Web Text-ures Logo

Web and Book design,
Copyright, Kellscraft Studio
1999-2007

(Return to Web Text-ures)

Click Here to return to
Friends on the Shelf
Content Page

 Return to the Previous Chapter

Kellscraft Studio Logo
 (HOME)   


THOREAU

“Whoever will do his own work aright will find that his first lesson is to know what he is, and that which is proper to himself; and whoever rightly understands himself will never mistake another man’s work for his own, but will love and improve himself above all other things, will refuse superfluous employments, and reject all unprofitable thoughts and propositions.”

MONTAIGNE.

IT lay at the root of Thoreau’s peculiarity that he insisted upon being himself. Having certain opinions, he held them; having certain tastes, he encouraged them; having a certain faculty, he made the most of it: all of which, natural and reasonable as it may sound, is as far as possible from what is expected of the average citizen, who may be almost anything he will, to be sure, if he will first observe the golden rule of good society, to be “like other folks.” Society is still a kind of self-constituted militia, a mutual protective association, — an army, in short; and in an army, as everybody knows, the first duty of man is to keep step.

What made matters worse in Thoreau’s case was, that his tastes and opinions, on which he so stoutly insisted, were in themselves far out of the common. Not only would he be himself, enough, under present conditions, to make almost any man an oddity, but the “himself” was essentially a very queer person. He liked solitude; in other words, he liked to think. He loved the society of trees and all manner of growing things. He found fellowship in them, they were of his kin; which is not at all the same as to say that he enjoyed looking at them as objects of beauty. He lived in a world of his own, a world of ideas, and was strangely indifferent to much that other men found absorbing. He could get along without a daily newspaper, but not without a daily walk. He spent hours and hours of honest daylight in what looked for all the world like idleness; and he did it industriously and on principle. He was more anxious to live well — according to an inward standard of his own — than to lodge well, or to dress well, or to stand well with his townsmen. A good name, even, was relatively unimportant. He found easy sundry New Testament scriptures which the church would still be stumbling over, only that it has long since worn a smooth path round them.

He set a low value on money. It might be of service to him, he once confessed, underscoring the doubt, but in general he accepted poverty as the better part. “We are often reminded,” he said, “that if there were bestowed on us the wealth of Croesus, our aims must still be the same, and our means essentially the same.” Houses and lands, even, as he considered them, were often no better than incumbrances. Some of his well-to-do, highly respected, self-satisfied neighbors were as good as in prison, he thought. In what sense were men to be called free, if their “property” had put them under bonds to stay in such and such a place and do only such and such things? Life was more than meat, as he reckoned, and having trained himself to “strict business habits” (his own words), he did not believe in swapping a better thing for a poorer one. To him it was amazing that hard-headed, sensible men should stand at a desk the greater part of their days, and “glimmer and rust, and finally go out there.” “If they know anything,” he exclaimed, “what under the sun do they do that for?” He speaks as if the question were unanswerable; but no doubt many readers will find it easy enough, the only real difficulty being a deplorable scarcity of desks. For Thoreau’s part, at any rate, other men might save dollars if they would; he meant to save his soul. It should not glimmer and rust and go out, if a manly endeavor was good for anything. And he saved it. To the end he kept it alive; and though he died young, he lived a long life and did a long life’s work, and what is more to the present purpose, he left behind him a long memory.

His economies, which were so many and so rigorous, were worthy of a man. In kind, they were such as any man must practice who, having a task assigned him, is set upon doing it. If the river is to run the mill, it must contract itself. The law is general. To make sure of the best we must put away not only whatever is bad, but many things that of themselves are good, — a right hand, if need be, or a right eye, said one of old. For the artist, indeed, as for the saint, — for all seekers after perfection, that is, — the good and the best are often the most uncompromising of opposites, by no means to be entertained under the same roof. Manage it as we will, to receive one is to dismiss the other.

Rightly considered, Thoreau’s singularity consisted, not in his lodging in a cabin, nor in his wearing coarse clothes, nor in his non-observance of so-called social amenities, nor even in his passion for the wild, but in his view of the world and of his own place in it. He was a poet-naturalist, an idealist, an individualist, a transcendental philosopher, what you will; but first of all he was a prophet. “I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness,” he might have said; and the locusts and wild honey followed as things of course. It followed, also, that the fathers neglected him, — stoning having gone out of fashion, and the children garnish his sepulchre. A prophet is a very worthy person — after he is dead. Then come biographies, eulogies, and new editions of his works, including his journals and private letters. Fame is a plant that blossoms on graves; as a manual of such botany might say, “a late-flowering perennial, nowhere common, to be looked for in old cemeteries.”

