Literary Life at Concord.

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


IN the autumn of 1847, shortly after leaving the hut at Walden, Thoreau again took up his residence at Emerson’s house, and lived there a year during his friend’s absence in Europe, in order to keep Mrs. Emerson company and take charge of the garden. He was in the habit of assisting Mr. Alcott in garden work on his estate at “Hillside,” and in 1847 the two friends and fellow-workmen had built Emerson a summer-house, to be used as a study. Early in October Thoreau accompanied Emerson to Boston to see him start on his voyage, and in a letter to his sister Sophia he feelingly described the appearance and dimensions of the philosopher’s cabin, and how, instead of a walk in Walden woods, he would be compelled to promenade on deck, “where the few trees, you know, are stripped of their bark.” Emerson, on his part, was not forgetful of Thoreau’s interests during his visit to England, and we find him planning, in 1848, a new joint American and English magazine, to which Thoreau was to be one of the chief contributors. After Emerson’s return to Concord in 1849 Thoreau lived at his father’s house in the village, and this continued to be his home for the rest of his life.

  He had now begun to consider literature his regular occupation, and it was as a writer and lecturer that he was henceforth chiefly known. We have seen that during his literary novitiate he had contributed articles (unpaid, for the most part) to the Dial and other journals; and in 1847, by the kind services of Horace Greeley, his essay on Carlyle was printed in Graham’s Magazine. This was followed in 1849 by the essay on “Civil Disobedience,” an expression of his anarchist views, which found place in the Boston Æsthetic Papers. In the spring of the same year he took a far more daring and important step by the publication of his first volume, the Week on the Concord and Merrimac Rivers, which was issued, at the author’s expense, by Munroe, a Boston bookseller. The book was well reviewed, but did not sell, and the result was that Thoreau was compelled to raise money to pay off the debt by devoting his time for an unusually long period to the more remunerative but less congenial task of surveying. An edition of one thousand copies had been printed, and for several years the bulk of these lay idle on the publisher’s shelves, until, in 1853, the remaining seven hundred volumes were returned en masse to the author. This event is recorded by Thoreau in his characteristic vein of dry humour, and with a manly courage and self-reliance not to be surpassed in the history of literary authorship:

  “The wares are sent to me at last, and I have an opportunity to examine my purchase. They are something more substantial than fame, as my back knows, which has borne them up two flights of stairs to a place similar to that to which they trace their origin. Of the remaining two hundred ninety and odd, seventy-five were given away, the rest sold. I have now a library of nearly nine hundred volumes, over seven hundred of which I wrote myself. Is it not well that the author should behold the fruits of his labour? My works are piled up in my chamber, half as high as my head, my opera omnia. This is authorship. These are the work of my brain. There was just one piece of good luck in the venture. The un-bound were tied up by the printer four years ago in stout paper wrappers, and inscribed ‘ H. D. Thoreau’s Concord River, fifty copies.’ So Munroe had only to cross out ‘ River’ and write ‘ Mass.,’ and deliver them to the express-man at once. I can see now what I write for, and the result of my labors. Nevertheless, in spite of this result, sitting beside the inert mass of my works, I take up my pen to-night, to record what thought or experience I may have had, with as much satisfaction as ever. Indeed, I believe that this result is more inspiring and better than if a thousand had bought my wares. It affects my privacy less, and leaves me freer.”

  That the Week should at first have failed to win the favour of any but a few sympathetic readers can hardly be a matter of surprise, since its intense idealism and strongly pantheistic tone were ill calculated to conciliate the ordinary American mind. Purporting to be a record of the trip made by the two brothers in 1839, it was in reality an out-pouring of its author’s ideal philosophy on a great variety of topics, a number of essays and poems (mostly reprints from the Dial) being interwoven, in the most arbitrary manner, with the thread of the nominal subject. The book is thus rendered vague, disjointed, and discursive; and is, moreover, almost arrogant in its transcendental egoism. Yet, with all its deficiencies, it has, and must ever have, a great and indefinable charm for the lovers of Thoreau’s genius. Its very lack of cohesion and entire disregard of method contribute to enhance the effect of its poetical mysticism and brilliant descriptive power, while several of the discourses introduced into it—notably those on Friendship and Religion—are written in Thoreau’s most admirable and telling style. Emerson calls it “a seven days’ voyage, in as many chapters, pastoral as Izaak Walton, spicy as flag-root, broad and deep as Menu”; and adds that Thoreau read some of it to him one afternoon under an oak on the riverbank, and invigorated him by the reading. Curtis, too, has described it as “a book as redolent of genuine and perceptive sympathy with nature as a clover-field of honey.”1

