Early Manhood.

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


WHEN Thoreau left the University he was just twenty years old, and the first question which occupied his mind was naturally the choice of a profession by which he might gain his living. Like the other members of his family he became a teacher, an occupation of which he had, as we have seen, already made trial during his vacations at college. In the spring of 1838 he went on a visit to Maine, where his mother had relatives, on the look-out for some educational appointment, bearing with him testimonials signed by Dr. Ripley, R. W. Emerson, and the President of Harvard University, all of whom spoke in the highest terms of his intellectual power and good moral character. He seems, however, to have been unsuccessful in this particular quest; for in the same year we find him engaged with his brother in keeping the “Academy” at Concord, the private school for boys and girls at which he himself had been educated, and which had been established about twenty years before by some of the leading Concord citizens. How long Thoreau held this post is not precisely recorded, but it is evident that he did not find his tutorial position at all congenial to his tastes; indeed, it is difficult nowadays to conceive of this uncompromising champion of individuality discharging the functions of schoolteacher under the supervision of a visiting committee.

  “I have thoroughly tried school-keeping,” he says in Walden,” and found that my expenses were in proportion, or rather out of proportion, to my income, for I was obliged to dress and train, not to say think and believe, accordingly, and I lost my time into the bargain. As I did not teach for the good of my fellow-men, but simply for a livelihood, this was a failure.”

  If we may trust the humorous account given by Ellery Channing of Thoreau’s pedagogic experiences, the immediate cause of the resignation of his office was the question of corporal punishment. He at first announced that he should not flog, but should substitute the punishment of “talking morals” to his pupils; but after a time one of the School Committee remonstrated against this novel system, and protested that the welfare of the school was being endangered by the undue leniency of its master. Mr. Thoreau must use the ferule, or the school would spoil. “So he did,” says Channing, “by feruling six of his pupils after school, one of whom was the maid-servant in his own house. But it did not suit well with his conscience, and he reported to the Committee that he should no longer keep their school, as they interfered with his arrangements.” School-keeping seems to have been practised by Thoreau for about two years in all; then, as more congenial subjects occupied his attention, he gave it up altogether, and betook himself to his fore-ordained and inevitable profession—the study of nature. “He soon began,” says Channing, “to serve the mistress to whom he was afterwards bound, and to sing the immunity of Pan.” The ferule of the schoolmaster was laid by for the herbarium and spy-glass of the poet-naturalist.

  This brings us to the mention of a movement which was gathering force in New England during Thoreau’s youth and early manhood, and had a marked influence on the whole development of his character. Transcendentalism,1 which originated in the philosophy of Kant, and was revived by Coleridge and Carlyle in England, had now begun to be a disturbing and regenerating power in American sociology, and to find its chief exponents in such men as George Ripley, Alcott, and Emerson; though there had long before been a vein of native transcendentalist doctrine in the quietism and quakerism of Penn, John Woolman, and others. The transcendentalism of New England was simply a fresh outburst of ideal philosophy; it was a renaissance in religion, morals, art, and politics; a period of spiritual questioning and awakening. “The transcendental movement,” says Lowell, “was the protestant spirit of Puritanism seeking a new outlet and an escape from forms and creeds which compressed rather than expressed it.” The “apostles of the newness,” or “realists,” as the transcendentalists were variously styled, aimed at a return from conventionality to nature, from artifice to simplicity; they held that every one should not only think for himself, but should labour with his own hands; and the exaltation of the individual, as opposed to the State and the territorial immensity of America, was one of their most cherished purposes.

  It was not to be expected that this transcendentalist revival, which by its very nature was vague, misty, and ill-defined, would be exempt from the extravagances and absurdities which almost inevitably accompany such a movement. “Everybody,” says Mr. Lowell, “had a mission (with a capital M) to attend to everybody else’s business. No brain but had its private maggot, which must have found pitiably short commons sometimes. Not a few impecunious zealots abjured the use of money (unless earned by other people), professing to live on the internal revenues of the spirit. Some had an assurance of instant millennium so soon as hooks and eyes should be substituted for buttons. Communities were established where everything was to be common but common sense. The word ‘transcendental’ then was the maid-of-all-work for those who could not think, as pre-Raphaelite has been more recently for people of the same limited housekeeping.”2 But if certain members of the transcendentalist party were deservedly the butt for a good deal of ridicule, the main purpose of the movement was too important to be laughed down, and fully justified itself in the light of subsequent events. Originating in the meetings of a few friends, of whom Emerson was one, at George Ripley’s house in Boston, this New England transcendentalism proved to be one of the most powerful forces in American literature and politics.

