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


THUS, as we have seen, the most vigorous protest ever raised against that artificiality in life and literature which constitutes one of the chief dangers of our complex civilisation proceeded not from some sleepy old-world province, which might have been expected to be unable to keep pace with a progressive age, but from the heart of the busiest and most advanced nation on the globe-it is to Yankeeland that we owe the example and the teaching of the Walden hermit and bachelor of nature. The personality of Thoreau is so singular and so unique that it seems useless to attempt, as some have done, to draw out any elaborate parallel between his character and that of other social, or un-social, reformers, who have protested against some prevalent tendency in the~ age in which they lived. Those who are interested in seeking for literary prototypes may perhaps, in this case, find one in Abraham Cowley, a member of that school of gnomic poets with which Thoreau was so familiar, and moreover a zealous lover of the peace and solitude of nature. He lived in close retirement during the later years of his life, and his death, which, like Thoreau’s, was due to a cold caught while he was botanising, is attributed by his biographer to “his very delight in the country and the fields, which he had long fancied above all other pleasures.” Some of Cowley’s remarks in his essays on solitude are conceived in a spmt very similar to that of Thoreau. “The First Minister of State,” he says, “has not so much business in public as a wise man in private; if the one has little leisure to be alone, the other has less leisure to b~ in company; the one has but part of the affairs of one nation, the other all the works of God and nature under his consideration”; and elsewhere he expresses the wish that men could “unravel all they have woven, that we might have our woods and our innocence again, instead of our castles and our policies.” But these parallels, between two men of widely different periods and purposes, can contain nothing more than slight and superficial resemblances. Nor, except for his general connection with Emerson and the transcendentalists, is it more easy to match Thoreau with any ethical writer of his own generation.1

  As a poet-naturalist, however, Thoreau is distinctly akin to Richard Jefferies and one or two other writers of the same school. Jefferies’ character was richer and more sensuous than Thoreau’s, but they had the same mystic religious temperament, the same impatience of tradition and conventionality, the same passionate love of woods and fields and streams, and the same gift of brilliant language in which to record their observations. It is curious to compare these modem devotees of country life with the old-fashioned naturalists of whom Izaak Walton and Gilbert White are the most illustrious examples. While the -honest old angler prattles on contentedly, like the babbling streams by which he spent his days, with here and there a pious reflection on the beneficence of Providence and the adaptation of means to ends, and while the kindly naturalist of Selborne devotes himself absolutely and unreservedly to the work of chronicling the fauna and flora of the district about which he writes, these later authors have brought to the treatment of similar subjects a far deeper insight into the beauty and pathos of nature, and a power of poetical description which was not dreamed of by their simple yet not less devoted predecessors. It is mainly to Thoreau in America, and to Jefferies in England, that we owe the recognition and study of what may be called the poetry of natural history—a style of thought and writing which is peculiar to the last thirty or forty years. The study of nature has, of course, been from time immemorial one of the great subjects of poetry, but, so far, it was nature in its more general aspects; it was not till comparatively recent years that there was discovered to be poetry also in the accurate and patient observation of natural phenomena. We have now learnt that natural history, which was formerly regarded as a grave and meritorious study of a distinctly prosaic kind, may be made to yield material for the most imaginative and poetical reflections.

  When Thoreau died in 1862, Richard Jefferies was a boy of fourteen, busily engaged among his native Wiltshire Downs in laying the foundation of his wonderful knowledge of outdoor life. As far as I am aware, there is no mention of Thoreau in his writings, nor any indication that he had read him; yet one is often struck by suggestive resemblances, in their manner of thought. Take, for instance, that half-serious, half-whimsical contention of Thoreau’s, which has probably been more misunderstood than any other of his sayings-that Concord, in its natural features, contains all the phenomena that travellers have noted elsewhere and compare it with the following opinion expressed by Jefferies. “I found that the reeds, and ferns, and various growths through which I pushed my way, explained to me the jungles of India, the swamps of Central Africa, and the backwoods of America; all the vegetation of the world. Representatives exist in our own woods, hedges, and fields, or by the shore of inland waters. It was the same with flowers. I think I am scientifically accurate in saying that every known plant has a relative of the same species or genus growing wild in this country . . . . It has long been one of my fancies that this country is an epitome of the natural world, and that if any one has come really into contact with its productions, and is familiar with them, and what they mean and represent, then he has a knowledge of all that exists on the earth.”2 In reading these words, one has a difficulty in remembering that they were not written by Thoreau.

