Henry D. Thoreau

Henry D. Thoreau

“ MR. THOREAU dined with us. He is a singular character-a young man with much of wild, original nature still remaining in him; and so far as he is sophisticated, it is in a way and method of his own. He is as ugly as sin, long-nosed, queer-mouthed, and with uncouth and somewhat rustic, though courteous, manners, corresponding very well with such an exterior. But his ugliness is of an honest and agreeable fashion, and becomes him much better than beauty.”

This extract from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Diary in 1842 describes Thoreau as he appeared, three years before his retirement to Walden, to one who was scarcely likely to do full justice to a genius so widely dissimilar to his own. The gifted inhabitant of the Old Manse, whose recent experiences at Brook Farm had led him to look with suspicion on all that savored of enthusiasm for social reform, and to view everything from a purely literary and artistic standpoint, could scarcely be expected to appreciate very warmly the character of a young enthusiast who had declared open war against custom and society, and was preaching a crusade against every sort of luxury and self-indulgence. Still less could the ordinary American citizen understand that novel gospel which bid him dispense with most of those things which he had been brought up to regard as the necessary comforts of life. Accordingly we are not surprised to find that Thoreau’s doctrines obtained but little recognition during his lifetime; he was regarded with profound respect by a few select friends, Emerson among the number ; but to the many he appeared merely eccentric and quixotic, his sojourn at Walden gaining him the reputation of a hermit and misanthrope. Even now, nearly a quarter of a century after his death, he is not known as he deserves to be either in America or this country ; most readers ignore or misunderstand him ; and it is left to a small but increasing number of admirers to do justice to one of the most remarkable and original characters that America has yet produced. Thoreau was pre-eminently the apostle of “ plain living and high thinking ;” and to those who are indifferent to this doctrine he must ever appeal in vain ; on the other hand, those who have realized the blessings of a simple and healthful life can never feel sufficient gratitude or admiration for such a book as “ Walden,” which is rightly regarded as the masterpiece of Thoreau’s genius.

One of the causes that have contributed to the general lack of interest in Thoreau's writings is the want of a good memoir of his life. Emerson's account of him1 is excellent as far as it goes, but it is very short and cursory ; while the other lives,2 though each is not without some merit of its own, are hardly satisfactory enough to become really popular. As so little is known of Thoreau by most people, it may be well, before I proceed to an examination of his writings and philosophy, to enumerate very briefly the leading facts of his life. He was born in 1817 in Concord, Massachusetts; his father being a manufacturer of lead pencils in that place. He was educated at Harvard College, and after leaving the University taught for a short time in a private school, but soon becoming weary of the educational profession he devoted himself to his father’s trade till he had completely mastered it in all its details. Then, finding that the true aim and object of his ambition was to live a simple, natural, open-air life, he became, as he himself has humorously recorded, “ self-appointed inspector of snow-storms and rain-storms,” and gave himself up to that intimate communion with nature from which he seemed to derive all his intellectual strength. In 1845 he built himself a hut on the shores of Walden Pond, a short distance from Concord, and there lived for over two years. After this sojourn in the woods he returned to Concord, and the quiet tenor of his life was afterward only interrupted by occasional visits to the Maine Woods, Canada, Cape Cod, and other places of interest, of which journeys he has left an account in his books. He died in 1862 from a disease of the lungs, the result of a severe cold taken through unwise exposure in winter. His best known works are “ Walden,” the “ Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers,” “ Anti-Slavery and Reform Papers,” and the Diaries.

It has been remarked by some critics, who take an unfavorable view of Thoreau’s philosophy, that his life was strikingly devoid of those wide experiences and opportunities of studying mankind, which alone can justify an individual in arraigning, as Thoreau did, the whole system of modern society.3 It should be remembered, however, that he possessed that keen native wisdom and practical insight, which, combined with fearless self-inspection, are often a better form of education than the more approved methods. Like all other enthusiasts, Thoreau sometimes taught a half-truth rather than a whole one; but that does not alter the fact that his teaching was true as far as it went. In his life-protest against the luxury and self-indulgence which he saw everywhere around him, he no doubt occasionally over-stated his own case, and ignored some objections which might reasonably have been raised against his doctrines ; but in the main his conclusions are generally sound and unimpeachable. Self-taught, time-saving, and laconic, he struck by a sort of unerring instinct at the very root of the question which he chanced to be discussing, not pausing to weigh objections, or allowing any difficulties to divert him from his aim. We may now proceed to consider the chief features of his philosophy.

