Henry Salt’s Third Biography of Thoreau

Henry Salt’s Third Biography of Thoreau

In 1890 the English Socialist and Humanitarian Henry S. Salt published what most scholars have regarded the best Thoreau biography before Walter Harding’s The Days of Henry Thoreau. The sensitivity of Salt’s account of Thoreau’s life and ideas is truly remarkable considering the disadvantages under which he worked. Salt had never visited the United States, did not have access to the full Journal, and relied of necessity on Emerson’s undependable edition of Thoreau’s letters, Letters to Various Persons (1865). In 1896 Salt revised and republished the biography in abbreviated form, cutting many long passages quoted from Thoreau’s works. Salt also made needed corrections in the book, incorporating much information he had received from Dr. Samuel Arthur Tories, Alfred W. Hosmer, and other American correspondents.

What has not generally been known is that Salt later prepared a third, substantially revised version of his Life of Thoreau. In a letter of January 7, 1908, to Ernest W. Vickers, Thoreau enthusiast from Ellsworth Station, Ohio, Salt described this revised biography: “I must not forget to add that during the past autumn I have very carefully revised the book in the light of the full Journals &c, and I have gone through the mass of letters, printed papers, &c, received by me from Dr. Jones, Mr. Sanborn, and many others since 1896. The result is that I have been able to correct and improve the Life in many particulars.” (ms. In the Collection of Ernest W. Vickers, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Library)

With the encouragement and aid of Vickers, Salt attempted to find a publisher for an American edition of this third biography. He had long hoped to have his Life of Thoreau published in the United States. Before the publication of his 1890 work by Bentley of London, Salt had discussed with F. B. Sanborn the possibility of Houghton Mifflin's bringing the book out in America. Similarly, as Salt explained to Vickers, “Macmillans, of New York, were offered sheets of the first edition, in 1891, on almost nominal terms yet did not care to have them.” (Salt to Vickers, January 17, 1908. Vickers Collection.) No more fruitful were the efforts of Salt and Vickers to find a publisher for this third edition. Acting as Salt’s representative, Vickers corresponded with at least three American firms—the Public Publishing Company of Chicago, Houghton Mifflin, and Thomas Y. Crowell—none of which showed any significant interest. Salt’s attempts to arrange a revised edition in England met with similar failure. The Walter Scott company, publishers of the 1896 Life, were reluctant to issue the new biography while much of the earlier edition remained unsold. As Salt reported to Vickers, “as many as 2,000” copies of the 1896 edition were still unsold in 1908—evidence that the publishers who refused Salt’s work were undoubtedly correct about the commercial possibilities of Thoreau biography in 1908. (Salt to Vickers, February 10, 1908. Vickers Collection.)

Salt had hoped very much to bring out the 1908 revision of his biography; in fact, he was willing to pay a substantial portion of the costs for a new edition. (See Salt to Vickers, January 7, 1908, and March 24, 1908. Vickers Collection.) Indeed Salt still contemplated publishing a revised edition in 1929, as he told William Sloane Kennedy in an April 9 letter of that year: “I am pretty busy in one way or another—my latest work is a new edition of my ‘Life of Thoreau.’ The Walter Scott firm is dead; and I should be free to reissue the book, if any publisher would care to venture. I have written to Houghton Mifflin, first, to ask if the idea appeals at all to them, but probably they would think it beneath their dignity to take up an old English book. If they decline, I shall sound other firms, either in this country or in yours." (See George Hendrick, “Literary Comments in the Letters of Henry S. Salt to W. S. Kennedy,” ESQ 19 (1960), 28). It is unfortunate for all Thoreau students that neither Salt nor Vickers could find a publisher, as this third biography could contain important additions to our knowledge of Thoreau’s life—particularly since Salt had drawn upon letters to him from Sanborn and Dr. Jones, almost none of which are presently available. Salt's reflections on Thoreau’s full Journal, not available to him in 1896, would also be most welcome. It is to be hoped that this valuable manuscript has survived and will some day be found and published, as Henry Salt and Ernest Vickers long ago desired.

Fritz Oehlschlaeger

The Thoreau Society Bulletin, No. 146, Winter 1979