  In the autumn of 1849 Thoreau accompanied a friend on an excursion to the wild sandy tract of Cape Cod, for which he conceived so great a liking that he visited it again on several occasions; in like manner he spent a week in Canada, with Ellery Channing as his fellow-traveller, in September 1850. Each of these excursions provided material for a series of articles in Putnam’s Magazine; but both came to an abrupt conclusion owing to misunderstandings between author and publisher—a mishap to which Thoreau’s outspoken tone and uncompromising temper made him peculiarly liable. His visit to the Maine Woods in 1846, which has already been alluded to, was described in the Union Magazine a year or two later; and he again went to Maine in 1853 and 1857.2 These occasional excursions were a great pleasure to Thoreau, as extending the circle of his observations, without putting any restriction on his freedom; but he still resolutely declined to extend his travels to more distant regions, in spite of the offers he sometimes received from admirers and friends, who wished to take him round the world at their own cost. “I am afraid to travel much, or to famous places,” he writes in his journal, “lest it might completely dissipate the mind. Then I am sure that what we observe at home, if we observe anything, is of more importance than what we observe abroad. The farfetched is of least value. What we observe in travelling are, to some extent, the accidents of the body; what we observe when sitting at home are, in the same proportion, phenomena of the mind itself.” In the same spirit he asserted that the sight of a marsh-hawk in the Concord meadows was of more value to him than the entry of the allies into Paris. It is easy to laugh at this deliberate concentration of thought on a particular locality; but a study of Thoreau’s life inclines one to believe that he gauged correctly the peculiar strength and the peculiar weakness of his shy, subtle, and sensitive genius.

  The course of his life at Concord was singularly quiet and uneventful. Always an affectionate son and brother, he lived contentedly as a member of the household of his father, who, with Henry’s assistance, had now b4ilt himself a dwelling of his own and was no longer a tenant. Thoreau’s study was in the garret, where he stored his collections of birds’ eggs, botanical specimens, and Indian relics, and carried on his literary work. His affectionate regard for his father was in’ no wise diminished by the dissimilarity of their characters, a contrast which is illustrated by one or two suggestive passages in the journal. On one occasion we find a protest made by the quiet, unobtrusive, but eminently practical old man against what he considered a waste of time on the part of his more imaginative son, who was busying himself in making sugar from a neighbouring maple-grove when he could have bought it cheaper at the village shop. To his father’s remark that it took him from his studies, Thoreau made the characteristic answer that it was his study, and that after being engaged in this pursuit he felt “as if he had been to a university.” Mrs. Thoreau, who was of the same age as her husband, retained all her dramatic vivacity of demeanour, her liking for ribbons and finery, and her extraordinary power of talk. It is said that when his mother began to talk at table, Thoreau would patiently remain silent until she had finished, and then, with a courteous obeisance, resume the thread of his conversation at the point where it had been interrupted. In 1849 the family circle suffered a heavy loss in the death of Helen, Thoreau’s elder sister, whose character, like that of the brother who died seven years earlier, was full of ability and promise.

  It was about this time that Thoreau became acquainted with Mr. Harrison G. O. Blake, a clergyman and tutor residing at Worcester, Massachusetts, with whom he corresponded largely from 1848 onwards, chiefly on subjects connected with his ideal method of thought. The following are Mr. Blake’s reminiscences of his friendly intercourse with Thoreau:

  “I was introduced to him first by Mr. Emerson more than forty years ago, though I had known him by sight before at college. I recall nothing of that first interview unless it be some remarks upon astronomy, and his want of interest in the study as compared with studies relating more directly to this world remarks such as he has made here and there in his writings. My first real introduction was from the reading of an article of his in the Dial on ‘Aulus Persius Flaccus,’ which appears now in the Week. That led to my first writing to him, and to his reply, which is published in the volume of letters.3 Our correspondence continued for more than twelve years, and we visited each other at times, he coming here to Worcester, commonly to read something in public, or being on his way to read somewhere else.

  “As to the outward incidents of our intercourse, I think of little or nothing that it seems worth while to write. Our conversation, or rather his talking, when we were together, was in the strain of his letters and of his books. Our relation, as I look back on it, seems almost an impersonal one, and illustrates well his remark that ‘our thoughts are the epochs in our lives; all else is but as a journal of the winds that blew while we were here.’ His personal appearance did not interest me particularly, except as the associate of his spirit, though I felt no discord between them. When together, we had little inclination to talk of personal matters. His aim was directed so steadily and earnestly towards what is essential in our experience, that beyond all others of whom I have known, he made but a single impression on me. Geniality, versatility, personal familiarity are, of course, agreeable in those about us, and seem necessary in human intercourse, but I did not miss them in Thoreau, who was, while living, and is still in my recollection and in what he has left to us, such an effectual witness to what is highest and most precious in life. As I re-read his letters from time to time, which I never tire of doing, I am apt to find new significance in them, am still warned and instructed by them, with more force occasionally than ever before; so that in a sense they are still in the mail, have not altogether reached me yet, and will not probably before I die. They may well be regarded as addressed to those who can read them best.”

  Here are two passages from Thoreau’s letters which throw light on the manner of his living and thinking, as compared with that of some of his neighbours at Concord. The first is addressed to Mr. Blake:

  “20th Nov. 1849.—At present I am subsisting on certain wild flavors which nature wafts to me, which unaccountably sustain me, and make my apparently poor life rich. Within a year my walks have extended themselves, and almost every afternoon (I read, or write, or make pencils in the forenoon, and by the last means get a living for my body) I visit some new hill, or pond, or wood, many miles distant I am astonished at the wonderful retirement through which I move, rarely meeting a man in these excursions; never seeing one similarly engaged unless it be my companion, when I have one. I cannot help feeling that of all the human inhabitants of nature hereabouts, only we two have leisure to admire and enjoy our inheritance.”