Thoreau has been called a Stoic ; and there is undoubtedly much in his philosophy that is akin to the spirit of ancient Stoicism. With him, as with Epictetus, conformity to nature is the basis of his teaching, and he has been finely called by Emerson the “ Bachelor of Nature,” a term which might well have been applied to many of the old Greek and Roman Stoics. It is a remarkable fact that there is rarely any mention of love in his writings, but friendship, as with the Stoics, is a common theme, this subject being treated of at considerable length in the “ Week.”4 His main point of similarity, however, to the Stoic philosophers is to be found in his ceaseless protest against all kinds of luxury and superfluous comforts. Like Socrates, he could truly say, on seeing the abundance of other people’s possessions, “ How many things are there that I do not desire !” and every page of “ Walden” bears testimony to the sincerity of this feeling. The key-note of the book is the sentiment expressed in Goldsmith's words, “ Man wants but little here below,” with the difference that Thoreau did not merely talk of Arcadian simplicity, in the manner that was so common with literary men a century ago, but carried his theories into practical effect. His furniture at Walden consisted of a bed, a table, a desk, three chairs, a looking-glass, a pair of tongs, and a few plates, knives, forks, and cooking-utensils. He had three pieces of limestone on his desk, but finding they required to be dusted daily, he threw them out of the window, preferring to spend the time in dusting “ the furniture of his mind.” A lady once offered him a mal, but for the same reason this offer was declined. His dress, diet, and whole system of life were framed on similar principles. When asked at table what dish he preferred, he answered “ the nearest,” and he was surprised at the anxiety which people usually manifest to have new and un· patched clothes rather than a sound conscience. In short, his utterances on this subject of superfluous comforts were such as would have made Dr. Samuel Johnson's hair stand on end with amazement and indignation had they been promulgated on one of the many occasions when the Doctor used to demonstrate to his audience the beneficial results of luxury, in the full confidence that he was teaching a great economic truth ! Freedom from artificial wants, and a life in harmony with nature, are again and again insisted upon by Thoreau as the basis of all true happiness ; and these he certainly pursued with unfaltering consistency through his own singular career. In this sense he was a true Stoic philosopher. But there are also important differences. Thoreau was free from that coldness of heart which was too often a characteristic of the Stoics of old, and was animated by a far wider and nobler spirit of humanity. It is true that there was a certain reserve in his manner which made his, acquaintances a little afraid of him, and caused one of his friends to remark, “ I love Henry, but I cannot like him.” But this existed only in his manner ; in heart he was at all times thoroughly kindly and sympathetic. There is a passage in his diary5 where he regrets his own tendency to use more harsh and cynical expressions about mankind than he really intended, owing to the somewhat paradoxical style of conversation in which he indulged, and which his friends seemed to expect from him. But his enthusiastic admiration for the heroes of the anti-slavery agitation was a proof that he was quite free from the coldness of a merely theoretic Stoicism ; indeed he has a just claim to be considered one of the leaders of the great humanitarian movement of this century, his sympathy with the lower animals being one of the most extraordinary features of his character. He had been influenced far too deeply by the teaching of Channing, Emerson, and the transcendental school, to permit of his being classed as a mere cynic or misanthrope.

