Henry Salt and His Life of Thoreau

Henry Salt and His Life of Thoreau

THE best early biography of Henry Thoreau was written by an Englishman who never knew his subject personally and who never visited the United States. And because of its sympathy, balance, and objectivity, Henry S. Salt’s life of Thoreau retains interest and value today despite the fact that our knowledge of Thoreau’s personality and work has been vastly implemented since Salt wrote. Lacking the many special studies and monographs that have appeared in recent years, lacking even a reliable text of Thoreau’s essays and journals, Salt yet produced an intelligent study of a man whom he both admired and understood.

Salt himself was born in India in 1851, the son of an English army officer, but was schooled in England and after his college years became a schoolmaster at Eton. Subsequently he turned to journalism and social reform. He was known for his unorthodox religion, for his interest in nature, for his love of animals. He shared the interests of his friend George Bernard Shaw in socialism and vegetarianism, and he was an acquaintance of William Morris and Havelock Ellis, of Edward Carpenter and Algernon Swinburne and Ramsay MacDonald. In later years he was attracted by the philosophy and personality of Shelley, James Thomson, Richard Jefferies, and Thoreau, about all of whom he wrote books. Before his death in 1939, Salt had produced over twenty volumes and had edited the English reissues of Melville’s Typee and Omoo.

Salt’s interest in Thoreau began early in his life and did not wait long for literary expression. According to Stephen Winsten, he read Walden for the first time during his early teaching days and found the book a virtual revelation. “Hardly a day passed without his writing down a few lines from this inspiring book.”1 In 1886 he contributed an article on Thoreau to the Temple Bar magazine and in 1890 he published his full-length biography. A second edition of the biography appeared in 1896. Salt also edited two volumes of selections from Thoreau’s works in 1895: Poems of Nature, in the preparation of which he was indebted to F. B. Sanborn, and Selections from Thoreau. For his biographical studies he drew upon material furnished him by Sanborn, Samuel Arthur Jones and Alfred W. Hosmer.

The following thirteen letters from Henry S. Salt to the London publisher Richard Bentley were recently acquired by the University of Illinois Library as part of the collection of Bentley papers. They reveal some of the biographer’s problems in getting material and photographs, particularly because of his distance from his sources, and his modest hopes for the success of his volume. One can legitimately infer from the correspondence that Salt never derived much financial benefit from his work, yet both he and his two publishers (Richard Bentley for the 1890 volume; Walter Scott for the revision of 1896) apparently felt that the work was justified. And until the appearance of Henry Seidel Canby’s life of Thoreau in 1939, Salt’s biography was the most perceptive and sane study of Thoreau in print.2

I

38 Gloucester Rd
Regents Park
Nov 28, 1889

Dear Sir,

I send herewith the MS of my Life of Thoreau.

I have still to add to it some more papers promised me from America. Also I hope to get the letters addressed by Thoreau to the only Englishman who became well acquainted with him–a Mr. Cholmondeley, nephew to Bishop Heber.3 Otherwise, with the exception of a short appendix of bibliography, &c, the work is complete.

Of the letters I have inserted so far, the majority are cited from the volume published at Boston in 1865, and a few are unprinted ones.4

Yrs very truly
H. S. Salt.

II

38 Gloucester Road
Regents Park
Jan. 6th, 1890

Dear Sir,

I am glad to hear that you like my Thoreau manuscript and are favourably inclined towards its publication.

As to the terms, would you be willing to let the royalty commence after the sale of 500, instead of 750, copies? By that time the book would, I presume, have paid its way, and if the edition consists of 1000 copies there would still be a chance for the author of receiving some remuneration on this edition, which would scarcely be the case if 750 copies had first to be disposed of. I do not know what your intentions are as to the number of copies to be printed, but I am assuming that it would be 1000.

I suppose, in the event of your publishing the book, you would be able to bring it out in the spring of the year?5

Believe me
Yrs faithfully
H. S. Salt.

Messrs. Bentley & Son

III

38 Gloucester Road
Regents Park
March 23, 1890

Dear Sir,

The portrait of Thoreau prefixed to his Excursions is a reproduction from a crayon drawing done in 1854, before he wore a beard–6 It shows him, I think, at his best–as he was when at Walden; the beard which he wore during the last few years of his life seems to hide his expressive features. I doubt if it would be possible to get a copy of this original edition of Excursions, but there is one in the British Museum which I suppose might be photographed.

The only photographs of Thoreau were taken after he grew the beard, and I do not know that even these are to be obtained. The portrait in Sanborn’s Thoreau is from one of these.7 I might get information on this point from America, if you think it advisable.

