Friendship with Emerson.

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


AFTER his brother’s death in 1842 Thoreau continued to live in Emerson’s house, the bereavement which each of the two friends had recently undergone being doubtless instrumental in bringing them more closely together. Thoreau’s regard for Emerson and Mrs. Emerson, as will appear from his letters, was very deep and affectionate, and it was natural that a young man, even when possessed of Thoreau’s strength of character, should be lastingly influenced by so distinctive and commanding a personality as Emerson’s. It has been remarked by several of those who knew both men, that Thoreau unconsciously caught certain of the traits of Emerson’s voice and expression-that he deliberately imitated Emerson is declared on the best authority to be an “idle and untenable” assertion.1 The following account of Thoreau’s receptivity in this respect is given by one of his college class-mates, whom I have already quoted.

  “Meeting Mr. Emerson one day, I inquired if he saw much of my class-mate, Mr. Henry D. Thoreau, who was then living in Concord. ‘Of Thoreau?’ replied Mr. Emerson, his face lighting up with a smile of enthusiasm. ‘Oh yes, we could not do without him. When Mr. Carlyle comes to America, I expect to introduce Thoreau to him as the man of Concord.’ I was greatly surprised at these words. They set an estimate on Thoreau which seemed to me extravagant . . . . Not long after I happened to meet Thoreau in Mr. Emerson’s study at Concord-the first time we had come together after leaving college. I was quite startled by the transformation that had taken place in him. His short figure and general cast of countenance were of course unchanged; but in his manners, in the tones of his voice, in his modes of expression, even in the hesitations and pauses of his speech, he had become the counterpart of Mr. Emerson. Thoreau’s college voice bore no resemblance to Mr. Emerson’s, and was so familiar to my ear that I could have readily identified him by it in the dark. I was so much struck by the change that I took the opportunity, as they sat near together talking, of listening with closed eyes, and I was unable to determine with certainty which was speaking. I do not know to what subtle influences to ascribe it, but after conversing with Mr. Emerson for even a brief time, I always found myself able and inclined to adopt his voice and manner of speaking.”2

  The change noticed in Thoreau was not due only to the stimulating influence of Emerson’s personality, though that doubtless was the immediate means of effecting his awakening. Underneath the sluggish and torpid demeanour of his life at the University there had been developing, as his school-mates afterwards recognised, the strong stern qualities which were destined to make his character remarkable, and these had now been called into full play both by the natural growth of his mind, and by the opportunities afforded in the brilliant circle of which he was a member. “In later years,” says John Weiss,3 who knew him well at Harvard, “his chin and mouth grew firmer, as his resolute and audacious opinions developed, the eyes twinkled with the latent humor of his criticisms of society.” It was a veritable transformation—an awakening of the dormant intellectual fire—and it has been ingeniously suggested that the “transformation” of Donatello in Hawthorne’s novel may have been founded in the first place on this fact in the life of Thoreau.

  So too with regard to his social and ethical opinions; it would have been strange if the youth of twenty-five had not been in some degree affected and influenced by the philosopher of forty; but the freshness and originality of his genius, in all essential respects, is none the less incontestable. “He once said to me,” writes Moncure Conway,4 “that he had found in Emerson a world where truth existed with the same perfection as the objects he studied in external nature, his ideas real and exact as antennæ and stamina. It was nature spiritualised. I also found that Thoreau had entered deeply Emerson’s secret, and was the most complete incarnation of the earlier idealism of the sage. But because this influence was in the least part personal, the resemblance of Thoreau to Emerson was as superficial as a leaf-like creature to a leaf. Thoreau was quite as original as Emerson. He was not an imitator of any mortal; his thoughts and expressions are suggestions of a Thoreau-principle at work in the universe.” Thoreau, in fact, was one of the very few men by whom Emerson was himself in some degree impressed. We are told by Dr. E. W. Emerson that his father “delighted in being led to the very inner shrines of the wood-god by this man, clear-eyed and true and stern enough to be trusted with their secrets”; and there is no doubt that Thoreau influenced him perceptibly in the direction of a more diligent and minute study of nature. He differed in one important respect both from Ernerson and from the other members of the Emersonian circle of transcendentalists—in his native and aboriginal hardihood and vigour. To them Concord was a suitable place of adoption; to him it was the place of his birth. The simplicity of living, personal independence, and intimacy with wild nature, which to the others involved more or less a deliberate effort, were in his case an innate and unconscious instinct. “I grow savager and savager every day,” he wrote in 1841, “as if fed with raw meat, and my tameness is only the repose of my untameableness.”