“ Simplify, simplify,” was the cry that was forever on Thoreau’s lips, in his life-protest against the increasing luxury and extravagance and hypocrisy of the age. The lesson taught us by “ Walden” is that there are two ways of becoming rich ; one—the method usually adopted—by conforming to the conventional Jaws of society, and amassing sufficient money to enable one to purchase all the “ comforts” of which men think they have need ; the other—a simpler and more expeditious process -by limiting one's desires to those things which are really necessary ; in Thoreau’s own words, “ A man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone.” It is habit only which makes us regard as necessary a great part of the equipments of civilized life, and an experience such as that of Thoreau during his sojourn at Walden goes to prove that we might be healthier and happier if we could bring ourselves to dispense with many of our superfluous and artificial wants, and thus substitute a manly independence for our present childish dependence on the labor of others. Thoreau was not a foolish champion of savage and barbarous isolation against the appliances and improvements of civilized society ; it is not denied by him that on the whole the civilized state is far preferable to the savage condition ; but he shows that in some ways the increase of artificial wants, and of skill in supplying them, has proved a curse rather than a blessing to the human race, and he points out an easy and perfectly practicable way out of this difficulty. Every one may add to his own riches, and may lessen his own labor, and that of others, in the treadmill of competitive existence, by the simple expedient of living less artificially. There are few indeed who, if they go to the root of the matter, and cast aside the prejudices of custom and convention, will not discover that they could be equally happy—nay, far happier, without much of what is now most expensive in their houses, in the way of furniture, clothing, and diet. Thoreau discovered by his own experiment,6 that by working about six weeks in the year, he could meet all the expenses of living, and have free for study the whole of his winters as well as most of his summers, a discovery which may throw considerable light on the solution of certain social problems in our own country. Even if we allow an ample margin for the peculiarity of his case, and the favorable conditions under which he made his experiment, the conclusion seems to be unavoidable that the burden of labor which falls on the majority of the human race is not only very unfairly distributed, but in itself unnecessarily heavy.

Thoreau cannot be called a Socialist ; he was rather an Individualist of the most uncompromising type. One of his most striking characteristics was his strong contempt for the orthodox social virtues of “ charity” and “ philanthropy,” which lead men—so he thought—to attempt a cheap method of improving their fellow-creatures without any real sacrifice or reform on their own side. In no part of “ Walden” is the writing more vigorous and trenchant than when Thoreau is discussing the “ philanthropic enterprises” in which some of his fellow-townsmen reproachfully invited him to join. “ Doing good,” he declares, is one of the professions that are full ; and if he knew for a certainty that a man was coming to his house with the design of doing him good, he should run for his life, for he would rather suffer evil the natural way. So, too, with charity :

“ It may be that he who bestows the largest amount of time and money on the needy, is doing the utmost by his mode of life to produce that misery which he strives in vain to relieve. Some show their kindness to the poor by employing them in their kitchens. Would they not be kinder if they employed themselves there?”

We are not surprised to find that Thoreau's favorite modern author was Carlyle, the philosophy of Work (not in the commercial sense) being one that would eminently commend itself to the very practical mind of the author of “ Walden.” With Ruskin he does not seem to have been familiar, though there is no writer to whom in many respects he was more akin ; indeed, as a castigator of the faults of modern civilization and artificial society, he occupies in America a position very similar to that of Ruskin in England. There are many whole passages in “ Walden” which are strikingly Ruskinian in their manner of thought and expression ; as for instance the following :7

“ Nature has no human inhabitant who appreciates her. The birds with their plumage and their notes are in harmony with the flowers, but what youth or maiden conspires with the wild luxuriant beauty of Nature? She flourishes most alone, far from the towns where they reside. Talk of heaven ! ye disgrace earth.”

Again the resemblance is very striking when we find Thoreau inveighing against the luxury of the railroad car, with its divans and ottomans and velvet cushions and “ a malaria all the way.”

“ That devilish Iron Horse,” he exclaims,8 “ whose ear-rending neigh is heard throughout the town, he it is that has browsed off all the woods on Walden shore: that Trojan horse, with a thousand men in his belly, introduced by mercenary Greeks.”

