From: The Life of Henry David Thoreau (1890)
Author: Henry S. Salt
Published: Richard Bentley & Son 1890 London


IT is observable that in each phase of civilized society the excess of any particular tendency is often redressed and relieved by some counteracting and admonitory manifestation, which, by emphasizing such principles as are in danger of being undervalued or forgotten, serves to restore a just balance, and to secure a full and healthy, instead of a partial development. As, in Hindoo mythology, the legendary Avatar descends to set right the moral and physical disorders which disturb the world, so, in the actual history of social progress, we trace the action of this compensatory process. The natural hedonism of the Greeks is reproved by the Stoic philosophy, the pragmatical Pharisaism of the Jews by the mystic quietism of the Essenes, the enervating luxury of the Roman empire by the stern asceticism of the Anchorites, the tyranny of medieval Catholicism by the freedom of the Renaissance.

  Of the various perils which beset the path of our modern civilisation, none, perhaps, are more subtle and dangerous than those which may be summed up under the term artificiality. As life becomes more complex, and men of culture are withdrawn farther and farther from touch with wild nature, there is a corresponding sacrifice of hardihood and independence—there is less intellectual individuality, less mastery over circumstance, less rigid probity of conduct and candour of speaking, less faith in one’s self and in the leading of one’s destiny. These are doubtless but incidental disadvantages, outweighed by the general improvement in the condition of the race; yet they are serious enough to demand thoughtful recognition, and to make us welcome any signs of a contrary and corrective tendency. The enormous increase which the present age has witnessed in material wealth and mechanical invention has accentuated both the magnitude of the evil and the necessity of relieving it. Three-quarters of a century ago, it might have occurred to those who were living on the threshold of the new era, and who foresaw (as some must have foreseen) the coming rush of civilisation, with its fretful hurry and bustle of innumerable distractions, to wonder whether the prevailing malady would once again work out its own reformation. Must society ever be divorced from simplicity? Must intellect and wildness be incompatible? Must we lose in the deterioration of the physical senses what we gain in mental culture? Must perfect communion with Nature be impossible? Or would there be another compensatory movement, which should produce a man capable of showing us in his own character—whatever its shortcomings and limitations—that it is still possible and profitable to live, as the Stoics strove to live, in accordance with Nature, with absolute serenity and self-possession; to follow out one’s own ideal, in spite of every obstacle, with unfaltering devotion; and so to simplify one’s life, and clarify one’s senses, as to master many of the inner secrets of that book of Nature which to most men remains unintelligible, unopened, and unread. Such anticipation—if we may imagine it to have been entertained—was amply fulfilled in the life and character of Henry David Thoreau.

  In the year 1823 there was living in the village of Concord, Massachusetts, with his wife and four children, one John Thoreau, a pencil-maker by employment, whose father, a younger son in a well-to-do Jersey family of French extraction, emigrated from St. Helier to New England in 1773, married a Scotch wife, established a mercantile business in Boston, and died at Concord in 1801. John Thoreau, who at the time of which I speak was thirty-six years old, had begun life as a merchant, but having failed in business and lost whatever property he inherited from his father, he had recently turned his attention to pencil-making, a trade which had been introduced into Concord some ten or twelve years earlier, from which he not only derived a competent livelihood, but gained distinction by the excellence of his workmanship. He is described by those who knew him as a small, quiet, plodding, unobtrusive man, occupying himself for the most part in his own business, though he could be friendly and sociable when occasion invited. His wife, on the other hand, whose maiden name was Cynthia Dunbar,1 was wholly different in character, being remarkable, like the other members of her family, for her shrewd keen humour and intellectual sprightliness; she was tall, handsome, quick-witted; fond of dress and fond of gossip, though kindly and affectionate at heart; she had a good voice and sang well, and often monopolised the conversation by her unfailing flow of talk.

