At Walden.

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


WALDEN POND, on the shore of which Thoreau determined to make his hermitage, is a small lake, about a mile and a half south of the village of Concord, surrounded by low thickly-wooded hills. It is described by Thoreau as “a gem of the first water, which Concord wears in her coronet . . . a clear and deep green well, half a mile long and a mile and three-quarters in circumference, and containing about sixty-one and a half acres; a perennial spring in the midst of pine and oak woods, without any visible inlet or outlet except by the clouds and evaporation.” Its water, which is of a greenish-blue colour, is so brilliantly transparent that the bottom is visible at a depth of thirty feet, in which respect it is unrivalled by the other ponds of the neighbourhood, except by White Pond, which lies some two miles westward, on the other side of the Concord river. Walden had doubtless in primitive ages been frequented by the Indians, as was testified by arrow-heads discoverable on its shores, and by dim traces of a narrow shelf-like path, “worn by the feet of aboriginal hunters,” which ran round the steeply-sloping bank. In the early days of the Massachusetts colony, the dense woods, which even in Thoreau’s memory completely surrounded the pond, had been the haunt of fugitives and outlaws; but, at a later period, the road from Concord to Lincoln, which skirts the east shore of Walden, had been dotted by the cottages and gardens of a small hamlet, and had resounded, as Thoreau tells us, “with the laugh and gossip of inhabitants.” “Now,” he adds, “only a dent in the earth marks the site of these dwellings, with buried cellar-stones, and strawberries, raspberries, thimbleberries, hazel-bushes, and sumachs growing in the sunny sward there; some pitch-pine or gnarled oak occupies what was the chimney-nook, and a sweet-scented black-pitch, perhaps, waves where the door-stone was.” Drink had been the ruin of these former settlers; and the hardy water-drinker who now came to make his home in Walden woods took care to choose a new and unpolluted spot for his dwelling. “I am not aware,” he says, “that any man has ever built, on the spot which I occupy. Deliver me from a city built on the site of a more ancient city, whose materials are ruins, whose gardens cemeteries.”

  The ground chosen by Thoreau for the building of his hut was on a wood-lot belonging to Emerson—a sloping bank at the outskirts of the forest, on the north shore of the pond, and some thirty or forty yards from the water-edge. No house could be seen from this point, the horizon being bounded by the woods on the opposite shore, half a mile distant; and although the village was within easy reach, and the newly-constructed railway was visible on one hand, and the woodland road on the other, there was no neighbour within a mile, and the solitude was usually as complete as the strictest anchorite could have desired. This position exactly suited Thoreau’s requirements, since he could either pursue his meditations undisturbed, or, if the mood took him, pay a visit to his friends in the village, from whose society he had no intention of permanently banishing himself.

  So one morning towards the end of March 1845, when the approach of spring was already heralded by the voice of song-birds and the thawing of the ice on Walden, the “Bachelor of Nature” addressed himself to the pleasurable task of “squatting” on the selected spot. Having borrowed the favourite axe of his friend Alcott, who warned him that it was “the apple of his eye,” he began to cut down pine trees, and hew the timber into shape for the frame of his hut, working leisurely each day, so as to get the full enjoyment of his occupation, and returning betimes to the village to sleep. After two or three weeks spent in this labour, when the house was framed and ready for raising, he dug his cellar in the sand of the sloping bank, six feet square by seven deep; and having bought the planks of a shanty belonging to an Irishman who worked on the Fitchbury railroad, he transported them to the site of the hut. Early in May he set up the frame of his house, on which occasion—for the sake of neighbourliness, as he is careful to tell us, rather than of necessity—he accepted the assistance of some of his friends, among whom were Alcott (to whom he returned the axe sharper than he had received it), George William Curtis,1 a young enthusiast, fresh from Harvard and Brook Farm, who was then spending a year or two at Concord, having hired himself out as an agricultural labourer, and Edmund Hosmer, one of the leading farmers of Concord, with whom he was on intimate terms. The hut, which was ten feet wide by fifteen long, with a garret and a closet, a large window at the side, a door at one end, and a brick fire-place at the other, was then boarded and roofed so as to be quite rainproof, but during the summer months it remained without plastering or chimney. It was the 4th of July, or Independence Day—a significant and auspicious date for the commencement of such an undertaking—when Thoreau, who previously had been owner of no habitations but a boat and a tent, took up his residence in this house, which he could call his own property, and which, as he proudly records, had cost him but twenty-eight dollars in the building.