  With Nathaniel Hawthorne, who was the latest addition to the society of Concord, Thoreau had perhaps little in common except his friendship with Ellery Channing, though courteous relations seem to have subsisted between them. “The writer of fiction,” says Channing, “could not read the naturalist probably, and Thoreau had no more love or sympathy for fiction in books than in character.” Some of the references to Thoreau in Hawthorne’s journal have a touch of the petulance and harshness of judgment to which Hawthorne was rather prone when recording his impressions of his acquaintances; but on the whole he speaks of Thoreau with unusual admiration and respect. “Mr. Thoreau dined with us yesterday,” he writes on 1st September 1842. “He is a singular character—a young man with much of wild original nature still remaining in him; and so far as he is sophisticated, it is in a way and method of his own. He is as ugly as sin, long-nosed, queer-mouthed, and with uncouth and somewhat rustic though courteous manners corresponding very well with such an exterior. But his ugliness is of an honest and agreeable fashion, and becomes him much better than beauty.” This description of Thoreau’s personal appearance, though interesting as being one of the earliest recorded, by no means agrees with the opinion of other authorities, who speak of Thoreau’s face in early manhood as delicate and scholar-like, the mouth at that time giving no indication of the Spartan firmness of his character. Still less reliance is to be placed in some further remarks of Hawthorne’s, to the effect that Thoreau’s sojourn in Emerson’s household had been burdensome to his host, for all the evidence points strongly in the other direction. The following passage, however, contains an interesting estimate of Thoreau’s qualities as a student of nature:

  “He is a keen and delicate observer of nature-a genuine observer-which, I suspect, is almost as rare a character as even an original poet; and nature, in return for his love, seems to adopt him as her especial child, and shows him secrets which few others are allowed to witness. He is familiar with beast, fish, fowl, and reptile, and has strange stories to tell of adventures—and friendly passages with these lower brethren of mortality. Herb and flower likewise, wherever they grow, in garden or wild-wood, are his familiar friends. He is also on intimate terms with the clouds, and can tell the portents of storm. It is a characteristic trait that he has a great regard for the memory of the Indian tribes whose wild life would have suited him well; and strange to say, he seldom walks over a ploughed field without picking up an arrow-point, spear-head, or other relic of the red man, as if their spirits willed him to be the inheritor of their simple wealth.”

  On the evening to which these entries refer, we learn that Thoreau rowed Hawthorne on the Concord river in the boat built and used by himself and his brother in their week’s excursion to the Merrimac in 1839, and Hawthorne, delighted at Thoreau’s skill in paddling, decided to purchase the boat and change its name from Musketaquid to Pond-lily. But the art of managing a canoe, which Thoreau had learnt from some Indians who had visited Concord a few years previously, was not to be acquired in a day. “Mr. Thoreau had assured me,” writes Hawthorne plaintively, “that it was only necessary to will the boat to go in any particular direction, and she would immediately take that course, as if imbued with the spirit of the steersman. It may be so with him, but it is certainly not so with me.” The difficulty once mastered, Hawthorne took much pleasure in his new purchase, and seems to have been inspired by something of Thoreau’s enthusiasm for the wildness of open-air life. “Oh that I could run wild,” he exclaims, when recording his first successful voyage in the Pond-lily; “that is, that I could put myself in a true relation with nature, and be on friendly terms with all congenial elements.” His admiration for Thoreau in this respect lends colour to the supposition that the “young Pan under another name,” as Emerson called Thoreau, was the original of Donatello, the mysterious fawn-like character in his novel Transformation. Thoreau, on his part, spoke honourably of Hawthorne in his Week on the Concord and Merrimac Rivers.