  Henry David Thoreau, the third child of these parents, was born at Concord 12th July 1817, in a quaint, old-fashioned house on the Virginia Road, surrounded by pleasant orchards and peat-meadows, and close to an extensive tract known as “Bedford levels.” In this house, the home of his grandmother, Mrs. Minott, he lived for eight months, then for another period of the same length in a house on the Lexington Road, on the outskirts of the village. In 1818 his parents left Concord for five years, and lived first at Chelmsford, a town ten miles distant, and afterwards at Boston, where Henry first went to school. But as their business did not prosper in either place, the family returned in 1823 to Concord, which thenceforth continued to be their home. They little thought, however, that the name of Concord and the name of Thoreau were destined in later years to be so intimately and inseparably associated.

  This village of Concord, which lies twenty miles to the north-west of Boston, and must be distinguished from the capital of New Hampshire, which bears the same name, was at the time of Henry Thoreau’s boyhood the centre of a scattered township of about two thousand inhabitants. Under the name of Musketaquid it had been an ancient settlement of the Indians, its attraction, in earlier as in later ages, consisting in the rich meadows which border the Musketaquid, or “Grass-ground” river. “When I walk in the fields of Concord,” so Thoreau afterwards wrote in his diary, “I forget that this which is now Concord was once Musketaquid. Everywhere in the fields, in the corn and grain land, the earth is strewn with the relics of a race which has vanished as completely as if trodden in with the earth. Wherever I go I tread in the tracks of the Indian.” In 1635 the district was purchased from the Indians by the Massachusetts colony, which there made its first inland plantation; and it was from the peaceful settlement then effected that the place received its name of Concord. At the beginning of the present century Concord, though not yet associated with any of the great literary names which have since made it famous, was not unknown to the world; for there, in 1775, had been struck the first blow for American independence, when the English troops, after some desultory fighting, were repulsed by the “rebel” farmers. Lafayette visited Concord in 1824, and the following year, half a century after the battle, there was a celebration of that event, at which Henry Thoreau, then a child of seven, is said to have been present.

  The inhabitants of Concord were mostly agriculturists,—sturdy farmers, living in comfortable old-fashioned homesteads; but there was a considerable sprinkling also of mechanics and men of business; and as the town lay on the high-road between the uplands of New Hampshire and the port of Boston, it was to some extent a centre of trade; it was also at that time one of the places appointed for the holding of the county assizes. A frank and natural equality was one of the traditional characteristics of Concord society, extreme wealth and extreme poverty being alike rare; so that its citizens, a plain and frugal folk, quite unostentatious in their manners and mode of life, yet prizing literature and learning, were saved from the evils of either—luxury or destitution; while the well-known Concord families—the Hosmers and Barretts and Heywoods—preserved and handed on from generation to generation their sterling hereditary qualities. The two leading personages at Concord at the time of Henry Thoreau’s birth, and for many years afterwards, were Dr. Ripley, the Unitarian pastor of the village, who lived in the “old Manse” which Hawthorne subsequently inhabited, and Samuel Hoar, a man of senatorial rank, who exemplified in his character some of the best New England qualities of dignity, justice, and simplicity. Dr. Ripley, quaint, humorous, and patriarchal, was minister at Concord for over half a century, and was regarded by his parishioners as a friend and teacher to whom they could look for advice and assistance in all matters that concerned them, temporal no less than spiritual. Henry Thoreau was one of the many Concord children who had been baptized by him into the Unitarian Church, and in whose welfare the kindly pastor continued to take an affectionate interest.

  The dominant features of the natural scenery of Concord are its waters and its woods; it is described by Ellery Channing as “a village surrounded by tracts of woodland and meadows, abounding in convenient yet retired paths for walking.” The two rivers of Concord, the slow-flowing Musketaquid and the swifter Assabet, which meet close to the north of the village, have been immortalised both by Hawthorne and Thoreau. “The sluggish artery of the Concord meadows,” says the latter, “steals thus unobserved through the town, without a murmur or a pulse-beat, its general course from south-west to north-east, and its length about fifty miles; a huge volume of matter, ceaselessly rolling through the plains and valleys of the substantial earth, with the mocassined tread of an Indian warrior, making haste from the high places of the earth to its ancient reservoir.”2 As for the Assabet, we have it on Hawthorne’s authority that “a lovelier stream than this, for a mile above its junction with the Concord, never flowed on earth nowhere, indeed, except to lave the interior regions of a poet’s imagination.” In addition to its rivers, Concord is also well provided with ponds, of which Walden, Sandy Pond, and White Pond to the south of the village, and Bateman’s Pond to the north, are the most considerable; moreover, after the heavy rains, which are usual at two periods of the year, the lowlands adjacent to the river are converted by the floods into a chain of shallow lakes; so that it has been remarked that there is no portion of the township of Con·cord which is not more or less in proximity to some lake or stream.

