Life of Henry David Thoreau, Henry S. Salt

Life of Henry David Thoreau, Henry S. Salt

Edited and introduction by George Hendrik, Willene Hendrick and Fritz Oehlschlaegar. University of Illinois Press and Centaur Press. 1993

Henry David Thoreau (1817-62), once looked upon as a disciple of Emerson, is now rated as one of the giants of the American pantheon. Thoreau was a literary master of his subjects, despite his wayward and contradictory nature. Walter Harding, a pre-eminent Thoreau scholar, in his biography The Days of Henry Thoreau, presents this son of Concord as not only a man of his time, but of all times. Indeed it is agreed by advocates calling for a greater environmental responsibility, social reformers, and those who seek a more simple life, that this New England student of human nature was something more than a stoic eccentric.

Thoreau’s influence has been extensive and is acknowledged by Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Aldo Leopold, among others. Walden, Thoreau’s best-known book, came fifth in a recent international questionnaire asking individuals and environmental interest-groups to list the 40 books which had awakened their concern in conservation (The Environmental Bookshelf, Hall Macmillan, 1993).

A friend of the Emersons, Hawthorne, the Alcotts and other illustrious contemporaries, as well as the local children in his native Massachusetts, Thoreau was as much at home with the sacred scriptures of Persia and India as with those of Jewish origin. His critique of materialism is still essential reading and the value of his message increases, while his transcendental spiritual notions have influenced the writings of generations of individuals. At the same time, he was strong enough to carry his opinions into real life, refusing to pay the poll-tax, and objecting to slave-holding, killing and eating animals, and to the power of central government. He was no dealer in second-hand maxims, as can be clearly seen in his most famous essay ‘Civil Disobedience’.

It is not surprising, therefore, that Henry Salt (1851-1939), whose name will be familiar to readers of Jefferies as the author of the short but excellent Richard Jefferies A Study (1894), should have published a lucid and distinguished biography of Thoreau. Salt, a humane and ethical socialist, addressed himself to the problems troubling his own times. He wrote over forty books and was founder and editor of two journals: Humanitarian and Humane Review. Though ignored by many, he was highly esteemed by Bernard Shaw who wrote: “My pastime has been writing sermons preaching what Salt practised.” Having been introduced to Walden while he was a master at Eton (he was given a copy by his friend Edward Carpenter) Salt became an enthusiastic Thoreauvian, and gave strong support both here and in the United States to the efforts to advance Thoreau’s literary reputation. These efforts included the setting up of Walden Clubs by the newly-formed Labour Party in the 1880s, and articles and meetings to celebrate the centenary of Thoreau’s birth.

Henry Salt’s contribution to Thoreau’s fame and scholarship rests not only with his treatment of this distinctive poet-naturalist, but also with his life-long abiding faith in the principles of universal kinship, and his democratic sentiment. He worked to awaken the conscience of the community, not to seek power for himself. His friendship with people such as Swinburne, Keir Hardie, Prince Kropotkin, Thomas Hardy, William Morris and Henry Hyndman is a testament of the respect in which he was held by his contemporaries. Yet Chambers Biographical Dictionary, 1990, makes no reference to Salt and the 1984 edition only gives two sub-references, one under Thoreau and the other under BV (James Thomson). Shelley and Richard Jefferies do not appear at all. In fact Salt is better known among literati in the United States than in his own country.

Salt’s book on Thoreau was first published in 1890; the second version appeared in 1896. It is his third version of this perceptive and penetrating study that Professor George Hendrick and his fellow editors have now made available, thanks to the Trustees of the University of Illinois. In their introduction the editors, with admiration and affection, give the reader an account of Salt’s long and full life. Reference is made to his early life, his marriage, his support of the Social Democratic Federation and for the many social causes of his day. Salt gave his full support to many socialist poets and writers, including Richard Jefferies, who had “the same impatience of tradition and conventionality, the same passionate love of woods and fields and streams”, as Thoreau and Salt himself. No Englishman in the late nineteenth century did more to advance so many ethical causes or social justice. Salt’s obituaries recognised many of his unique qualities. He was, in the words of the Daily Telegraph, “one of the great characters of his time”.

This book, published by the University of Illinois (and by Centaur Press in the U.K.), may redress the balance and give Henry Salt who, like Thoreau, never bowed to conventionality, or allowed his free spirit to be driven into subjection, the recognition he has so long deserved.

John F.C. Pontin

The Richard Jefferies Society, 1994