The indifference of the public to Herman Melville’s works is certainly very lamentable, but I should hardly think it could be permanent. I have just been lent a copy of his latest booklet “John Marr, and other Sailors,” of which only 25 copies are printed!8

Believe me
Yrs. very truly
H. S. Salt.

IV

38 Gloucester Rd
Regents Park
April 14, 1890

Dear Sir,

May I consider it settled that the Thoreau portrait will be a reproduction of the one in Excursions? I want to say a few words in an Appendix about the several portraits, and as the greater part of the book is now in type I must soon be sending this to the printers.

Some of my friends have told me that it is possible to get a copyright in America by having the name of some American citizen in conjunction with mine on the titlepage; but this I suppose would involve the printing of a separate edition in America. Should you feel disposed to contemplate any such arrangement with an American publisher? A well known Thoreau student, Dr. Saml A. Jones, an ex-Professor at Michigan University has lately sent me a bibliography of Thoreau compiled by him, and I have no doubt he would be willing to lend his name as author of the bibliography, if a copyright could thus be secured.9

Believe me
Yrs. very truly
H. S. Salt.

Have you come to a decision as regards the suggested reprint of one of Herman Melville’s books?

V

38 Gloucester Road
N. W.
Aug 2, 1890

Dear Sir,

I have lately seen Mr. Sanborn, the friend and biographer of Thoreau, and he very kindly offered to help in any way he could, as regards the circulation of the Life in America. He is intimate with Mr. Houghton, the Boston publisher, who has the copyright of Thoreau’s works, and if there were any danger of objections being raised to the insertion of letters, &c, in my book, he thinks a word from him would set it right.

He asked what American firm were going to coöperate with you, but all I could tell him was that you had mentioned Messrs. Scribner to me. Could you tell me what was the result of your offer to them?

Mr. Sanborn thought that, if the matter was still unarranged, Messrs. Houghton & Mifflin, or Messrs. Roberts, both of Boston, would be best able to get the book about, but I hope it is satisfactorily settled already.

Yrs. very truly
H. S. Salt.

VI

38, Gloucester Road,
Regents Park,
N. W. Oct. 13, 1890.

Dear Sir,

I wonder whether you would consider the enclosed article suitable for “Temple Bar,” now that renewed attention is being drawn to Thoreau and his ideas.

The affinity of thought between Thoreau and Edward Carpenter is very marked; and this article,10 together with a kindred one on Richard Jefferies which I am now writing, is an outcome of my Thoreau studies.11 That Carpenter’s writings will in time be as well known as those of Thoreau or Jefferies is the belief of many readers. Would you be disposed to accelerate that time?

Yrs. very truly
H. S. Salt.

VII

38, Gloucester Road,
Regents Park, N.W.
Oct. 2 1, 1890

Dear Sir,

I am much obliged to you for your letter, and very kind offer of a copy of Jefferies’ “Dewy Morn.”12 I have read the book in the Museum Reading Room, and I made notes at the time of some passages which I thought very characteristic of Jefferies’ best style. If you have a spare copy. and are so good as to give it to me, I shall value it very much, and shall certainly refer to that work of Jefferies in writing an article on him. I hope the article may be lucky enough to find a place in Temple Bar.13

As to the Ed. Carpenter paper, I am a little afraid you may find it too didactic for a general audience, though of course I would gladly omit any particular passages that might seem so. He is a most interesting personality, and strangely akin to much of Thoreau and Jefferies on the one hand, and Whitman on the other. Since I sent you the paper, I have been asked to contribute it to the January number of the Pioneer, a quarterly social journal which deals especially with such subjects, so if you could kindly let me know your decision at the end of this month it would facilitate matters.

I may mention, by the bye, that a little paper of mine on “Walking Stewart” has been in type for Temple Bar since 1887; but it is certainly a subject that can wait!14

Believe me
Yrs. very truly
H. S. Salt.

VIII

38 Gloucester Road
Regents Park
Dec. 4, 1890

Dear Sir,

Allow me to thank you heartily for the beautiful copy of Jefferies’ “Dewy Morn” which I have today received from you. What a charming book it is! In spite of the slender thread of the narrative, it is far more pleasant and profitable reading than many more correct ‘novels.’ I think Mr. Henley’s assertion that Jefferies did not possess a “vitalizing imagination” should be numbered among the curiosities of criticism!

Is it not an odd thing, by the way, that Jefferies knew nothing of Thoreau’s writings-there is at least no mention of Thoreau in any published work of Jefferies. George Borrow, on the other hand, was a great admirer of Thoreau; so I am told by Mr. Theodore Watts.