  And if well watered, Concord is also well wooded, its plain sandy soil being covered in almost every direction by thick groves of oak, pine, chestnut, maple, and other forest trees, which even to this day retain much of their primeval severity. “I saw nothing wilder,” wrote a recent visitor to Concord,3 “among the unbroken solitudes of the Upper Ottawa tributaries than these woods that fringe the bank of Walden. Not a human habitation, not a cleared farm, not a sign of life or civilised occupation anywhere broke the unvaried expanse of wild woodland.” The hills which surround Concord Anursack, Nashawtuck, Ball’s Hill, Brister’s Hill, and the rest—are of no great height; but they command fine prospects, westward and northward, in the direction of loftier ranges—Wachusett, Monadnock, and the White Mountains of New Hampshire. “The scenery of Concord,” says Nathaniel Hawthorne, “has no very marked characteristics, but has a great deal of quiet beauty in keeping with the river. There are broad and peaceful meadows, which, I think, are among the most satisfying objects in natural scenery. The hills which border these meadows are wide swells of land, or long and gradual ridges, some of them densely covered with wood. The white village appears to be embosomed among wooded hills.” The centre of the village, which is mainly on one side of the river, is a large open square, with fine elms, and a white wooden church.

  “Thoreau’s country,” says a recent writer,4 “has the broad effects and simple elements that ‘compose’ well in the best landscape art. It is a quiet bit of country that under the seeing eye can be made to yield a store of happiness. Its resources for the naturalist, at first scarcely suspected, are practically inexhaustible. It is not tame, as an English landscape is tame. It keeps its memories and traditions of the red man along with his flint-flakes and arrow-heads, and its birds and wild-flowers are varied and abundant. A country of noble trees, wide meadow-expanses—and the little river, quiet almost to stagnation, with just current enough to ‘keep it pure, in places much grown up to water-weed, in other places thick strewn with lily-pads, the banks umbrageous and grassy, fringed with ferns and wild-flowers, and here and there jutting into a point of rocks, or expanding into placid lake-like stretches—these are the main elements of Thoreau’s country. Then we must add a clean, sandy soil, through which water percolates with great rapidity, leaving paths pleasant to the feet. Then come the low ranges of hills, the marshes, the ponds, and the forests, fit home for a rich varied wild flora. And then the weather influences must be taken into account. This small district of country, though it feels the breath of the sea twenty miles away, is still somewhat sheltered from the asperities of the east wind. The summer nights are cool and refreshing, though the day may have a heart of fire, and the autumn has stretches of bright, cool, resplendent weather. Owing to the dry soil, the ways seem more open and cheery in winter than in other places, and the roads are good for walking all the year round.”

  Among such scenes and surroundings did Henry Thoreau grow up and receive his earliest impressions of nature and society. From the first he was inured to a hardy outdoor life, driving his mother’s cow to pasture when he was a child of six, and going barefoot like the other village boys. School games and athletic sports formed no part of his youthful amusements, but at as early an age as ten or twelve, after the habit of New England boys, he was permitted to shoulder a fowling-piece or fishing-rod and betake himself to the wildest and most solitary recesses of wood or river, to which practice he was in some measure indebted for his close intimacy with nature. The water-side seems to have had a special fascination for him at an early date, one of his childish reminiscences being a visit to Walden Pond, which excited a desire in him to live there, and as he grew older he was fond of bathing and boating on the Concord river in company with his schoolmates, making himself acquainted with all the rocks and soundings of that placid stream. Now and then the news would spread like wildfire that a canal-boat, laden with lime, or bricks, or iron-ore, was gliding mysteriously along the river, and the village children would eagerly flock out to gaze with wonder on these “fabulous river-men,” who came and went so unaccountably. Still more interesting were the annual visits of the remnants of some Indian tribes, who used to pitch their tents in the rich meadows which had belonged of old to their forefathers, and there string their beads and weave their baskets, or initiate the Concord youths into the art of paddling an Indian canoe.

