American Psyche

American Psyche

LIFE OF HENRY DAVID THOREAU By Henry S.Salt Centaur, £19.95

IN JULY 1845 Henry Thoreau built by hand a house near a pond in Massachusetts. He wished "to live deliberately" and Walden (1854), his record of his time there, has since become one of the classics of American literature. Its philosophy runs deep into the American psyche. Figures as diverse as Robert Frost, Frank Lloyd Wright and John F.Kennedy have all been inspired by Thoreau's ideas of self-reliance and contemplation. Unfortunately, he enjoyed little succes in his own lifetime.

Henry S. Salt initially had problems similar to Thoreau's. His first edition of the Life of Henry David Thoreau (1890), had sold only eight copies by 1891. The second edition (1896) still had 2,000 unsold in 1908 and he could never find a publisher for this far more comprehensive third edition. Describing himself as a "compendium of cranks", Salt is well placed to respond to his eccentric subject.

Thoreau, who has been labelled everything from an anarchist to a fascist, is not pigeon-holed. Instead, Salt chooses to emphasise Thoreau as a non-conformist.

For the newcomer to Thoreau, Salt provides a readable and sensitive introduction. Indeed, unlike some thinkers, the story of Thoreau's life genuinely facilitates the study of his ideas, as he practised what he preached. Salt recounts how, opposing the Mexican War and slavery, Thoreau refused to pay his poll tax and spent a night in prison in 1845.

It is good to see the definitive version of Salt's work finally published. Perhaps what is most refreshing though, is that Salt's Life may in some small way raise Thoreau's profile on this side of the Atlantic.

George Trefgarne

The Times, December 27, 1993, p. 27