  The association of Thoreau’s name with the district in which he lived and died is likely to become closer and closer as the years go on. Great nature-lovers, it has been truly remarked, have the faculty of stamping the impress of their own character on whole regions of country, so that there are certain places which belong by supreme and indisputable right to certain persons who have made them peculiarly and perpetually their own. As the Lake District is inseparably connected with the names of the poets who dwelt and wrote there; as the Scotch border-land owns close allegiance to Scott, and the Ayrshire fields to Burns; and as the little Hampshire village of Selborne is the inalienable property of Gilbert White—so the thoughts of those who visit Concord turn inevitably to Thoreau. “Thoreau’s affections and genius,” says one of his admirers, “were so indissolubly bound up with this country that now he is gone he presents himself to my mind as one of these local genii or deified men whom the Scandinavian mythology gave as guardians to the northern coasts and mountains. These being kept off murrain from the cattle and sickness from men. They made the nights sweet and salubrious, and the days productive. If Thoreau had lived in the early ages of Greece, he would have taken his place in the popular imagination along with his favourite god Pan.”

  That a personality so stubbornly and aggressively independent as Thoreau’s would be a stumbling-block to many critics, good and bad alike, might have been foreseen, and indeed was foreseen, from the first. “What an easy task it would be,” said one who understood him unusually well,3 “for a lively and not entirely scrupulous pen to ridicule his notions, and raise such a cloud of ink in the clear medium as entirely to obscure his true and noble traits.” Just three months after these prophetic words were written appeared Mr. Lowell’s criticism of Thoreau in the North American Review, in which, while paying reluctant tribute to his literary mastership, he made merry over his character and ethical opinions, holding up to ridicule his supposed conceit, indolence, selfishness, misanthropy, valetudinarianism, and lack of humour. “The radical vice of his theory of life,” says Mr. Lowell, “was that he confounded physical with spiritual remoteness from men. One is far enough withdrawn from his fellows if he keep himself clear of their weaknesses.” That a confusion of physical with spiritual remoteness should be attributed to Thoreau of all writers is an astounding piece of criticism which must have made many a reader of Walden rub his eyes; for one of the truths emphasised in that book with peculiar insistence is that it is possible to be farthest removed from a man at the very time when one is nearest to him in the body indeed, Mr. Lowell has himself manifested the weakness of his own assertion by stating, on the same page of the same article, that. Thoreau’s Walden shanty was a sham, because his actual remoteness from his townsmen was there so inconsiderable. He once saw, he says, “a genuine solitary, who spent his winters 150 miles beyond all human communication.” In other words, he blames Thoreau first for living as much as two miles from his fellow-citizens, and then for not living as much as 150. Such captious criticism would be laughable enough in itself were it not for the fact that, coming with the authority of a great name, it has prejudiced many a reader against Thoreau’s writings before he has made fair trial of them for himself.

  “A skulker” is the phrase in which Mr. R. L. Stevenson summed up Thoreau’s character in his essay in Men and Books; but as he himself admits in the later written preface that he had quite misread. Thoreau through lack of sufficient knowledge of his life, there is no reason why admirers of Walden should feel much disturbed at the bestowal of that singularly inappropriate appellation. Other critics, again, while enjoying much of Thoreau’s writing, have been haunted by a suspicion that he was the victim of a theatrical self-consciousness, and that he became a hermit rather to attract attention than to avoid it. “We have a mistrust of the sincerity of the St. Simeon Stylites,” said a contemporary reviewer of Walden,4 “and suspect that they come down from the pillars in the night-time when nobody is looking at them. Diogenes placed his tub where Alexander would be sure of seeing it, and Mr. Thoreau ingeniously confesses that he went out to dine.” So inconceivable does it seem to those who have not considered, much less practised, a simple and frugal life, that a man should deliberately, and for his own pleasure, abandon what they believe to be luxuries and comforts, that critics are always discovering some far-fetched and nonexistent object in the Walden experiment, while they miss its true and salutary lessons. “Thoreau,” says Dr. E. W. Emerson, “is absurdly misconceived by most people. He did not wish that every one should live in isolated cabins in the woods, on Indian corn and beans and cranberries. His own Walden camping was but a short experimental episode, and even then this really very human and affectionate man constantly visited his friends in the village, and was a most dutiful son and affectionate brother. It is idle for cavilling Epicureans to announce as a great discovery that he sometimes took supper comfortably at a friend’s house, or was too good a son to churlishly thumb back the cake that his good mother had specially made for him. He was not like the little men of that day who magnified trifles of diet until they could think of little else.”