  The question of “furnishing,” which is a cause of such anxious consideration to so many worthy householders, was solved by Thoreau with his usual boldness and expedition. “Furniture!” he exclaims, in an outburst of pitying wonder at the spectacle of men who are enslaved by their own chattels. “Thank God, I can sit and I can stand without the aid of a furniture warehouse.” His furniture at Walden, which was partly of his own manufacture, consisted of “a bed, a table, a desk, three chairs, a looking-glass three inches in diameter, a pair of tongs and andirons, a kettle, a skillet and a frying-pan, a dipper, a wash-bowl, two knives and forks, three plates, one cup, one spoon, a jug for oil, a jug for molasses, and a japanned lamp.” Curtains he did not need, since there were no gazers to look in on him except the sun and moon, and he had no carpet in danger of fading, nor meat and milk to be guarded from sunshine or moonbeam. When a lady offered him a mat, he declined it as being too cumbrous and troublesome an article; he preferred to wipe his feet on the sod outside his door. Finding that three pieces of limestone which lay upon his desk required to be dusted daily, he threw them out of the window, determined that if he had any furniture to dust, it should be “the furniture of his mind.” With a house thus organised, housework, instead of being an exhausting and ever-recurring labour, was a pleasant pastime. “When my floor was dirty,” he says, “I rose early, and setting all my furniture out of doors on the grass, bed and bedstead making but one budget, dashed water on the floor, and sprinkled white sand from the pond on it, and then with a broom scrubbed it clean and white; and by the time the villagers had broken their fast, the morning sun had dried my house sufficiently to allow me to move in again, and my meditations were almost uninterrupted. It was pleasant to see my whole household effects on the grass, making a little pile like a gipsy’s pack, and my three-legged table, from which I did not remove the books and pen and ink, standing amidst the pines and hickories.”

  Having thus chosen his surroundings, he was free to choose also the most congenial manner of life. “Every morning,” he says, “was a cheerful invitation to make my life of equal simplicity, and I may say, innocence, with Nature herself.” He rose early, and took his bath in the pond, a habit which he regarded as nothing less than “a religious exercise.” “I am inclined to think bathing,” he remarks in his journal, “almost one of the necessaries of life. One farmer who came to bathe in Walden one Sunday while I lived there, told me it was the first bath he had had for fifteen years. Now what kind of religion could his be? “After the morning bath came the work-or the leisure-of the day. In the early summer, before the building was finished, he had ploughed and planted about two and a half acres of the light sandy soil in the neighbourhood of his hut, the crop chiefly consisting of beans, with a few potatoes, peas, and turnips; and during this first summer at Walden the bean-field was the chief scene of his labours, from five o’clock till noon being the hours devoted to the work. “I came to love my rows, my beans, though so many more than I wanted. But why should I raise them? Only heaven knows. This was my curious labour all the summer—to make this portion of the earth’s surface, which had yielded only cinquefoil, blackberries, johnswort, and the like before, sweet wild fruits and pleasant flowers, produce this pulse.” Day after day the travellers on the road from Concord to Lincoln would rein in their horses and pause to look with wonder on this strange husbandman, who cultivated a field where all else was wild upland, who put no manure on the soil, and continued to sow beans at a time when others had begun to hoe.

