Sketch of Henry D. Thoreau

By Daniel Ricketson

THOREAU

It was my good fortune to know Henry D. Thoreau as a friend and correspondent during the last eight years of his life. I had been attracted by his fresh and manly thoughts as recorded in Walden, and sought his acquaintance by writing him an appreciative letter, and inviting him to visit me. My first interview with him was so peculiar that I will venture to state it. The season was winter, a snow had lately fallen, and I was engaged in shovelling the accumulated mass from the entrance to my house, when I perceived a man walking towards me bearing an umbrella in one hand and a leather travelling-bag in the other —   So unlike my ideal Thoreau, whom I had fancied, from the robust nature of his mind and habits of life, to be a man of unusual vigor and size, that I did not suspect, although I had expected him in the morning, that the slight, quaint-looking person before me was the Walden philosopher. There are few persons who had previously read his works that were not disappointed by his personal appearance. As he came near to me I gave him the usual salutation, and supposing him to be either a pedler or some way-traveller, he at once remarked, "You don't know me." The truth flashed on my mind, and concealing my own surprise I at once took him by the hand and led him to the room already prepared for him, feeling a kind of disappointment —  a disappointment, however, which soon passed off, and never again obtruded itself to the philosopher's disadvantage. In fact, I soon began to see that Nature had dealt kindly by him, and that this apparently slender personage was physically capable of enduring far more than the ordinary class of men, although he had then begun to show signs of failure of strength in his knees.

D. R.

HENRY D. THOREAU

The names of Thoreau and Emerson are not properly placed together on account of any great similarity in the character of the two men; yet from some cause, probably from their being fellow-townsmen more than any other, they are in many minds associated as of the same class. Although Thoreau was many years younger than Emerson, his mindwas equally as mature, and I place his name first out of respect to the dead. While Emerson is the product of New England institutions, the ripest fruit and the best specimen, perhaps, Thoreau is one of those remarkable instances of wisdom and philosophy that grow out, as it were, of the order of nature, and may be born in any age or nation. They who drink at the fountain-head of knowledge and truth need not the artificial training of the schools. Still Henry Thoreau had the best advantages of New England in his education. He was a graduate of  Harvard College, a good classical scholar, well versed in the mathematics, had been a teacher of youth, and a land surveyor in his own town, which brought him into an intimate acquaintance with the topography of the surrounding country.

He was an excellent naturalist, particularly in his knowledge of plants and birds. In fact, nothing escaped his notice or interest. He was, indeed, a most consummate observer and recorder of the works of nature and the ways of men.

It was my privilege to know him during the last eight years of his life, when in the full maturity of his powers. The relationship between Thoreau and his most intimate friends was not that of great warmth of affection, but rather of respect for manly virtues. If affection were wanting, a strong and abiding attachment took its place, and his friendship was one not liable to the usual ruptions of more ardent and emotional minds.

He was in its strictest sense a good man, sternly virtuous and temperate in all his habits; in fact, one who did not know how little he valued the ordinary manifestations of religion would have said that he was a real Christian, indeed a Bishop of the Church could not have comported himself with more dignity or propriety of conduct than he. His tastes and pursuits were all of a manly character. The morning hours were usually devoted to study or writing, and the afternoon to walking, or boating on his favorite river, the Musketaquid or Concord, with an occasional pedestrian tour to the mountains or Cape Cod, many of his experiences in which are recorded in his published works. Many a long ramble have I taken with him, and although I am a pretty good walker, he usually quite fatigued me before he had accomplished his object, perhaps the pursuit of some rare plant. In a boat of his own construction I have sailed with him up and down the slow gliding Concord River, and found him a good boatman, both in sailing and sculling. Once, during a winter visit to him, we took a tramp through the snow to White Pond, some two or three miles beyond Walden, then surrounded by heavy wood, and frequented by huntsmen. He was fond of hardy enterprises, and few of his companions could compete with him. In fact I have heard that he quite tired out an Indian guide, on one o£ his excursions in Maine. I do not remember of ever seeing him laugh outright, but he was ever ready to smile at anything that pleased him; and I never knew him to betray any tender emotion except on one occasion, when he was narrating to me the death of his only brother, John Thoreau, from lockjaw, strong symptoms of which, from his sympathy with the sufferer, he himself experienced. At this time his voice was choked, and he shed tears, and went to the door for air. The subject was of course dropped, and never recurred to again.

In person he was rather below the medium stature, though not decidedly short, —  of rather slender than robust habit of body, and marked for his drooping shoulders. Still he was vigorous and active, and when in good health could perform a good deal of physical labor. His head was of medium size, but well formed according to the rules of phrenology, —  his brow was full, and his forehead rather broad than prominent; his eyes grayish blue, his nose long and aquiline, and his hair inclined to sandy. When interested in conversation, and standing, he had a decidedly dignified bearing.