Many, too, are his strictures9 on the monstrous ugliness of recent American architecture, and his meditations on the sacred delight of a man building his own dwelling, as he himself did at Walden, and lingering lovingly over foundation, doors, windows, hearth, and every other detail. When he considers how flimsily modern houses are in general built, paid for or not paid for, as the case may be, he expresses his wonder that “ the floor does not give way under the visitor while he is admiring the gewgaws upon the mantelpiece, and let him through to the cellar, to some solid and honest, though earthy, foundation.” Like Ruskin again, Thoreau declines to yield homage to the supremacy of the nineteenth century, even on the score of such boasted modern inventions as the Telegraph and Post Office, for he insists that he only received one or two letters in all his life that were worth the postage, and that the Telegraph cannot greatly benefit those who, it may be, have nothing important to communicate. For newspapers also, and all the trivialities of newspaper gossip, he had a profound contempt, caring nothing to read of men robbed or murdered, houses blown up, vessels wrecked, or cows run over on the railroad, because he could discover nothing memorable in this. Even books were not always found to be desirable ; there being times when he “ could not afford to sacrifice the bloom of the present moment to any work,”—a remark which reminds of Ruskin’s statement that he never reads in spring-time. In like manner Thoreau was in no way interested in the ordinary conversation of “ society ;” for, as he characteristically observes, “ a goose is a goose still, dress it as you will.” The author of “ Fors Clavigera” has there put it on record that he could never contemplate a visit to a country which has no castles ; if, however, he had visited America during Thoreau’s lifetime, I think he might have found a compensation even for this great disadvantage. At any rate, he might have met one kindred spirit across the Atlantic, one man who cared so little for party politics that he never voted, and who, amid all the hurry and fluster of his enterprising countrymen, preferred travelling on foot to being jerked along on a railroad.

Mr. Lowell, in an essay on Thoreau in “ My Study Windows,” finds fault with him for this hostility to the tendency of his age. He complains of his exaggerated idea of self-importance, which led him (according to the critic’s view) to prize a lofty way of thinking, “ not so much because it was good in itself as because he wished few to share it with him.” I think this is very unfair to Thoreau, and due to a complete lack of sympathy with the spirit in which he wrote. Still more surprising is the assertion that Thoreau was the victim of a morbid self-consciousness, and that his didactic style was the outcome of an unhealthy mind ! It is an unprofitable task for an admirer of a great man to combat charges such as these, which are only another proof, if proof were needed, of the fact that one man of genius is often lamentably and ludicrously unable to recognize and appreciate the merits of another, and that the best writers are often the most erroneous critics. It is impossible to estimate rightly any literary work, unless one is to some extent in sympathy with the aims and objects of the author ; a qualification which Mr. Lowell certainly does not possess in the case of Thoreau. The culminating absurdity of his criticism is reached when he asserts that Thoreau “ had no humor.” The author of “ Walden” destitute of humor ! Even Mr. Matthew Arnold’s recent dictum, that Shelley’s literary immortality will be due to his prose writings rather than his poems, must yield the place of honor among the curiosities of criticism to this amazing and unsurpassable utterance on the part of the author of the “ Biglow Papers.”

There is one aspect of Thoreau’s teaching which is scarcely mentioned by his biographers, though it is of considerable importance in forming a just estimate of his character ; I refer to his humanitarian views. His hatred of war is very strongly expressed in those passages where he condemns the iniquitous attack which the United States were then making on Mexico ; war, he says, is “ a damnable business ;” since those concerned in it, “ soldiers, colonel, captain, corporal, powder-monkeys, and all,” are in reality peaceably inclined, and are forced to fight against their common sense and consciences.10