  “13th July 1852.—Concord is just as idiotic as ever in relation to the spirits and their knockings. Most people here believe in a spiritual world which no respectable junk-bottle, which had not met with a slip, would condescend to contain even a portion of for a moment. . . . If I could be brought to believe in the things which they believe, I should make haste to get rid of my certificates of stock in this and the next world’s enterprises, and buy a share in the first Immediate Annihilation Company that offered. I would exchange my immortality for a glass of small beer this hot weather. Where are the heathen? Was there ever any superstition before? And yet I suppose there may be a vessel this very moment setting sail from the coast of North America to that of Africa with a missionary on board! Consider the dawn and the sunrise—the rainbow and the evening—the words of Christ and the aspirations of all the saints! Hear music! See, smell, taste, feel, hear—anything—and then hear these idiots, inspired by the cracking of a restless board, humbly asking, ‘Please, Spirit, if you cannot answer by knocks, answer by tips of the table!’”

  In addition to his pedestrian excursions, Thoreau paid occasional visits to Cambridge and Boston, the attraction at the former place being the University Library, from which, owing to the insistence with which he petitioned the librarian and president, he was permitted unusual privileges in the taking out of books. At Boston he was fond of studying the books of the Natural History Society and walking on the Long Wharf; the rest “was barrels.” “When I go to Boston,” he wrote, “I go naturally straight through the city to the end of Long Wharf and look off, for I have no cousins in the back alleys. The water and the vessels are novel and interesting. I see a great many barrels and fig drums, and piles of wood for umbrella sticks, and blocks of granite and ice, etc., and that is Boston. The more barrels the more Boston. The museums and scientific societies and libraries are accidental. They gather, around the barrels to save carting.” Salem, too, he sometimes visited as the guest of Hawthorne, who had left Concord in 1846, and he lectured once or twice at the Salem Lyceum, of which Hawthorne was the secretary. One other journey he had about this time of a more mournful character. In July 1850, when Margaret Fuller, who had become the wife of the Marquis of Ossoli, was shipwrecked on her return from Italy and drowned off the coast of Fire Island, near New York, Thoreau with her other friends hurried to the scene of the disaster, to assist in the vain attempt to recover her body.

  Though Thoreau had now attained a certain recognised position as a writer and lecturer, he was still compelled to earn the greater part of his means of subsistence by pencil-making or land-surveying. This last employment—or rather the company into which his employment brought him—was very far from being a congenial one; on such occasions he was no longer the poet-naturalist and idealist, but “merely Thoreau the surveyor,” as he informs his friend Blake. “When I sit in the parlors and kitchens of some with whom my business brings me—I was going to say in contact (business, like misery, makes strange bed-fellows), I feel a sort of awe, and as forlorn as if I were cast away on a desolate shore.” And elsewhere: “I rode with my employer a dozen miles to-day, keeping a profound silence almost all the way, as the most simple and natural course. I treated him simply as if he had bronchitis and could not speak, just as I would a sick man, a crazy man, or an idiot. The disease was only an unconquerable stiffness in a well-meaning and sensible man.”

  Lecturing was probably a more agreeable occupation, though here, too, he speaks of himself as “simply their hired man”; while his uncompromising candour occasionally placed him in strained relations towards his audience. “I take it for granted,” he said, “when I am invited to lecture anywhere—for I have had a little experience in that business—that there is a desire to hear what I think on some subject, though I may be the greatest fool in the country, and not that I should say pleasant things merely, or such as the audience will assent to; and I resolve accordingly that I will give them a strong dose of myself. They have sent for me and engaged to pay me, and I am determined that they shall have me; though I bore them beyond all precedent.” There were times, however, when Thoreau felt some diffidence about addressing his audience, as may be judged from the following letters to Colonel (then Mr.) Wentworth Higginson with reference to a lecture which was being arranged for him at Boston:

“CONCORD, 2d April 1852,

  “I do not see that I can refuse to read another lecture, but what makes me hesitate is the fear that I have not another available which will entertain a large audience, though I have thoughts to offer which I think will be quite as worthy of their attention. However, I will try, for the prospect of earning a few dollars is alluring. As far as I can foresee, my subject would be Reality rather transcendentally treated. It lies still in ‘Walden, or Life in the Woods.’ Since you are kind enough to undertake the arrangements, I will leave it to you to name an evening of next week, decide on the most suitable room, and advertise, if this is not taking you too literally at your word.

  “If you still think it worth the while to attend to this, will you let me know, as soon as may be, what evening will be most convenient”

“CONCORD, 3d April 1852.

  “I certainly do not feel prepared to offer myself as a lecturer to the Boston public, and hardly know whether more to dread a small audience or a large one. Nevertheless, I will repress this squeamishness, and propose no alteration in your arrangements. I shall be glad to accept of your invitation to tea.”

  Though Thoreau on several occasions made his mark as a lecturer, the general effect of the “strong dose” of himself was to puzzle and bewilder his hearers. “I have been told,” says Mr. John Burroughs, “by a man who when a boy heard him read a lecture, that the audience did not know what to make of him. They came out, hardly knowing whether they had been sold or not. His coolness, his paradoxes, his strange and extreme gospel of nature, and evidently his indifference as to whether he pleased them or not, were not in the line of the usual popular lecturer.”