  Meantime the husbandman himself was deriving from his rough matter-of-fact occupation a sort of sublime transcendental satisfaction; it was agriculture and mysticism combined to which he was devoting his bodily and mental energies. “When my hoe tinkled against the stones, that music echoed to the woods and the sky, and was an accompaniment to my labour which yielded an instant and immeasurable crop.” What matter if, when the pecuniary gains and losses of the season came to be estimated, he found himself with a balance of but eight dollars in his favour, which represented his year’s income from the farm? Was he not less anxious and more contented than his fellow-agriculturists of the village? “I was more independent,” he says, “than any farmer in Concord, for I was not anchored to a house or farm, but could follow the bent of my genius, which is a very crooked one, every moment. Beside being better off than they already, if my house had been burned or my crops had failed, I should have been nearly as well off as before.” The following season he improved on these results by cultivating only a third of an acre, and using the spade instead of the plough. Whatever money was further needed for his food and personal expenses, he earned by occasional day-labour in the village, for he had, as he tells us, “as many trades as fingers.”

  After a morning thus spent in work, whether manual or literary, he would refresh himself by a second plunge in the pond, and enjoy an afternoon of perfect freedom, rambling, according to his wont, by river or forest, wherever his inclination led him. He had also his entire days of leisure, when he could not afford “to sacrifice the bloom of the present moment to any work, whether of the head or hands.” “Sometimes,” he says, “in a summer morning, having taken my accustomed bath, I sat in my sunny doorway from sunrise till noon, rapt in a reverie, amidst the pines, and hickories, and sumachs, in undisturbed solitude and stillness, while the birds sang around or flitted noiseless through the house, until by the sun falling in at my west window, or the noise of some traveller’s waggon on the distant highway, I was reminded of the lapse of time.” He was well aware that these day-dreams must be accounted sheer idleness by his enterprising townsmen; but of that he himself was the best and only judge. “I grew in these seasons like corn in the night, and they were far better than any work of the hands would have been.” On moonlit evenings he would walk on the sandy beach of the pond, and wake the echoes of the surrounding woods with his flute.

  We have seen what amount of shelter Thoreau thought needful for his comfort; his estimate of what is necessary in the way of food and clothing was conceived in the same spirit. His costume was habitually coarse, shabby, and serviceable; he would wear corduroy, Channing tells us, but not shoddy. His drab hat, battered and weather-stained, his clothes often torn and as often mended, his dusty cow-hide boots, all told of hard service in field and forest, and of the unwillingness of their wearer to waste a single dollar on the vanities of outward appearance. He wished his garments to become assimilated to himself, and to receive a true impress of his character; he would not be, like some king or nobleman, a wooden horse on which clean clothes might be hung for a day’s ornament. “No man,” he says, “ever stood the lower in my estimation for having a patch in his clothes; yet I am sure that there is greater anxiety, commonly, to have fashionable, or at least clean and unpatched clothes, than to have a sound conscience.” His diet was fully as simple and economical as his clothing; his food, while he stayed at Walden, consisting of rice, Indian meal, potatoes, and very rarely salt pork, and his drink of water. He baked his own bread of rye and Indian meal, at first procuring yeast from the village, but afterwards coming to the conclusion that it was “simpler and more respectable” to omit the process of leavening. He had a strong preference at all times for a vegetarian diet, though he would occasionally catch a mess of fish for his dinner from Walden Pond, and pleads guilty on one occasion to having slaughtered and devoured a wood-chuck which had made inroads on his bean field.

  “There is a certain class of unbelievers,” he says, “who sometimes ask me such questions as, if I think I can live on vegetable food alone; and to strike at the root of the matter at once-for the root is faith—I am accustomed to answer such, that I can live on board nails. If they cannot understand that, they cannot understand much that I have to say.” The moral of it all was, according to Thoreau’s experience, that incredibly little trouble was necessary to provide a sufficient diet; a dish of green sweet-corn, or even of purslane, boiled and salted, was sometimes enough for his dinner. “Simplify, simplify. Instead of three meals a day, if it be necessary eat but one; instead of a hundred dishes, five; and reduce other things in proportion.”

