Henry Salt’s Biography of Thoreau

Henry Salt’s Biography of Thoreau

Henry S. Salt’s biography of Henry David Thoreau, published first in 1890 and revised in 1896, has been praised for its perceptiveness and for its sympathetic treatment of Thoreau’s life and doctrines. Walter Harding in A Thoreau Handbook called it the “best biography” and observed “it will not be superseded until another scholar with the perception and carefulness of Salt approaches the problem”1. Professor Harding’s own biography, The Days of Henry Thoreau, appeared four years after that strong statement, and many critics felt the best they could say was that Harding had gathered the facts carefully. Although Harding had more information about Thoreau at his disposal, it is undoubtedly still true that the Salt biography of 1890 is the most sympathetic, most poetic life of Thoreau.

One might ask then, what special qualities did Salt bring to his task of writing? Why was he successful when others – including Canby and Harding – have failed? A large part of the answer lies in Salt’s character, in his Thoreauvian views – arrived at independently – and after reading Thoreau. Another part of the answer lies in Salt’s Classical education and his careful attempts to write succinctly and coherently about complex social and philosophical matters.

Salt’s early life was middle-class conventional. Born in India in 1851, he was brought to England as a baby was rarely visited by his army-officer father. Mrs. Salt lived with her relatives in Shrewsbury. Henry Salt spent many happy years as a student at Eton, but, like Thoreau, found his university years less satisfying. Enrolled at King’s College Cambridge, he was fifth in The Classical Tripos of 1875. Salt much regretted that except for F. D. Maurice, he did not hear from any professor or don at the university any mention of “the higher social ethics”. He felt that the gravest charge against university education was that it strengthened the intellect but did not “feed the heart”, and therefore unprofitable2.

He then returned to Eton as a Classical assistant master, but his conventional views began to disappear, and he began to notice that new ideas were not tolerated. James Russell Lowell, of all the distinguished men invited to speak during ten years Salt was to remain at Eton, was the most popular. Lowell’s contention “that this world of ours is, after all, “not a bad world to live in” was delightedly received by an audience which had good personal reasons for concurring in such a sentiment”3.

Salt began to feel stifled by the dull, orthodox sermons in Chapel, finally realized that “if Christianity was the nominal religion of Eton, the real creed was Respectability.” Salt’s own fall from Respectability was hastened by the “disgrace” of his brother-in-law and close friend, J. L. Joynes, also an assistant-master at Eton. Impressed by Henry George’s Progress and Poverty, Joynes accompanied George to Ireland in the summer of 1882. The two were almost immediately arrested under the Prevention of Crime Act. Joynes wrote a vivid account for the Times, but the editor refused to publish the later instalments. Kegan Paul, Trench & Co. soon published all the articles in a pamphlet entitled The Adventures of A Tourist in Ireland. The Times article caused a tremendous scandal at Eton, but when the advertisement announcing the pamphlet appeared, the Headmaster informed Joynes “he must choose between his mastership and his book.” Joynes chose the book and resigned; he became a prominent member of the Social Democratic Federation and introduced his brother-in-law to many of the most well-known Socialists and reformers of England: G. B. Shaw, William Morris, Edward Carpenter, H. M. Hyndman, John Burns, H. H. Champion, Belfort Bax, and many others.

Not only was he seduced by Socialist heresies, but Salt also became tainted with Vegetarianism, which was in some ways worse than Socialism “because it had to be practised as well as preached.” He was regarded as a lunatic for believing that eating flesh was cruel to animals and degrading to man. Gradually, Salt says the conviction was “forced on me that we Eton masters, however irreproachable our surroundings, were but cannibals in cap and gown – almost literally cannibals, as devouring the flesh and blood of the higher nonhuman animals so closely akin to us, and indirectly cannibals, as living by the sweat and toil of the classes who do the hard work of the world”5.

No long believing in the upper middle-class values, no longer believing in the educational system of Eton, Salt and his wife decided to leave. G. B. Shaw, in an essay written not long before his death, speculated that Salt had been trying to save enough money to “buy a pension of £ 800 year ... When he read a book in which Edward Carpenter advocated ‘the simple life,’ and said that it could be lived on £ 160 a year, which was just what Salt had by that time accumulated, he instantly shook the dust of [Eton] off his feet...”6.