  Concord, where Thoreau was born and bred, became, as we shall see, the very heart and centre of the transcendental movement, which aimed at carrying its doctrines into every branch of social life; it is not surprising, therefore, that a mind already naturally predisposed to idealism should have been strongly affected by the congenial gospel of an inner intellectual awakening. Witness his own verses on “Inspiration,” which admirably express that conception of a spiritual renascence which was the essence of the new ideas:—

“I hearing yet who had but ears,
And sight who had but eyes before,
I moments live who lived but years,
And truth discern who knew but learning’s lore.

“I hear beyond the range of sound,
I see beyond the range of sight,
New earths and skies and seas around,
And in my day the sun doth pale his light.

“I will not doubt for ever more,
Nor falter from a steadfast faith,
For though the system be turned o’er
God takes not back the word which once he saith.”

  His diaries and early letters are full of this transcendental manner and tone; and it was doubtless in great part owing to the same influence that he felt so marked a disinclination to settle down in the ordinary groove of professional business.

  It was not only school-keeping that was given up by Thoreau, under the stress of this new faith. In 1838, or thereabouts, while he was still a school teacher, he had quietly but definitely seceded from Dr. Ripley’s congregation, to the grief and disappointment, it must be feared, of the venerable pastor, who looked with suspicion and alarm on the gospel of the transcendentalists, which he saw promulgated all around him towards the close of his long career. The youthful secessionist had moreover run the risk of imprisonment by his refusal to pay the church-tax, on the ground that he did not see why the schoolmaster should support the priest more than the priest the schoolmaster. The difficulty was finally settled by his signing a statement in which he testified that he was not a member of any congregational body. That so fearless and independent a thinker as Thoreau should maintain his adherence to any religious formula was not to be expected, for the very reason that the natural piety of his mind was so simple and sincere. “With by far the greater part of mankind,” he wrote in an early.essay of 1837, “religion is a habit; or rather habit is religion. However paradoxical it may seem, it appears to me that to reject ‘religion’ is the first step towards moral excellence; at least no man ever attained to the highest degree of the latter by any other road.” If a name be sought for the faith which Thoreau henceforth held and practised, he should probably be styled a pantheist. Never was there a more passionately devout worshipper of the beauty and holiness of Life, and it was on this instinctive belief in the eternal goodness of Nature that he based the optimistic creed which we shall find to be the central point of his philosophy. “Formerly,” he wrote, “methought Nature developed as I developed, and grew up with me. My life was ecstasy. In youth, before I lost any of my senses, I can remember that I was all alive and inhabited my body with inexpressible satisfaction; both its weariness and refreshment were sweet to me. This earth was the most glorious musical instrument, and I was audience to its strains. I said to myself, I said to others, there comes into my mind such an indescribable, infinite, all-absorbing, divine, heavenly pleasure; a sense of salvation and expansion. And I have naught to do with it; I perceive that I am dealt with by superior powers. By all manner of bounds and traps threatening the extreme penalty of the divine law, it behoves us to preserve the purity and sanctity of the mind. That I am innocent to myself, that I love and reverence my life.”