Of his detestation of the system of slavery I shall have occasion to speak farther on. But Thoreau went much further than this ; his humanity was shown not only in his relations to men, but also in his dealings with the lower animals. Emerson tells us that, though a naturalist, Thoreau used neither trap nor gun—a fact which must have been independently noticed by all readers of “ Walden” or the diaries. It was his habit to eat no flesh ; though with characteristic frankness he confesses to having once slaughtered and devoured a woodchuck which ravaged his bean-field. He laughs at the farmer who tells him that it is not possible to live on vegetable food alone, walking at that very time behind the oxen, “ which, with vegetable-made bones, jerk him and his lumbering plough along in spite of every obstacle.” Yet at the same time, it must be admitted that he was not a consistent vegetarian, for we find constant mention of his fishing in Walden Pond, and his dinner was sometimes composed of “ a mess of fish.” This apparent contradiction in Thoreau’s dietetic philosophy is explained in that chapter of “ Walden” which is headed “ Higher Laws,” where we find the fullest statement of his views on the humanitarian question. He begins by remarking that he finds in himself two instincts—one toward a higher and more spiritual life ; the other, the hunting-instinct, toward a primitive and savage state. He reverences both of these instincts, being of opinion that there is “ a period in the history of individuals, as of the race, when the hunters are the best men.” It is natural, he thinks, that boys and youths should wish to shoulder a fowling-piece and betake themselves to the woods; but (and here is the essence of Thoreau’s teaching on this subject) “ at last, if he has the seeds of a better life in him, he distinguishes his proper objects, as a poet or naturalist it may be, and leaves the gun and fish-pole behind.” Thoreau himself had sold his gun long before his sojourn at Walden, and though he did not feel the same scruple about fishing, he nevertheless confesses that he could not fish “ without falling off a little in self-respect.” This leads him to dwell on the whole question of food, and he states his own opinion as being very strongly in favor of a purely vegetarian diet as being at once more cleanly, more economical, and more moral than the usual system of flesh-food.11 “ Whatever my own practice may be,” he adds, “ I have no doubt that it is a 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 in contact with the more civilized.” This is Thoreau’s testimony to that particular brand of the humanitarian movement which claims that without it no other can in itself be logical or consistent ; and it is perhaps the more valuable testimony as coming from a perfectly unprejudiced witness, one who, as he himself says, could at times “ eat a fried rat with good relish.”

The last point connected with Thoreau’s teaching on which it will be necessary to enter, is the subject of politics. And here one might be tempted to state briefly, and once for all, that Thoreau had nothing to do with politics ; and thus follow the example of that writer on natural history, mentioned by De Quincey, who, after heading a chapter with the words “ Concerning the Snakes of Iceland,” proceeded to remark, “ There are no snakes in Iceland “ But though Thoreau was no politician in the ordinary use of the word, and never voted in his life, yet, in another sense, he took a good deal of interest in American state-affairs, especially during the latter years of his life, and left several pamphlets and lectures of the highest possible merit. In his essay on “ Civil Disobedience,” he gives expression to that strong feeling of individualism which caused him to resent the meddling and muddling propensities, as they seemed to him, of American government, as seen in the Mexican war abroad, and slavery at home. “ Must the citizen,” he asks, “ resign his conscience to the legislator ?” In one way he felt he could make a vigorous protest. and that was on the occasion when he confronted the Government in the person of its tax-collector. He refused to pay the poll-tax, and was on this account once put into prison, the true place, as he says, for a just man, “ under a Government that imprisons any unjustly.” His own account of his incarceration, and the night spent in prison, may be found, told in his best and most incisive style, in this same essay on “ Civil Disobedience.” The two main causes of this withdrawal of his allegiance to the State were, as I have already said, the aggressive war waged on Mexico and the maintenance of slavery in Massachusetts ; he did not care “ to trace the course of his dollar,” paid in taxes to the State, “ till it buys a man, or a musket to shoot one with.” On the subject of slavery he was strongly and profoundly moved. No more powerful and eloquent indictment of the iniquities of that unholy traffic was ever published than in his three papers on “ Slavery in Massachusetts,” “ A Plea for Captain John Brown,” and “ The Last Days of John Brown.” Those who have hitherto imagined Thoreau to have been a mere recluse, interesting only as a hermit in an age when hermits are somewhat out of date, will be obliged to reconsider their opinion, if they take into consideration these splendid essays, so full of sound common-sense, trenchant satire, and noble enthusiasm for humanity.

