Thoreau as Pioneer

Thoreau as Pioneer

(An Address given at the Thoreau Centenary Meeting.)

THOUGH there is no desire on the part of humanitarians to claim a larger share in Thoreau than is their due – and certainly it would be rash act to attempt in any way to label him, many-sided, combative, and paradoxical as he was – it is safe to say that no reader of the numerous references to ethical questions in his journals, or of the remarkable chapter in “Walden” entitled “Higher Laws,” can doubt for a moment that Thoreau was, in the main, a very pronounced pioneer of the humanitarian movement. What, for example, as a statement of the central principle of humanitarianism – expressed by the League in its assertion that “it is iniquitous to inflict avoidable suffering on any sentient being” – could be clearer than the following passage from the Journal?

“Do we live inhumanely toward man or beast, in thought or act? The least conscious and needless injury, inflicted on any creature, to an extent, a suicide. What price, or life, can a murderer have?”

Here we find an explicit adhesion to the belief in the universal kinship of all sentient beings; nor, when we pass to particulars, do we find Thoreau in any way untrue to this faith. The noble part which he played in support of the anti-slavery agitation has been dealt with by a previous speaker; so, too, his practice of the simple life; and simplification of living, I would point out, is closely akin to anti-slavery, for its object is to avoid, on the one hand, becoming enslaved to the so-called luxuries by which many men are encumbered, and on the other to avoid enslaving the workers by whom those luxuries are produced. When we turn from the human to the lower races, we find in Thoreau’s writings the same considerate regard for others. His views may be summed up in what he said in reference to sport, that “no humane being, past the thoughtless age of boyhood, will wantonly murder any creature which holds its life by the same tenure as he does”; and of the diet-question, that “whatever my own practice may be, I have no doubt that it is part of the destiny of the human race 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 civilised.”

Of special significance was his appearance as a herald of the humaner study of Natural History, as distinguished from the clumsy old-fashioned method which killed in order to observe. Thoreau’s position in this respect is well illustrated by one of the anecdotes related to him. “Do you mean to tell us, Mr. Thoreau,” so someone said, “that you don’t shoot a bird when you want to study it?” To which Thoreau replied: “Do you think I should shoot you, if I wanted to study you?” There, in a nutshell, was the whole principle of the more modern Natural History – the recognition of the truth that there is no essential difference between human and no-human, and that what really concerns us is the study not of the dead specimen but of the living being.

It was this prophetic element in Thoreau – for he might well be called a prophet-naturalist as well as a “poet-naturalist” – that so long delayed his fame as a writer. He offered many prejudices; and the influence of the literary cliques, instigated by Lowell, was against him from the first. But personal force and integrity are bound to triumph in the long run over the bias of critics; and it is important to note how deep an impression Thoreau made both on later generations of readers. Emerson, Alcott, Ellery Channing, Blake, Ricketson, Higginson, Sanborn – there could hardly have been a more diverse set of men than those who called him friend; yet from each and all of them came the same testimony to his greatness of intellect and heart. Mr. Blake wrote to me thus of the effect of Thoreau’s letters:-

“As a re-read them, I am apt to find new significance in them; am still warned and instructed by them, with more force occasionally than ever before; so that in a sense they are still in the mail, have not altogether reached me yet, and will not, probably, before I die.”

Strange stories are told of this magnetic influence of Thoreau’s writings. It is said that a poor Russian Jew, who came across a few loose pages of “Walden,” was so moved by what he read there that he emigrated to America, mainly from a desire to obtain the book, and if possible to translate it into his own language. In like manner, a few years after Thoreau’s death, a student named Harrington, came to Concord from a far western State to learn more of Thoreau, and told Channing that he, a stranger, had been moved by the story of Thoreau’s death than by that of anyone else, however near and dear to him. Such things do not, and can not, happen in the case of anyone who, however talented, is “cold” and “misanthropic” as Thoreau has been represented by those who do not understand him. It is true that he did not “wear his heart upon his sleeve”; but an undertone of deep feeling runs through all his writings for those who have ears to hear it. There is a passage in one of his journals, remarkable equally for the beauty of its cadences and the depth of its feelings, which might well stand for his epitaph:-

“My greatness skill has been to want but little. For joy I could embrace the earth. I shall delight to be buried in it. And then I think of those among men who will know that I love them, though I tell them not.”

There are some of us who do know it. I was once told by Mr. Sanborn of a scene he had witnessed, many years after Thoreau’s death, when certain visitors at his house were repeating to Ellery Channing one of the many fretful criticisms of Thoreau, and received only this laconic reply: “I knew him.” And this, in substance, must always be our answer to those who misinterpret Thoreau’s message and belittle his genius: “We know him.”

Henry S. Salt

The Humanitarian, Vol. 8, September 1917