  School-keeping being abandoned, the question of a profession, it may well be supposed, was still pressed on the youthful enthusiast by anxious relatives and friends. As we have already seen, pencil-making was the regular employment of the Thoreau family, and Henry, like his father, had acquired much skill-in this handicraft, to which, for a time at any rate, he applied himself with great assiduity. The story goes that when he had entirely mastered the secrets of the trade, had obtained certificates from the recognised connoisseurs in Boston of the excellence of his workmanship, and was being congratulated by his friends on having now secured his way to fortune—he suddenly declared his intention of making not another pencil, since “he would not do again what he had done once.” True or not, the anecdote is happily characteristic of Thoreau’s whimsical manner of expressing his most serious convictions. To regard him, as some have done, as a mere idler and pleasure-seeker is to misunderstand him completely; he was, as Emerson has testified, “a very industrious man, and setting, like all highly organised men, a high value on his time, he seemed the only man of leisure in town.” He had early discovered, by virtue of that keen insight which looked through the outer husk of conventionality, that what is called “profit” in the bustle of commercial life is often far from being, in the true sense, profitable; that the just claims of leisure are fully as important as the just claims of business; and that the surest way of becoming rich is to need little—in his own words, “a man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone.” “I have tried trade,” he wrote in Walden, “but I found that it would take ten years to get under way in that, and that then I should probably be on my way to the devil.” This being so, why should he, at the outset of his career, pledge himself irrevocably, after the manner of young men, to some professional treadmill, and for the sake of imaginary “comforts” sacrifice the substantial happiness of life? That he made this resolve in no spirit of selfishness or thoughtless self-sufficiency, nay, that he even winced at times under the reproachful comments of his townsfolk, is shown by an entry in his diary in 1842. “I must confess that I have felt mean enough when asked how I was to act on society, what errand I had to mankind. Undoubtedly I did not feel mean without a reason, and yet my loitering is not without a defence. I would fain communicate the wealth of my life to men, would really give them what is most precious in my gift. I know no riches I would keep back. I have no private good, unless it be my peculiar ability to serve the public. This is the only individual property.” “No, no,” he exclaims, at a later period, in reply to a well-meant suggestion that, being without a definite profession, he should engage in some commercial enterprise;” I am not without employment at this stage of the voyage. To tell the truth, I saw an advertisement for able-bodied seamen, when I was a boy, sauntering in my native port, and as soon as I came of age, I embarked.” This enterprise was none other than the study of wild nature; his “business” was to be a professional walker or “saunterer,” as he called it; to spend at least one half of each day in the open air; to watch the dawns and the sunsets; to carry express what was in the wind; to secure the latest news from forest and hill-top, and to be “self-appointed inspector of snow storms and rain storms.” These duties he subsequently declared that he had faithfully and regularly performed; if his friends were disappointed, he at least was not. Witness his own lines:

“Great God, I ask thee for no meaner pelf
Than that I may not disappoint myself,
That in my action I may soar as high
As I can now discern with this clear eye.

“And next in value, which thy kindness lends,
That I may greatly disappoint my friends,
Howe’er they think or hope that it may be,
They may not dream how thou’st distinguished me.”

  Idleness, however, formed no part of Thoreau’s “loitering”; he was not one who would permit himself to be dependent on the labour of others; for he was well aware that one of the most significant. questions as to a man’s life is “how he gets his living, what proportion of his daily bread he earns by day labour or job work with his pen, what he inherits, what steals.” Apart from the chosen occupation of his lifetime, to which he devoted himself with unflagging industry and zeal, he conscientiously supported himself by such occasional labour as his position required, toiling from time to time (to quote an illustration which he was fond of using) like Apollo in the service of Admetus. During the first ten years of his mature life, that is from 1837 to 1847, he earned what little he needed chiefly by manual work, his remarkable mechanical skill enabling him to do this with readiness. “Never idle or indulgent,” says Emerson, “he preferred, when he wanted money, earning it by some piece of manual labour agreeable to him, as building a boat or a fence, planting, grafting, surveying, or other short work, to any long engagements. With his hardy habits and few wants, his skill in wood-craft, and his powerful arithmetic, he was very competent to live in any part of the world.” His efficiency in the family business of pencil-making has already been mentioned; at this trade, in spite of his reported youthful abjuration, he worked at intervals during the greater portion of his life, chiefly by way of rendering aid to his father and sisters. Land-surveying was another employment in which he gradually and incidentally busied himself; and here too, owing to his natural adroitness in mensuration, and his intimate acquaintance with the Concord hillsides and “wood-lots,” his services were highly appreciated.

  He also began at this time, though but slightly and tentatively at first, to give his attention to lecturing and literary work. His first lecture, the subject of which was “Society,” was delivered in April 1838, at the Concord “Lyceum,” where he afterwards lectured almost every year during the remainder of his life. His earliest poems were composed about 1837. While in residence at Harvard University he had been a constant reader of verse, had mastered Chalmers’ Collection, and become acquainted with a quaint and old-fashioned school of poetry little known to his neighbours and contemporaries. The influence of Herbert, who was one of his early favourites, is very discernible in Thoreau’s youthful poems, and Cowley and Donne were most attentively studied by him, Quarles also at a somewhat later period. One of the most remarkable of these early poems is the piece entitled “Sic Vita,” of which the first stanza runs thus:

“I am a parcel of vain strivings, tied
By a chance bond together,
Dangling this way and that, their links
Were made so loose and wide,
For milder weather.”