At first Thoreau was far from being understood by the public; a few there were, and but a few, who accepted him; he lived, however, long enough to create a public for himself, and if not among the most scholarly, at least it comprised the more thoughtful portion of the reading class of our people. I never heard him lecture or speak in public, but I believe he was not generally successful except, perhaps, in his more private readings. His thoughts were often too subtle to be readily interpreted, requiring a deliberate reading to fully understand them. He won for himself a name and fame, which had before his death reached the other side of the water, where his works are by a chosen few still known and cherished. Among those from abroad who sought him out was the late Thomas Cholmondeley, Esq., an Oxford graduate, and a gentleman of rare culture and polished manners. In order to see more of Thoreau he became an inmate of his family for several weeks, and on his return to England sent over as a present to Thoreau a valuable collection of oriental works. I had the pleasure of having this worthy gentleman and my friend Thoreau on a visit of a few days, during which time I formed a high respect for his truly noble and Christian qualities of heart. He married a lady of rank, and died on his marriage tour in Italy. He was, I believe, a nephew of the good and highly respected Bishop Heber.

About three years before his death, Thoreau began to complain of weakness in his knees, which in a good degree he recovered from; but soon after, the disease of which he died, that of the lungs, manifested itself by general increased weakness and a cough. He still kept about his pursuits as usual, and during the summer of 1861, the last one he saw, he made me a visit at New Bedford, and though suffering by night and by day with his troublesome cough, was able to ride about the country and by the seashore, as well as to take short rambles for his favorite plants, or in search of those not found in his own vicinity of Concord.

The following is a list of the plants he found at this time, August, 1861, which before he had not seen: —

Malva Sylvestris, Spartina Juncea, Teucrium Canadense, Chenopodina Maritima, Obione Arenaria,  Proserpinaca Pectinacea, Linum Virginianum, Aster Spectabilis, and an undescribed species of Lactuca.

As well as Thoreau wrote, only those whose privilege it was to listen to one of his long discursive  conversations by the evening fireside know how full of interest and instruction he made the subject of his disquisition, apparently enjoying himself as much as interesting his hearers. Judging from my own  relationship with him, I would say that he won rather the respect and admiration of his friends than their love. He was so superior to almost all other men that he inspired a certain amount of awe. " Why,"  said his eccentric friend, C— , in his own peculiar manner, which of course implied no irreverence, "Thoreau is a god!" Whether a god or saint it matters not, he was, in almost every walk of life that makes a man honored and respected by his friends, a rare example. As a son and brother he was much beloved, in temperance and frugality an example worthy of following; and though no politician he was by no means an uninterested looker-on of the state of affairs in ours as well as other countries. Few men in any age of the world have more fully rounded their lives than he.

If he had any fault, it was that he was too true  to nature and himself to become a decided Christian; but in most that is excellent in Christianity he possessed a large share, and I am too much a believer in the doctrine of the light within not to recognize the divine unction in the soul even if the form of sound  words be wanting. But it was in the closing scenes of his life, and when confined to his room and bed,  that this truly good and brave man showed the depth and power of divine wisdom in his soul, giving him strength in his weakness, and making the sick-room and the chamber of death resplendent in beauty and hopefulness.

His inquisitive mind still found an interest in the change he was experiencing, and regarding death to be as natural as life, he accepted it with gracefulness, and investigated its approach with more than philosophic composure.

As a writer Thoreau was sententious rather than graceful or elegant; his style was his own, and well  adapted to his subject-matter. Originality perhaps more than other quality marked his thought; yet at times he uttered old truths in a new dress so well adapted to his object of conveying practical ideas,  that they have the charm of novelty, and are calculated to edify the attentive reader. More than any  writer perhaps of his time does he require a careful reading to fully arrive at the pith of his matter, which is often marked by a subtlety that he appears to have chosen to conceal a too glaring expression of his meaning. He could, however, at will execute his thought in the most graceful and poetic manner, and a judicious selection of these passages from his works would form a volume of remarkable beauty. He was a voluminous writer; and although since his death several volumes have been added to his former works, it is probable that a large amount of manuscript yet remains.

During his lifetime, he was known to the public by his "Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers"  and "Walden, or Life in the Woods;" the former published in 1849 and the latter in 1854.

The titles of these books give but a faint idea of their contents, for both are full of thought and observation upon man and nature, and are rather works of philosophy than simple narratives, as their names might suggest.

Although the life of Thoreau was mostly within himself, or rather with the company he entertained  there, as he would probably have expressed it, still few men have found a keener relish for innocent out of door amusements than he. His boat, his spy-glass, and staff, though he rarely used the latter about home, comprised his equipage. So thoroughly had he learned the characteristics of his own neighborhood for miles around, that he probably knew more about its history, than the proprietors themselves, even as to boundaries and titles tracing back to the days of the native Indians.

Few men have accomplished more than our late friend, or lived to better purpose.

Peace to his memory.

D.R.


Source: Daniel Ricketson and His Friends: Letters, Poems, Sketches, Etc. edited by his daughter and son, Anna and Walton Ricketson (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1902) pp. 11-19