  By the middle of 1842 the Dial, which had never been prosperous from a pecuniary point of view, was in severe straits, and the editorship having been resigned by Margaret Fuller, was undertaken by Emerson himself, in which work he was largely assisted by Thoreau, who was then living in his house. It is said that Thoreau not only canvassed for new subscribers, read proof-sheets, and selected passages for the “Ethnical Scriptures” of the Oriental philosophers, which formed one of the features of the Dial under Emerson’s management, but also acted as sole editor on one or two occasions during his friend’s absence.5 A large number of Thoreau’s writings were inserted by Emerson, whose estimate of his ability was far higher than that held by Margaret Fuller; so that the young author was now becoming recognised as one of the leaders of transcendental thought.6 The Dial for July 1842 contained his delightful essay on “The Natural History of Massachusetts,” to which Emerson prefixed an introductory note in which he hinted that Izaak Walton and White of Selborne had now a worthy successor. This essay also won the admiration of Nathaniel Hawthorne. “Methinks this article,” he wrote in his diary, “gives a very fair image of Thoreau’s mind and character—so true, innate, and literal in observation, yet giving the spirit as well as the letter of what he sees. There are passages of cloudy and dreamy metaphysics, and also passages where his thoughts seem to measure and attune themselves into spontaneous verse, as they rightfully may, since there is real poetry in them. There is a basis of good sense and of moral truth, too, which also is a reflection of his character; for he is not unwise to think and feel, and I find him a healthy and wholesome man to know.” The “Winter Walk,” another essay of the same character and of almost equal merit, appeared in the Dial a year later. The following verses, which have only lately been published, were intended by Thoreau to form a portion of this essay, but were omitted by Emerson. They quaintly describe a mild winter’s day in New England, as Thoreau saw it.

“The rabbit leaps,
The mouse out-creeps,
The flag out-peeps,
Beside the brook;

“The ferret weeps,
The marmot sleeps;
The owlet keeps
In his snug nook.

“The apples thaw,
The ravens caw,
The squirrels gnaw
The frozen fruit;

“To their retreat
I track the feet
Of mice that eat
The apple’s root.

“The snow-dust falls,
The otter crawls,
The partridge calls
Far in the wood:

“The traveller dreams,
The tree-ice gleams,
The blue jay screams
In angry mood.

“The willows droop,
The alders stoop,
The pheasants group
Beneath the snow:

“The catkins green
Cast o’er the scene
A summer sheen,
A genial glow.”

  In July 1842 Thoreau, accompanied by a friend, went on a three days’ excursion to Wachusett, a mountain to the west of Concord (“the blue wall,” he calls it, “which bounds the western horizon”), which, from its isolated position, forms a conspicuous feature in the landscape, and is familiar by name to all readers of his writings. More than once he expresses a feeling of sympathy with this solitary height:

“But special I remember thee,
Wachusett, who like me
Standest alone without society.”

His account of the walk, and how they camped a night on the mountain, was published the following year in the Boston Miscellany, under the title of “A Walk to Wachusett.” “Wachusett,” he wrote, in describing the view from the summit, “is, in fact, the observatory of the State. There lay Massachusetts spread out before us in length and breadth like a map.” Thoreau’s love of mountains is exemplified in many passages of his diary, and the occasional excursions which he made to the lofty outlying ranges visible from the Concord hills formed some of the most pleasing episodes in his life. “A mountain chain,” he says, “determines many things for the statesman and philosopher. The improvements of civilisation rather creep along its sides than cross its summit. How often is it a barrier to prejudice and fanaticism! In passing over these heights of land, through their thin atmosphere, the follies of the plain are refined and purified; and as many species of plants do not scale their summits, so many species of folly no doubt do not cross the Alleghanies.”

  Thoreau’s predilection for solitude, and indifference or dislike to “society,” in the ordinary sense of the word, may be gathered from a good deal of what has already been related of him. There was an aloofness and reserve in his nature which, together with his stern and lofty ideals, made him ‘appear at times somewhat unbending and unapproachable. “Of all phenomena, my own race are the most mysterious and undiscoverable,” he wrote in his journal while he was still a youth. “For how many years have I striven to meet one, even on common manly ground, and have not succeeded!” It was no question of being better, or worse, than the generality of men—he was different; and the sympathy which he could not find in civilised man he sought in wild nature, though well aware that Nature herself is nothing l except in her relation to man. “I feel,” he said, “that my life is very homely, my pleasures very cheap. Joy and sorrow, success and failure, grandeur and meanness, and indeed most words in the English language, do not mean for me what they do for my neighbors. I see that my neighbors look with, compassion on me, that they think it is a mean ‘and unfortunate destiny which makes me to walk’ in these fields and woods so much, and sail on this river alone. But so long as I find here the only real Elysium, I cannot hesitate in my choice.” To say, as is often said, that Thoreau was unsocial is, however, incorrect, except in a limited and qualified degree. “He enjoyed common people,” says Channing; “he relished strong acrid characters.” The rough honest farmers of Concord were his especial favourites, and in their company he could show plenty of that good fellowship of which he appeared, under some conditions, to be deficient. “He came to see the inside of every farmer’s house and head, his pot of beans, and mug of hard cider. Never in too much hurry for a dish of gossip, he could sit out the oldest frequenter of the bar-room, and was alive from top to toe with curiosity.” The impression which he left on his friends in Emerson’s household, after his two years’ residence there, was a wholly agreeable one. “He was by no means unsocial,” says Dr. E. W. Emerson,7 “but a kindly and affectionate person, especially to children, whom he could endlessly amuse and charm in most novel and healthful ways. With grown persons he had tact and high courtesy, though with reserve. But folly, or pretence, or cant, or subserviency, excited his formidable attack.”