  We are surprised to learn that, as a child, Henry Thoreau was afraid of thunderstorms, and at such times would creep to his father for protection; for most of the anecdotes related of his school-days are indicative of the fearlessness, self-reliance, and laconic brevity of speech for which he was afterwards conspicuous. At the age of three years he was informed that, like the godly men of whom he read in his religious exercise-book, he too would some day have to die; he received the news with equanimity, asserting, however, that he “did not want to go to heaven, because he could not carry his sled with him, for the boys said it was not shod with iron, and therefore not worth a cent”—a characteristic renouncement of a paradise in which, as he surmised, outer appearances would be unduly regarded. When charged with taking a knife belonging to another boy—he replied briefly, “I did not take it”; and steadily refused to exculpate himself by further explanation until after the true offender was discovered. All being made clear, the natural inquiry put to him was why he did not sooner explain himself. “I did not—take it,” was again his reply. When ten years old he carried some pet chickens for sale to a neighbouring innkeeper, who, in order to return the basket promptly, took them out one by one and wrung their necks before the eyes of the boy, who let no word betray the agony of his outraged feelings. His gravity had already earned him among his schoolfellows the title of “the judge”; of that vivacity of intellect which subsequently showed itself in such a marked degree in his conversation and writings there seems at this time to have been no trace, at any rate no early instance has been recorded.

  Whether certain hereditary influences may be recognised in the leading features of Henry Thoreau’s temperament is a point on which speculation has not been wanting. Thoreau himself, in a passage of his diary, hints playfully at a possible Scandinavian ancestry. “Perhaps I am descended from the Northman named ‘Thorer, the Dog-footed.’ Thorer is one of the most common names in the chronicles of the Northmen, if not the most so.” “His character,” says Emerson, “exhibited occasional traits drawn from his French blood, in singular combination with a very strong Saxon genius”; and other writers, following on this line, have attributed his love of wild nature, his keen native humour, and other similar qualities to the same Celtic origin – the “dash of the gray wolf that stalks through his ancestral folk-lore.”5 But, at any rate, as regards his immediate parentage, the facts do not appear to warrant this conclusion. The sharp contrast of character between his father and mother has already been mentioned; and it is noticeable that the vivacious tendency was here altogether on the maternal or Saxon side, while the father, in spite of his French extraction, was slow, silent, and phlegmatic. The preponderance of the maternal element in Henry’s character was matter of observation and comment among his townsfolk. “Of the four children of John Thoreau and Cynthia Dunbar,” says Mr. Sanborn, “the two eldest, John and Helen, were said to be ‘clear Thoreau,’ and the others, Henry and Sophia, ‘clear Dunbar’”; but he adds that the Thoreau traits were marked in Henry also. It seems, therefore, that in the present case there is no definite ground for positive assertion on this interesting but unreliable subject of hereditary genius. “I remember well,” says Mr. Moncure Conway, “the stolid, taciturn pencil-maker, his father, and his simple mother, and long ago came to the conclusion that the great Thoreau was what the Buddha would call a ‘twice-born’ man.”6

