Henry Salt: Humanitarian Reformer

Henry Salt: Humanitarian Reformer

HENRY SALT: HUMANITARIAN REFORMER AND MAN OF LETTERS. By George Hendrick. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1977. Pp. 228. $10.

Henry Salt (1851-1939), the British writer, has never won the recognition he so greatly deserves in furthering the cause of two of our greatest American authors. Despite the fact be never set foot in this country, he did more than any other critic to win and then sustain recognition for Henry David Thoreau, who for so long was disdainfully ignored by his own countrymen, and he was one of the earliest to recognize Herman Melville's genius when the rest of the world had forgotten him. Salt's 1890 biography of Thoreau (revised, 1896) was the first book on Thoreau really worthy of the appellation "biography" and, one of the most considered and well-balanced of them all, is still deservedly a favorite of many Thoreauvians today. Salt also edited a number of Thoreau's works for publication in Great Britain, wrote many critical articles on him, and was responsible for introducing Mahatma Gandhi to Thoreau's writings (an act that as we all know had worldwide repercussions). Salt made important contributions in other fields too. He wrote seminal books on authors as varied as Shelley, Jefferies, and DeQuincey. He was a friend of and inspiration to G. B. Shaw, Edward Carpenter, and Ramsey MacDonald, among others. He was a pioneer in many reform movements, such as socialism, pacifism, vegetarianism, criminal justice, and ecology. He wrote two delightful autobiographical volumes. Yet despite all this, he is now an almost completely forgotten man.

George Hendrick's Henry Salt is the first American book on Salt. (A British centennial tribute of 1951 by Stephen Winsten, the only other volume, was never circulated in this country.) It fills a real gap. Hendrick's approach to Salt is topical rather than chronological as indicated by such chapter titles as "Socialist and Follower of the Simple Life," "Humanitarian," and "Man of Letters," a technique which has the advantage both of demonstrating Salt's many-faceted interests and in gathering together and thus emphasizing Hendrick's discussions of Salt's contributions. His chapter on Salt as a humanitarian is a judicious summing up of his many reform activities. (Salt was involved in so many that British newspapers, to his delight, referred to him as "a compendium of cranks.") Hendrick discusses with sympathy and understanding activities that a less thoughtful biographer might have ignored or dismissed as quixotic.

By far the strongest section of the book, appropriately enough, is that on Salt as a man of letters. Taking one by one each of the major authors Salt dealt with, Hendrick discusses his writings, gives us brief summaries of their theses illustrated with pertinent quotations, and evaluates each in the light of modern scholarship. His section on Thoreau, the lengthiest in the volume, is particularly valuable and with its extensive quotations from Salt's correspondence gives us a good insight into Salt's working techniques. His account of the role Salt played in introducing Gandhi to Thoreau's writings is particularly interesting. In general, Hendrick's evaluations are thorough, enlightening and just. I do however wish he had appended a bibliography of Salt's writings, for there is none available and many of his works appeared in small editions or in obscure journals. Perhaps even now he can be persuaded to publish such a bibliography elsewhere; it could be invaluable.

Hendrick's topical approach to Salt has its advantages, but it has its disadvantages too. It forces the reader to hop, skip, and jump back and forth over Salt's long career and it tends to fragmentize our picture of the man. We see him in bits and pieces rather than as a unified whole. We come to know Salt's work rather than the man himself. Nor is the structure of the book the only reason for that result. There is surprisingly and disappointingly little in the book about Salt the man. His first thirty-four years are covered in a chapter of only seventeen pages and although at thirty-four he experienced a remarkable turnabout in his whole pattern of life, abandoning a successful but conventional career as an Eton tutor for a life devoted to poverty, simplicity, and radicalism, epitomized by his tearing up his academic gown into strips and using them to tie up vines in his garden, Hendrick gives us little clue as to why that reversal came about. Salt's first wife, Kate, was dynamic enough a person that Shaw based his play "Candida" upon her, and yet we never really get to know her in these pages. Salt in his later years became so close to a young man by the name of John Davies that he seriously considered adopting him, yet Davies is only casually mentioned in the book and their relationship is never detailed. Although I personally never had the good fortune to meet or even correspond with Salt, I have talked with many who have, and Salt's warmth and wit and gentleness were so great that they never failed to radiate through their words about him. But somehow those qualities fail to come through in this volume. (Salt himself was such an inveterate punster that I am impelled to say that Hendrick's Salt has lost his savor.) Perhaps I am expecting too much in wanting Salt the man to come alive in these pages. At any rate these complaints of mine should not overshadow the fact, as I have stressed earlier in this review, that Professor Hendrick has fulfilled a very real need in delineating Salt's important contributions to literary criticism.

Walter Harding

Journal of English and Germanic Philosophy, January 1978, pp. 152-153