  This poem was written on a strip of paper which bound together a bunch of violets, and so thrown in by Thoreau at the window of Mrs. Brown, of Plymouth, a lady with whom he corresponded, and who was the means, as will be related, of his being introduced to Emerson. Some of his other early poems, noticeable for their autobiographical interest, will presently be mentioned. In September 1841 he wrote to a friend: Just now I am in the mid-sea of verses, and they actually rustle round me, as the leaves would round the head of Autumnus himself, should he thrust it up through some vales which I know; but, alas, many of them are but crisped and yellow leaves like his, I fear, and will deserve no better fate than to make mould for new harvests.” In accordance with this feeling, and prompted, it is said by Emerson’s advice, Thoreau subsequently destroyed most of these youthful poems, and after the age of thirty he seldom wrote anything but prose. His early college themes” have already been mentioned; and in 1837 a strong stimulus was given to his prose writing by the commencement of a regular series of diaries, the first of which, the Red Journal, ran on to some six hundred long pages in less than three years. Here he systematically noted his daily walks, adventures, and meditations, so that the journal became, as Channing remarks, “an autobiography with the genuine brand—it is unconscious.” “For a long time;” says Thoreau, in playful allusion to this private record, “I was reporter to a journal, of no very wide circulation, whose editor has never yet seen fit to print the bulk of my contributions, and as is too common with writers, I got only my labour for my pains. However, in this case my pains were their own reward.” As the diary was revised and corrected with considerable minuteness, its author was able to draw direct from this literary store, whenever he needed the materials for a poem or essay. This was the case with his contributions to the Dial, when that transcendentalist organ was started in 1840 by certain of Thoreau’s friends.

  The effect of the transcendental movement on the formation of Thoreau’s character and the bent of his opinions has already been noted. During this same period of his early manhood, probably while he was still a school-teacher, there occurred an incident which must have affected him very deeply at the time, and may perhaps furnish a key to a good deal that is otherwise rather inexplicable in the tone of some of his writings. It is said that he fell in love with a girl to whom his brother was also attached (she was the daughter of a country pastor), and that in a rare spirit of self-sacrifice he declined to press his own claims, so as to avoid placing himself in any rivalry with his brother. Though there appears to be no actual record of the facts, the story is related on the authority of Emerson, Alcott, and other friends who were in a position to know the truth, and is corroborated by one or two allusions in Thoreau’s writings. The elegiac stanzas on “Sympathy” are understood to refer to this subject, the “gentle boy” whose beauty is therein commemorated being in fact a gentle girl.

“Lately, alas! I knew a gentle boy
Whose features all were cast in Virtue’s mould,
As one she had designed for Beauty’s toy,
But after manned him for her own stronghold.

“So was I taken unawares by this,
I quite forgot my homage to confess;
Yet now am forced to know, though hard it is,
I might have loved him, had I loved him less.

“Each moment as we nearer drew to each,
A stem respect withheld us further yet,
So that we seemed beyond each other’s reach,
And less acquainted than when first we met.

“Eternity may not the chance repeat;
But I must tread my single way alone,
In sad remembrance that we once did meet,
And know that bliss irrevocably gone.”3

  It may be further surmised that the same incident is alluded to in an otherwise unintelligible entry in Thoreau’s diary for 26th January 1841.4 “I had a dream last night which had reference to an act in my life in which I had been most disinterested and true to my highest instinct, but completely failed in realising my hopes; and now, after so many months, in the stillness of sleep, complete justice was rendered me. It was a divine remuneration. In my waking hours I could not have conceived of such retribution; the presumption of desert would have damned the whole. But now I was permitted to be not so much a subject as a partner to that retribution.” To those who are acquainted with this story of Thoreau’s youthful passion and self-inflicted abnegation, it becomes less difficult to understand the somewhat severe and remotely ideal tone that pervades his utterances on friendship and love. “In the light of this new fact,” says Mr. R. L. Stevenson in his essay on Thoreau, “those pages, so seemingly cold, are seen to be alive with feeling.” In this relation we see that there is a peculiar appropriateness in the title which Emerson first applied to Thoreau—the “Bachelor of Nature.”

