Life of Henry David Thoreau

Life of Henry David Thoreau

Stubborn, lop-sided hermit with a pinch of salt: Life of Henry David Thoreau - Henry S Salt: Centaur Press, £19.75

REMEMBER Thoreau? He lived in a hut out by Walden Pond, a little away from the township of Concord, Massachusetts, but not so far he couldn't be called to dinner. He interrupted this sojourn to spend a summer night in the town jail because he would not pay taxes towards the Mexican War (1846-48).

I approached Henry Salt's Life with caution, knowing him to be a 'compendium of cranks' (he was an atheist, vegetarian, ex-Eton master, ethical socialist, prison reformer, correspondent of Gandhi, and married a lesbian perhaps without realising it). Here, it seemed, was a fine pair of self-righteous old sticks] Actually, Thoreau never grew to be any sort of old. Strong enough to walk for ever and a day, over any country, he died a few months short of his 45th birthday of a bronchial complaint.

Salt, in this previously unpublished 1908 version of an 1890 Life (not a bestseller: it sold 8 copies in its first year), says nothing quite illuminating enough about Thoreau's strange dependence on his family - an odd trait in a man so hot on self-reliance. He also had his older friends, Ralph Waldo and Mrs Emerson, as crutches, or so it must seem since Thoreau was a sort of factotum to them for quite a while. Thoreau's lonely hut was actually in the Emersons' wood-lot.

Anyway, there they all were, these anti-slavery, pro-simplicity, serious New Englanders, all egged on by the arch-campaigner Horace Greeley, the journalist who probably deserved better than to be immortalised for having advised one chap: 'Go West, young man]'. Perhaps the good people of Concord were a bit shocked by all this opinionising, perhaps bored by it: one can't tell. It certainly makes me pine for the rudeness of the Wild West of the day.

Little by little, one realises that Thoreau was not as advertised. Had he lived, he would probably have turned against even more orthodoxies, including the right- minded ones. Given time, he might have had a good word for the slave-masters of the South. As Salt says (without recalling who gave us the line in the first place): 'He had, it has been well remarked, 'a constitutional No in him'.'

Thoreau didn't like philanthropy, thought the native Americans had better get on with being farmers, and was generally about as dry as Lord Melbourne himself. 'If I knew for a certainty that a man was coming to my house with the conscious design of doing me good, I should run for my life,' he wrote in Walden. Salt recalls that a friend asked the dying Thoreau if he had considered the next world. 'One world at a time' was the dry retort.

By the time I had finished Salt, I'd bought a book on Thoreau and the Indians and learnt that Thoreau was fairly conventional in his view of the 'savages', but drawn to their spiritual life. In this reading, Thoreau's retreat to the pond is a 'vision quest' of tribal tradition, and very touching, if also enigmatic. Certainly, even reading Salt, I wondered if there was not as much of a Thomas Merton semi-hermit about the man as a proto-ecological self-sufficiency. Thoreau goes on a lot about wanting very little, but does so, he says, because that means a man need not clutter his life up with work. It is while he is telling us not to be tramelled with labour that he gives us: 'The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation', and it was written of his hard-working farmer neighbours.

Thoreau seems never to have taken responsibility for anybody or anything, yet he presumes to lecture the rest of us on how bogged-down we are. But even here the picture is complex: Salt tells us that Thoreau was in demand in two trades (pencil-maker and land surveyor), but gives us no clear picture of whether he ever bothered to make ends meet.

For all that Salt is an admiring hagiographer, it is hard not to believe that he had his finger on Henry Thoreau's pulse: contrary, lop-sided, tender and peculiar, the man emerges as a world-class, deep-grained cocker of snooks.

Richard North

The Independent, 24 November 1993, p. 19