From: Thoreau: His Life and Aims. A Study. (1877)
Author: Alexander Hay Japp
Published: James R. Osgood & Company 1877 Boston


TILL within a few years ago the name of Thoreau stood to me for morbid sentiment, weak rebellion, and contempt for society. If I met with his name in general literature, it was usually with an implied protest against the main drift of his teaching and aims. He had done some original things and written pure and beautiful passages, but these were chips and straws cast up by a steady current of morbid and stoical egotism. A particular study on which I was engaged led me into frequent contact with Thoreau. I found that his friends loved him, and that he loved them; that, in spite of an outer coating of stoicism and protest, he was true and tender of heart; that, though he was sometimes extreme in his expressions of dislike for the artificial make-believes of modern society, he loved individual men, and most that which was individual in them, showing the utmost patience and toleration in his association with others; that his love of Nature and his power over animals, which were so express and characteristic in him, did not lead him to sour retreat from society, but rather to seek a new point of relation to it, by which a return might be possible and profitable; and that, in one word, the common view of Thoreau was quite wrong, or at any rate, needed many qualifications. I began a systematic study of his writings, and gathered traces of him in many out-of-the-way comers. As I gazed—

“A new planet swam into my ken.”

  A self-sufficing but kindly and patriotic man took the place of the ‘morbid hermit.’ The solitary of Walden was the first who came forth, and spoke decidedly in public for John Brown, of Harper’s Ferry, having himself run risks by his personal efforts, and freed not a few slaves. I wanted to find a reconciling point for what seemed inconsistent and exclusive. Morbid hermits, stoics, or sentimentalists do not usually show such a concern for weak and down-trodden fellow-creatures, or so practical and ready a power to aid them; and as Thoreau could do what he did, and never feel as though there was any inconsistency between Walden life and anti-slavery action, I was desirous to satisfy myself, by closer scrutiny, of his real aims and objects. With considerable labor and time, as I have said, I did it. A very slight sketch I wrote as the immediate result, in one of the Quarterlies, was received so favorably— spoken of in The Spectator, for example, as “a new revelation,” and by the Scotsman as one of the “most interesting studies”—that I was led to believe a fuller picture would be welcome to not a few. The nature-instinct in Thoreau was so strong that, as I believe, it may even do something to aid in the interpretation of certain phenomena of so distant a period as the Middle Ages. I see a kind of real likeness between this so-called ‘Stoic’ of America, with his unaffected love for the slave, his wonderful sympathies and attractions for the lower creatures, his simplicities, and his liking for the labor of the hand, and that St. Francis, whose life has recently been made fresh and real to us by the skillful pen of Mrs. Oliphant. All I claim for Thoreau is a disinterested and not a one-sided and prejudiced hearing. Because he hated the hypocrisies and make-shifts of our modern social life, and plainly said so, do not let us therefore conclude that he was only morbid and stoical; let us do him justice as the patriot and reformer also; and try to discover how it was that the man who held society in such despite on some accounts was so eager to purify it from the worst incubus that probably ever rested upon it. It was Thoreau’s love of Nature that formed the basis of his peculiar simplicity and dislike of what was involved, doubtful, and morally tortuous: if we get to understand that, much in his character which is otherwise puzzling, may become clear to us. Hence it is that I have set out with a comparison which may be very unexpected, but which may be seen to justify itself the more that the reader is inclined to follow, with some degree of sympathy, the facts and passages from Thoreau’s writings, which form a leading part of this volume, since in the main I have tried to let the man speak for himself.

  It is not pretended that this is a Memoir, or that I am able to present new and unpublished material. I may claim, however, that the scattered materials have never before been brought together in such a form as they are here, and that a pretty complete biography will be found embodied in the book. But it professes to be a Study only; an effort to gain a consistent view of the man’s character rather than an exhaustive record of the facts of his life.


All Sub-Works of Thoreau: His Life and Aims. A Study. (1877):
PDF Sub-Works open in a new tab. Close the tab when done viewing to return here.