  In the autumn of 1852 Thoreau met Arthur Hugh Clough, who had come over to Boston with Thackeray and thence paid Emerson a visit at Concord. “Walk with Emerson to a wood with a prettyish pool,” writes Clough in his diary for 14th November, the pool being presumably Walden. “Concord is very bare; it is a small sort of village, almost entirely of wood houses, painted white, with Venetian blinds, green outside, with two white wooden churches. There are some American elms and sycamores, i.e. planes; but the wood is mostly pine—white pine and yellow pine—somewhat scrubby, occupying the tops of the low banks and marshy hay-land between. A little brook runs through to the Concord river. At 6.30, tea and Mr. Thoreau; and presently Mr. Ellery Channing, Miss Channing, and others.” It was in this same year that Nathaniel Hawthorne returned to Concord, and took up his residence at “Hillside”—now renamed “Wayside”—an estate which had been for some years in Alcott’s possession, and on which Thoreau and Alcott had done a great deal of manual work in constructing terraces and summer-houses.

  It has already been stated that Thoreau’s sympathies were enlisted from his earliest manhood in the cause of abolition, and that he was himself instrumental in furthering the escape of several fugitive slaves. One instance of this kind has been recorded by Mr. Conway, who was introduced to Thoreau by Emerson in the summer of 1853:4

  “When I went to the house next morning I found them all in a state of excitement by reason of the arrival of a fugitive negro from the South, who had come fainting to their door about daybreak, and thrown himself on their mercy. . . . I sat and watched the singularly lowly and tender devotion of the scholar to the slave. He must be fed, his swollen feet bathed, and he must think of nothing but rest. Again and again this coolest and calmest of men drew near to the trembling negro, and bade him feel at home, and have no fear that any power should again wrong him. He could not walk this day, but must mount guard over the fugitive, for slave-hunters were not extinct in those days, and so I went away after a while, much impressed by many little traits that I had seen as they appeared in this emergency, and not much disposed to cavil at their source, whether Bible or Bhaghavat.”

  At this time Thoreau’s mind was a good deal occupied with the question of slavery, for in 1850 the iniquitous Fugitive Slave Law had been passed by Act of Congress, and in the spring of 1854 the heart of Massachusetts had been stirred by the case of Anthony Burns, an escaped slave, who was sent back by the authorities of the State in compliance with the demand of his owner. This event formed the main topic of Thoreau’s essay on Slavery in Massachusetts, which was delivered as an address at the anti-slavery celebration at Framingham in 1854. “For my part,” he said, “my oldest and worthiest pursuits have lost I cannot say how much of their attraction, and I feel that my investment in life here is worth many per cent less since Massachusetts last deliberately sent back an innocent man, Anthony Burns, to slavery.” In his kindred essay on Civil Disobedience, when dealing with this same subject of state-supported slavery, he had expressed the conviction that if but one honest man in the State of Massachusetts were to withdraw his allegiance as a protest against this iniquity, and to be imprisoned therefor, “it would be the abolition of slavery in America.” This was written before the appearance of John Brown.

  In 1854 occurred the most memorable event of Thoreau’s literary life—the publication of Walden by Messrs. Ticknor & Co. of Boston. The greater part of the book was drawn from the journal kept by Thoreau during his residence in the woods, but there are also passages which were written at a later date, when he was working his materials into their ultimate form. The inducement to Thoreau to give the story of his sojourn at Walden to the world was, he tells us, that very particular inquiries had been made by his townsmen concerning the manner of his life, and that he felt he had something to say which bore not remotely on the social condition of the inhabitants of Concord. The result justified the expectations of the author in writing the book, and of the publishers in printing it, for in spite of the ridicule and hostility of some critics, a great deal of interest was aroused by Walden, and the edition appears to have been sold out in the course of a few years, in marked contrast to the unsaleableness of its predecessor, the Week.5 From whatever point of view it be regarded, Walden is undoubtedly Thoreau’s masterpiece; it contains the sum and essence of his ideal and ethical philosophy; it is written in his most powerful and incisive style, while by the freshness and naïveté of its narrative it excites the sympathy and imagination of the reader, and wins a popularity far exceeding that of his other writings. “Walden,” says Channing, “increased his repute as a writer, if some great men thought him bean-dieted, with an owl for his minister, and who milked creation, not the cow. It is in vain for the angels to contend against stupidity.”

  “Welcome, Englishmen! welcome, Englishmen!” Thoreau exclaimed in Walden, “for I had had communication with that race.” “A young Englishman, Mr. Cholmondeley, is just now waiting for me to take a walk with him,” he writes in a letter dated 1st October 1854. This was Mr. Thomas Cholmondeley, of Overleigh, Cheshire, a nephew of Bishop Heber, and six years Thoreau’s junior in age, the only Englishman, it appears, with whom Thoreau ever became intimate. He spent some time with Thoreau at Concord, accompanying him on a visit to Mr. Ricketson, a friend who lived at New Bedford; and the strong personal admiration which this travelled English gentleman conceived for the Concord hermit is one of many testimonies to Thoreau’s singularly impressive character. A correspondence was maintained after Mr. Cholmondeley’s return to Europe in 1855, and towards the end of that year Thoreau received a splendid gift of Oriental books from his English friend, who knew how deep an interest he felt in Buddhist literature. “I wish to inform you,” Thoreau wrote to Mr. Ricketson, “that Cholmondeley has gone to the Crimea, ‘a complete soldier,’ with a design, when he returns, if he ever returns, to buy a cottage in the south of England, and tempt me over; but that, before going, he busied himself in buying, and has caused to be forwarded to me by Chapman, a royal gift, in the shape of twenty-one distinct works, almost exclusively relating to ancient Hindoo literature, and scarcely one of them to be bought in America. I am familiar with many of them, and know how to prize them. I send you information of this as I might of the birth of a child.” Mr. Cholmondeley again visited Concord in 1859.6