  That Thoreau would have been willing to make any sacrifice of his personal happiness for the sake of his brother, we can well believe; for this brother was, as he has gratefully recorded, his “good genius,” a “cheerful spirit” by whose sunny presence he was ever invigorated and reassured. The two had been intimately associated from childhood, had worked together and played together, and roamed in company over all the hills and woodlands of Concord. It was with his brother John that Henry made, in 1839, that famous holiday trip on the waters of the Concord and Merrimac rivers, an account of which was published, ten years later, in his first volume, the Week. Starting from Concord on the last day of August, in their boat, the Musketaquid, which they had made with their own hands in the spring, and taking with them their tent, and guns, and fishing-tackle, and various provisions for the voyage, they journeyed down the slow-flowing Concord river, till they came to its confluence with the larger and swifter Merrimac at Lowell. Thence they rowed up the stream of the Merrimac, which, by comparison with that which they had left, seemed like “a silver cascade which falls all the way from the White Mountains to the sea,” until they arrived within a few miles of the New Hampshire capital, which bears the same name as their native village. Here they were compelled to leave their boat, while they proceeded on foot along the bank of the narrowing stream, and so traced the Merrimac river to its source among the White Mountains. This was one of the first of the “Excursions” to which Thoreau was afterwards so much addicted, and from which he often derived benefit both in health and enlarged experiences. The boat in which the brothers made their voyage came subsequently into the possession of Nathaniel Hawthorne, and is the one referred to in the Introduction to the Mosses from an Old Manse.

  Up to the date of which we are speaking Thoreau had no very intimate companion except his brother John, for he had made no close friendships at college, such as should last him for a lifetime. One friendship, however, had already commenced, which was of extreme importance to him both in itself and as being the means of introducing him to a larger circle of friends. Emerson, as has been stated, had settled in Concord in 18 34, and had at once manifested a kindly interest in the welfare of his young neighbour, fifteen years his junior, who was then studying at Harvard University. It was probably in 1837 that their first personal meeting, which could not long have been delayed, was brought about through the agency of a lady who was a relative of Emerson’s family and a friend of the Thoreaus, the Mrs. Brown to whom the stanzas headed “Sic Vita” were dedicated by their youthful author. This lady, having been informed by Helen Thoreau that there was a passage in her brother Henry’s diary which contained some ideas similar to those expressed by Emerson in a recent lecture, reported the matter to Emerson, and at his request brought Henry Thoreau to his house. Thus began an intercourse which continued unbroken during the rest of Thoreau’s life, and which was productive of much pleasure and profit on both sides, to the elder man as well as to the younger. “I delight much in my young friend,” wrote Emerson in 1838, “who seems to have as free and erect a mind as any I have ever met.”

  The value to Thoreau of this admission into the Emersonian circle, exactly at the time when he was able to derive from it the most advantage and encouragement, can hardly be over-estimated; for not only did it draw out the latent energies of his character, but gave him an opportunity of expressing and publishing his thoughts. A periodical which should be the accredited organ of the new ideas had for some time been in contemplation among the members of the transcendental “symposium,” and in 1840 this project was carried into effect by the establishment of the quarterly Dial, the management of which was chiefly in the hands of Emerson, Margaret Fuller, and George Ripley. Its chances of success, in the commercial sense, were from the first very precarious, for the number of original subscribers was small, and a transcendental magazine was not likely to attain to much popularity; but the Dial was nevertheless the means of uniting and consolidating the advocates of the new philosophy, and of affording an opening for many writers of merit who had been hitherto unknown. Commencing in July 1840, it continued to be issued for four years, the editorship during the first half of that time being entrusted to Margaret Fuller and George Ripley, while among the contributors were Emerson, Alcott, Margaret Fuller, Ripley, Theodore Parker, Elizabeth Peabody, Lowell, Thoreau, Ellery Channing, Jones Very, W. H. Channing, and many others of more or less note. Each of the four volumes of the Dial contained essays and poems from Thoreau’s pen, his poem on “Sympathy” in the first number being his earliest appearance in print. This, however, was but his novitiate in literary authorship, and several of his papers were rejected by Margaret Fuller, during the term of her editorship, with a candid criticism of what she judged to be their crudities and defects.

  The presence of Emerson at Concord, to which place he was bound by family ties and early associations—four of his ancestors having been Concord ministers and Dr. Ripley being his step-grandfather, was an event of no slight importance in the history of that hitherto somewhat secluded township. After resigning his Unitarian pastorate at Boston in 1832, and spending the next year in England, he had married his second wife, Miss Lydia Jackson, and taken up his permanent residence at Concord in 1835, where he was so clearly recognised as its most illustrious citizen that in 1836, when a monument was erected on the site of the battlefield of 1775, he was chosen to commemorate the occasion by those stanzas which have since become so celebrated:

“By the rude bridge that arched the flood,
Their flag to April’s breeze unfurled,
Here once the embattled farmers stood,
And fired the shot heard round the world.”