  In November, when the summer weather was ended and frost coming on apace, Thoreau put the finishing touches to his house by shingling its sides, building a fireplace and chimney, and finally plastering the walls. Hardly was this last process over when the winter set in with full severity, and by the middle of December the pond was completely frozen and the ground covered with snow. He now began, in the full sense, to inhabit his hermitage, his outdoor employments being limited to collecting and chopping firewood, while during the long evening hours he occupied himself with the journal, which he still kept with unfailing regularity, and which formed the basis of his volumes on Walden and the Week on the Concord and Merrimac Rivers, the latter of which was now in course of preparation. Now, too, he had full leisure to weigh the respective merits of society and solitude. Not only had he no neighbours, but he kept no domestic animals, “neither dog, cat, cow, pig, nor hens, so that you would have said there was a deficiency of domestic sounds; neither the churn, nor the spinning-wheel, nor even the singing of the kettle, nor the hissing of the urn, nor children crying, to comfort me. Not even rats in the wall—only squirrels on the roof and under the floor, a whip-poor-will on the ridge-pole, a blue jay screaming beneath the window, a hare or wood-chuck under the house, a screech-owl or a cat-owl behind it, a flock of wild geese or a laughing loon on the pond, and a fox to bark in the night.” Of the solitude thus offered him he availed himself with gratitude and profit; it was during this period that he matured his thoughts and perfected his literary style, so that having come to Walden with still somewhat of the crudeness of youth, he might leave it with the firmness and dignity of manhood.

  It is, however, a mistake to suppose that Thoreau was entirely isolated from society during his seclusion at Walden—such had never been his intention, and such was not, in fact, the case. Every day or two, in winter as well as in summer, he strolled to the village to see his relatives and friends, and to hear the gossip of the hour, sometimes returning late at night after supper at a friend’s house, and steering his way with difficulty through the darkness of the Walden woods. The Fitchburg railroad often provided him with a pathway on these occasions; indeed, so well known was he along the line, that the drivers of the trains were accustomed to bow to him as to an old acquaintance. Nor was the visiting altogether on Thoreau’s side; for, as may well be believed, the news of his strange retirement brought him numerous unbidden guests, whom he received with such hospitality as was possible in his sylvan abode. To the simple holiday folk, who came to enjoy themselves and make the best of their time, such as children and railroad men, wood-choppers, fishermen, hunters, and even idiots from the almshouse, he seems invariably to have extended a hearty welcome and good fellowship; not so, perhaps, to the dilettante reformers, prying gossips, and sham philanthropists, whose advances he characteristically resented, men who “did not know when their visit had terminated,” though he sought to indicate this fact to them by going about his business again, and answering them “from greater and greater remoteness.” “One man,” he says, “proposed a book in which visitors should write their names, as at the White Mountains; but, alas, I have too good a memory to make that necessary.”

  He also received welcome visits from Emerson, on whose land he was “squatting,” and from his other personal friends. Ellery Channing spent a fortnight with him in his hut at Walden, at the time when he was building his fire-place, and was a frequent visitor at all seasons of the year. “The one who came farthest to my lodge,” says Thoreau, “through deepest snows and most dismal tempests, was a poet. . . . We made that small house ring with boisterous mirth, and resound with the murmur of much sober talk, making amends then to Walden vale for the long silences. . . . We made many a ‘bran new’ theory of life over a dish of gruel, which combined the advantages of conviviality with the clear-headedness which philosophy requires.” Alcott was another of his regular guests, and it is he who is referred to in the pages of Walden as “one of the last of the philosophers,” the man “of the most faith of any alive.” “During my last winter at the pond,” says Thoreau, in reference to Alcott, “there was another welcome visitor, who at one time came from the village, through snow, and rain, and darkness, till he saw my lamp through the trees, and shared with me some long winter evenings.” On a Sunday afternoon he would sometimes be cheered by the approach of the “long-headed farmer,” Edmund Hosmer, one of the firmest and heartiest of his friends, and the talk would then be of “rude and simple times, when men sat about large fires in cold bracing weather, with clear heads.” It will be seen from these instances that Thoreau was by no means the misanthropic anchorite that some have imagined him. He well knew the value of social intercourse; but, on the other hand, he knew also that “society is commonly too cheap”; he loved at times to be alone, and confesses that he “never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude.”