Just when Salt first read Thoreau is difficult to determine, Stephen Winsten in Salt and His Circle wrote, “Henry first read Thoreau’s Walden when teaching, then he hungered for and consumed any heretic literature he could find”7. Salt implies that it was W. J. Jupp who introduced him to the writings of the Concord naturalist8. If that be true, he undoubtedly read Walden after leaving Eton for the wilds of Surrey. It was soon after leaving the academic scene that Salt became drawn into the Fellowship of the New Life, actively supported by Mr. Jupp. Salt’s brother-in-law was present at the first meeting of that organization in 1883. Founded by the peripatetic philosopher Thomas Davidson who had Transcendental-like ideas, the organization’s aims were deceptively simple:

Object.–The Cultivation of a perfect character in each and all.
Principle.–The subordination of material things of spiritual.
Fellowship.–The sole and essential condition of fellowship shall be a single-minded, sincere, and strenuous devotion to the object and principle9.

From the first meeting the members were divided on the best path to take. During the first meeting of the Fellowship, for example, there was a long discussion on communal life: “A general discussion followed on the question as to what was possible of achievement in the way of founding a communistic society whose members lead the new higher life foreshadowed in the paper just read. The idea of founding a community abroad was generally discredited, and it was generally recognised that it would not be possible to establish here in England independent community. What could be done perhaps would be for a number of persons in sympathy with the main idea to unite for the purpose of common living as far as possible on a communistic basis, realising amongst themselves the higher life and making it a primary care to provide callings in the world, but they would always aim to make the community as far as practicable self-contained and self-supporting, combining perhaps to carry on some common business or businesses”10.

Although the Fellowship did not succeed in maintaining a communal house for an extended period of time, a short-lived experiment was tried. Edith Lees, who was to marry Havelock Ellis, was in charge of Fellowship House. Later she was to say of the experience, “Fellowship is Hell”11.

Perhaps more importantly, the Fellowship did publish a magazine called Seed-time from 1889-1895. It is clear from the journal that Emerson, Thoreau and Whitman were major influences on the movement – more so than Marx12. Just when Salt became a member of the Fellowship is not readily ascertained, but he was an important contributor to the journal, writing on such subjects as “Mr. Bernard Shaw and his Critics” and “Nature-Lessons from George Meredith”. The Fellowship membership was always small – 95 in 1893 and 115 in 1896. A disagreement led to the founding of the Fabian Society, for by 1884 enough members of the Fellowship were disillusioned with exclusive emphasis upon personal regeneration to begin another organization. As Shaw noted, “Certain members... modestly feeling that the revolution would have to wait an unreasonably long time if postponed until they personally had attained perfection, set up the banner of Socialism militant; seeded from the Regenerators; and established themselves as the Fabian Society.13

Salt was a member of both groups, though his greater sympathies were with what Shaw called the Regenerators. In 1900, however, Salt left the Fabian Society after it justified the Boer War14.

Henry Salt, by the time he wrote his first published essay on Thoreau in 1886, had become a social reformer himself, was a seasoned naturalist, and was deeply involved in the evaluation of literary radicals such as Shelley and James Thompson. His temperament was exactly right for one who would be a sympathetic critic of the Concordian. Salt’s first essay was published in the November 1886 issue of Temple Bar15. Only a few articles on Thoreau had then appeared in English journals – Clarence Gohdes in American Literature in Nineteenth-Century England lists only three – and Salt clearly set out to interest a wide general audience in Thoreau. He rightly pointed out the lack of a good biography, and made careful use of much of the printed material on the subject. He had read most of Thoreau’s works then in print – though the collected works were not published until 1906 – the memoirs or essays by H. A. Page, W. Ellery Channing, J. R. Lowell, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Emerson. After a brief biographical sketch, Salt analyzed Thoreau’s main philosophic ideas. He emphasized Thoreau’s belief in “the perfectibility of man”, his reverence for ancient philosophies and religions, his attempts to simplify life and to avoid luxuries, his Individualism, and his Humanitarian views. He stressed Thoreau the naturalist as well as social thinker and saw the importance of the essay on Civil Disobedience.