  Through the rise of transcendentalism and the rapid spread of Emerson’s literary fame, Concord—such is the attraction of genius—became more and more a place of note and the resort of poets and philosophers; it was the beginning of a new era for the quiet country town whose sturdy farmers were no longer to be its most prominent representatives, but were to see their placid region invaded by a host of eager enthusiasts from every part of New England. “It was necessary to go but a little way beyond my threshold,” wrote Hawthorne a few years later, “before meeting with stranger moral shapes of men than might have been encountered elsewhere in a circuit of a thousand miles. These hobgoblins of flesh and blood were attracted thither by the wide-spreading influence of a great original thinker, who had his earthly abode at the opposite extremity of our village. His mind acted upon the minds of a certain constitution with wonderful magnetism, and drew many men upon long pilgrimages to speak with him face to face. People that had lighted on a new thought, or a thought that they fancied new, came to Emerson, as the finder of a glittering gem hastens to a lapidary to ascertain its quality and value.”

  But of far more importance than these restless visitors was the permanent circle of friends and fellow-workers who, as old Dr. Ripley was passing away from his ministry, were gathering round the acknowledged seer of Concord. Prominent among these was Amos Bronson Alcott, who came to Concord with his wife and daughters in I 840, tall, slender, white-headed,—one of the gentlest, noblest, and most lovable of men,—and highly valued by Emerson, as by all who knew him (smile though they might at his mysticism and lack of worldly prudence), for his lofty aims and disinterested zeal in the service of humanity. Two years later came Nathaniel Hawthorne, a mystic of a gloomier type, who brought his bride, Sophia Peabody, to the seclusion of the Old Manse, which had been Dr. Ripley’s residence. Hawthorne’s sister-in-law, the talented Elizabeth Peabody, had already settled in Concord, and Margaret Fuller, the Zenobia of his famous romance, plain, indeed, in her personal appearance as compared with that brilliant heroine, yet exercising no less marvellous fascination by her learning, genius, versatility, and rich sympathetic nature, was a frequent visitor for weeks together in the village, where her sister, Ellen Fuller, who had married Ellery Channing, the poet, was then living with her husband. Here too resided Elizabeth Hoar, another of those earnest, thoughtful women by whom the Concord society was rendered doubly remarkable.

  These, with Henry Thoreau, were the chief members of that transcendentalist company of which Concord was the meeting-place, and it cannot be doubted that the course of his speculations, however stubborn his individuality, must have been appreciably affected by his early introduction into so distinguished a group. As early as 1840 he was fully admitted into the inner circle of which Emerson, Alcott, and Margaret Fuller were the chief representatives, and used to be present at Alcott’s philosophical “conversations,” held at Emerson’s house, which were attended by many advanced thinkers from Boston, Cambridge, and other neighbouring towns. A burlesque account (not to be too literally understood) of the solemnity of these meetings has been written by one who was himself a witness of them at a rather later date:5

  “The philosophers sat dignified and erect. There was a constrained but very amiable silence, which had the impertinence of a tacit inquiry, seeming to ask, ‘Who will now proceed to say the finest thing that has ever been said?’ It was quite involuntary and unavoidable, for the members lacked that fluent social genius without which a club is impossible. It was a congress of oracles on the one hand, and of curious listeners on the other. I vaguely remember that the Orphic Alcott6 invaded the desert of silence with a solemn saying, to which, after due pause, the hon. member for blackberry pastures (Thoreau) responded by some keen and graphic observation, while the Olympian host, anxious that so much good material should be spun into something, beamed encouragement upon all parties. Miles Coverdale (Hawthorne), a statue of Night and Silence, sat a little removed under a portrait of Dante, gazing imperturbably upon the group.”

  After Thoreau had further delighted the company “with the secrets won from his interviews with Pan in the Walden woods,” there followed “a grave eating of russet apples by the erect philosophers, and a solemn disappearance into the night.”