  There is some reason to suppose that the Walden hermitage was occasionally a refuge to quite other visitors than those who have been enumerated. It is said that Thoreau’s hut was “a station in the great Underground Railway” for runaway slaves,2 and though Thoreau himself only mentions one visitor of this kind (“one real runaway slave, whom I had helped to forward toward the north star”), there is no improbability in the statement. He had been brought up, as already mentioned, in an atmosphere of abolition; his kinsfolk were all ardent abolitionists; and he always remembered with pleasure that he had rung the bell of the town-hall on the occasion of a great meeting addressed by Emerson at Concord in 1844, to celebrate the emancipation of the English West Indian slaves. “The institution of American slavery,” says Channing, “was a filthy and rotten shed which Thoreau used his utmost strength to cut away and burn up. From first to last he loved and honoured abolitionism. Not one slave alone was expedited to Canada by Thoreau’s personal assistance.” It may well be, therefore, that the hut at Walden was a convenient station, by reason of its extreme seclusion, for purposes of this sort, and that Thoreau was hinting at this in his narrative of the reasons which led him to choose that spot. “I have thought,” he says, “that Walden Pond would be a good place for business, not solely on account of the railroad and the ice-trade; it offers advantages which it may not be good policy to divulge; it is a good post, and a good foundation.”

  It was in connection with Thoreau’s abolitionist enthusiasm that a remarkable incident befell him during his first autumn at Walden. An intensely individualistic view of life had naturally led him, as it led Alcott and some other transcendentalists, to the adoption of anarchist doctrines, and he heartily accepted and endorsed the dictum that “that government is best which governs not at all.” His deep disapproval of the foreign policy of the United States in their war with Mexico, and his still stronger detestation of the sanction given by Government to negro slavery at home, had the effect of spurring his latent discontent into a sense of ‘active personal antagonism to the State and its representatives, and he felt that something more than a verbal protest was demanded from those who, like himself, were required to show their allegiance in the form of taxes. “I meet this American Government, or its representative the State Government, directly, and face to face, once a year—no more—in the person of its tax-gatherer. . . . If a thousand men were not to pay their tax-bills this year, that would not be a violent and bloody measure, as it would be to pay them, and enable the State to commit violence and shed innocent blood.”3

  So when his “civil neighbor,” the tax-gatherer, came to Thoreau for the poll-tax, it was refused (as the church-tax had been refused by him in 1838) on the ground that he did not care to trace the course of his dollar “ till it buys a man, or a musket to shoot one with.” To the anxious inquiry of the tax-gatherer what he was to do under these perplexing circumstances, the answer returned was that if he really wished to do anything, he should resign his office. The first difficulty of this kind had arisen, as we have seen, in 1843, when Alcott, who was probably acting in conjunction with Thoreau, was arrested for his refusal to pay tax; but it was not till 18454 that the State proceeded against the younger, and, as it was presumably thought, less important offender. One afternoon, when Thoreau chanced to have gone in from Walden to the village to get a shoe from the cobbler’s, he was intercepted and lodged in the town jail. “Henry, why are you here?” were the words of Emerson, when he came to visit his friend in this new place of retirement. “Why are you not here?” was the reply of the prisoner, who held that, under an unjust Government, a prison-cell was the right abode for a just man. A humorous account of the night he spent in prison, and of the fellow-criminals he met there, was afterwards written by Thoreau. “It was like travelling,”—he tells us, “into a far country, such as I had never expected to behold, to lie there for one night. It seemed to me that I had never heard the town-clock strike before, nor the evening sounds of the village, for we slept with the windows open, which were inside the grating. It was a closer view of my, native town. I was fairly inside of it. I never had seen its institutions before. I began to comprehend what its inhabitants were about.” The next morning he was discharged, some friend—probably Emerson—having paid the tax without his consent—a somewhat tame conclusion of the dispute on which he had not reckoned, but which he accepted with his usual insouciance. He proceeded straight from the prison door, among the meaning glances of his fellow-townsmen, to finish the errand in which he had been interrupted overnight, and having put on his mended shoe, was soon in command of a huckleberry party, on a hill two miles from Concord, from which spot, as he characteristically remarked, “the State was nowhere to be seen.”

