Of The Thoreaus.
By Irving Allen
Boston Daily Advertiser (April 23, 1894)
Of all the days of my student life at Harvard there are few connected with more delightful memories than those that recall friendships formed at old Concord. Especially do I remember in these later days a winter evening 43 years ago at the pleasant home of the Thoreaus.
It was some family anniversary—a birthday, I think—and late on a February day of 1851 our little party started on a sleigh-ride to the famous town.
It was one of those mild afternoons, toward the close of winter, that breathe promises of the coming spring; a day described by a classic poet as “nurse of the beautiful Halcyon.” Under the influence the February sun the snow was melting and the sleighing between Cambridge and Concord was not of the best; but a merrier party of eight never journeyed together on runners or wheels, and too-frequent “bare spots” were doubtless far more annoying to our tugging toiling horses than to us.
Alas—of that jocund company but three are left. There was the poet, some of whose songs are familiar the world over; the divinity student, whose best years were spent as a missionary under burning Indian skies; the student of law, who eleven years later exchanged the revised statutes for the sword, going to the war as second lieutenant in a Massachusetts colored regiment, and within two years becoming commander of the post of Key West and a judge advocate-general in our army, to die years after the close of the war at the hands of a rebel assassin in a South-western city. But these things were of the future, and, happily, unknown to us.
At the period or which I write, the Thoreau family consisted of the father and mother, their now famous son—Henry David, a daughter, Sophia, and two maiden sisters of the elder Thoreau.
Mr. John Thoreau was in outward aspect and gesture, a typical Frenchman,—a little man with a charming simplicity and amiability both of face and manner. In his early days he had been a manufacturer of lead pencils; but as a business man was never a distinguished success. It has been said he was too honest to compete with prevalent business methods, and it is certain that he was not a man of great energy or force of character.
As is true of so many eminent men, it was to his mother that Henry Thoreau was indebted for his intellectual pre-eminence, and whatever measure of genius he possessed, I shall always remember Mrs. Thoreau as one of the most remarkable and brilliant women I ever met. As a conversationalist, I never knew her equal, and the flashes of witty rejoinder from her lips ever keen—and nimble as the play of a rapier in the hands of a practised swordsman—and not seldom, well-nigh as dangerous.
Mr. John Thoreau was an amiable and delightful old gentleman; who always seemed well satisfied to let his wife do most of the talking. He was, as I have said, a little man, apparently half a head shorter in stature than his wife, whose slender proportions gave her the appearance of unusual height.
Henry had neither the features nor the expression of his father, but greatly resembled his mother in many respects; his peculiar taciturnity, however, was by no means a maternal inheritance.
The daughter, Miss Sophia Thoreau, to whom we are indebted for the publication of her brother’s letters, and more than one of the other volumes of his works, was at this time a woman of about 40, of strong and cultivated intellect, and lacking only the divine gift of expression to be herself a writer of note. The two maiden aunts were lovable and admirable old ladies, of whom I have pleasant and delightful memories.
It was a memorable occasion—that evening at Concord forty-three years ago. The company was such as will never again be gathered under a New England roof. There was Emerson—grave, severe, child-like—yet not unconscious of his greatness nor of the love and reverence that compassed him on every side.
There was Hawthorne, on whom nature, prodigal of marvelous gifts, had bestowed not only genius of the loftiest type, but its outward presentment in face and form.
It was at this date, about two years since the publication of “The Scarlet Letter,” and the fame of the author, which has since glowed with an ever brightening lustre, was even then becoming world-wide. It was the dream of my youth to meet the magician whose “Grandfather’s Chair” had been the delight and marvel of my childhood, and to whom I owed—for the “Twice-Told Tales”—my passport into the magic realms of genius and deep, poetic thought.
Hawthorne was then in the prime of life and at the acme of his transcendent intellectual powers. His resemblance at this period to the admirable engraving which is the frontispiece to Bridge’s recently published “Reminiscences” was more striking than to Thompson’s well-known portrait, the work of earlier years.