It is remarkably well-informed work for one who had to rely only on printed sources and who had never been to the United States. Within three years, Salt decided to expand this fine essay into a book-length study. He did not wish to confine himself to published sources and began requesting information from those who had known Thoreau – or those who could provide information. He wrote to W. S. Kennedy on August 30, 1889: “My friend Edward Carpenter, who I believe you know, tells me that he thinks you might possibly be able to give me some help towards a biography of Thoreau – I am working at a volume in which I wish to combine a clear and comprehensive account of Thoreau’s life with a fuller more serious estimate of his doctrines than those given in the existing memoirs. Mr. Harrison Blake has kindly promised to give me what assistance he can, and so have some other friends and students of Thoreau. If you should chance to know of any out-lying sources of information, or unpublished letters, I should be very much obliged to you if you would tell me of them”16.

The tone of the letter was one which would inspire confidence, and indeed Salt and Kennedy corresponded until Kennedy died in 192917. Salt wrote Daniel Ricketson a somewhat more elaborate letter, setting out in greater detail his intention in the Thoreau biography; to an initial inquiry of Salt’s, Ricketson had sent a copy of Thoreau’s letter of February 12, 1859, on the death of John Thoreau; and Salt replied on November 18, 1889: “Dear Sir, – I am exceedingly obliged to you for your kind letter and the copy of Thoreau’s most interesting account of the death of his father. Let me first answer your question about my modus operandi in this volume on Thoreau which I am now preparing. My object is to give (1) a clear and succinct account of Thoreau’s life, gathering up and arranging in their due order all the scattered records of him to be found in periodicals, as well as the information given by Messrs. Channing, Sanborn, and Page. (2) A fuller and more serious estimate of Thoreau’s doctrines than any hitherto published, and a critique of his literary qualities. The book will consist of about ten or twelve chapters, the first two thirds of it being biographical and the remaining third critical. I shall aim throughout at interpreting rather than criticising in the ordinary sense, it being my belief that in the case of such a real man of genius as Thoreau it is the duty of the critic to accept him thankfully, and not to carp unduly at his limitations, though of course not shutting his eyes to them”18. He modestly told Ricketson in the same letter that “it has always been one of my desires to write a good life of Thoreau. It will be my own fault if I do not do this now, for I have received a great deal of kind help from America”19.

Salt’s attempt s to gather new information were successful, and F. B. Sanborn, H. G. O. Blake, Daniel Ricketson, Dr. E. W. Emerson, Edward Hoar, Col. T. W. Higginson, Dr. A. H. Japp (H. A. Page), John Burroughs, W. S. Kennedy, and Dr. Samuel A. Jones were mentioned in the 1890 biography for having contributed to the study20. Salt was depending on many Americans to supply the information not otherwise available. Ricketson, in sending the letter on the death of John Thoreau, quite correctly observed that Thoreau’s letters to friends would help explain the man; Salt had to rely largely on the 1865 edition of Thoreau’s letters edited by Emerson and those letters which were published in memoirs and articles.

 Salt’s biography of Thoreau was virtually completed by November of 1889, and on the 28th of the month wrote the publisher Richard Bentley: “I send herewith the MS of my Life of Thoreau. I have still to get the letters addressed by Thoreau to the only Englishman who became well acquainted with him – a Mr. Cholmondeley, nephew to Bishop Heber. 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 in Boston in 1865, and a few are unprinted ones”21.

Bentley obviously read the manuscript quickly, for on January 6, 1890, Salt was writing the publisher that he was pleased to learn that the Thoreau manuscript was acceptable. Salt also assumed that an edition of 1000 copies would be printed and that publication would be in the spring of that year. Within the next few months, Salt wrote Bentley about the portrait of Thoreau to be used as a frontispiece – the crayon drawing of Rouse was decided upon – and about possibilities for distribution in the United States22.