  The following extracts are from the letters to Mr. Blake:

  “8th August 1854.—Methinks I have spent a rather unprofitable summer thus far. I have been too much with the world, as the poet might say. . . . I find it, as ever, very unprofitable to have much to do with men. It is sowing the wind, but not reaping the whirlwind; only reaping an unprofitable calm and stagnation. Our conversation is a smooth and civil and neverending speculation merely. I take up the thread of it again in the morning with very much such courage as the invalid takes his prescribed Seidlitz powders. Shall I help you to some of the mackerel? It would be more respectable if men, as has been said before, instead of being such pigmy desperates, were Giant Despairs. Emerson says that his life is so unprofitable and shabby for the most part, that he is driven to all sorts of resources, and among the rest to men. I tell him that we differ only in our resources. Mine is to get away from men … I have seen more men than usual lately; and, well as I was acquainted with one, I am surprised to find what vulgar fellows they are. They do a little business commonly each day, in order to pay their board, and then they congregate in sitting-rooms and feebly fabulate and paddle in the social slush, and when I think that they have sufficiently relaxed, and am prepared to see them steal away to their shrines, they go unashamed to their beds, and take on a new layer of sloth. They may be single, or have families in their faineancy. I do not meet men who can have nothing to do with me because they have so much to do with themselves. However, I trust that a very few cherish purposes which they never declare. Only think for a moment of a man about his affairs! How we should respect him! How glorious he would appear! Not working for any corporation, its agent, or president, but fulfilling the end of his being! A man about his business would be the cynosure of all eyes.

  “The other evening I was determined that I would silence this shallow din; that I would walk in various directions and see if there was not to be found any depth of silence around. As Bonaparte sent out his horsemen in the Red Sea on all sides to find shallow water, so I sent forth my mounted thoughts to find deep water. I left the village, and paddled up the river to the Fair Haven Pond. As the sun went down I saw a solitary boatman disporting on the smooth lake. The falling dews seemed to strain and purify the air, and I was soothed with an infinite stillness. I got the world, as it were, by the nape of the neck, and held it under in the tide of its own events, till it was drowned, and then I let it go down stream like a dead dog. Vast hollow chambers of silence stretched away on every side, and my being expanded in proportion and filled them. Then first could I appreciate sound, and find it musical.”

  “26th September 1855.—Mr. Ricketson, of New Bedford, has just made me a visit of a day and a half, and I have had a quite good time with him. He and Channing have got on particularly well together. He is a man of very simple tastes, notwithstanding his wealth; a lover of nature; but, above all, singularly frank and plain-spoken . . . . He says that he sympathises much with my books, but much in them is naught to him—‘namby-pamby,’ ‘stuff,’ ‘mystical’ Why will not I, having common sense, write in plain English always; teach men how to live a simpler life, etc., not go off into—? But I say that I have no scheme about it, no designs on men at all, and that if I had, my mode would be to tempt them with the fruit and not with the manure. To what end do I lead a simple life, pray? That I may teach others to simplify their lives, and so all our lives be simplified merely, like an algebraic formula? Or not, rather, that I may make use of the ground I have cleared, to live more worthily and profitably?”

  Increasing fame brought Thoreau an increasing number of friends, while his intimacy with Emerson, Alcott, and Channing continued as close as ever. Daniel Ricketson, who is mentioned in the above letter, was one of these later friends and correspondents. Their first meeting was at Christmas 1854, when Thoreau, then on his way to lecture at Nantucket, paid a passing visit to New Bedford, and spent a day or two in Mr. Ricketson’s house. On presenting himself to his host, he was at first mistaken, as on several other occasions, for “a pedlar of small wares,” but this unfavourable impression was quickly corrected when he gave proof of his singular conversational powers. The points in his personal appearance which particularly arrested Mr. Ricketson’s attention were his keen blue eyes, “full of the greatest humanity and intelligence,” and, next to these, his sloping shoulders (in which he resembled Emerson), long arms, and short sturdy legs, which generally enabled him to outwalk his companions in his daily excursions. The following letter was written by Thoreau to Mr. Ricketson in 1855. It will be observed that his health at this time was far from satisfactory.

  “16th October 1855.—I have got both your letters at once. You must not think Concord so barren a place when Channing is away. There are the river and the fields left yet; and I, though ordinarily a man of business, should have some afternoons and evenings to spend with you, I trust—that is, if you could stand so much of me. If you can spend your time profitably here, or without ennui having an occasional ramble or tête-à-tête with one of the natives, it will give me pleasure to have you in the neighbourhood. You see I am preparing you for our awful unsocial ways—keeping in our dens a good part of the day sucking our claws perhaps. But then we make a religion of it, and that you cannot but respect.

