Thoreau Illustrated

Thoreau Illustrated

Of making illustrated books there is no end, and of many of them it cannot be said that there was urgent need for their making. But, if any authors have an undeniable right to be illustrated, it is the naturalists and “poet-naturalists,” the men whose life and personality are so closely interwoven with the place where they lived and worked as to be scarcely intelligible apart from it—the autochthonous men, such as Richard Jeffries in England and Henry Thoreau in America, who have been able in a marvellous degree to apprehend the general laws of nature through the medium of a single locality. Nothing is more curious and interesting than the deep and passionate sympathy which may thus subsist between place and person, scene and character, wild nature and human nature; and it is of no little importance for the full understanding of such writers that, before the present features of the country are changed and its aspect irrecoverable, we should have some trustworthy picture of the scenes from which they drew their inspiration.

Of “Jefferies-land” this record yet remains to be accomplished, though a beginning has been made in a few very charming sketches by Miss Bertha Newcombe. In Thoreau’s case, until quite lately, we have had little but crude drawings of the Walden chantry; but now, a generation and more after his death, the publishers of the fine “Riverside” edition (Messrs. Hodder & Mifflin, of Boston) have tried the experiment of illustration. Oddly enough, it was “Cape Cod,” and not the more familiar “Walden,” that the enterprise began. In a happy moment it occurred to Miss Amelia M. Watson, when on a tour of Cape Cod, the long sandy spit which Thoreau described as “the bared and bended arm of Massachusetts,” to make marginal sketches in her copy of this book, which were reproduced in two handsome volumes with the artist’s colourings. This method of illustration may be technically open to criticism, but from the point of view of the Thoreau student the result is valuable, for “Cape Cod,” although far less popular than “Walden” and “The Week,” and, indeed, only known by selections to the majority of English readers, is one of the most characteristic of Thoreau’s writings, crisp, salt and racy as the shore which it describes. “Day by day,” it has been said, “with his stout pedestrian shoes, he plodded along that level beach, the eternal ocean on one side and human existence, reduced to its simplest elements, on the other, and he pitilessly weighing each.” Not pitilessly, however—to those who are aware of the undertone of true feeling that is in all Thoreau’s work. Despite its stoical exterior, no pitiless thinker could have written that magnificent and most human chapter on “The Shipwreck” in “Cape Cod.”

The illustrated “Walden,” to which also fine volumes are devoted, brings us to the real Thoreau-land, and fortunately, through the Pond itself is now a picnic-place for Boston holiday-makers, the surrounding woods and the general scenery of Concord are still as Thoreau knew them. All that was needed to secure a permanent record of his favourite haunts was a skilful use of the camera, and a sympathetic knowledge of “Walden,” and the Thoreau journals; and, as it happened, these qualities were both possessed by a present citizen of Concord, Mr. A. W. Hosmer, a relative of the “long-headed farmer,” Edmund Hosmer, who, as readers of “Walden” will remember, used to visit Thoreau in his hut. To Mr. Hosmer’s enthusiasm and artistic ability we are indebted for these very beautiful illustrations of the country which Thoreau and his friends; for illustrations of the several houses where he lived, including the Walden furniture, his flute and spy-glass, the pines planted by him on his famous beanfield, and a number of other memorials.

The only fault which Thoreau-lovers will find in this sumptuous “Walden” is the “Introduction” by Mr. Bradford Torrey; a well-meant but futile piece of writing which the publishers would do wisely to omit in future issues. For, to begin with, what need is there to introduce “Walden” at all? The book has gone through several editions in America, and of the cheap editions in this country, where Thoreau is less widely read, some thirty thousand copies are said to have been sold. But, if such a classic is supposed to need an introduction, at least the introduction should be an harmonious frame to the picture, whatever view may be taken of Thoreau’s masterpieces, whether it be deemed wise, or extravagant, or both (one recalls his own remark on the term extra-vagant, “It depends on how you are yarded”), we are all agreed that its charm lies in its wonderful freshness and spontaneity. To apologise for “Walden,” to patronise it, and to adapt the paternal tone towards it, is the worst blunder that an editor could make, and this is what Mr. Bradford Torrey has done. “It is always to be remembered,” he says, “that ‘Walden’ is a young man’s book”; and he goes on to explain that “with added years, of course, there come added wisdom and a tempting of desire”; from which we gather that Mr. Bradford Torrey was once young like Thoreau, but has now ceased to live in shanties and write such books as “Walden.” “Whether Thoreau would ever have arrived at this pitch of catholicity,” he surmises, “is more than any one can say; he died before the age of ripeness.” Considering that Thoreau died in his forty-fifth year, and had not been regarded as exactly a fledgling in thought by such intellectual compeers as Emerson, Hawthorne, and Whitman, this “introduction” on the part of Mr. Bradford Torrey must be regarded as a sad impertinence.

The thanks of all Thoreau students are due to Messrs, Houghton & Mifflin for these illustrated books, and it is to be hoped they may see their way to a similar edition of “The Week on the Concord River.” But why should these works be published in America only, when there are many English readers who would be glad to possess them? That is one of the mysteries of trans-Atlantic publishing, which is perhaps somehow connected with the well-known fact that Boston is the hub of the universe.

H. S. S.

The Saturday Review, Vol. 86, November 5, 1898