  It is, however, less open to question that the boy’s character was favourably influenced and stimulated by the free, healthy atmosphere of Concord in general, and of his parents’ household in particular. It is true that no special moral earnestness was manifested by either his father or mother, the former being usually absorbed in the management of his business, while the latter, with her sister, Louisa Dunbar, and three sisters-in-law, Sarah, Maria, and Jane Thoreau, was apt to devote her energies —so Mr. Sanborn tells us—to the bickerings of the village gossip-mongers. In Mrs. Thoreau’s brother, Charles Dunbar, the ready wit, characteristic of the Dunbar family, had run to the extreme of eccentricity; he led a strange vagabond life, roving about from town to town, and winning a pot-house notoriety by his waggish speeches and dexterity in certain feats of wrestling and legerdemain. But the younger members of the Thoreau household were all possessed of an unusual strength of will and seriousness of purpose; and Mrs. Thoreau herself entered with such zeal into the agitation for the abolition of slavery, when that question began to be debated in Massachusetts, as to be willing to make her house at Concord a rendezvous for abolitionist conspirators. The singular tenacity of Henry Thoreau’s character, even in childhood, has already been noted. Both his sister Helen and his brother John, who were his elders by five and three years respectively, were earnest and lovable natures; so too was his younger sister Sophia; and it has been remarked by a friend who at a later time was domiciled in the family, that they each possessed a distinctive and unmistakable personality, so that “to meet one of the Thoreaus was not the same as to encounter any other person who might happen to cross your path.”7 At this period, when new ideas were permeating American society and preparing men’s minds for the great intellectual and social awakening that was shortly to follow, the Thoreaus had won general respect among their neighbours at Concord by their humanity, thoughtfulness, and unaffected simplicity of living.

  In 1833, when sixteen years old, Henry Thoreau was sent to Harvard University,8 where he occupied a room in Hollis Hall, in which, if we may trust a chance reference in one of his volumes, he experienced the inconvenience of “many and noisy neighbours, and a residence in the fourth storey.” He had been prepared for college at the Concord “Academy,” an excellent school famous for its successful teaching of Greek, where he had already exhibited a strong partiality for the classics, though his reading was not confined to the prescribed course, but began to embrace a considerable extent of English literature. His expenses at Harvard were a serious matter in a family whose means were very limited; the difficulty, however, was surmounted partly by his own carefulness and economy, partly by the help of his aunts and his elder sister, herself a schoolteacher at this time. During the college vacations he took pupils, or assisted in school-teaching in several country towns, one of these engagements being at Canton, near Boston, where in 1835, his “sophomore year,” he boarded and studied German with a minister named Brownson, at the same time teaching in Mr. Brownson’s school. Meantime his interests at Harvard were being promoted by no less distinguished a patron than Ralph Waldo Emerson,—who in 1834 had gone to live at Concord, where his forefathers had held the ministry for generations. Emerson presumably was informed by Dr. Ripley, with whom he was staying, of the promise shown by Henry Thoreau, and it seems to have been due to his good offices that the young man received some small pecuniary assistance from the beneficiary funds of the college. Thoreau’s Harvard career, however, was somewhat disappointing to his relatives and friends, for perhaps owing in some degree to an illness which interrupted his studies in his senior year, and probably still more to his naturally independent temper and consequent impatience of routine, he gained no distinction when he graduated in August 1837. He is said to have refused to take his degree on the ground that five dollars was too high a price to pay for that honour.

  We are fortunate in having a graphic account of Thoreau’s personal appearance and mode of life at Harvard from the pen of one of his class-mates.9 It seems that he passed for nothing among his companions, taking little share in their studies and amusements, shunning their oyster suppers and wine parties, and mysteriously disappearing from the scene when, as occasionally happened, the course of college discipline was temporarily interrupted by a “rebellion.”

  “He was cold and unimpressible. The touch of his hand was moist and indifferent, as if he had taken up something when he saw your hand coming, and caught your grasp upon it. How the prominent gray-blue eyes seemed to rove down the path, just in advance of his feet, as his grave Indian stride carried him down to University Hall. He did not care for people; his classmates seemed very remote. This reverie hung always about him, and not so loosely as the odd garments which the pious household care furnished. Thought had not yet awakened his countenance; it was serene, but rather dull, rather plodding. The lips were not yet firm; there was almost a look of smug satisfaction lurking round their comers. It is plain now that he was preparing to hold his future views with great setness and personal appreciation of their importance. The nose was prominent, but its curve fell forward without firmness over the upper lip, and we remember him as looking very much like some Egyptian sculptures of faces, large-featured, but brooding, immobile, fixed in a mystic egoism. Yet his eyes were sometimes searching as if he had dropped, or expected to find, something. In fact his eyes seldom left the ground, even in his most earnest conversations with you. . . .