  The course of his life with the Emersons is well shown in some letters written early in 1843 to a friend at Plymouth:

“CONCORD, 24th January 1843.

  “The other day I wrote you a letter to go in Mrs. Emerson’s bundle, but, as it seemed unworthy, I did not send it, and now, to atone for that, I am going to send this, whether it be worthy or not I will not venture upon news, for, as all the household are gone to bed, I cannot learn what has been told you. Do you read any noble verses nowadays? or do not verses still seem noble? For my own part, they have been the only things I remembered, or that which occasioned them, when all things else were blurred or defaced. All things have put on mourning but they; for the elegy itself is some victorious melody or joy escaping from the wreck.

  “It is a relief to read some true book, wherein all are equally dead—equally alive. I think the best parts of Shakespeare would only be enhanced by the most thrilling and affecting events. I have found it so. And so much the more, as they are not intended for consolation.

  “We always seem to be living just on the brink of a pure and lofty intercourse, which would make the ills and trivialness of life ridiculous. After each little interval, though it be but for the night, we are prepared to meet each other as gods and goddesses.

  “I seem to have dodged all my days with one or two persons, and lived upon expectation—as if the bud would surely blossom; and so I am content to live.

  “What means the fact—which is so common, so universal—that some soul that has lost all hope for itself can inspire in another listening soul an infinite confidence in it, even while it is expressing its despair?

  “I am very happy in my present environment, though actually mean enough myself, and so, of course, all around me; yet, I am sure, we for the most part are transfigured to one another, and are that to the other which we aspire to be ourselves. The longest course of mean and trivial intercourse may not prevent my practising this divine courtesy to my companion. Notwithstanding all I hear about brooms, and scouring, and taxes, and housekeeping, I am constrained to live a strangely mixed life—as if even Valhalla might have its kitchen. We are all of us Apollos serving some Admetus.

  “I think I must have some muses in my pay that I know not of, for certain musical wishes of mine are answered as soon as entertained Last summer I went to Hawthorne’s suddenly for the express purpose of borrowing his music-box, and almost immediately Mrs. Hawthorne proposed to lend it to me. The other day I said I must go to Mrs. Barrett’s to hear hers, and lo! straightway Richard Fuller sent me one, for a present from Cambridge. It is a very good one. I should like to have you hear it. I shall not have to employ you to borrow for me now.”

  Early in 1843 Thoreau ceased to live in Emerson’s house, having accepted the offer of a tutorship in the family of Mr. William Emerson, the brother of the Concord philosopher, who was then living in Staten Island, near New York. Before leaving Concord to take up this duty, he wrote as follows to Emerson, who was then lecturing at New York. The first part of the letter refers to Mr. Alcott’s arrest for refusal to pay the poll-tax:

  “15th Feb. 1843.—I suppose they have told you how near Mr. Alcott went to jail, but I can add a good anecdote to the rest. When Staples [the officer] came to collect Mrs. W.’s taxes my sister Helen asked him what he thought Mr. Alcott meant-what his idea was; and he answered, ‘ I vum, I believe it was nothin’ but principle, for I never heard a man talk honester.’ There was a lecture on peace, by a Mr. Spear (ought he not to be beaten into a plowshare?), that same evening, and as the gentlemen, Lane and Alcott, dined at our house while the matter was in suspense (that is, while the constable was waiting for his receipt from the jailer), we three settled it that Lane and myself should agitate the state while Winkelried lay in durance. But when over the audience I saw our hero’s head moving in the free air of the Universalist church, my fire all went out, and the state was safe as far as I was concerned. But Lane, it seems, had cogitated and even written on the matter in the afternoon, and so, out of courtesy, taking his point of departure from the Spear-man’s lecture, he drove gracefully in medias res, and gave the affair a good setting-out. But, to spoil all, our martyr, very characteristically, but, as artists would say, in bad taste, brought up the rear with ‘My Prisons,’ which made us forget Silvio Pellico himself.