A prophet, a writer, a student of nature: this was Thoreau, and the three were one.

He preached faith, simplicity, devotion to the ideal; and with all a prophet’s freedom he denounced everything antagonistic to these. He was not one of those nice people who are contented to speak handsomely of God and say nothing about the devil. It was not in his nature to halt between two opinions. He could always say yes or no — especially no. As was said of Pascal, there were no middle terms in his philosophy.

Withal, no man was more of a believer and less of a skeptic. Faith and hope, “infinite expectation,” were his daily breath. Charity was his, also, but less conspicuously, and after a pattern of his own, philanthropy, as he saw it practiced, being one of his prime aversions. He knew not the meaning of pessimism. The world was good. “I am grateful for what I am and have. My thanksgiving is perpetual.” To the final hour existence was a boon to him. “For joy I could embrace the earth,” he declared, though he seldom indulged himself in emotional expression; “I shall delight to be buried in it.” “It was not possible to be sad in his presence,” said his sister, ‘speaking of his last illness. His may have been “a solitary and critical way of living,” to quote Emerson’s careful phrase, but in his work there is little trace of anything morbid or unwholesome. Some who might hesitate to rank themselves among his disciples keep by them a copy of “Walden,” or the “Week,” to dip into for refreshment and invigoration when life runs low and desire begins to fail. Readers of this kind please him better, we may guess, if he knows of them, than those who skim his pages for the natural history and the scenery. Such is the fate of prophets. The fulminations and entreaties of Isaiah are now highly recommended as specimens of Oriental belles-lettres. Yet worse things may befall a man than to be partially appreciated. As Thoreau himself said: “It is the characteristic of great poems that they will yield of their sense in due proportion to the hasty and the deliberate reader. To the practical they will be common sense, and to the wise wisdom; as either the traveler may wet his lips, or an army may fill its water-casks at a full stream.” His own was hardly a “full stream,” perhaps; a mountain brook rather than one of the world’s rivers; clear, cold, running from the spring, untainted by the swamp; less majestic than the Amazons, but not less unfailing, and for those who can climb, and who know the taste of purity, infinitely sweeter to drink from.

Simplicity of life and devotion to the ideal, the one a means to the other, — these he would preach, in season and, if possible, out of season. “Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumb-nail.” This, which, after all, is nothing but the old doctrine of the one thing needful, — since it is one mark of a prophet that he deals not in novelties, but in truth, — all this spiritual economy is connected at the root with Thoreau’s belief in free will, his vital assurance that the nobility or meanness of a man’s life is committed largely to his own choice. He may waste it on the trivial, or spend it on the essential. There is “no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by a conscious endeavor.” And what a man is inwardly, that to him will the world be outwardly; his mood affects the very “quality of the day.” Could anything be truer or more finely suggested? For himself, Thoreau was determined to get the goodness out of time as it passed. He refused to be hurried. The hour was too precious. “If the bell rings, why should we run?” Neither would he knowingly take up with a second-best, or be put off with a sham, — as if there were nothing real. He would not “drive a nail into mere lath and plastering,” he declared. Such a deed would keep him awake nights. A very reasonable and practical kind of doctrine, certainly, whether it be called transcendentalism or common sense. Perhaps we discredit it with a long word by way of refusing the obligation it would lay us under.

And possibly it is for a similar reason that the world in general has agreed to regard Thoreau not as a preacher of righteousness, but as an interpreter of nature. For those who have settled down to take things as they are, having knocked under and gone with the stream, in Thoreau’s language, it is pleasanter to read of beds of water-lilies flashing open at sunrise, or of a squirrel’s pranks upon a bough, than of daily aspiration after an ideal excellence. Whatever the reason, Thoreau is to the many a man who lived out of doors, and wrote of outdoor things.