  “He would smile to hear the word ‘collegiate career’ applied to the reserve and inaptness of his college life. He was not signalised by the plentiful distribution of the parts and honours which fall to the successful student. Of his private tastes there is little of consequence to recall, excepting that he was devoted to the old English literature, and had a good many volumes of the poetry from Gower and Chaucer down through the era of Elizabeth. In this mine he worked with a quiet enthusiasm.”

  These traits of aloofness and self-seclusion are attributed by his class-mate, not to any conceit or superciliousness, still less to shyness, but to a sort of homely “complacency,” which, though quite natural and inevitable, had the effect of putting him out of sympathy with his surroundings at Harvard. His complacency was “perfectly satisfied with its own ungraciousness, because that was essential to its private business.” This determined concentration on his own life-course was, as we shall see, very characteristic of Thoreau in his mature career, and it is interesting to find that it was thus early developed.

  “In college Thoreau had made no great impression,” says another of his contemporaries;10 “he was far from being distinguished as a scholar, was not known to have any literary tastes, was never a contributor to the college periodical, Harvardiana; he was not conspicuous in any of the literary or scientific societies of the undergraduates, and withal was of an unsocial disposition, and kept himself very much aloof from his class-mates. At the time we graduated, I doubt whether any of his acquaintances regarded him as giving promise of future distinction.” We further learn from a letter addressed to Emerson by the president of Harvard University that Thoreau had failed to make a more favourable impression on his teachers than on his class-mates, since he “had imbibed some notions concerning emulation and college rank which had a natural tendency to diminish his zeal, if not his exertions.” We can well believe that his strong individualist tendencies had even now begun to manifest themselves; indeed it is apparent from his youthful “themes,” parts of which have been quoted by Mr. Sanborn, that he was already a fearless thinker and questioner on various matters, social and religious quality which would not be likely to conciliate the good opinion of the college authorities. “Education,” he has somewhere remarked, “often makes a straight-cut ditch out of a free meandering brook”; and this he was determined to avoid in his own case. His integrity, however, and high moral principle were clearly recognised; and from the first he seems to have practised a simple and abstemious mode of living. “He had been so wisely nourished at the collegiate fount,” says Channing, “as to come forth undissipated, not digging his grave in tobacco and coffee—those two perfect causes of paralysis.” Thoreau has himself stated that he never smoked anything more noxious than dried lily-stems, from which indulgence he had a faint recollection of deriving pleasure before he was a man.

  The view which Thoreau himself expressed of Harvard College and its educational system is interesting in this connection. In his Walden, a volume which is more particularly addressed to “poor students,” he advocates under the heading of “economy” the introduction of a simpler life and more practical self-help into the Cambridge curriculum. “Those conveniences,” he says, “which the student requires at Cambridge or elsewhere, cost him or somebody else ten times as great a sacrifice of life as they would with proper management on both sides. Those things for which the most money is demanded are never the things which the student most wants. Tuition, for instance, is an important item in the term bill, while for the far more valuable education which he gets by associating with the most cultivated of his contemporaries no charge is made . . . . How could youths better learn to live than by at once trying the experiment of living? If I wished a boy to know something about the arts and sciences, I would not pursue the common course, which is merely to send him into the neighbourhood of some professor, where anything is professed and practised but the art of life. . . . To my astonishment I was informed on leaving college that I had studied navigation! Why, if I had taken one turn down the harbour I should have known more about it.”