“At the end of this strange letter I will not write what alone I had to say—to thank you and Mrs. Emerson for your long kindness to me. It would be more ungrateful than my constant thought. I have been your pensioner for nearly two years, and still left free as the sky. It has been as free a gift as the sun or the summer, though I have sometimes molested you with my mean acceptance of it-I, who have failed to render even those slight services of the hand which would have been for a sign at least; and, by the fault of my nature, have failed of many better and higher services. But I will trouble you no more with this, but for once thank you and Heaven.”

  It is probable that some stanzas of Thoreau’s entitled “The Departure” were written about this time, when he had just left with regret the friends whose house had for two years been his home:

“In this roadstead I have ridden,
In this covert I have hidden:
Friendly thoughts were cliffs to me,
And I hid beneath their lee.

“This true people took the stranger,
And warm-hearted housed the ranger;
They received their roving guest,
And have fed him with the best;

“Whatsoe’er the land afforded—
To the stranger’s wish accorded,
Shook the olive, stripped the vine,
And expressed the strengthening wine

“And by night they did spread o’er him
What by day they spread before him;
That good will which was repast
Was his covering at last.”

  On 7th April 1843 there is a further mention of Thoreau in Hawthorne’s note-book. When Hawthorne was dozing in his study, with the Dial before him as a soporific, Thoreau called to return a book, and tell him of his intended visit to Staten Island. “We had some conversation upon this subject, and upon the spiritual advantages of change of place, and upon the Dial, and upon Mr. Alcott, and other kindred subjects. I am glad on Mr. Thoreau’s account that he is going away, as he is out of health, and may be benefited by his removal; but on my own account I should like to have him remain here, he being one of the few persons, I think, with whom to hold intercourse is like hearing the wind among the boughs of the forest tree, and with all this wild freedom there is high and classic cultivation in him too.” The favourite musical-box, which had been given to Thoreau by a Cambridge friend, was on this occasion left in Hawthorne’s charge.

  Several months were spent by Thoreau in Staten Island, during the spring and summer of 1843. Here, during his spare hours, he continued his walking excursions as regularly as at Concord, and was frequently mistaken by the inhabitants for a busy surveyor, who was studying every yard of the ground with a view to some extensive speculation. From an old ruined fort he used to watch the emigrant vessels pass up the narrow channel from the wide outer bay and go on their course to New York, or, as the case might be, remain in quarantine at Staten Island, when the passengers would be allowed to go ashore and refresh themselves on that “artificial piece of the land of liberty.” From the low hills in the interior of the island, among the homesteads where the Huguenots had been the first settlers, he could see the long procession of out-going ships, stretching far as the eye could reach, “with stately march and silken sails,” as he describes it; at other times he roamed along the desolate sandy shore, where packs of half-wild dogs were on the look-out for carcases of horses or oxen washed up by the tide. “An island,” he says, in his Week, “always pleases my imagination, even the smallest, as a continent and integral portion of the globe. I have a fancy for building my hut on one. Even a bare, grassy isle, which I can see entirely over at a glance, has some undefined and mysterious charms for me.”

  The following extracts are from his letters to Mrs. Emerson, for whom, as will be seen, he felt the most grateful affection and regard:

  “22d May.—I thank you for your influence for two years. I was fortunate to be subjected to it, and am now to remember it. It is the noblest gift we can make; what signify all others that can be bestowed? You have helped to keep my life ‘on loft,’ as Chaucer says of Griselda, and in a better sense. You always seemed to look down at me as from some elevation—some of your high humilities—and I was the better for having to look up. I felt taxed not to disappoint your expectation; for could there be any accident so sad as to be respected for something better than we are? It was a pleasure even to go away from you, as it is not to meet some, as it apprised me of my high relations; and such a departure is a sort of further introduction and meeting. Nothing makes the earth seem so spacious as to have friends at a distance; they make the latitudes and longitudes.

  “I have hardly begun to live on Staten Island yet; but, like the man who, when forbidden to tread on English ground, carried Scottish ground in his boots, I carry Concord ground in my boots and in my hat,-and am I not made of Concord dust? I cannot realise that it is the roar of the sea I hear now, and not the wind in Walden woods. I find more of Concord, after all, in the prospect of the sea, beyond Sandy Hook, than in the fields and woods.”