His attainments as a naturalist have been ‘by turns exaggerated and belittled, one extreme following naturally upon the other. As for the exaggeration, nothing else was to be expected, things being as they were. It is what happens in every such case. If a man knows some of the birds, his neighbors, who know none of them, celebrate him at once as an ornithologist. If he is reputed to “analyze” flowers, — pull them to pieces under a pocket-lens, and by means of a key find out their polysyllabic names, — he straightway becomes famous as a botanist; all of which is a little as if the ticket-seller and the grocer’s clerk should be hailed as financiers because of their facility in making change.

Thoreau knew his local fauna and flora after a method of his own, a method which, for lack of a better word, may be called sympathetic. Nobody was ever more successful in getting inside of a bird; and that, from his point of view and for his purpose, — and not less for ours who read him, — was the one important thing. After that it mattered little if some of his flying neighbors escaped his notice altogether, while others led him a vain chase year after year, and are still, in his published journals, a puzzle to readers. Who knows what his night warbler was, or, with certainty, his seringo bird? The latter, indeed, a native of his own Concord hay-fields, he seems to have been pretty well acquainted with as a bird; its song was familiar to him, and less frequently he caught sight of the singer itself perched upon a fence-post or threading its way through the grass; but he had found no means of ascertaining its name, and so was driven to the primitive expedient of christening it with an invention of his own. His description of its appearance and notes leaves us in no great doubt as to its identity; probably it was the savanna sparrow; but how completely in the dark he himself was upon this point may be gathered from an entry in his journal of 1854. He had gone to Nantucket, in late December, and there saw, running along the ruts, flocks of “a gray, bunting-like bird about the size of the snow-bunting. Can it be the seaside finch,” he asks, “or the savanna sparrow, or the shore lark?” Savanna sparrow, or shore lark! A Baldwin apple, or a russet! But what then? There are gaps in every scholar’s knowledge, and the man who has “named all the birds without a gun” is yet to be heard from. It is fair to remind ourselves, also, that Thoreau’s studies in this line were pursued under limitations and disadvantages to which the amateur of our later day is happily a stranger. Ornithologically, it is a long time since Thoreau’s death, though it is less than forty-five years.

If any be disposed to insist, as some have insisted, that he made no discoveries (he discovered a new way of writing about nature, for one thing), and was more curious than scientific in his spirit and method as an observer, it is perhaps sufficient to reply that lie cultivated his own field. From first to last he refused the claims of science, — whether rightly or wrongly is not here in question, — and with the exception of one or two brief essays wrote nothing directly upon natural history. He worshiped Nature, even while he played the spy upon her, fearing her enchantments and “looking at her with the side of his eye.” Run over the titles of his books: “A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers,” “Walden,” “The Maine Woods,” “Cape Cod,” “A Yankee in Canada,” “Excursions.” The first two are studies in high and plain living, — practical philosophy, spiritual economy, the right use of society and solitude, books and nature. The rest are narratives of travel, with a record of what the traveler saw and thought and felt. In “Excursions,” to be sure, there is an early paper on “The Natural History of Massachusetts,” to which, by straining a point, we may add one on “The Succession of Forest Trees,” another on “Autumnal Tints,” and still another on “Wild Apples.” Elsewhere, though the landscape is sure to be carefully studied, it is always a landscape with figures. In truth, while he wrote so much of outward nature, and so often seemed to find his fellow-mortals no better than intruders upon the scene, his real subject was man. “Man is all in all,” he says; “Nature nothing but as she draws him out and reflects him.” And again he said, “Any affecting human event may blind our eyes to natural objects.”

The latter sentence was written shortly after the death of John Brown, in whose fate Thoreau had been so completely absorbed that his old Concord world, when he came back to it, had almost a foreign look to him, and he remarked with a start of surprise that the little grebe was still diving in the river. With all his devotion to nature and philosophy, it was the “human event” that really concerned him. But of course he had ideas of his own as to what constituted an event. As for men’s so-called affairs, and all that passes current under the name of news, nothing could be less eventful; for all such things he could never sufficiently express his contempt. “In proportion as our inward life fails,” he says, “we go more constantly and desperately to the post-office.” And he adds, in that peculiarly airy manner of his to which one is tempted sometimes to apply the old Yankee adjective “toplofty,” “I would not run round the corner to see the world blow up.” After which, the reader whose bump of incuriosity is less highly developed may console himself by remembering that when a powder-mill blew up in the next town, Thoreau, hearing the noise, ran downstairs, jumped into a wagon, and drove post-haste to the scene of the disaster. So true is it that it is


“the most difficult of tasks to keep
Heights which the soul is competent to gain.”