  Early in 1841 Thoreau was invited by Emerson to become an inmate of his household, and for two years from that time he lived under his friend’s roof. “He is to have his board, etc., for what labour he chooses to do,” wrote Emerson, “and he is thus far a great benefactor and physician to me, for he is an indefatigable and very skilful laborer. Thoreau is a scholar and a poet, and as full of buds of promise as a young apple-tree.” And again, to Carlyle, in May 1841, “One reader and friend of yours dwells now in my house, Henry Thoreau, a poet whom you may one day be proud of a noble, manly youth, full of melodies and inventions. We work together day by day in my garden, and I grow well and strong.” Emerson’s house was a square, substantial building on the Boston Road, at the outskirts of the village. The ground was low-lying, and at first somewhat bare and open, but some fruit-trees were planted by Thoreau in which Emerson afterwards delighted. Emphatic testimony to Thoreau’s helpfulness and kindness of heart has been borne by Emerson’s son in some recently published memoirs of his father.7 “He was as little troublesome a member of the household, with his habits of plain living and high thinking, as could well have been, and in the constant absences of the master of the house in his lecturing trips, the presence there of such a friendly and sturdy inmate was a great comfort. He was handy with tools, and there was no limit to his usefulness and ingenuity about the house and garden.” That Emerson at times felt a little out of sympathy with the rather pugnacious and contradictory temperament of his young friend, as shown in his suggestive remark, “Thoreau is, with difficulty, sweet,” is probable enough, and does not necessarily conflict with the above statement. It appears that John Thoreau, Henry’s brother, was also intimate with Emerson’s family at this time, and was in the habit of performing similar friendly services. On one occasion he fixed a blue-bird’s box on Emerson’s barn, a gift which remained for years, as Emerson notes, “with every summer a melodious family in it, adorning the place and singing his praises.” It was by John Thoreau’s arrangement, too, that a daguerreotype portrait was taken of little Waldo Emerson only a few months before the child’s death.

  Thoreau’s friendship with Alcott, though less intimate than with Emerson, was very constant and sincere, and Alcott himself has borne grateful testimony to the worth of Thoreau as a friend. Margaret Fuller, whose connection with the Dial brought her into association and correspondence with Thoreau, also seems to have felt considerable interest in his character at this time, and expressed herself in her letters with her wonted candour and freedom. In rejecting some verses which Thoreau had offered her for publication, she thus sketches the outlines, as they appear to her, of his personality and genius:8

  “He is healthful rare, of open eye, ready hand, and noble scope. He sets no limit to his life, nor to the invasions of nature; he is not wilfully pragmatical, cautious, ascetic, or fantastical. But he is as yet a somewhat bare hill which the warm gales of spring have not visited. Yet what could a companion do at present, unless to tame the guardian of the Alps too early? Leave him at peace amid his native snows. He is friendly; he will find the generous office that shall educate him. It is not a soil for the citron and the rose, but for the whortleberry, the pine, or the heather.

  “The unfolding of affections, a wider and deeper human experience, the harmonising influence of other natures, will mould the man and melt his verse. He will seek thought less and find knowledge more. I can have no advice or criticism for a person so sincere; but if I give my impression of him, I will say, ‘ He says too constantly of nature, she is mine.’ She is not yours till you have been more hers. Seek the lotus, and take a draught of rapture. Say not so confidently, all places, all occasions are alike. This will never come true till you have found it false.

  “If intercourse should continue, perhaps a bridge may be made between two minds so widely apart; for I apprehended you in spirit, and you did not seem to mistake me so widely as most of your kind do. If you should find yourself inclined to write to me, as you thought you might, I dare say many thoughts would be suggested to me; many have already, by seeing you from day to day.”

  In this same year Thoreau made another acquaintance which soon ripened into the warmest and most intimate friendship of his life. Ellery Channing, the nephew of the great Unitarian minister, Dr. W. E. Channing, and the brother-in-law of Margaret Fuller, came to Concord in 1841, and lived for a time in a cottage near Emerson’s house. He was a poet and a man of genius, though of so whimsical, moody, and unstable a character that he never won the popularity which his friends were constantly anticipating for him. “Could he have drawn out that virgin gold,” says Hawthorne of Channing’s talent, “and stamped it with the mint-mark that alone gives currency, the world might have had the profit and he the fame.” Between him and Thoreau, whose junior he was by one year, there was quickly established a strong bond of sympathy and mutual understanding, which perhaps originated in the fact that each stood in a position of antagonism towards the canons of society. Channing, who was as impatient of routine as Thoreau himself, had not graduated at the University; and while his new friend had been keeping school at Concord he had been living in a log-hut in the wilds of Illinois. He was, according to his own description of himself, “a poet and literary man, one who loved old books, old garrets, old wines, old pipes,” and whose pleasure it was to spend the winter in conning variorum editions of his favourite authors, and the summer in walking and horticulture. In his unwearying devotion to nature and natural scenery his tastes exactly coincided with Thoreau’s, and many were the rambling walks and talks they had together at all hours and seasons, while the good folk of Concord were intent on their more sober business.