  “20th June.—I have only read a page of your letter, and have come out to the top of the hill at sunset, where I can see the ocean, to prepare to read the rest. It is fitter that it should hear it than the walls of my chamber. The very crickets here seem to chirp around me as they did not before. I feel as if it were a great daring to go on and read the rest, and then to live accordingly. There are more than thirty vessels in sight going to sea. I am almost afraid to look at your letter. I see that it will make my life very steep, but it may lead to fairer prospects than this.

  “My dear friend, it was very noble in you to write me so truthful an answer. It will do as well for another world as for this; such a voice is for no particular time nor person, but it makes him who may hear it stand for all that is lofty and true in humanity. The thought of you will constantly elevate my life; it will be something always above the horizon to behold, as when I look up at the evening star. I think I know your thoughts without seeing you, and as well here as in Concord. You are not at all strange to me.

  “What wealth is it to have such friends that we cannot think of them without elevation! And we can think of them any time and anywhere, and it costs nothing but the lofty disposition. I cannot tell you the joy your letter gives me, which will not quite cease till the latest time. Let me accompany your finest thoughts.

  “I send my love to my other friend and brother, whose nobleness I slowly recognise.”

  “16th October.—I have been reading lately what of Quarles’s poetry I could get. He was a contemporary of Herbert, and a kindred spirit. I think you would like him. It is rare to find one who was so much of a poet and so little of an artist. He wrote long poems, almost epics for length, about Jonah, Esther, Samson, and Solomon, interspersed with meditations after a quite original plan,—Shepherd’s Oracles, Comedies, Romances, Fancies, and Meditations—the quintessence of meditations—and Enchiridions of Meditations all divine—and what he calls his Morning Muse; besides prose works as curious as the rest. He was an unwearied Christian, and a reformer of some old school withal. Hopelessly quaint, as if he lived all alone and knew nobody but his wife, who appears to have reverenced him. He never doubts his genius; it is only he and his God in all the world. He uses language sometimes as greatly as Shakespeare, and though there is not much straight grain in him, there is plenty of tough, crooked timber. In an age when Herbert is revived Quarles surely ought not to be forgotten.”

  During the sojourn in Staten Island, Thoreau was frequently in New York, where he made the acquaintance of W. H. Channing, Edward Palmer, Lucretia Mott, Henry James, Horace Greeley, and other persons of note. “In this city,” he wrote to his sister on 21st July, “I have seen, since I last wrote, W. H. Channing, at whose house in Fifteenth Street I spent a few pleasant hours, discussing the all-absorbing question-what to do for the race. Also Horace Greeley, editor of the Tribune, who is cheerfully in earnest at his office of all work, a hearty New Hampshire boy as one could wish to meet, and says, ‘Now be neighborly.’” With Greeley, who was at this time preaching Fourierism in the New York Tribune, in conjunction with Margaret Fuller and George Ripley, Thoreau established a firm friendship; and it will be seen that Greeley was able, a few years later, to render him valuable service in securing publication for his writings.

  In a letter addressed to Emerson from Staten Island, 23d May 1843, Thoreau thus relates his impressions of New York:

  “You must not count much upon what I can do or learn in New York. Everything there disappoints me but the crowd, rather, I was disappointed with the rest before I came. I have no eyes for their churches, and what else they have to brag of. Though I know but little about Boston, yet what attracts me in a quiet way seems much meaner and more pretending than there—libraries, pictures, and faces in the street You don’t know where any respectability inhabits. The crowd is something new and to be attended to. It is worth a thousand Trinity Churches and Exchanges, while it is looking at them; and it will run over them and trample them underfoot. There are two things I hear and am aware I live in the neighbourhood of—the roar of the sea and the hum of the city.”

  The following passage from a letter to his mother shows that Thoreau’s thoughts were still at Concord, and gives an agreeable insight into the inner home life of his father’s household:

  “16th August 1843.—I am chiefly indebted to your letters for what I have learned of Concord and family news, and am very glad when I get one. I should have liked to be in Walden woods with you, but not with the railroad. I think of you all very often, and wonder if you are still separated from me only by so many miles of earth, or so many miles of memory. This life we live is a strange dream, and I don’t believe at all any account men give of it. Methinks I should be content to sit at the back-door in Concord, under the poplar tree, henceforth for ever. Not that I am homesick at all-for places are strangely indifferent to me-but Concord is still a cynosure to my eyes, and I find it hard to attach it, even in imagination, to the rest of the globe, and tell where the seam is.