  Thoreau’s “lack of ambition” was another point that caused him to be much misunderstood—even Emerson gave his sanction to this rather futile complaint. “I cannot help counting it a fault in him,” he said, “that he had no ambition. Wanting this, instead of engineering for all America, he was the captain of a huckleberry party. Pounding beans is good to the end of pounding empires one of these days; but if, at the end of years, it is still only beans!” But the obvious answer to this criticism is that, in Thoreau’s case, it was not only beans. The chapter on “The Bean Field,” in Walden, is one of the most imaginative and mystic m all his works—“it was no longer beans that I hoed,” he says, “nor I that hoed beans”—for the object of his quest and labour was not the actual huckleberry nor the tangible bean, but the glorified and idealised fruit of a lifetime spent in communion with nature, which imparted to his writings a freshness and fragrance as of nature itself. In this matter Thoreau was the wisest judge of his own powers, and conferred a far greater benefit on the human race by writing Walden than he could have done by engineering for all America. “No bribe,” says Channing, “could have drawn him from his native fields, where his ambition was—a very honorable one—to fairly represent himself in his works, accomplishing as perfectly as lay in his power what he conceived his business. His eye and ear and hand fitted in with the special task he undertook—certainly as manifest a destiny as any man’s ever was. “

  The conclusion of the whole matter is, that Thoreau is a hopeless subject for corrective criticism; it is easy to point out that he would have been wiser had he done this or had he omitted to do that; but the fact remains that he had a clear and definite object before him which he followed with inflexible earnestness, and that his very faults and limitations subserved the main purpose of his life. “There is a providence in his writings,” says one of his best interpreters,5 “which ought to protect him from the complaint that he was not somebody else. No man ever lived who paid more ardent and unselfish attention to his business. If pure minds are sent into the world upon errands, with strict injunction not to stray by other paths, Thoreau certainly was one of these elect. A great deal of criticism is inspired by the inability to perceive the function and predestined quality of the man who passes in review. It only succeeds in explaining the difference between him and the critic. Such a decided fact as a man of genius is ought to be gratefully accepted and interpreted.”

  That Thoreau’s doctrines, no less than his character, have their shortcomings and imperfections, few will be disposed to deny. He could not realise, or perhaps did not’ care to realise, the immense scope and complexity of the whole social problem; he had scarcely the data or opportunities for doing so; and in any case his intensely individualistic nature would probably have incapacitated him. We therefore cannot look to him for any full and satisfactory solution of the difficulties by which our modern civilisation is surrounded, but it would be a great error to conclude that we are not to look to him at all. If it is true that the deadlock resulting from the antagonism of labour and capital can never be relieved without external legislation, it is equally true that there can be no real regeneration of society without the self-improvement of the individual man; it is idle to assert that the one or the other must come first—both are necessary, and the two must be carried on side by side. In Thoreau the social instinct was deficient or undeveloped; but, on the other hand, he has set forth the gospel of the higher intellectual individualism with more force and ability than any modern writer; if it be but a half-truth that he preaches, it is none the less a half-truth of the utmost moment and significance.6

  We have seen that he was not, like Emerson, a philosopher of wide far-reaching sympathies and cautious judicial temperament, but rather a prophet and monitor—outspoken, unsparing, trenchant, inexorable, irreconcilable. He addressed himself to the denunciation and correction of certain popular tendencies which he perceived to be mischievous and delusive, and preached what may be comprehensively termed a gospel of simplicity, in direct antagonism to the prevailing tone of a self-indulgent and artificial society. Who will venture to say that the protest was not needed then-that it is not still more needed now? “The years which have passed,” says a well-known writer7 “since Thoreau came back out of Walden wood, to attend to his father’s business of pencil-making, have added more than the previous century to the trappings and baggage of social life, which he held, and taught by precept and example, that men would be both better and happier for doing without. And while we succumb and fall year by year more under the dominion of these trappings, and life gets more and more overlaid with one kind and another of upholsteries, the idea of something simpler and nobler probably never haunted men’s minds more than at this time.” Herein lies the strength of Thoreau’s position, and the assurance of the ultimate recognition of the essential wisdom of his teaching—the very excess of the evil, which turns our supposed comforts into discomforts and our luxuries into burdens, must at last induce us to listen to the voice of sobriety and reason.

  As to the manner in which Thoreau expresses his convictions nothing more need here be said, except that his style is justly adapted to his sentiments. His” knock-down blows at current opinion” are likened by Mr. R. L. Stevenson to the “posers” of a child, “which leave the orthodox in a kind of speechless agony.” “They know the thing is nonsense-they are sure there must be an answer, yet somehow they cannot find it.” We may shrewdly doubt whether the conclusive answer will ever be forthcoming; but it is something that people should be at all aroused from the complacent lethargy of custom and tradition. Thoreau is thus seen to have a quickening, stimulating, and, at times, exasperating effect as an ethical teacher; it is no part of his object to prophesy smooth things, to deal tenderly with the weaknesses of his readers, or even to explain those features of his doctrine which, from their novelty or unpopularity, are most likely to be misunderstood. This being so, his character and writings were certain to prove as distasteful to some readers as they are attractive to others; if he is a good deal misapplied at present, time will set that right. “The generation he lectured so sharply,” says John Burroughs, “will not give the same heed to his words as will the next and the next. The first effect of the reading of his books upon many minds is irritation and disappointment; the perception of their beauty and wisdom comes later on.”