But it is time now to bid farewell to Thoreau in his character of philosopher and moralist, and to view him awhile in another light. He has been well called by Ellery Channing the “ Poet-Naturalist ;” for to the ordinary qualifications of the naturalist-patience, watchfulness, and precision—he added in a rare degree the genius and inspiration of the poet. He may be described as standing midway between old Gilbert White of Selborne, the naturalist par excellence, and Michelet, the impassioned writer of that wonderful book “ L’ Oiseau.” He had all that amazing knowledge of the country, its Fauna and Flora, which characterized Gilbert White, his familiarity with every bird, beast, insect, fish, reptile, and plant, being something little less than miraculous to the ordinary unobservant townsman. Very suggestive of Selborne, too, was that pocket-diary of Thoreau’s, in which were entered the names of all the native Concord plants, and the date of the day on which each would bloom. “ His power of observation,” Emerson tells us, “ seemed to indicate additional senses.” On the other hand, he equalled Michelet—and it is scarcely possible to give him greater praise than this—in that still higher creative power, which can draw from a scientific fact of natural history a poetical thought or image to be applied to the life of man. As Michelet could see in the heron the type of fallen grandeur, the dispossessed monarch still haunting the scenes of his former glory ; or in the woodpecker the sturdy solitary workman of the forest, neither gay nor sad in mood, but happy in the performance of his ceaseless task ; so Thoreau delighted in idealizing and moralizing on the facts which he noted in his daily rambles by forest, river, or pond. He sees the pincushion galls on the young white oaks in early summer, the most beautiful object of the woods, though but a disease and excrescence, “ beautiful scarlet sins, they may be.” “ Through our temptations,” he adds, “ ay, and our falls, our virtues appear.” Countless instances of this kind of thought could be picked out from his diaries and the pages of  “ Walden ;” in fact, Thoreau has been blamed, and not altogether without reason, for carrying this moralizing tendency to excess—a fault which he perhaps acquired through the influence of the Transcendental movement. In love of birds he certainly yielded no whit to Michelet himself ; and he is never weary of recording his encounters with the bob-o’-links, cat-birds, whip-poor-wills, chickadees, and numerous other species. His paper on the “ Natural History of Massachusetts” gives a short and pithy summary of his experiences in this subject ; but he had usually a strange dislike of writing detached memoirs, preferring to let the whole subject rest undivided in his mind. His studies as naturalist were too much a part of his whole character to be kept separate from the rest, and must therefore be sought for throughout the whole body of his works. This intense love of woodcraft, together with his taste for all Indian lore, and all hunting adventure, give a wild and racy charm to Thoreau’s books which often reminds one of Defoe and other early writers. On the subject of fishing not even Izaak Walton himself could write as Thoreau has done, though one is somewhat reminded of the father of the “ gentle craft” in reading passages such as the following :12 “ Who knows what admirable virtue of fishes may be below low-water mark, bearing up against a hard destiny ? Thou shalt erelong have thy way up all the rivers, if I am not mistaken. Yea, even thy dull watery dream shall be more than realized. Keep a stiff fin then, and stem all the tides thou mayst meet.” Still more wonderful are the descriptions of the weird and mysterious characteristics of fishing-the cork that goes dancing down the stream when suddenly “ emerges this fabulous inhabitant of another clement, a thing heard of but not seen, as if it were the creation of an eddy, a true product of the running stream,” or, still more memorable, the midnight fishing on Walden Pond when the angler, anchored in forty feet of water, “ communicated with a long flaxen line with mysterious nocturnal fishes” below, now and then feeling a vibration along the line “ indicative of some life prowling about its extremity, some dull uncertain blundering purpose.”

If Thoreau could thus sympathize with the mysteries of fish-life, we are the better able to believe what his biographers more than once tell us, that fishes often swam into his hand and would allow him to lift them out of the water, to the unspeakable amazement of his companions in the boat. His influence over animals seems indeed to have been little less than miraculous, and recalls many of the legends of the anchorites in the Middle Ages and of St. Francis d’Assisi. As Kingsley has pointed out in his “ Hermits,” the power of attracting wild animals was doubtless in large measure due to the hermits’ habit of sitting motionless for hours, and their perfect freedom from anger or excitement, so that there is nothing absurd or improbable in such stories as those of the swallows sitting and singing on the knees of St. Guthlac, or the robin building its nest in St. Karilef’s hood. Much the same is recorded of Thoreau’s habitual patience and immobility. 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.” Of all such stories of strange sympathy between men and the lower animals none are so beautiful as those recorded in the life of St. Francis ; but certainly Thoreau may claim the honor of having approached nearest in modern times to that sense of perfect brotherhood and sympathy with all innocent creatures. There is a singular resemblance between the legend of the tench which followed the boat in which St. Francis was praying and some of the anecdotes told about Thoreau.