Careful economist as Thoreau was, bravely as he trusted his own intuitions and kept to his own path, much as he preached simplicity and heroically as he practiced it, he shared the common lot and fell short of his own ideal. Life is never quite so simple as he attempted to make it, and he, like other men, was conscious of a divided mind. He had by nature a bias toward the investigation of natural phenomena, a passion for particulars, which, if he had been less a poet and philosopher, might have made him a man of science. He knew it, and was inwardly chafed by it. Perhaps it was because of this chafing that he fell into the habit of speaking so almost spitefully of science and scientific men. Not to lay stress upon his frequent paradoxes about the superiority of superstition to knowledge, the advantages of astrology over astronomy, the slight importance of precision in matters of detail (“I can afford to be inaccurate”), — to say nothing of these things, which, taken as they were meant, are not without a measure of truth, and with which no lover of Thoreau will be much disposed to quarrel (those who cannot abide the nudge of a paradox or an inch or two of exaggeration may as well let him alone), it is plain that in certain moods, especially in his later years, his own semi-scientific researches were felt to be a hindrance to the play of his higher faculties. “It is impossible for the same person to see things from the poet’s point of view and that of the man of science,” he writes in 1842. “Man cannot afford to be a naturalist,” he says again, in 1853. “I feel that I am dissipated by so many observations. . . . Oh, for a little Lethe!” And a week afterward he falls into the same strain, in a tone of reminiscence that is of the very rarest with him. “Ah, those youthful days,” he breaks out, “are they never to return? when the walker does not too enviously observe particulars, but sees, hears, scents, tastes, and feels only himself, the phenomena that showed themselves in him, his expanding body, his intellect and heart. No worm or insect, quadruped or bird, confined his view, but the unbounded universe was his. A bird has now become a mote in his eye.” What devotee of natural science, if he be also a man of sensibility and imagination, does not feel the sincerity of this cry?

But having delivered himself thus passionately, what does the diarist set down next? Without a break he goes on: “Dug into what I take to be a woodchuck’s burrow in the low knoll below the cliffs. It was in the side of the hill, and sloped gently downward at first diagonally into the hill about five feet, perhaps westerly, then turned and ran north about three feet, then northwest further into the hill four feet, then north again four feet, then northeast I know not how far, the last five feet, perhaps, ascending,” with as much more of the same tenor and equally detailed. A laughable paragraph, surely, to follow a lainent over a too envious observation of particulars; with its “perhaps” four times repeated, its five feet westerly, three feet northerly, and so on, like a conveyancer’s description of a wood-lot: and all about a hole in the ground, which he “took to be” a woodchuck’s burrow!

In vain shall a man bestir himself to run away from his own instincts. In vain, in such a warfare, shall he trust to the freedom of the will. Happily for himself, and happily for the world, Thoreau, though he “could not afford to be a naturalist,” could never cease from his “too envious observation.”

By inclination and habit he liked to see and do things for himself, as if they had never been seen or done before. That was one mark of his individualistic temper, not to say a chief mark of his genius. He describes in his journal an experiment in making sugar from the sap of red maple trees. Here, too, he goes into the minutest details, not omitting the size of the holes he bored and the frequency with which the drops fell, — about as fast as his pulsebeat. His father, he mentions (the son was then forty years old), chided him for wasting his time. There was no occasion for the experiment, the father thought; it was well known that the thing could be done; and as for the sugar, it could be bought cheaper at the village shop. “He said it took me from my studies,” the journal records. “I said that I made it my study, and felt as if I had been to a university.” If fault-finding is in order, an individualist prefers to administer it on his own account. One remembers Thoreau’s characteristic declaration that he had never received the first word of valuable counsel from any of his elders. In the present instance, surely, as much as this must be said for him, -- that by habits of this unpractical-seeming kind knowledge is made peculiarly one’s own, and, old or new, keeps something of the freshness of discovery upon it. The critic may smile, but even he will not dispute the charm of writing done in such a spirit, — the very spirit in which the old books were written, in the childhood of the world.