Well, I was at length in the very room with the object of my youthful idolatry; but I asked no introduction, and did not once venture to approach him throughout the evening. Indeed, he seemed to me literally unapproachable; for I do not think he addressed a dozen words to a person present during the evening. He seemed apart from all the rest of that cheerful company; yet it was scarcely the shrinking from society of a man naturally shy and sensitive; but rather—as it seemed to me—that he existed in an atmosphere peculiarly his own.
I heard it said that he was more sociable and cheerful in company when his wife was present: on the evening of which I write, Mrs. Hawthorne was at the bedside of her father—Dr. Peabody—whose death occurred a few days later.
There too was the benignant face of that most unpractical of philosophers—A. Bronson Alcott, and one of his afterward distinguished daughters, which one I do not recollect; and there was Rockwood Hoar, a stern law-giver, and not always over gentle in his communion with his fellow men, but witty and genial, and kindly enough in social intercourse. There too was the judge’s sister Elizabeth, lovely alike in person and character, whose epitaph in the sacred cemetery of Sleepy Hollow written it was said by Emerson—has been read and pondered by thousands of visitors that Mecca among the burial places of New England.
I do not remember whether Mr. F. B. Sanborn, who still lives and writes, was a guest on that well-remembered evening; indeed, I may confess, perhaps to my shame, that a certain youthful prejudice against the honorable guild of school-masters—of which Mr. Sanborn was then a member—would have precluded any peculiar pleasure on my part in his company, this was, I think, about three years before that gentleman’s temporary renown as the victim of an attempted political abduction.
Forty-three years ago Henry D. Thoreau was scarcely recognized in the ranks of American authors, though the Maine Woods sketches had been before the public several years; I forget whether it was before or after the publication of “Walden.”
He was chiefly known to the good people of Concord as a shy and eccentric recluse: a man who preferred the society of birds and fishes and other wild living things to that of his fellow men; a citizen who, a few years earlier, had denied the State’s right of personal taxation and proved the sincerity of his convictions by peaceably allowing a constable to conduct him to Concord jail, from which he was released after a brief captivity on the interposition of dear old “Aunt Jane”—one of his father’s maiden sisters—who insisted on paying the sum in dispute, much, however, against her nephew’s wishes.
Anything in the way of a social gathering was exceedingly distasteful to Henry Thoreau; and as I was afterwards told-it was only at his mother’s urgent request that he honored our little company with his presence; but however strongly he may have felt himself out of his element. there was no evidence of it in his conduct or manner.
Although by no means a free or ready conversationalist, Thoreau was at times a charming talker. It was delightful, when a sympathetic listener was at band, to hear this instinctive naturalist—if I may use such a term—discourse of his innocent and interesting intimates of the woods and the lake. I remember how his eye kindled when he talked of his frequent discoveries in the Concord fields and meadows, of Indian relics. I think it is Hawthorne who somewhere speaks, perhaps in the marvelous introduction to the “Mosses,” of this exceptional aptitude in Thoreau.
This is not the place, nor is mine the pen, to indite any estimate of Thoreau the man or the author. Like all self-centred men,—like, indeed, all men and women of any measure of true originality—Henry Thoreau was doubtless more or less of an egotist. It is no doubt true that he over-estimated in some directions his own powers. Thus, while a true poet in mind years and heart, he was certainly sadly deficient in the gift of poetic expression. As Lowell says, in quoting some of his stanzas: “Here is very bad verse and very good imagination;” but that he was a most delightful and instructive companion with whom to spend a summer afternoon, especially out of doors, I can testify from personal and most pleasant experience.
At the date of which I speak, Margaret Fuller—then the Countess Ossoli—was living in Italy, and I think there was no member of her family present—, unless I may designate the husband of her younger sister—Wm. Ellery Channing; not unknown as a writer, but more distinguished as enjoying the friendship of Hawthorne and Thoreau.