Thoreau’s retirement to Walden has naturally led many people to consider him as a sort of modern hermit, and the attraction he exercised over the inhabitants of the woods and waters was only one of many points of resemblance. There was the same recognition of the universal brotherhood of men, the same scorn of the selfish luxury and childish amusements of society, and the same impatience of the farce which men call “ politics,” the same desire of self-concentration and undisturbed thought. Thoreau also possessed, in a marked degree, that power of suddenly and strongly influencing those who con· versed with him, which was so characteristic of the hermits. Young men who visited him were often converted in a moment to the belief “ that this was the man they were in search of, the man of men, who could tell them all they should do.”13 But it would be a grievous wrong to Thoreau to allow this comparison, a just one up to a certain point, to be drawn out beyond its fair limits. He was something more than a solitary. He had higher aims than the anchorites of old. He went to the woods, as he himself has told us, because he wished '' to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life.'' So far he was like the hermits of the East. But it was only a two-years’ sojourn, not a life-visit that he made to Walden ; his object was not merely to retire, but to fit himself for a more perfect life. He left the woods “ for as good reason as he went there,” feeling that he had several more lives to live, and could not spare more time for that one. Even while he lived at Walden he visited his family and friends at Concord every two or three days; indeed, one of his biographers14 asserts that he “ bivouacked” at Walden rather than actually lived there, though this is hardly the impression conveyed by Thoreau himself or other authorities. Very different also was Thoreau in his complete freedom from the morbid asceticism and unhealthy habit of body which too often distinguished the hermits. His frugality was deliberate and rational, based on the belief that the truest health and happiness must be sought in wise and unvarying moderation ; but there was no trace of any unreasoning asceticism ; his object being to vivify, not mortify, the flesh. His nature was essentially simple and vigorous; he records in his diary15 that he thought bathing one of the necessaries of life, and wonders what kind of religion could be that of a certain New England farmer, who told him he had not had a bath for fifteen years. Now we read of St. Antony—and the same is told of most other hermits—that he never washed his body with water, and could not endure even to wet his feet ; dirtiness therefore must be considered a sine quâ non in the character of a true hermit, and this would entirely disqualify Thoreau for being ranked in that class. It is at once pleasanter and more correct, if we must make any comparisons at all, to compare him to the philosopher Epictetus, who lived in the vicinity of Rome in a little hut which had not so much as a door, his only attendant being an old servant-maid, and his property consisting of little more than an earthen lamp. Thoreau had the advantage over the Stoic in having no servant-maid at Walden ; but as he indulged himself in a door, we may fairly set one luxury against the other, and the two philosophers may be classed on the whole as equally praiseworthy examples of a consistent simplicity and hardihood.

Thoreau’s diaries afford much delightful reading, and give us a good insight into his character and mode of life. They abound in notes of his observations on Natural History, with here and there some poetical thought or moral reflection attached ; sometimes there is an account of a voyage up the Assabet River, or a walking tour to Monadnock, or some other neighboring mountain. These diaries have lately been edited by Mr. H. G. O. Blake, a friend of Thoreau, who has arranged them according to seasons,16 not years, various passages written in different years being grouped together under the same day of the month, thus giving a more connected picture of the climate under which Thoreau lived, and the scenes in which he took such delight.