Even the edibility of white-oak acorns affected Thoreau, at the age of forty, as a new fact. So far as his feeling about it was concerned, the fruit might have been that morning created. “The whole world is sweeter” to him for having “discovered” it. “To have found two Indian gouges and tasted sweet acorns, is it not enough for one afternoon?” he asks himself. And the next day, shrewd economist and exaggerator that he is, he tries his new dainty again, and behold, a second discovery: the acorns “appear to dry sweet!” One need not be a critic, but only a homely-witted, country-bred Yankee, to smile at this. But indeed, it is a relief to be able to smile now and then at one who held himself so high and aloof, — “a Switzer on the edge of the glacier,” as he called himself; who found no wisdom too lofty for him, no companionship quite lofty enough; and who, in his longing for something better than the best, could exclaim, “Give me a sentence which no intelligence can understand.” Not that we feel any diminution of our respect or affection; but it pleases us to have met our Switzer for once on something near our own level. In an author, as in a friend, an amiable weakness, if there be strength enough behind it, is only another point of attraction.

As a writer, Thoreau is by himself. There are no other books like “Walden” and the “Week.” The reader may like them or leave them (unless he is pretty sure of himself, he may be advised to try “Walden” first), he will find nowhere else the same combination of pure nature and austere philosophy. It is hard even to see with what to compare them, or to conceive of any one else as having written them. If Marcus Aurelius, with half his sweetness of temper eliminated, and something of sharpness, together with liberal measures of cool intellectuality, injected, could have been united with Gilbert White, rather less radically transformed, and if the resultant complex person had made it his business to write, we can perhaps imagine that his work would not have been in all respects unlike that of the sage of Walden; in saying which we have but taken a circuitous course back to our former position, that Thoreau was a man of his own kind.

He was an author from the beginning. Of that, as he said himself, he was never in doubt. His ceaseless observation of nature — which some have decried as lacking purpose and method — and his daily journal were deliberately chosen means to that end. “Here have I been these forty years learning the language of these fields that I may the better express myself.” That was what he aimed at, let his subject be what it might, — to express himself.

Few writers have ever treated their work more seriously, or studied their art more industriously. He talked sometimes, to be sure, as if there were no art about it. To listen to him in such a mood, one might suppose that the fact and the thought were the only things to be considered, and that language followed of itself. Such was neither his belief nor his practice. But he was one of the fortunate ones who by taking pains can produce an effect of easiness; who can recast and recast a sentence, and in the end leave it looking as if it had dropped from a running pen. One of the fortunates, we say; for an air of innocent unconsciousness is as becoming in a sentence as in a face.

On this point a useful study in contrasts might be made between Thoreau and a man who gladly acknowledged him as one of his masters. “Upon me,” says Robert Louis Stevenson, “this pure, narrow, sunnily ascetic Thoreau had exercised a great charm. I have scarce written ten sentences since I was introduced to him, but his influence might be somewhere detected by a close observer.” The observer would need to be very close indeed, the majority of Stevensonians will think, but that, true or false, is nothing to the purpose here. Stevenson and Thoreau both made writing a lifelong study, and with exceedingly diverse results. The Scotchman’s style is the finer, but then it is sometimes in danger of becoming superfine. We may not wish it different. Such work must be as it is. It could hardly be better without being worse, the writing of fine prose being always a question of compromises, a gain here for a loss there, a choice of imperfections; perfect prose being in fact impossible, except in the briefest snatches. But surely Stevenson’s gift was not an absolute naturalness and transparency, such as lets the thought show through on the instant, and leaves the beauty of the verbal medium to catch the attention afterward, if the reader will. “For love of lovely words,” an artist of Stevenson’s temperament, however sound his theories, may sometimes find it hard to make a righteous choice between the music of an exquisite cadence and the pure expressiveness of a- halting phrase. The author of “Walden” had his literary temptations, but not of this kind. Let the phrase halt, so long as it expressed a sturdy truth in sturdy fashion. As for that homely quality — “careless country talk” — which Thoreau prayed for, and in good measure received, it is questionable whether Stevenson ever sought it, though he would no doubt have assented to Thoreau’s words: “Homeliness is almost as great a merit in a book as in a house, if the reader would abide there. It is next to beauty, and a very high art.”