  In conclusion, we see in Thoreau the extraordinary product of an extraordinary era—his strange, self-centred, solitary figure, unique in the annals of literature, challenges attention by its originality, audacity, and independence. He had, it has been well remarked, “a constitutional No in him”; he renounced much that other men held dear, and set his heart on objects which to the world seemed valueless; it was part of his mission to question, to deny, to contradict. But his genius was not only of the negative and destructive order. In an age when not one man in a thousand had a real sympathy with nature, he attained to an almost miraculous acquaintance with her most cherished secrets; in an age of pessimism, when most men, as he himself expresses it, “lead lives of quiet desperation,” he was filled with an absolute confidence in the justice and benevolence of his destiny; in an age of artificial complexity, when the ideal is unduly divorced from the practical, and society stands in false antagonism to nature, he, a devout pantheist, saw everywhere simplicity, oneness, relationship. In his view God was not to be considered apart from the material world, nor was man to be set above and aloof from the rest of creation and the lower forms of life; he tracked everywhere the same divine intelligence—“inanimate” nature there was none, since all was instinct with the same universal spirit. It was his purpose, in a word, “to civilise nature with the highest intuitions of the mind, which show her simplicity to restless and artificial men.”

  This ideal he pursued, as we have seen, with a rare courage, sincerity, and self-devotion. Whether he succeeded or failed in his endeavour is a question which time alone can fully answer. His example and doctrines were coldly and incredulously received during his lifetime by most of those with whom he came in contact, and his comparatively early death cut him off, in the prime of his vigour, from reaping the harvest he had sown with such patience and assiduity; so far his career, like that of most idealists, must be confessed a failure. But these are not the tests by which idealists, least of all Thoreau, can be judged. For he enjoyed, in the first place, that priceless and inalienable success which consists in perfect serenity of mind and contentment with one’s own fortunes. “If the day and night,” he says in Walden, “are such that you greet them with joy, and life emits a fragrance like flowers and sweet-scented herbs-is more elastic, starry, and immortal—that is your success.” And, secondly, he had the assurance, which is seldom denied to a great man, that the true value of his work would ultimately be recognised and appreciated. During the quarter of a century that has passed since his death his fame has steadily increased both in America and England, and is destined to increase yet further.

  The blemishes and mannerisms of Thoreau’s character are written on its surface, easy to be read by the indifferent passer-by who may miss the strong and sterling faculties that underlie them. His lack of geniality, his rusticity, his occasional littleness of tone and temper, his impatience of custom, degenerating sometimes into injustice, his too sensitive self-consciousness, his trick of overstatement in the expression of his views—these were incidental failings which did not mar the essential nobility of his nature. We shall do wisely in taking him just as he is, neither shutting our eyes to his defects nor greatly deploring their existence, but remembering that in so genuine and distinctive an individuality the faults have their due place and proportion no less than the virtues. Had he added the merits he lacked to those which he possessed, had he combined the social with the individual qualities, had he been more catholic in his philosophy and more guarded in his expression, then we might indeed have admired him more, but should scarcely have loved him so well, for his character, whatever it gained in fulness, would have missed the peculiar freshness and piquancy which are now its chief attraction-whatever else he might have been, he would not have been Thoreau.

1 It is interesting to observe that of late years a body of social reformers has arisen in England whose doctrines are largely in accord with those of Thoreau. England’s Ideal, a volume of essays published in 1887 by Edward Carpenter, is worthy to rank with Walden in the literature of “plain living and high thinking.”
2 The Life of the Fields; essay on “Sport and Science.”
3 John Weiss, Christian Examiner, July 1865.
4 Putnam’s Magazine, Oct. 1854. See also Mr. Grant Allen’s remarks in the Fortnightly Review, May 1888: “Like a true Pythagorean, he cultivated chiefly the domestic bean, finding it on the whole the cheapest food on which man can sustain life in the woods of Massachusetts. In all this I wish I could always feel quite sure that Thoreau was au fond thoroughly sincere.” The statement of fact is here as unfortunate as the inference drawn from it. The Pythagoreans made a point of not eating beans, and Thoreau informs us that he was a Pythagorean in this respect, and exchanged his beans for other food.
5 John Weiss, Christian Examiner, 1865.
6 “As to Thoreau,” says Edward Carpenter, “the real truth about him is that he was a thorough economist. He reduced life to its simplest terms, and having, so to speak, labor in his right hand and its reward in his left, he had no difficulty in seeing what was worth laboring for and what was not, and no hesitation in discarding things which he did not think worth the time or trouble of production.”—England’s Ideal.
7 Mr. T. Hughes, Academy, 17th Nov. 1877.

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