I hope you are satisfied with the reviews of the ‘Life of Thoreau,’ taken as a whole. I have been amused by the picture of ‘Thoreau at Walden’ in the Animal World for this month.15 Thoreau, a faultlessly dressed youth of unblemished respectability, leans gracefully against a tree, with his favourite animals around him, and the hut, suggestive of the ready-made Norwegian kind, in the background. The accompanying review of the book, however, is appreciative and useful.

Believe me
Yrs. very truly
H. S. Salt.

IX

38, Gloucester Road,
Regents Park, N. W.
Dec. 14, 1890

Dear Sir,

I yesterday left the MS of my article on Richard Jefferies at the office in New Burlington Street.

I asked Mr. R. Bentley whether, in the event of your thinking the paper suitable for Temple Bar, there would be a chance of its insertion in the course of the next few months, and he seemed to think this might be managed. I mean that as it is the first attempt to deal at all fully with Jefferies, it would be a pity for the article to be shelved for a long time, if you consider it worth publication at all. I know what great pressure there is on your space for Temple Bar, but as you kindly said you would like to see the article when finished, this must be my excuse for troubling you.

Believe me
Yrs. very truly
H. S. Salt.

X

Oxted,
Surrey
Nov. 6, 1891

Dear Sir,

I wonder if you had any personal acquaintance with Herman Melville, who has lately died at New York. I am writing an Introduction for a reprint of his “Marquesas Islands,” and am therefore trying to get what information I can about him.16

It is strange that his books have fallen out of notice so entirely; they are certainly full of genius–the “White Whale” especially, which I think you published.17 About a year ago I heard William Morris chuckling with delight over this book, which he had lately been reading for the first time.

Are you to be found at your London office on any particular days? I should esteem it a privilege to have a few minutes’ talk with you some day; but hitherto I have always missed you when I have called at New Burlington Street.

You have a short type-written article of mine, sent a few weeks ago to “Temple Bar”; but perhaps it has not yet come under your notice. Would Melville be a subject you would like for T. B.?

Believe me,
Yrs. very truly
H. S. Salt.

[Inscribed in pencil above: “a very interesting & modest man–(try?) have him down to lunch some day”]

XI

Oxted
Surrey
Nov 23, 1891

Dear Sir,

I have so much to do in the course of the next two or three weeks that I fear I cannot venture to accept your kind invitation for Dec. 5th. The journey from this place to Slough would be a long one, and I am not very likely to be in London at that date.

I shall look forward, however, to the pleasure of making your acquaintance on some future occasion.

With many thanks, I remain,

Yrs. very truly
H. S. Salt.

I enclose a copy of the Shelley Society’s “Cenci” notice, which may perhaps interest you.

XII

Oxted
Surrey
April 3, 1892.

Dear Sir,

If I shall not be troubling you too much, I want to ask you three things. First, may I reprint a little poem of T. L. Peacock’s (“Rich & Poor, or Saint & Sinner”) in a volume of “Songs of Freedom” which I am preparing for Scott's Canterbury Poets series?18 I believe you publish Peacock’s works, but I do not know who holds the copyright, if there is copyright, of the verses I have mentioned. The poem has always struck me as very good & amusing–like most of Peacock's work–and it w’ [ill] be appropriate enough in the volume I am editing, viz: a collection of poems on every aspect of Liberty–social, political, & intellectual.

Secondly–apropos of Shelley’s centenary, would you care to have an article for Temple Bar, on Byron & Shelley, estimating their present relative position in literature, as compared with seventy years ago?19

Lastly, can you give me some news of my Life of Thoreau, & your intentions concerning the remaining copies? Are they likely to sell off gradually, or will you have to reduce the price? I suppose there is no hope of inducing you to issue a cheap edition?

Believe me
Yrs. very truly
H. S. Salt.

XIII

20 Holbein Buildings
Chelsea, S.W.
Oct. 10, 1895.

Dear Mr. Bentley,

I propose to take advantage of your kind promise not to stand in the way of a second edition of my Thoreau, as an opportunity seems likely to occur for including the book (in a considerably shortened form) in a cheap popular series.20 I infer from your letter that I may regard myself as free to enter into a new engagement.

I hope that a cheap edition may be the means of selling some copies of the original one. I am sorry, for your sake as well as my own, that the book fared so badly.

Yrs. very truly
H. S. Salt.