  It was well for Henry Thoreau that at this period of his early manhood he had formed these lasting friendships with such men as Emerson, Alcott, and Channing; for a blow was impending which might otherwise have left him lonely and friendless on the very threshold of active life. We have seen how his natural self-control and fortitude of character enabled him to perform a striking act of self-renunciation for the sake of the brother to whom he was so closely attached; he was now to be subjected to a still severer trial by the unexpected death of the companion of his youthful days. In the early months of 1841 a calm untroubled career seemed to be opening before him. “Life looks as fair at this moment,” so he wrote in his diary, “as a summer’s sea. Through this pure unwiped hour, as through a crystal glass, I look out upon the future as a smooth lawn for my virtue to disport in. I see the course of my life, like some retired road, wind on without obstruction into a country maze.” But twelve months later the tone of his meditations is changed to a cry of doubt and anguish such as he rarely suffered to escape him. “My life! my life! why will you linger? Are the years short and the months of no account? Can God afford that I should forget him? Is he so indifferent to my career? Why were my ears given to hear those everlasting strains which haunt my life, and yet to be profaned by these perpetual dull sounds?” In February 1842 John Thoreau died from lock-jaw, caused by an injury done to his hand—a death so sudden and painful that his brother could rarely endure to hear mention of it in after-life, and is said to have turned pale and faint when narrating the circumstances to a friend more than twelve years later. When he visited Cohasset in 1849, and witnessed a terrible death-scene after the shipwreck of an Irish brig, he remarked that if he had found one body cast upon the beach in some lonely place it would have affected him more. “A man,” he adds, “can attend but one funeral in the course of his life, can behold but one corpse”; in which saying there is undoubtedly a reference to his own bereavement. It is noticeable that in his Week on the Concord and Merrimac Rivers, his brother, though necessarily often alluded to, is not once mentioned by name.

  For this heavy blow Thoreau sought and found the needed comfort in that strong intuitive belief in the immutable goodness of Nature, which was the basis of his whole intellectual creed. This feeling is expressed not only in passages of his diary, but also, and more explicitly, in a letter which he addressed to a friend in March 1842, in which he speaks both of his brother’s death and of that of little Waldo, Emerson’s favourite child, who died early in the same year.

  “Soon after John’s death I listened to a music-box, and if, at any time, that event had seemed inconsistent with the beauty and harmony of the universe, it was then gently constrained into the placid course of nature by those steady notes, in mild and unoffended tone echoing far and wide under the heavens. But I find these things more strange than sad to me. What right have I to grieve, who have not ceased to wonder? We feel at first as if some opportunities of kindness and sympathy were lost, but learn afterwards that any pure grief is ample recompense for all. That is, if we are faithful; for a great grief is but sympathy with the soul that disposes events, and is as natural as the resin on Arabian trees. Only Nature has a right to grieve perpetually, for she alone is innocent Soon the ice will melt, and the blackbirds sing along the river which he frequented, as pleasantly as ever. The same everlasting serenity will appear in the face of God, and we will not be sorrowful if he is not.

  “I do not wish to see John ever again—I mean him who is dead—but that other, whom only he would have wished to see, or to be, of whom he was the imperfect representative. For we are not what we are, nor do we treat or esteem each other for such, but for what we are capable of being.

  “As for Waldo, he died as the mist rises from the brook, which the sun will soon dart his rays through. Do not the flowers die every autumn? He had not even taken root here. I was not startled to hear that he was dead: it seemed the most natural event that could happen. His fine organisation demanded it, and nature gently yielded its request. It would have been strange if he had lived. Neither will nature manifest any sorrow at his death, but soon the note of the lark will be heard down in the meadow, and fresh dandelions will spring from the old stocks where he plucked them last summer.”

  One effect of his brother’s death was to incline Thoreau still more strongly towards the transcendental manner of thought; he might indeed have been in danger of lapsing into that vague mysticism which was the besetting weakness of some of the transcendentalists, had it not been for the sound practical frame of mind which was as much a part of him as his idealism. It was this solid element of good sense that kept the balance in his character; soar as he might in his transcendental reveries, and scoff as he might at the absurdities of conventional habit, he never lost his hold on the simple essential facts of everyday life.

1 I.e. The study of the pure reason which transcends the finite senses; the “feeling of the infinite,” as Emerson expressed it.
2 Essay on Thoreau in My Study Windows.
3 The Dial, vol. i. No. 1. The lines “To the Maiden in the East,” also printed in the Dial, do not refer to the same person.
4 Winter, p. 253.
5 G. W. Curtis, in Homes of American Authors.
6 An allusion to Alcott’s “Orphic Sayings,” in the Dial, which excited much ridicule.
7 Emerson in Concord, 1889, by Dr. E.W. Emerson.
8 The letter, dated 18th October 1841, is printed in Mr. Sanborn’s Life of Thoreau.

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