  “If you know the taste of your own heart, and like it, come to Concord, and I’ll warrant you to season the dish with —, ay, even though Channing and Emerson and I were all away. We might paddle quietly up the river. Then there are one or two more ponds to be seen, etc.

  “I should very much enjoy further rambling with you in your vicinity, but must postpone it for the present. To tell the truth, I am planning to get seriously to work after these long months of inefficiency and idleness. So for a long season I must enjoy only a low slanting gleam in my mind’s eye from the Middleborough Ponds far away. Methinks I am getting a little more strength into those knees of mine; and, for my part, I believe that God does delight in the strength of a man’s legs.”

  In Mr. F. B. Sanborn, the well-known abolitionist, who as a young man came to live at Concord early in 1855, Thoreau found yet another friend, with whom he gradually became very intimate. The first impressions of Thoreau, as recorded at the time by one who was destined to be his biographer a quarter of a century later, are extremely interesting. “In his tones and gestures he seemed to me to imitate Emerson, so that it was annoying to listen to him, though he said many good things. He looks like Emerson, too, coarser, but with something of that serenity and sagacity which Emerson has. Thoreau looks eminently sagacious, like a sort of wise wild beast. He dresses plainly, wears a beard in his throat, and has a brown complexion.” Thoreau’s beard, which is here for the first time mentioned, must have been of quite recent growth, for in the crayon portrait of 1854 he appears as beardless.

  Thoreau’s friendship with Horace Greeley, editor of the New York Tribune, had been kept up since his visit to Staten Island, chiefly by letter, for Thoreau was seldom at New York; but Greeley had done him valuable service at a critical period in obtaining publication for several of his articles in Graham, Putnam, and other magazines, and in acting generally as a sort of literary patron and adviser. Greeley had a farm at Chappaqua, thirty-six miles north of New York, and in the early part of 1856 he pressed. Thoreau to come to reside at this place and act as tutor to his children, which offer seems to have been for a time seriously entertained. In the following November Thoreau accompanied Alcott on a short visit to Greeley at Chappaqua, and a day or two later he had a memorable interview with a still more powerful and remarkable personality than his own. The meeting of Thoreau with Walt Whitman—of the author of Walden with the author of Leaves of Grass, must be told in Thoreau’s own words, from his letters to Mr. Blake:

  “19th November 1856. —Alcott has been here three times, and Sunday before last I went with him and Greeley, by imitation of the last, to G.’s farm, thirty-six miles north of New York. The next day Alcott and I heard Beecher preach; and what was more, we visited Whitman the next morning (Alcott had already seen him), and were much interested and provoked He is apparently the greatest democrat the world has seen. Kings and aristocracy go by the board at once, as they have long deserved to. A remarkably strong though coarse nature, of a sweet disposition, and much prized by his friends. Though peculiar and rough in his exterior, he is essentially a gentleman. I am still somewhat in a quandary about him—feel that he is essentially strange to me, at any rate; but I am surprised by the sight of him. He is very broad, but, as I have said, not fine. He said that I misapprehended him. I am not quite sure that I do. . . .”

  “7th December 1856.—That Walt Whitman, of whom I wrote to you, is the most interesting fact to me at present I have just read his second edition (which he gave me), and it has done me more good than any reading for a long time. Perhaps I remember best the poem of Walt Whitman, an American, and the Sun-down poem. There are two or three pieces in the book which are disagreeable, to say the least, simply sensual . . . . . As for its sensuality—and it may turn out to be less sensual than it appears—I do not so much wish that those parts were not written, as that men and women were so pure that they could read them without harm, that is, without understanding them.

  “On the whole it sounds to me very brave and American, after whatever deductions. I do not believe that all the sermons, so called, that have been preached in this land, put together, are equal to it for preaching. We ought greatly to rejoice in him. He occasionally suggests something a little more than human. You can’t confound him with the other inhabitants of Brooklyn. How they must shudder when they read him! He is awfully good.

  “To be sure, I sometimes feel a little imposed on. By his heartiness and broad generalities he puts me into a liberal frame of mind, prepared to see wonders—as it were, sets me upon a hill or in the midst of a plain—stirs me well up, and then throws in a thousand of brick. Though rude and sometimes ineffectual, it is a great primitive poem, an alarum or trumpet-note ringing through the American camp. Wonderfully like the Orientals, too, considering that when I asked him if he had read them, he answered, ‘No; tell me about them.’

  “I did not get far in conversation with him—two more being present—and among the few things I chanced to say, I remember that one was, in answer to him as representing America, that I did not think much of America, or of politics, and so on, which may have been somewhat of a damper to him.

