Thoreau by Thomas Wentworth Higginson

PREFACE. These brief papers were originally published in “The Literary World” (Boston), and are here reprinted in a revised form, with some additions. CAMBRIDGE, MASS., DEC. 1, 1879.


There is no fame more permanent than that which begins its real growth after the death of an author; and such is the fame of Thoreau. Before his death he had published but two books, “A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers,” and “Walden.” Four more have since been printed, besides a volume of his letters and two biographies. One of these last appeared within a year or two in England, where he was, up to the time of his death, absolutely unknown. Such things are not accidental or the result of whim, and they indicate that the literary fame of Thoreau is secure. Indeed, it has already survived two of the greatest dangers that can beset reputation, — a brilliant satirist for a critic, and an injudicious friend for a biographer.

Both admirer and censor, both Channing in his memoir, and Lowell in his well known criticism, have brought the eccentricities of Thoreau into undue prominence, and have placed too little stress on the vigor, the good sense, the clear perceptions, of the man. I have myself walked, talked, and corresponded with him, and can testify that the impression given by both these writers is far removed from that ordinarily made by Thoreau himself. While tinged here and there, like most New England thinkers of his time, with the manner of Emerson, he was yet, as a companion, essentially original, wholesome, and enjoyable. Though more or less of a humorist, nursing his own whims, and capable of being tiresome when they came uppermost, he was easily led away from them to the vast domains of literature and nature, and then poured forth endless streams of the most interesting talk. He taxed the patience of his companions, but not more so, on the whole, than is done by many other eminent talkers when launched upon their favorite themes.

It is hard for one who thus knew him to be quite patient with Lowell in what seems almost wanton misrepresentation. Lowell applies to Thoreau the word “indolent:” but you might as well speak of the indolence of a self-registering thermometer; it does not go about noisily, yet it never knows an idle moment. Lowell says that Thoreau “looked with utter contempt on the august drama of destiny, of which his country was the scene, and on which the curtain had already risen;” but was it Thoreau, or Lowell, who found a voice when the curtain fell, after the first act of that drama, upon the scaffold of John Brown? Lowell accuses him of a “seclusion which keeps him in the public eye,” and finds something “delightfully absurd” in his addressing six volumes under such circumstances to the public, when the fact is that four of these volumes were made up by friends, after Thoreau’s death, from his manuscripts, or from his stray papers in newspapers and magazines. Lowell accepts throughout the popular misconception — and has, indeed, done much to strengthen it — that Thoreau hated civilization, and believed only in the wilderness; whereas Thoreau defined his own position on this point with exceeding clearness, and made it essentially the same with that of his critics. “For a permanent residence it seemed to me that there could be no comparison between this [Concord] and the wilderness, necessary as the latter is for a resource and a background, the raw material of all our civilization. The wilderness is simple almost to barrenness. The partially cultivated country it is which chiefly has inspired, and will continue to inspire, the strains of poets such as compose the mass of any literature.”

Seen in the light of such eminently sensible remarks as these, it will by and by be discovered that Thoreau’s whole attitude has been needlessly distorted. Lowell says that “his shanty-life was mere impossibility, so far as his own conception of it goes, as an entire independency of mankind. The tub of Diogenes had a sounder bottom.” But what a man of straw is this that Lowell is constructing! What is this “shanty-life”? A young man living in a country village, and having a passion for the minute observation of nature, and a love for Greek and Oriental reading, takes it into his head to build himself a study, not in the garden or the orchard, but in the woods, by the side of a lake. Happening to be poor, and to live in a time when social experiments are in vogue at Brook Farm and elsewhere, he takes a whimsical satisfaction in seeing how cheaply he can erect his hut, and afterwards support himself by the labor of his hands. He is not really banished from the world, nor does he seek or profess banishment: indeed, his house is not two miles from his mother’s door; and he goes to the village every day or two, by his own showing, to hear the news. In this quiet abode he spends two years, varied by an occasional excursion into the deeper wilderness at a distance. He earns an honest living by gardening and land-surveying, makes more close and delicate observations on nature than any other American has ever made, and writes the only book yet written in America, to my thinking, that bears an annual perusal. Can it be really true that this is a life so wasted, so unpardonable?

The artist LaFarge built himself a studio as bare as Thoreau’s and almost as lonely, among the Paradise Rocks, near Newport, and used to withdraw from the fashionable summer world to that safe retreat. Lowell himself has celebrated in immortal verse the self-seclusion of Professor Gould, who would lock himself into his Albany observatory, and leave his indignant trustees to “admire the keyhole’s contour grand” from without. Is the naturalist’s work so much inferior to the artist’s, — are the stars of thought so much less important than those of space, — that LaFarge and Gould are to be praised for their self-devotion, and yet Thoreau is to be held up to all coming time as selfish? For my own part, with “Walden“ in my hands, I wish that every other author in America might try the experiment of two years in a “shanty.”