Thoreau, indeed, first as a spiritual economist, and next as an artist, had a natural relish for the common and the plain. Every landscape that was dreary enough, as he says of Cape Cod, had a certain beauty in his eyes. Whether in literature or in life, he preferred the beauty that is inherent, — the beauty of the thing itself. Ornament, beauty laid on, did not much attract him. Among persons, it was the wilder-seeming, the less tamed and cultivated, with whom he liked to converse, and whose sayings he oftenest recorded. Though they might be crabbed specimens, “run all to thorn and rind, and crowded out of shape by adverse circumstances, like the third chestnut in the burr,” they were still what nature had made them. Even a crowd pleased him, if it was composed of the right materials, — that is to say, if it was rude enough. Thus he, a hermit, took pleasure in the autumnal cattle-show. With what a touch of affection he lays on the colors! “The wind goes hurrying down the country, gleaning every loose straw that is left in the fields, while every farmer lad, too, appears to scud before it, — having donned his best pea -jacket and pepper-and-salt waistcoat, his unbent trousers, outstanding rigging of duck, or kerseymere, or corduroy, and his furry hat withal, — to country fairs and cattle-shows, to that Rome among the villages where the treasures of the year are gathered. All the land over they go leaping the fences with their tough, idle palms, which have never learned to hang by their sides, amid the low of calves and the bleating of sheep, — Amos, Abner, Elnathan, Elbridge, —

‘From steep pine-bearing mountains to the plain.’

I love these sons of earth, every mother’s son of them.” It is worth while to see the country’s people, he thinks, and even the “supple vagabond,” who is “sure to appear on the least rumor of such a gathering, and the next day to disappear, and go into his hole like the seventeen-year locust.”

For the average (uninitiated) reader, be it said, there is nothing better in Thoreau than his thumb-nail sketches of humble, every-day humanity; as there is no part of his work, not even his denunciation of worldly conformity, or his picturing of nature’s moods, which is done with more absolute good-will. A man need not be an idealist, a naturalist, or anything else out of the ordinary, to like the Canadian woodchopper, for example, cousin to the pine and the rock, who never was tired in his life, and, stranger still, sometimes acted as if he were “thinking for himself and expressing his own opinions;” or the old fisherman, always haunting the river in serene afternoons, and “almost rustling with the sedge;” or the Cape Cod wrecker, whose face was “like an old sail endowed with life,” — one of the Pilgrims, perhaps, who had “kept on the back side of the Cape and let the centuries go by;” or the free-spoken Wellfleet oysterman, “a poor good-for-nothing crittur,” now “under petticoat government,” who yet remembered George Washington as a r-a-ther large and portly-looking man, with a pretty good leg as he sat on his horse;” or the iron-jawed Nauset woman, who seemed to be shouting at you through a breaker, and who looked “as if it made her head ache to live;” or the country soldier boy on his way to muster, in full regimentals, with shouldered musket and military step, who in a lonely place in the woods is suddenly abashed at the sight of a stranger approaching, and finds himself hard put to it to get by in anything like military order.

With men like these, natural men, Thoreau found himself at home; he described them almost as sympathetically as if they had been so many woodchucks or hen-hawks. As he said of his own boyhood, they were “part and parcel of nature” itself. As for fine manners parading about in fine clothes, how should he, a rustic jealous of his rusticity, presume to know what, if anything, might be going on under all that broadcloth? Reality was the chief of his ideals. The shabbiest of it was more to the purpose than a masquerade.

Whether it would have been better for him had his taste been more liberal in this respect is a question about which it might be useless to speculate. Breadth may easily be sought at too great an expense, especially by one who has a distinct and highly individual work to accomplish. First of all, such a man must be himself. His imperfections, even, must be of his own kind, twin-born with his better qualities, a certain lack of complaisance being one of the likeliest and, in the strict sense, most appropriate. But that some of Thoreau’s private and hasty remarks, in his letters and journals, about the meanness of his fellow-creatures, the more “respectable” among them, especially, might profitably have been left unprinted, is less open to doubt. They were expressions of moods rather than of convictions, it is fair to assume, and in any event would never have been printed by their author, one of whose cravings was for some kind of india-rubber that would rub out at once all which it cost him so many perusals and so much reluctance to erase. It is pretty hard justice that holds a man publicly to everything he scribbles in private, — as if no allowance were to be made for whim and the provocation of the moment. The charm of a journal, as Thoreau says, consists in a “certain greenness.” It is “a record of experiences and growth, not a preserve of things well done or said.” After which it may be confessed that even from “Walden” and the “Week,” published in the author’s lifetime, it is possible to discover that charity and sweetness were not among his most distinguishing characteristics. Taste him after Gilbert White, and contrast the mellowness of the one with the sharp, assertive, acidulous quality of the other. Thoreau was a wild apple, and would have been proud of the name, suggestive of that “tang and smack” which he so feelingly celebrated. “Nonesuches” and “seek-no-furthers” were very tame and forgettable, he thought, as compared with the wildings, even the acrid and the puckery among which he begrudged to the cider-mill. It is in part this very “tang and smack,” we may be sure, that makes his books keep so well in Time’s literary cellar.