  “Since I have seen him I find that I am not disturbed by any brag or egoism in his book. He may turn out the least of a braggart of all, having a better right to be confident. He is a great fellow.”7

  In the following year Thoreau had the satisfaction of meeting another of the great figures of American democracy. John Brown, then fresh from his anti-slavery struggle in Kansas, was a guest at Mr. Sanborn’s house in March 1857, and was introduced by his host to Emerson, Alcott, Thoreau, and other Concord friends. It was arranged that Brown should address a meeting in the Town Hall on the subject of slave-holding. “On the day appointed,” says Mr. Sanborn,8 “Brown went up from Boston at noon, and dined with Mr. Thoreau, then a member of his father’s family, and residing not far from the railroad station. The two idealists, both of them in revolt against the civil government because of its base subservience to slavery, found themselves friends from the beginning of their acquaintance. They sat after dinner discussing the events of the border warfare in Kansas, and Brown’s share in them, when, as it often happened, Mr. Emerson called at Mr. Thoreau’s door on some errand to his friend. Thus the three men met under the same roof, and found that they held the same opinion of what was uppermost in the mind of Brown.” Emerson and Thoreau were both present at the meeting in the evening, when Brown produced a thrilling effect on his audience by his earnestness and eloquence, and by the display of the very chain worn by one of his sons who had been made prisoner and tortured by the champions of slavery. From that time there were many people in Concord who were favourable to Brown’s cause.

  In the spring of 1857 Thoreau, Alcott, and Ellery Channing paid a visit to Mr. Ricketson at “Brooklawn,” New Bedford, as will be seen from the following entries in Alcott’s diary:

  “1st April 1857.—At Mr. Ricketson’s, 2½ miles from New Bedford, a neat country residence, surrounded by wild pastures and low woods; the little stream Achushnet flowing east of the house and into Fair Haven Bay at the City. Ricketson’s tastes are pastoral, simple even to wildness, and he passes a good part of his day in the fields and woods, or in his rude shanty near his house, where he writes and reads his favourite authors, Cowper having the first place in his affections. He is in easy circumstances and has the manners of an English gentleman—frank, hospitable, and with positive persuasions of his own; a man to feel on good terms with, and reliable as to the things good and true—mercurial, perhaps, and wayward a little sometimes.

  “3d April, A.M.—In house and shanty. Thoreau and Ricketson treating of nature and the wild. Thoreau has visited Ricketson before, and won him as a disciple, though not in the absolute way he has Blake of Worcester, whose love for his genius partakes of the exceeding tenderness of women, and is a pure Platonism to the fineness and delicacy of the devotee’s sensibility. But Ricketson is himself, and plays the manly part in the matter, defending himself against the master’s tough ‘thoroughcraft’ with spirit and ability.

  “P.M.—Walk into the city and see Weiss.9 Channing returns with me to Brooklawn, to smoke his pipe and joke with R in the shanty.

  On the occasion of one of these visits to Brooklawn Thoreau surprised the company by an unexpected outburst of hilarity. “One evening,” says Mr. Ricketson, “when my wife was playing an air upon the piano, Thoreau became very hilarious, sang ‘Tom Bowling,’ and finally entered upon an improvised dance. Not being able to stand what appeared to me at the time the somewhat ludicrous appearance of our Walden hermit, I retreated to my ‘shanty,’ a short distance from my house; whilst my older and more [illegible]-loving friend Alcott remained and saw it through, much to his amusement.”10 Thoreau afterwards told his sister Sophia that in the excitement of this dance he had made a point of treading on the toes of his guileless friend.

  Mr. Blake’s estimate of Thoreau’s character has already been quoted; equally interesting is that given by Mr. Ricketson. “On this point,” he says, “I can bear my own testimony, that without any formality he was remarkable in his uprightness and honesty; industrious and frugal; simple though not fastidious in his tastes, whether in food, dress, or address; an admiral conversationist, and a good story-teller, not wanting in humor. His full blue eye aquiline nose, and peculiarly pursed lips added much to the effect of the descriptive powers. He was a man of rare courage, physically and intellectually. In the way of the former, he arrested two young follows on the lonely road leading to his hermitage by Walden Pond, who were endeavouring to entrap a young woman on her way home, and took them to the village. Intellectually his was a strong manly mind, enriched by a classical education, and extensive knowledge of history, ancient and modern, and English literature—himself a good versifier, if not true poet, whose poetic character is often seen in his prose works.”

  Side by side with this testimony may be placed the following sketch, from the same pen, of Thoreau and his three Concord friends:11

“With thee I gladly roamed
To Baker farm, or to the beetling Cliff
That overhangs the gentle river’s course,
Or to thy Walden, ‘blue-eyed Walden’ called
By that much-gifted man, thy chosen friend,12
Companion of thy walks and rural life.
With thee I’ve sat beside the glowing hearth
Of one so grand in thought, so pure of aim,13
New England’s keenest, wisest scrutineer,
A poet, too, endowed with rarest gifts—
And listened to the converse thou and he,
So like and yet so unlike, often held
And ‘neath another roof all browned with age,
And overhung by one great sheltering elm,
Where dwells a seer decreed to solemn thought,14
Amid old books and treasures rare to see,
And leam’d of wisdom and devout of heart
I see ye two, in memory’s faithful glass,
As last I saw ye, brave and worthy pair!
The white-haired sage with deep and solemn words,
Sonorously expressed; thy quick reply,
And eyes all glowing with supreme good sense
A genial pair though of unequal age.”