Let me not seem to do injustice to Lowell, who closes his paper on Thoreau with a generous tribute that does much to redeem his earlier injustice. The truth is, that Thoreau shared the noble protest against worldliness of what is called the “transcendental” period, in America, and naturally shared some of the intellectual extravagances of that seething time; but he did not, like some of his contemporaries, make his whims an excuse for mere selfishness, and his home life — always the best test — was thoroughly affectionate and faithful. His lifelong celibacy was due, if I have been correctly informed, to an early act of lofty self-abnegation toward his own brother, whose love had taken the same direction with his own. Certainly his personal fortitude amid the privations and limitations of his own career was nothing less than heroic. There is nothing finer in literary history than his description, in his unpublished diary, of receiving from his publisher the unsold copies — nearly the whole edition — of his “Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers,” and of his carrying the melancholy burden up-stairs on his shoulders to his study. “I have now a library,” he says, “of nearly nine hundred volumes, over seven hundred of which I wrote myself.”! [By the kindness of my friend, H.G.O. Blake, Esq., of Worcester, Mass., the custodian of Thoreau’s manuscripts, I am enabled to print the entire passage at the end of this chapter.]

It will always be an interesting question, how far Thoreau’s peculiar genius might have been modified or enriched by society or travel. In his diary he expresses gratitude to Providence, or, as he quaintly puts it, “to those who have had the handling of me,” that his life has been so restricted in these directions, and that he has thus been compelled to extract its utmost nutriment from the soil where he was born. Yet in examining these diaries, even more than in reading his books, one is led to doubt, after all, whether this mental asceticism was best for him, just as one suspects that the vegetable diet in which he exulted may possibly have shortened his life. A larger experience might have liberalized some of his judgments, and softened some of his verdicts. He was not as just to men as to woodchucks; and his “simplify, I say, simplify,” might well have been relaxed a little for mankind, in view of the boundless affluence of external nature. The world of art might also have deeply influenced him, had the way been opened for its closer study. Emerson speaks of “the raptures of a citizen arrived at his first meadow;” but a deep, ascetic soul like Thoreau’s could hardly have failed to be touched to a far profounder emotion by the first sight of a cathedral.

The impression that Thoreau was but a minor Emerson will in time pass away, like the early classification of Emerson as a second-hand Carlyle. All three were the children of their time, and had its family likeness; but Thoreau had the lumen siccum, or “dry light,” beyond either of the others; indeed, beyond all men of his day. His temperament was like his native air in winter, — clear, frosty, inexpressibly pure and bracing. His power of literary appreciation was something marvellous, and his books might well be read for their quotations, like the sermons of Jeremy Taylor. His daring imagination ventured on the delineation of just those objects in nature which seem most defiant of description, as smoke, mist, haze; and his three poems on these themes have an exquisite felicity of structure such as nothing this side of the Greek anthology can equal. Indeed, the value of the classic languages was never better exemplified than in their influence on his training. They were real “humanities“ to him ; linking him with the great memories of the race, and with high intellectual standards, so that he could never, like some of his imitators, treat literary art as a thing unmanly and trivial. His selection of points in praising his favorite books shows this discrimination. He loves to speak of “the elaborate beauty and finish, and the lifelong literary labors of the ancients . . . works as refined, as solidly done, and as beautiful almost, as the morning itself.” I remember how that fine old classical scholar, the late John Glen King, of Salem, used to delight in Thoreau as being “the only man who thoroughly loved both nature and Greek.”

Thoreau died at forty-four, without having achieved fame or fortune. It is common to speak of his life as a failure; but to me it seems, with all its drawbacks, to have been a great and eminent success. Even testing it only by the common appetite of authors for immortality, his seems already a sure and enviable place. Time is rapidly melting away the dross from his writings, and exhibiting their gold. But his standard was higher than the mere desire for fame, and he has told it plainly. “There is nowhere recorded,” he complains, “a simple and irrepressible satisfaction with the gift of life, any memorable praise of God. . . . If the day and the night are such that you greet them with joy, and life emits a fragrance, like flowers and sweet-scented herbs, — is more elastic, starry, and immortal, —  that is your success.”

NOTE. — The following passage is now first published, from Thoreau’s manuscript diary, the date being Oct. 28, 1853: —

“For a year or two past, my publisher, Munroe, has been writing from time to time to ask what disposition should be made of the copies of ‘A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers,’ still on hand, and at last suggesting that he had use for the room they occupied in his cellar. So I had them all sent to me here; and they have arrived to-day by express, piling the man’s wagon, seven hundred and six copies out of an edition of one thousand, which I bought of Munroe four years ago, and have been ever since paying for, and have not quite paid for yet. 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 labor? 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 unbound 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 expressman 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.”

Source: Higginson, Thomas Wentworth. Short Studies of American Authors (Boston: Lee and Shepard; New York: Charles L. Dillingham, 1880, c1879) pp. 22-31