  Meanwhile, as the seasons passed on, the daily walks on which Thoreau had from his boyhood set such store were by no means forgotten; hermit though he might be, he was still above all things the poet-naturalist. “No weather,” he says in Walden, “interfered fatally with my walks, or rather my going abroad, for I frequently tramped eight or ten miles through the deepest snow to keep an appointment with a beech-tree, or a yellow-birch, or an old acquaintance among the pines.” In 1847 he had some correspondence and personal intercourse with Agassiz, who had come to the States in the preceding autumn, and paid more than one visit to Concord. On several occasions collections of fishes, turtles, and various local fauna were sent to Agassiz by Thoreau, of whose knowledge and observation the great naturalist formed a high opinion. In one way, however, Thoreau differed widely from other members of the same profession, for, though a naturalist, he had discarded the use of the gun and the trap before he lived in the woods, his field-glass being the only weapon of attack which he now carried in his excursions. “As for fowling,” he says, “during the last years that I carried a gun my excuse was that I was studying ornithology, and sought only new or rare birds, but I confess that I am now inclined to think that there is a finer way of ornithology than this. It requires so much closer attention to the habits of the birds that, if for that reason only, I have been willing to omit the gun.” Fishing was the only sport which he did not abandon, and even on this point his conscience was already uneasy, and he had discovered that he could not fish “without falling a little in self-respect.” Nevertheless the hunting instinct, restrained for the time, was still dormant in him, and was ready to break out on occasion. “He confessed,” says Emerson, “that he sometimes felt like a hound or a panther, and, if born among Indians, would have been a fell hunter. But, restrained by the Massachusetts culture, he played out the game in the mild form of botany and ichthyology.” During all his walks over the fields and forests of the Walden neighbourhood in which he was absent for hours, and sometimes days together, he never fastened the door of his hut; yet he never missed anything but a volume of Homer, and “was never molested by any person but those who represented the State.” His longest absence from Walden seems to have been the fortnight he spent in Maine, in September 1846, when, in company with a cousin who was residing at Bangor, he explored the recesses of the Maine woods, ascended the mountain Ktaadn, and made personal acquaintance with some of the native Indian hunters, whose habits he was never weary of studying.

  Thus two summers and two winters passed by, fruitful in quiet meditation and ripening experience, though offering few incidents which call for special remark. When the summer of 1847 had arrived, he began to feel that the object for which he retired to Walden was now sufficiently accomplished, and that it was time for him to return to the more social atmosphere of the village. His period of retirement had not been wasted or misspent, for he had learnt by his experiment two great lessons concerning the practical life and the spiritual. First, “that to maintain one’s self on this earth is not a hardship but a pastime, if we will live simply and wisely,” it being his own experience that he could meet all the expenses of the year by six weeks of work. Secondly, “that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavours to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours; in proportion as he simplifies his life the laws of the universe will appear less complex, and solitude will not be solitude, nor poverty poverty, nor weakness weakness.” He had put his transcendental philosophy to the test, and the result had not disappointed him; he was no longer the “parcel of vain strivings” which he had pictured himself in his youthful poem, but he had now firm ground beneath his feet, and a clear object towards which to direct his course in the future.