  “I fancy that this Sunday evening you are poring over some select book, almost transcendental perchance, or else Burgh’s Dignity or Massillon, or the Christian Examiner. Father has just taken one more look at the garden, and is now absorbed in Chaptelle, or reading the newspaper quite abstractedly, only looking up occasionally over his spectacles to see how the rest are engaged, and not to miss any newer news that may not be in the paper. Helen has slipped in for the fourth time to learn the very latest item. Sophia, I suppose, is at Bangor; but Aunt Louisa, without doubt, is just flitting away to some good meeting, to save the credit of you all.”

  The railroad alluded to in the above letter was the line from Boston to Fitchburg, which was being constructed at this time by Irish labourers, and passed along the west shore of Walden Pond. One can imagine the feelings with which Thoreau heard of this intrusion into his favourite and most solitary haunts. “That devilish Iron Horse,” he exclaims in Walden, “whose ear-rending neigh is heard throughout the town, has muddied the Boiling Spring with his foot, and he it is that has browsed off all the woods on Walden shore; that Trojan horse, with a thousand men in his belly, introduced by mercenary Greeks! “But except for the actual construction of the line, and the building of the Railway Station, this inroad of civilisation did not greatly affect the calm tenor of Concord life.

  Though literary work had not yet come to be regarded by Thoreau as his principal employment, his pen was not idle during his visit to Staten Island. He wrote some articles for the Democratic Review and Dial, and made some translations from the Greek of Æschylus and Pindar. The Dial, in spite of the fact that its contributors wrote gratuitously, was unable to pay its way, and the difficulties in which it was already involved led to its discontinuance in the spring of 1844. But although the transcendentalist organ thus faile4 to win the necessary public support,—transcendentalism as a movement was now in the heyday of its vigour. It was, as we have seen, part of the transcendentalist creed that, every one should labour with his own hands, and; that men should endeavour to revert, as much as possible, from an artificial to a simple mode of living. When these thoughts began to be embodied in deeds the movement took two directions, the one towards collective action, and the other towards individualism. It was in reference to the former that Emerson wrote to Carlyle in 1840: “We are all a little wild with numberless projects of social reform; not a reading man but has a draft of a new community in his waistcoat pocket.” The most important of such communal projects was the famous Brook Farm experiment, which was commenced in the spring of 1841, and came to an end in 1847, on which subject the opinion of the chief transcendentalists was divided, Margaret Fuller and George Ripley joining heartily in the enterprise, while Emerson, Alcott, and Thoreau stood aloof. The spread of Fourierism in New England during these same years had led to the establishment of “Phalansteries,” in which Horace Greeley and W. H. Channing took a leading part. “He believes only or mainly,” wrote Thoreau of Greeley in 1843, “first in the Sylvanic Association, somewhere in Pennsylvania; and secondly, and most of all, in a new association, to go into operation soon in New Jersey, with which he is connected.” Yet another attempt at transcendental colonisation was that made by Alcott and one or two friends in 1843, on an estate near Harvard, which was purchased by them and named “Fruitlands.” This small colony, to ,which Thoreau paid a visit, though he declined the offer of membership, was, like most of the rest, a failure; and in less than a year Alcott gave it up and returned to Concord. Such were the essays which the transcendentalists made in co-operative action.

  Of the second, or individualist, method of practicing the “return to nature,” Thoreau himself was destined to be the most successful exponent. His utter distrust of communities is very characteristic of his independent and self-assertive temperament. “As for these communities,” he wrote in his journal,8 “I think I had rather keep bachelor’s hall in hell than go to board in heaven. Do not think your virtue will be boarded with you. It will never live on the interest of your money, depend upon it. The boarder has no home. In heaven I hope to bake my own bread and clean my own linen. The tomb is the only boarding-house in which a hundred are served at once. In the catacombs we may dwell together and prop one another up without loss.” But, though he had no intention of sacrificing one iota of his individuality by joining a community at Brook Farm or elsewhere, he had for some time been considering the feasibility of putting his principles into practice by a temporary and tentative withdrawal from the society of his fellow-townsmen. This desire appears in his journal as early as 1841. “I want to go soon and live away by the pond,” he wrote on December 24th, possibly with an eye to the impending Christmas festivities, “where I shall hear only the wind whispering among the reeds. It will be success if I shall have left myself behind. But my friends ask what I will do when I get there. Will it not be employment enough to watch the progress of the seasons? “A couple of months before the date of this entry Margaret Fuller had written to Thoreau: “Let me know whether you go to the lonely hut, and write to me about Shakespeare if you read him there.” It has already been mentioned that Walden Pond was associated with Thoreau’s earliest reminiscences; as a child he had thought he would like to live there, and as a boy he had been accustomed to come to its shores on dark nights, and fish for the “pouts” which were supposed to be attracted by the glare of a fire lit close to the water’s edge, or, on a summer morning, to sit and muse for hours in his boat, as it drifted where the wind took it.