Thoreau’s poems are certainly the least successful part of his work. They were published in various American magazines, and he is fond of interpolating parts of them in his books. Some selections from them may be found in Page’s “Life of Thoreau.”17 But it must be confessed that though Thoreau had a truly poetical mind, and though he may justly be styled the “ Poet-Naturalist,” he had not that power of expression in verse which is a necessary attribute of the true poet. Prose-poet let us call him, as we call De Quincey or Ruskin, or Hawthorne ; but poet in the ordinary sense he was not. He was a clear-headed, fearless thinker, whose force of native shrewdness and penetration led him to test the value of all that is regarded as indispensable in artificial life, and to reject much of it as unsound ; he was gifted also with an enthusiastic love of nature, and with literary powers, which, if not of a wide and extensive range, were peculiarly appropriate—in an almost unrivalled degree—to the performance of that life-duty which he set before him as his ideal. He was in the truest sense an original writer; his work is absolutely unique. “ Walden” alone is sufficient to win him a place among the immortals, for it is incomparable alike in matter and in style, and deserves to be a sacred book in the library of every cultured and thoughtful man. Never was there written a book more simple, more manly, more beautiful, more pure ; it is, as Thoreau himself describes the pond from which it derives its name, “ a gem of the first water which Concord wears in her coronet.”18 Concord is indeed rich in literary associations and reminiscences of great men. Emerson—Hawthorne—Thoreau ; these are mighty names, a trinity of illustrious writers, almost sufficient in themselves to represent a national literature. It is not the least of Thoreau’s honors that he has won a place in this literary brotherhood ; but perhaps his greatest claim to immortality will be found in the fact that there is a natural affinity and fellowship between his genius and that of Walt Whitman, the great poet· prophet of the large-hearted democracy that is to be.

We see in Walt Whitman the very incarnation of all that is free, healthy, natural, sincere. A leviathan among modern writers, he proclaims with titanic and oceanic strength the advent of the golden age of Liberty and Nature. He proclaims ; but he will not pause to teach or rebuke ; he leaves it to others to explain by what means this glorious democracy, this “ love of comrades,” may be realized, and contents himself with a mighty and irresistible expression of the fact. Thoreau, though less catholic and sanguine in tone, but rather an iconoclast, a prophet of warning and remonstrance, and, as such, narrower and intenser in scope, nevertheless shares to the full all Walt Whitman’s enthusiasm for hardihood and sincerity. He sets himself to apply this same new doctrine of simplicity to the facts of every-day life, and by his practice and example teaches how the individual may realize that freedom of which the poet sings. While America produces such writers as these, there seems nothing exaggerated or improbable in the most sanguine forecast of the great future that awaits American literature, a future to which Thoreau, himself American to the backbone, looked forward with earnest and trustful anticipation.

“ If the heavens of America,” he says, “appear infinitely higher, and the stars brighter, I trust that these facts are symbolical of the height to which the philosophy, and poetry and religion of her inhabitants may one day soar. At length, perchance, the immaterial heaven will appear as much higher to the American mind, and the intimations that star it as much brighter.”19

Certain it is that of all philosophers, whether in the old world or the new, few have read the mysteries of this immaterial heaven and its starry intimations more truthfully and faithfully than Thoreau.


1 Prefixed to Thoreau’s “ Excursions.” Messrs. Ticknor & Fields : Boston.
2. “ Thoreau, His Life and Aims,” by H. A. Page. Chatto & Windus. “ Thoreau, the Poet-Naturalist,” by W. Ellery Channing. Boston. “ Life in America” (Men of Letters Series), by F. B. Sanborn.
3 Vide Lowell’s Essay on Thoreau in “ My Study Windows.”
4 Pages 282-304.
5 “ Early Spring in Massachusetts,” p. 124.
6 “Walden,” pp. 75-77.
7 Page 216.
8 Page 208.
9 Pages 42, 50, 262.
10 Essay on “ Civil Disobedience.”
11 Vide especially pp. 230-235.
12 “ A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers,” p. 44.
13 Emerson’s “ Memoir of Thoreau,” p. 18.
14 Ellery Channing’s “ Memoir,” p. 18.
15 “ Summer,” pp. 352, 353.
16 “ Early Spring in Massachusetts,” “ Summer.” &c.
17 Pages 188-194.
18 A friend who has lately visited Concord informs me that there is now a railway-station at Walden, boats are let out for hire on the pond, and the place is in process of becoming a fashionable resort. Thoreau’s hut is no longer in existence, but its site is marked by a cairn.
19 “ Excursions,” p. 182.

Henry S. Salt

Temple Bar, Vol. 78, November 1886


Reprinted in:
Eclectic Magazine, January, 1887, vol. 108, pp. 89-98;
Library Magazine, December 18, 1886, vol. 2, pp. 174-181;
Critic, November 26 and December 3, 1887, vol. 11, pp. 276-278, 289-291.