Henry S. Salt, Life of Henry David Thoreau

Henry S. Salt, Life of Henry David Thoreau

Henry S. Salt, Life of Henry David Thoreau, ed. George Hendrick, Willene Hendrick, and Fritz Oehlschlaeger (U of Illinois P, 1993), xxxiii + 153 pp., $29.95 cloth.

Henry Salt more than any other scholar reoriented Thoreau criticism "from its inordinate preoccupation with the man" toward a modern appreciation of his writings, as Wendell Glick averred in his preface to The Recognition of Henry David Thoreau (1969). Before the turn of the last century, Salt wrote pioneering essays on Thoreau's poetry and his "gospel of simplicity" for such magazines as the London Art Review, Paternoster Review, and Temple Bar, co-edited a collection of Thoreau's verse with F.B. Sanborn; edited Thoreau's Anti-Slavery and Reform Papers and a second volume of his selected writings; and published a highly-regarded biography of the Concord writer (1890; revised edition 1896). Salt's Life of Henry David Thoreau occupies a secure niche in the annals of scholarship if only because Mahatma Gandhi read a copy in South Africa while planning his Satyagraha campaign. "That Thoreau's reputation did not perish by the end of the nineteenth century," Fritz Oehlschlaeger and George Hendrick opined in their introduction to Toward the Moaking of Thoreau's Modern Reputation (1979), "is largely attributable to the efforts" of Salt and his friends S.A. Jones and Edmund Hosmer.

In their splendid introduction to the present volume, the editors wisely qualify that assertion. (It overlooks such factors as the marketing of Thoreau by Houghton Mifflin, which issued a ten-volume edition of his writings in 1893, and the homage of the Thoreau cult, which included such Concord entrepreneurs as the peripatetic Sanborn and Bronson Alcott, who also traded on his name.) "No Englishman did more in the late nineteenth century to advance the literary reputation of Henry David Thoreau than Henry S. Salt," they fairly conclude now. George and Willene Hendrick and Oehlschlaeger have admirably edited the third version of Salt's Thoreau biography, completed in 1908 but hitherto unpublished. Though he revised the narrative in light of Thorean's journals, issued by Houghton Mifflin in fourteen volumes in 1906, Salt's final version in truth differs in very minor ways from the second edition, which was reprinted by Haskell House as recently as 1968. Like its predecessors, this third version is peppered with misdatings and minor factual errors (e.g., the year Stearns Wheeler lived at Flint's Pond, the date Thoreau was jailed for failing to pay his poll tax, the original site of Thoreau's grave) which the editors are at pains to correct in footnotes. Salt even recycles the apocryphal story about Emerson's visit to Thoreau in the Concord "town gaol." Like the leftist critics of the 1930s, moreover, he tried to enlist Thoreau in his pet causes, especially socialism, animal rights, and vegetarianism. On the whole, however, the biography serves well Salt's overriding purpose--to rehabilitate Thoreau's posthumous reputation from the spurious charge of misanthropy, to refute the libels with which James Russell Lowell and Robert Louis Stevenson (among others) had smeared his name.

Still, this third edition of Salt's Thoreau is important not for what it says about Thoreau, but for what may be inferred from it about Thoreau's reputation at the turn of the century. In this respect, the book is like a deposit or layer of sediment in a geological core sample, invaluable evidence to those who can analyze it. Salt eschewed, for example, both the panegyrics of Thoreau's friend and first biographer Ellery Channing, who christened him a "poet-naturalist," and the hagiographical approach of his first British biographer A.H. Japp ("H.A. Page"), though Salt followed Japp's lead in briefly comparing Thoreau to St. Francis (62). Salt criticized the literary style of Thoreau's Excursions (84) and in general turned a more dispassionate eye on his writings than did the faculty of the Concord School of Philosophy, for whom the annual readings from Thoreau's journal were akin to the utterances of the Delphian oracle. Rather than the neutered creature whom Emerson eulogized as a "bachelor of Nature," Salt discussed the Ellen Sewall episode and referred at least in passing to Thoreau and sexuality (20-21, 104). He revised the critical commonplace that Thoreau was a mere moon in eccentric or elliptical orbit around Emerson's sun, dimly reflecting the brilliance of the Concord Saadi; in fact, Salt predicted that "Thoreau's genius will eventually be even more highly valued than Emerson's" (127).

Above all, Salt refocused critical attention on Thoreau's political essays in an era when debate about his merits as a writer raged over the question whether he was more a poet or a naturalist, or whether the Walden experiment was a dilettantish retreat akin to a summer at Bread Loaf. At a time when the editors at Houghton Mifflin preferred to anthologize the mild-mannered Thoreau of "Wild Apples" and the "Sounds" chapter of Walden and to publish illustrated holiday editions of Walden and Cape Cad to tap the tourist market, Salt celebrated "Slavery in Massachusetts" and "A Plea for Captain John Brown," polemical texts that had been largely ignored on both sides of the Atlantic after their inclusion in A Yankee in Canada (1866). Or consider Harold Clarke Goddard's comment in Studies in New England Transcendentalism (1908), published the same year that Salt completed the third version of his Life. While Thoreau's radical individualism led him "almost to the point of anarchy ... his anarchy ... was of a harmless variety." To his considerable credit, Salt helped to reclaim Thoreau from the timid domestic homilies of the genteel tradition and to situate him in an oppositional canon that would inform the teaching of American literature for most of the past century. Similarly, and to their considerable credit, the Hendricks and Oehlschlaeger have reclaimed Salt from the margins of literary history and restored him to a position of eminence in Thoreau studies.

Gary Scharnhorst

Nineteenth-Century Prose, March 22, 1995