The Thoreau biography was well-received; The Spectator review of October 18, 1890, after noting the faults of the earlier biographies, said of this Salt study: “[Salt’s] perception of motive and tendency is as marked as are his complete command and skilful grouping of facts. And his reading of ethical purpose is self-consistent and interesting. Here Thoreau stands, fair and complete amid his proper surroundings, for Mr. Salt has found local colour and aptly used it. He has been industrious as he is devoted and has left no stone unturned. He not only understands his subject; he seems to have gained identity with him through some kindredship of interest, opinion, and thought. And he is careful to avoid painting too much in bright colours, and so incur the charge of white-washing! He seldom puts his points too strongly, and is concerned to let Thoreau, as far as possible, speak for themselves. While he does not agree with Mr. R. L. Stevenson that Thoreau, in a cynically-humorous way, sought to impose on himself no less than on his readers, as in the essay on ‘Friendship,’ he is prudent enough to admit that light may be thrown on some of Thoreau’s apparent paradoxes by perceiving that sometimes he half-humorously fenced his deepest thoughts, and only expressed them by asides”23.

Once the volume was published, Salt began collecting material for additions. One American correspondent wrote him that in following Sanborn he wrongly pictured John Thoreau as rather dull and Mrs. Thoreau as a gossip. Salt wrote Ricketson for his opinion, and Ricketson replied that Sanborn had lived in the Thoreau household but that people had widely different perceptions of personality24. Ricketson continued, “Although the portraits of Mr. And Mrs. Thoreau which you have copied from Mr. Sanborn are readily recognized, I should never have spoken of them in any manner that could have been construed into any disrespect for their genuine worth. Our philosopher was indebted undoubtedly to both his parents for much of his rare qualities – to the father for a calm, patient, industrious spirit, with great honesty of purpose and performance... on the other hand, Mrs. Thoreau was an unusually active, voluble person, rather tall... a great talker, and strong delineator of character, but not unlike many other good housewives gifted in relating historical and domestic events”25.

Salt was convinced by Ricketson’s statement and made subtle changes in the 1896 edition to draw a more honest portrait of the parents:

1890 edition

[John Thoreau] is described by those who knew him as a small, quiet, plodding, unobtrusive man,  occupying himself for the most part in his own business, though he could be friendly and sociable when occasion invited. His wife, on the other hand ... was wholly different in character, being remarkable, like the other members of her family, for her shrewd keen humour and intellectual sprightliness; she was tall, handsome, quick-witted; fond of dress and fond of gossip, though kindly and affectionate at heart; she had a good voice and sang well, and often monopolised the conversation with her unfailing flow of talk (p. 4).

1896 edition

[John Thoreau] is described by those who knew him as a small, quiet, plodding, unobtrusive man, thoroughly genuine and reliable, occupying himself for the most part in his own business, though he could be friendly and sociable when occasion invited. His wife, ... was very different character, being remarkable, like the other members of her family, for her keen dramatic humour and intellectual sprightliness; she was tall, handsome, quick-witted; she had a good voice and sang well, and often monopolised the conversation by her unfailing flow of talk (p. 13).

In the 1896 edition Salt omitted many of the quotations “from the Letters, Diaries, Excursion, etc.”, which had been inaccessible to English readers in 1890. The basic plan of the biography was exactly the same, although he did incorporate new information, as noted above, and correct errors of fact.

What is most noteworthy in the biography of Thoreau (both the 1890 and 1896 editions) is the sympathetic concern for Thoreau as a human being, as a writer, and as a social thinker. Salt was able to capture Thoreau’s distinctive qualities but did not turn his back on Thoreau’s perversities and failures: “His lack of geniality, his rusticity, his occasional littleness of tone and temper, his impatience of custom, degenerating sometimes into injustice, his too sensitive self-consciousness, his trick of over-statement...” But Salt saw these failings as “incidental”, not marring “the essential nobility of his nature”26. He clearly saw Thoreau’s genius: “In an age when not one man in a thousand had a real sympathy with nature, he attained to an almost miraculous acquaintance with her most cherished secrets; in an age of pessimism, when most men, as he himself express it, ‘lead lives of quiet desperation,’ he was filled with an absolute confidence in the justice and benevolence of his destiny; in an age of artificial complexity, when the ideal is unduly divorced from the practical, and society stands in false antagonism to nature, he, a devout pantheist, saw everywhere simplicity, oneness, relationship”27.