  Emerson says that Thoreau’s debt to College was important; but this is a statement which it will be prudent to accept with some reservation. It is true that although not “successful,” in the ordinary sense of the word, he had become a good classical scholar, and had derived intellectual benefit from the teaching of at least one of the lecturers, Professor Channing, whose nephew, Ellery Channing, afterwards became his most intimate friend. He himself says in a letter of 1843 that what he learned in College was chiefly “to express himself,” and this, in his case, was certainly no unimportant gift. But, on the whole, we shall probably be safe in concluding that the advantages which Thoreau obtained from his college career were mainly of that indirect kind to which he refers in the passage above quoted, and that he profited far less by the actual instruction there given him than by the opportunities afforded for wide reading and self-culture. Meantime his love of outdoor life and open-air pursuits had in no wise diminished during his residence at Harvard; on the contrary, he was as diligent a student of natural history as of rhetoric or mathematics, and felt as much veneration for Indian relics as for Greek classics. It is stated that Thoreau’s first experiment in camping-out took place during his senior year at college, when he made an excursion of this sort to Lincoln Pond, a few miles from Walden. On this occasion his companion was Stearns Wheeler, one of his school-mates both at Concord and Harvard, whose early death in 1843 is lamented in Thoreau’s letters.

  But undoubtedly it was in his conception of ethical principles, in close conjunction with a kind of mystic nature-worship, that he had made the greatest progress towards maturity of thought. We are told that he resolved at an early period of his life, probably during his college career, “to read no book, take no walk, undertake no enterprise, but such as he could endure to give an account of to himself; and live thus deliberately for the most part.” When only seventeen he had become convinced of the utility of “keeping a private journal or record of thoughts, feelings, studies, and daily experience,” with a view to “settling accounts with one’s mind”—an introspective tendency which grew stronger and stronger with increasing years. Already, too, his intense ideality of temperament was clearly developing itself; while still a boy he had written that “the principle which prompts us to pay an involuntary homage to the infinite, the incomprehensible, the sublime, forms the very basis of our religion.” It was his delight, he tells us, to monopolise a little Gothic window overlooking the garden at the back of his father’s house, which stood on the main street of Concord village, and there, especially on quiet Sunday afternoons, to muse in undisturbed reverie. “Then did I use,” he says, “with eyes upturned, to gaze upon the clouds, and, allowing my imagination to wander, search for flaws in their rich drapery, that I might get a peep at that world beyond, which they seem intended to veil from our view.” Often in the early dawn he would stroll with his brother John, to whom he was devotedly attached, to the “Cliffs,” a rocky ridge which overhangs the river Concord where, a couple of miles above the village, it swells into Fairhaven Bay; and there, seated on the summit, “catch the first ray of the morning sun, as it gleamed upon the smooth, still river, wandering in sullen silence far below.”

  His devotion to Concord was already a fixed and unalterable sentiment, which sometimes exhibited him in a softer and more emotional mood than was customary to his stern self-repressed nature. While he was still at college he happened one day to ask his mother what profession she would advise him to choose. She replied that he could buckle on his knapsack and roam abroad to seek his fortune in the world. The tears rose to his eyes at this suggestion, and his sister Helen, who was standing by, tenderly put her arm round him, and said “No, Henry, you shall not go; you shall stay at home and live with us.” So fully were these words verified that twenty years later we find him still living at Concord, and writing to one of his friends that he had “a real genius for staying at home.”

1 Her father, Mr. Asa Dunbar of Keene, New Hampshire, died in 1787, and his widow afterwards married a Concord farmer named Minott.
2 Introduction to the Week. Compare Hawthorne’s account in Mosses from an Old Manse.
3 Grant Allen, in Fortnightly Review, May 1888.
4 “A. L” in an American journal.
5 John Burroughs, The Century, July 1882.
6 Thoreau’s French extraction is apt to be misleading, for he was by birth and temperament a complete New Englander, and prided himself on being “autochthonous” at Concord. It is an error to pronounce the name as a French one.
7 F. B. Sanborn.
8 His name is entered in the Harvard register as David Henry Thoreau.
9 Rev. John Weiss, Christian Examiner, Boston, July 1865.
10 The Rev. D. G. Haskins, in his Ralph Waldo Emerson, Boston, 1887.

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