Richard Bentley Esq

Notes

1 Stephen Winsten, Salt and His Circle (London, 1951), 62. This study contains many references to Thoreau but gives no account of the genesis of the biography of Thoreau.
2 Henry Seidel Canby called Salt’s book “a coherent and intelligible life of Thoreau” and pointed out that the biographer’s task was to give some order to the diffuse tributes of Thoreau’s friends. See Thoreau (Boston, 1939), 445.
3 Thomas Cholmondeley (1824-1864), a young Englishman who visited Concord in 1854, presented a collection of Hindu books to Thoreau the next year. Salt could not obtain the Thoreau-Cholmondeley correspondence in time for use in his biography, but F. B. Sanborn edited some of the letters under the title “Thoreau and His Friend Thomas Cholmondeley” in the Atlantic Monthly (December, 1893), 72: 741-756. Reginald Heber (1783-1826), educator, contributor to magazines, author of several well-known hymns, served for some years as the Anglican bishop of Calcutta.
4 Thoreau’s Letters to Various Persons, edited by Ralph Waldo Emerson, was published by Ticknor & Fields at Boston in 1865.
5 Salt’s The Life of Henry David Thoreau was published by the Bentley firm in London in 1890.
6 Thoreau’s Excursions, edited by Ralph Waldo Emerson and Sophia Thoreau, was published by Ticknor & Fields at Boston in 1863.
7 Franklin B. Sanborn’s Henry D. Thoreau, a volume in the American Men of Letters series, was published by Houghton Mifflin Company (Boston and New York, 1882). The frontispiece shows Thoreau wearing a full beard. Henry Seidel Canby reproduced in his biography of Thoreau (Boston, 1939) a crayon sketch of Thoreau by Samuel Worcester Rowse which shows Thoreau as a younger man and without a beard (see portrait facing p. 362).
8 Herman Melville, John Marr and Other Sailors (New York, 1888).
9 Samuel Arthur Jones (1834-1912) was one of the first students and bibliographers of Thoreau. His Thoreau: A Glimpse. Supplemented by a Bibliography (Ann Arbor, 1890) early attracted Salt’s attention. Jones’s Bibliography of Henry David Thoreau, which included also an outline of Thoreau’s life, was printed in New York in 1894 for the Rowfant Club of Cleveland. When Jones published his Pertaining to Thoreau (Detroit, 1901), a collection of reviews of Thoreau’s books, he dedicated it as follows: “To | Henry S. Salt | Thoreau’s Most Sympathetic Biographer | This Volume Is Inscribed.” There is no evidence, however, that Salt and Jones ever collaborated in writing a book on Thoreau.
10 The identity of the “enclosed article” is not clear although it presumably dealt with Thoreau and Carpenter. A search of the files of Temple Bar does not reveal any article of the kind. Possibly, as the next letter suggests, Salt contributed it to another periodical. Salt had already published an article on Thoreau in Temple Bar: “Henry D. Thoreau,” November, 1886, 78: 369-383. Probably he was interested in Edward Carpenter (1844-1929) because of Carpenter’s activity in socialistic and humanitarian causes.
11 Richard Jefferies (1848-1887) was famous as a naturalist and writer. His novels were not particularly successful but books like Wild Life In a Southern County (1879) and The Story of My Heart (1883) had immediate acceptance.
12 The Bentley firm published Richard Jefferies’ novel The Dewy Morn in two volumes in 1884.
13 Salt’s article “Richard Jefferies” appeared in Temple Bar in June, 1891, 92: 215-224. His book, Richard Jefferies, A Study, was published by the London firm of Sonnenschein & Company in 1894.
14 Salt’s “Walking Stewart,” the sketch of an eccentric pedestrian, appeared in Temple Bar, December, 1891, 93: 573-578.
15 The Animal World was a journal published by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and ran from 1869 well into the twentieth century. I have been unable to find the issue referred to in this letter.
16 The “Marquesas Islands” book is, of course, Typee, originally published in 1846. The London publisher John Murray issued in 1893 a new edition: Typee: A. Narrative of a Four Months’ Residence Among the Natives of a Valley of the Marquesas Islands; or, A Peep at Polynesian Life. Salt contributed a “Memoir of Herman Melville” to this edition.
17 The English first edition of Melville’s most famous novel was published by Bentley on October 18, 1851, in three octavo volumes and was entitled The Whale.
18 Salt published his selection of verse, Songs of Freedom, in 1893, a volume in the series entitled Canterbury Poets.
19 This particular article again did not materialize, but Salt published several works dealing with Shelley, a monograph on the poet in 1888, and a discussion entitled Shelley’s Principles in 1892.
20 In 1896 Walter Scott, Limited, of Paternoster Square, London, published Salt’s Life of Henry David Thoreau in the “Great Writers” series (208 pp. with a ten-page bibliography compiled by John P. Anderson). Biographies of other American writers were also included in this series, for example, Moncure Conway’s Hawthorne, Eric S. Robertson’s Longfellow, W. J. Linton’s Whittier, and Richard Garnett’s Emerson.

John T. Flanagan

The New England Quarterly, No. 28, June 1955

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