His humor, especially, “indispensable pledge of sanity,” as he calls it, is of that best of fruity flavors, a pleasant sour. Some, indeed, emulating his own fertility in paradox, have maintained that he had no humor, while others have rebuked him for priggishly excluding it from his later work. Did such critics never read “Cape Cod”? There, surely, Thoreau gave his natural drollery full play, — an almost antinomian liberty, to take a word out of those ecclesiastical histories, with the reading of which, under his umbrella, he so patiently enlivened his sandy march from Orleans to Provincetown. “As I sat on a hill one sultry Sunday afternoon,” he says, “the meeting-house windows being open, my meditations were interrupted by the noise of a preacher who shouted like a boatswain, profaning the quiet atmosphere, and who, I fancied, must have taken off his coat. Few things could have been more disgusting or disheartening. I wished the tithing-man would stop him.” Charles Lamb himself could hardly have bettered the delicious, biting absurdity of that final touch. It was not this Boanergian minister, but a man of an earlier generation, of whom we are told that he wrote a Body of Divinity, “a book frequently sneered at, particularly by those who have read it.”

The whole Cape, past and present, was looked at half quizzically by its inland visitor. The very houses “seemed, like mariners ashore, to have sat right down to enjoy the firmness of the land, without studying their postures or habiliments,” — a description not to be fully appreciated except by those who have seen a Cape Cod village, with its buildings dropped here and there at haphazard upon the sand. Here, as everywhere, he was hungry for particulars; now improvising a rude quadrant with which to calculate the height of the bank at Highland Light, now, by ingenious but “not impertinent” questions, and for his private satisfaction only, getting at the contents of a schoolboy’s dinner-pail, — the homeliest facts being always “the most acceptable to an inquiring mind.” Thoreau’s mother, by-the-bye, had some reputation as a gossip.

His work, humorous or serious, transcendental or matter-of-fact, is all the fruit of his own tree. Whatever its theme, nature or man, it is all of one spirit. Think what you will of it, it is never insipid. As his friend Channing said, it has its “stoical merits,” its “uncomfortableness.” Well might its author express his sympathy with the barberry bush, whose business is to ripen its fruit, not to sweeten it, — and to protect it with thorns. “Seek the lotus, and take a draught of rapture,” was Margaret Fuller’s rather high-flown advice to him; yet she too perceived that his mind was “not a soil for the citron and the rose, but for the whortleberry, the pine, or the heather.” In all his books it would be next to impossible to find a pretty phrase or a sentimental one. He resorted to nature — in his less inquisitive hours — for the mood into which it put him, the invigoration, the serenity, the mental activity it communicated. But his pleasure in it, as compared with Wordsworth’s or Hazlitt’s, to take very dissimilar examples, was mostly an intellectual affair, the reader is tempted to say, though the remark needs qualification. One remembers such a passage as that descriptive of a winter twilight in Yellow Birch Swamp, where the gleams of the birches, as he came to one after another of them, “each time made his heart beat faster.” Yet even here we are told of his ecstasy rather than made to feel it; and in general, surely, though he valued his emotions, and went to the woods and fields to enjoy them, they were such emotions as belonged to a pretty stoical sort of Epicurean; less rapturous than Words-worth’s, less tender than Hazlitt’s, and with no trace of the brooding melancholy which makes the charm of books like Obermann and the journal of Amiel. He delighted in artless country music (it does not appear that he ever heard any other, and of course he felicitated himself upon this as upon all the rest of his poverty; it was only the depraved ear, he thought, that needed the opera), but let any reader try to imagine him writing this bit out of one of Hazlitt’s essays: 