  There was, however, another spot with which he was also familiar, which came very near being the scene of his projected hermitage. In his youthful voyages up the Concord river he had noticed, at a distance of about two miles from the village, an old-fashioned ruinous farm-house, concealed behind a dense grove of red maples, through which was heard the barking of the house-dog. This was the Hollowell Farm, the seclusion of which, if we may trust a passage in Walden, so tempted Thoreau that, at some period in his early manhood, he actually agreed to become its possessor. But before the purchase was effected and the contract signed, the owner of the place changed his mind, and offered Thoreau ten dollars to release him from the bargain. “Now, to speak the truth,” says Thoreau, in his dry, humorous manner, “I had but ten cents in the world, and it surpassed my arithmetic to tell if I was that man who had ten cents, or who had a farm, or ten dollars, or all together. However, I let him keep the ten dollars and the farm too, for I had carried it far enough; or rather to be generous, I sold him the farm for just what I gave for it, and, as he was not a rich man, made him a present of ten dollars, and still had my ten cents, and seeds, and materials for a wheelbarrow left.”

  We may surmise that in I 844, after the conclusion of his educational engagement in Staten Island, he was still more decidedly bent on putting his favourite plan into execution; and that his thoughts now reverted to Walden woods as the place most suitable for his purpose. Alcott’s experiment at “Fruitlands,” although unsuccessful in a pecuniary sense, had doubtless stimulated Thoreau’s inclination to a forest life; and Emerson himself, while sceptical, in the main, as to the wisdom of such enterprises, had bought land on both sides of Walden Pond, with the idea of building a summerhouse. Ellery Channing, who in his youth had made trial of a rough backwoods life, was of course taken into his friend’s confidences respecting this retirement to the woods. “I. see nothing for you in this earth,” he wrote in 1845, “but that field which I once christened ‘Briers’; go out upon that, build yourself a hut, and there begin the grand process of devouring yourself alive. I see no alternative, no other hope for you. Eat yourself up; you will eat nobody else, nor anything else.” Encouraged by these exhortations, and firmly trusting the promptings of his own destiny, Thoreau determined in the spring of 1845, being now in his twenty-eighth year, to build himself a hut on the shore of Walden Pond and there live for such time, and in such a manner, as might best conduce to his intellectual and spiritual advantage. The objects of his retirement have been so often misunderstood that they will bear repetition in his own words:

  “Finding that my fellow-citizens were not likely to offer me any room in the court-house, or any curacy or living anywhere else, but that I must shift for myself, I turned my face more exclusively than ever towards the woods, where I was better known. I determined to go into business at once, and not wait to acquire the usual capital, using such slender means as I had already got. My purpose in going to Walden Pond was not to live cheaply nor to live dearly there, but to transact some private business with the fewest obstacles. . . . I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a comer, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.”

  Walden was, in fact, to Thoreau what Brook Farm was to others of the transcendentalists—a retreat suitable for philosophic meditation, and the practice of a simpler, hardier, and healthier life.

1 Emerson in Concord, by Ed. W. Emerson.
2 Rev. D. G. Haskins. I have the following story from Mr. Sanborn. A person seeing Thoreau on the other side of the street at Cambridge, said to his friend, “Look at Thoreau yonder, he is getting up a nose like Emerson’s.”
3 Christian Examiner, 1865.
4 Emerson at Home and Abroad.
5 Vol. iii. No. 3 is said to have been edited by Thoreau.
6 For a list of Thoreau’s contributions to the Dial, see Appendix.
7 Emerson in Concord, 1889.
8 3d March 1841.

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