Salt seriously considered the defects and character blemishes of Thoreau catalogued by Lowell, Stevenson, Emerson and others, admitted those he judged fair but defended Thoreau when he found the attacks unjust. In the concluding paragraph of both editions, he observed: “We shall do wisely in taking him just as he is, neither shutting our eyes to his defects nor greatly deploring their existence, but remembering that in so genuine and distinctive an individuality the ‘faults’ have their due place and proportion no less than the ‘virtues’.”

Salt read Thoreau with rare understanding; almost everything of his own – his humanitarian articles, his biographies, his pamphlets pleading for social justice, his autobiographies – are infused with a Thoreauvian spirit. Like Thoreau, his audience was small. In 1895 when he wrote Bentley for permission to revise the Thoreau biography for inclusion in the Walter Scott series, he noted, “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”28. Although Salt was and is largely ignored, his biography of Thoreau is an endearing achievement of a man of principle writing about another man of principle.


1 Walter Harding, A Thoreau Handbook (New York, 1961), 20.
2 Henry S. Salt, Seventy Years Among Savages (London, 1921), 47. For additional biographical information on Salt, see his Company I Have Kept (London, 1930).
3. Seventy Years Among Savages, 52.
4. Ibid., 58.
5. Ibid., 62-64. For an exposition of Salt’s views on Vegetarianism, see his A Plea for Vegetarianism and Other Essays (Manchester, 1886); Mahatma Gandhi said of this volume: “From the date of reading this book, I may claim to have become a vegetarian by choice”, An Autobiography, The Selected Works of Gandhi (Ahmedabad, 1968), I, 70. I am now preparing an article on the Gandhi, Salt, Thoreau relationship.
6 Stephen Winsten, Salt and His Circle (London, 1951), 9.
7 Ibid., 61.
8 Seventy Years Among Savages, 76. Salt also knew of Thoreau through the works of Edward Carpenter.
9 Edward R. Pease, The History of the Fabian Society (London, 1963), 32.
10 Ibid., 30. For additional information on Davidson, see Warren Sylvester Smith, The London Heretics (1870-1914) (New York, 1968), 132-139, and My Life: Autobiography of Havelock Ellis (Boston, 1939).
11 My Life, 282.
12 J. R. McDonald, in “The New Fellowship”, Seed-time (April, 1892), 1, wrote “The Fellowship, influenced by Thoreau and Emerson, rather than Marx and Hyndman, stood somewhat aloof, though in sympathy with the ideas of the Socialist societies”.
13 G. Bernard Shaw, The Fabian Society: Its Early History [Fabian Tract no. 41] (London, 1892), 3-4.
14 Pease, The History of the Fabian Society, 130-133.
15 Reprinted in H. S. Salt, Literary Sketches (London, 1888), 124-166.
16 George Hendrick, “Literary Comments in the Letters of Henry S. Salt to W. S. Kennedy”, Emerson Society Quarterly, 19 (II Quarter, 1960), 25.
17 Ibid., 25-29.
18 Daniel Ricketson and His Friends (Boston, 1904), 249-250.
19 Ibid., 251.
20 H. S. Salt, The Life of Henry David Thoreau (London, 1890), v.
21 Quoted in John T. Flanagan, “Henry Salt and His Life of Thoreau”, New England Quarterly, 28 (1955), 238-239.
22 Ibid., 239-246.
23 “Thoreau’s Life”, The Spectator, 65 (October 18, 1890), 526-527. The review is unsigned.
24 Ricketson, 258.
25 Ibid., 258-259. The Thoreau papers collected by Salt were given to Professor Raymond Adams. See Company I Have Kept, 103-104. This important collected was not available to me.
26 Salt, Life of Henry David Thoreau, 1896 ed., 199.
27 Ibid., 198.
28 Flanagan, 246.

George Hendrick

Miscellanea Anglo-Americana, Karl Pressler, 1974, pp. 221-230