  Thoreau’s indifference to fame, and to the greater wealth that is the result of fame, was very remarkable. He once told a friend, with every sign of satisfaction, how his first book, the Week, was still lying unsold and unsaleable at his publisher’s offices. “Within the last five years,” he wrote in his journal in 1856, “I have had the command of a little more money than in the previous five years, for I have sold some books and some lectures, yet I have not been a whit better clothed or fed or warmed or sheltered, not a whit richer, except that I have been less concerned about my living; but perhaps my life has been the less serious for it, and I feel now that there is a possibility of failure. Who knows but I may come upon the town, if, as is likely, the public want no more of my books and lectures, as with regard to the last is already the case. Before, I was much likelier to take the town upon my shoulders.”

  This chapter may fitly conclude with some passages from a characteristic letter of Thoreau’s about the “hard times” which were then causing distress and anxiety in New England:

  “16th November 1857.—They make a great ado nowadays about hard times; but I think that the community generally, ministers and all, take a wrong view of the matter. This general failure, both private and public, is rather occasion for rejoicing, as reminding us whom we have at the helm—that justice is always done. If our merchants did not most of them fail, and the banks too, my faith in the old laws of the world would be staggered. The statement that ninety-six in a hundred doing such business surely break down, is perhaps the sweetest fact that statistics have revealed—exhilarating as the fragrance of sallows in spring. Does it not say somewhere, ‘The Lord reigneth, let the earth rejoice’? If thousands are thrown out of employment, it suggests that they were not well employed. Why don’t they take the hint? It is not enough to be industrious; so are the ants. What are you industrious about?

  “The merchants and company have long laughed at transcendentalism, higher laws, etc., crying ‘None of your moonshine,’ as if they were anchored to something not only definite, but sure and permanent. If there was any institution, which was presumed to rest on a solid and secure basis, and more than any other represented this boasted common sense, prudence, and practical talent, it was the bank; and now these very banks are found to be mere reeds shaken by the wind. Scarcely one in the land has kept its promise. Not merely the Brook Farm and Fourierite communities, but now the community generally has failed But there is the moonshine still, serene, beneficent, and unchanged. Hard times, I say, have this value, among others, that they show us what such promises are worth—where the sure banks are. . . .

  “Men will tell you sometimes that ‘money’s hard’ That shows it was not made to eat, I say. Only think of a man, in this new world, in his log cabin, in the midst of a corn and potato patch, with a sheepfold on one side, talking about money being hard! So are flints hard; there is no alloy in them. What has that to do with his raising his food, cutting his wood (or breaking it), keeping indoors when it rains, and, if need be, spinning and weaving his clothes? Some of those who sank with the steamer the other day found out that money was heavy too. Think of a man’s priding himself on this kind of wealth, as if it greatly enriched him. As if one struggling in mid-ocean with a bag of gold on his back should gasp out, ‘I am worth a hundred thousand dollars.’ I see them struggling just as ineffectually on dry land, nay even more hopelessly, for, in the former case, rather than sink, they will finally let the bag go; but in the latter they are pretty sure to hold and go down with it. I see them swimming about in their greatcoats, collecting their rents, really getting their dues, drinking bitter draughts which only increase their thirst, becoming more and more water-logged, till finally they sink plumb to the bottom. But enough of this.”

1 The Athenæum of 27th October 1849 contained a brief notice of the Week. “The matter is for the most part poor enough,” said the reviewer, “but there are a few things in the volume, scattered here and there, which suggest that the writer is a man with a habit of original thinking.”
2 For an account of these excursions, see chapter vii.
3 In this letter, dated 27th March 1848, Thoreau says, “I am glad to hear that any words of mine, though spoken so long ago that I can hardly claim identity with their author, have reached you. It gives me pleasure, because I have therefore reason to suppose that I have uttered what concerns men, and that it is not in vain that man speaks to man. This is the value of literature.”
4 Fraser, April 1866.
5 In March 1855 the New York Knickerbocker devoted an article, entitled “Town and Rural Humbugs,” to a comparison of Barnum and Thoreau, and declared Walden to be the antidote to Barnum’s autobiography. Walden was reviewed in Putnam’s Magazine in 1854, and was noticed in this country in Chambers’s Journal for November 1857, under the title of “An American Diogenes.”
6 In later years he took the name of Owen. He succeeded to the Condover estate, near Shrewsbury, in 1863, and died in the following year.
7 It is interesting, in this connection, to note the mention of Thoreau in Walt Whitman’s Specimen Days in America. On 17th September 1881, when visiting Mr. Sanborn at Concord, he met Emerson, Alcott, Louisa Alcott, and other Concord friends. “A good deal of talk,” he records, “the subject Henry Thoreau—some new glints of his life and fortunes, with letters to and from him—one of the best by Margaret Fuller, others by Horace Greeley, Channing, from Thoreau himself, most quaint and interesting.” Mr. Sanborn informs me that on this occasion Whitman expressed a high estimate of Thoreau.
8 Memoirs of John Brown, 1878.
9 The Rev. John Weiss, a fellow-collegian with Thoreau at Harvard. His admirable essay on Thoreau in the Christian Examiner has been more than once quoted.
10 Quoted in Mr. Sanborn’s Thoreau.
11 From The Autumn Sheaf, a volume of verse, privately printed by Mr. Ricketson some years after Thoreau’s death.
12 Ellery Channing.
13 Emerson.
14 Alcott.

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