“I remember once strolling along the margin of a stream, skirted with willows and plashy sedges, in one of those low, sheltered valleys on Salisbury Plain, where the monks of former ages had planted chapels and built hermits’ cells. There was a little parish church near, but tall elms and quivering alders hid it from sight, when, all of a sudden, I was startled by the sound of the full organ pealing on the ear, accompanied by rustic voices and the willing quire of village maids and children. It rose, indeed, ‘like an exhalation of rich distilled perfumes.’ The dew from a thousand pastures was gathered in its softness; the silence of a thousand years spoke in it. It came upon the heart like the calm beauty of death; fancy caught the sound, and faith mounted on it to the skies. It filled the valley like a mist, and still poured out its endless chant, and still it swells upon the ear, and wraps me in a golden trance, drowning the noisy tumult of the world!”

Here is another spirit than Thoreau’s, another voice, another kind of prose — prose with the throb and even the accent of poetry. Stoics and spiritual economists do not write in this strain, nor is this the manner of a too envious observer of particulars. For better or worse, the prose of our poet-naturalist went squarely on its feet. His fancy might be never so nimble; conceit and paradox might fairly make a cloud about him; but he essayed no flights. If his heart beat faster at some beauty of sight or sound, he said so quietly, with no change of voice, and passed on. As far as the mere writing went, it was done in straightforward, honest fashion, as if a man rather than an author held the pen.

Thoreau believed in well-packed sentences, each carrying its own weight, expressive of its own thought, rememberable and quotable. Of the beauties of a flowing style he had heard something too much. In practice, nevertheless, whether through design or by some natural felicity, he steered a middle course. The sentences might be complete in themselves, detachable, able to stand alone, but the paragraph never lacked a logical and even a formal cohesion. It was not a collection of “infinitely repellent particles,” nor even a “basket of nuts.” A great share of the writer’s art, as he taught it, lay in leaving out the unessential, — the getting in of the essential having first been taken for granted. As for readers, in his more exalted moods he wished to write so well that there would be few to appreciate him; sometimes, indeed, he seemed to desire no readers at all. He speaks with stern disapproval of such as trouble themselves upon that point, and “would fain have one reader before they die.” A lamentable weakness, truly.

In his present estate, however, let us hope that he carries himself a shade less haughtily, and is not above an innocent pleasure in the spread of his earthly fame, in new readers and new editions, and such choicely limited popularity as befits a classic. Even in his lifetime, as Emerson tells the story, he once tried to believe that something in his lecture might interest a little girl who told him she was going to hear it if it wasn’t to be one of those old philosophical things that she did n’t care about; and this although he had just been maintaining, characteristically, that whatever succeeded with an audience must be bad. He speaks somewhere against luxurious books, with superfluous paper and marginal embellishments. His taste was Spartan in those days. But he was never a stickler for consistency, and we may indulge a comfortable assurance that he takes no offense now at the sight of his Cape Cod journey — in which he worked so hard on that soft, leg-tiring Back-Side beach to get the ocean into him — decked out in colors and set forth sumptuously in two volumes. It is a very modest author who fears that his text will be outshone by any pictures, no matter how splendid. But who would have thought it, fifty years ago, — a book by the hermit of Walden in an édition de luxe, to lie on parlor tables! If only his father and his brother John could have seen it!

Thoreau believed in himself and in the soundness of his work. He coveted readers, and believed that he should have them. Without question he wrote for the future, and foresaw himself safe from oblivion. Emerson regretted Henry’s want of ambition, we are told. He might have spared himself. “Show me a man who consults his genius,” said Thoreau, “and you have shown me a man who cannot be advised.” And he was the man. He was following an ambition of his own. If he did not keep step with his companions, it was because he “heard a different drummer.” His ambition, and what seemed his wayward singularity, have been justified by the event. His “strange, self-centred, solitary figure, unique in the annals of literature,” is in no danger of being forgotten. But what is most cheering about his present increasing vogue, especially in England, is that it arises from the very quality that Thoreau himself most prized, the innermost thing in him, — the loftiness and purity of his thought. Simplicity, faith, devotion to the essential and the permanent, — these were never more needed than now. These he taught, and, by a happy fate, he linked them with those natural themes that change not with time, and so can never become obsolete.


Book Chapter Logo Click the book image to turn to the next Chapter.