  On 6th September 1847 he left Walden, and again took up his residence in his father’s household at Concord. “I left the woods,” he says, “for as good a reason as I went there. Perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one.” “Why did I leave the woods?” he wrote in his journal a few years later. “I do not think that I can tell: I do not know any better how I came to go there. I have often wished myself back. Perhaps I wanted change. There was a little stagnation, it may be, about two o’clock in the afternoon. Perhaps if I lived there much longer, I might live there for ever. One might think twice before he accepted heaven on such terms.” So he quitted this heaven of transcendental seclusion, to return to the purgatory of village society. The hut in which he had spent so many pleasant hours became the habitation of a Scotch gardener; a few years later it was bought by a farmer, and removed to another quarter of the Concord township, where it was used as a small granary and tool-house till some time after the death of its architect and original inhabitant.

  Walden, the most famous of Thoreau’s volumes, which contains the account of his life in the woods, was not published till 1854. That this most characteristic episode of his life, which, as Emerson observes, “was quite native and fit for him,” should be a cause of wonder and misunderstanding to the majority of his readers and fellow-citizens, was, perhaps, only to be expected. Mention is made in one of the later diaries of an acquaintance of Emerson’s who was much interested in Walden, but who was convinced that the book was nothing more than a satire and jeu d’ esprit, written solely for the amusement of the passing moment,—a misconception of the whole spirit of Thoreau’s life, which is scarcely more wide of the mark than are some of the judgments passed on the Walden experiment in more recent criticism. “His shanty life,” says Mr. Lowell, “was a mere impossibility, so far as his own conception of it goes, as an entire independency of mankind. The tub of Diogenes had a sounder bottom.”5 But there is not the slightest indication that Thoreau was thinking of an “entire independency of mankind”; he was simply adopting a more independent way of living than that which custom enjoins. And even this was only temporary and personal; he expressly disclaims any wish “to prescribe rules to strong and valiant natures who will mind their own affairs,” and merely begs his readers to accept such portions of his story as apply to them. The humour which is everywhere mingled with the seriousness of the Walden episode ought to preserve it from the absurdity of a strictly literal interpretation, though, as an example and experiment, its serious import is also unmistakable enough. The fact that this enterprise of Thoreau’s, as described in his Walden, has been an encouragement and help to many persons, both in America and England, to live a simpler and saner life, is of itself sufficient testimony to the success of his endeavours.6

  It is necessary, however, if we would understand Thoreau aright, to appreciate carefully the importance of his sojourn at Walden in relation to the rest of his career. It seems to be sometimes forgotten that the period of his retirement was only two years out of the twenty of his adult life, and that it is therefore an injustice to him to connect his work too exclusively with Walden, or to speak of that episode as containing the sum and substance of his philosophical belief. It was a time of self-probation rather than an attempt to influence others, a trial rather than an expression of his transcendental ideas; he was under thirty years of age when he went to Walden, had published no volumes, and was altogether unknown except to a limited circle of his fellow-townsmen. On the other hand, it must be noted that this was the time when his thoughts ripened, and his ethical creed assumed a definite form, and that his residence in the woods was not only the most striking, because the most picturesque, incident in his life, but also gave a determining direction to his later career. He was a student when he came to Walden; when he returned to Concord he was a teacher. And now, at this critical point in Thoreau’s story, it may be well to interrupt for a time the external narrative of his life, in order to show what manner of man he was, in appearance, character, sympathies, studies, and other personal traits, when he thus came forward to preach to an inattentive world his ideal gospel of Simplicity.

1 In his contribution to Homes of American Authors he refers to Thoreau’s hut. “One pleasant afternoon a small party of us helped him raise it-a bit of life as Arcadian as any at Brook Farm.”
2 Essay on Thoreau in Men and Books, by R. L. Stevenson.
3 Essay on Civil Disobedience, 1849.
4 The date is wrongly given in Emerson’s Memoir as 1847.
5 The author of the article on Thoreau in the Encyclopædia Britannica falls into a similar error, when he states that Thoreau was “desirous of proving to himself and others that man could be as independent of mankind as the nest-building bird.” So, too, Prof. Nichol, in his American Literature.
6 The true significance of Thoreau’s retirement to Walden is well brought out in Thoreau, his Life and Aims, by H. A. Page.

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