,
And they came to the poplar tree.”

Henry S. Salt

Vegetarian Review, May 1896