The hours sped all too swiftly, and the end came to that evening of happy memory. As we passed the old First Parish meeting house, the sweet-toned bell in its quaint steeple struck the hour of eleven. Three times, in later years, I heard that solemn voice under very different circumstances; once, on the afternoon of an April day eleven years later, when all that was mortal of Henry Thoreau was borne to its resting-place in Sleepy Hollow beside father, brother and sister. Emerson’s beautiful words on that funeral day of early spring were indeed prophetic of the fame which came too late to warm the heart of the gifted student and lover of nature:—
“Dead ere his prime, and hath not left his peer,” in his own peculiar and most interesting department of letters.
Two years later, on the memorable 23d of May, 1864, the voice of the old bell summoned another great man to his grave under the whispering pines of Sleepy Hollow; he of whom James Russell Lowell says: “The world may see another Shakespeare, but never another Hawthorne;”
Who that was in the old church on that loveliest of summer days can ever forget the hour and the scene? The wild wayside flowers with which the walls, the communion-table and the pulpit were sweetly adorned; the coffin, bearing on its closed-lid a wreath of apple-blooms from the Old Manse and the sadly significant manuscript of the unfinished tale of “Little Pansy”— called by Alexander Smith “the sweetest child in English literature;” The group of illustrious Americans—the like of which has, I believe, never again been gathered: Emerson and Whittier, Longfellow and Lowell, Stoddard and Steadman, Agassiz and Holmes, Geo. W. Curti’s, Edwin P. Whipple, Benj. F. Thomas, Franklin Pierce—, and many be sides of scarcely less note in the world of statesmanship, art and letters.
Almost twenty years later on in time, to the measured music of the same old bell, I followed the body of Emerson to its grave in famous Sleepy Hollow. Even then the ranks of the great associations who walked beside Hawthorne on that perfect day of May were sadly thinned; and today there are living, I believe, but three: Stoddard and Steadman, and the beloved and honored Autocrat, Dr. Holmes.
Forty-three years is a long space in a human life, and few of the friends assembled that February night of 1851 under the hospitable roof-tree of the Thoreaus are among the living of today. I spent the summer of 1869 with my family in Concord, and many were the pleasant hours passed that season with the two remaining members of the Thoreau family, Miss Sophia and her aged mother.
During the troubled years just preceeding the war, the prevailing sentiment in Concord, under the intellectual leadership of Emerson and the Hoar family was very strongly anti-slavery; the feeling against the fugitive-slave law and its pron1oters was especially bitter; and the leaders of the abolition party had no warmer friends or more faithful adherents than in the famous centre of transcendental thought and culture. Every member of the Thoreau family was a sincere and consistent hater of the slave system—I may almost say, of the South itself. I think the only appearance of Henry in public as an orator was at a meeting of the townspeople on the evening of the day of Capt. John Brown’s execution, on which occasion he made an address almost revolutionary in the violence of its invective.
His sister Sophia was, as I have said, a woman of strong mind and independent thought, and fully sympathized with her brother in his loathing of human slavery.
At Hawthorne’s funeral I sat with Miss Thoreau, in a pew of the old parish Meetinghouse, and in a brief conversation before the commencement of the service, I inquired if the family had known much of Hawthorne since his return from Europe. In reply she told me that they had seen but little of the great author “since his fall.”
I naturally supposed that the expression I referred to some accident of which I had not heard, but was presently made to understand by his “fall” the speaker intended to characterize his labor of love in writing the life of his classmate and life-long friend—Franklin Pierce!
It was thus that even the friends and neighbors of the immortal writer misjudged his disinterested and kindly effort in behalf of one to whom his soul was knit in the bonds of a friendship as rare as it was pure and unselfish.
But the date of which I am writing now, the war was a dark memory of the past and our talk was no longer of battles and strange perils, but of old friends and scenes with which we had been familiar in other days.
Three years later—in 1872, on the 23d day of May, the anniversary of Hawthorne’s burial day—I called at the old home on Main street, and for the last time spent a charming hour in conversation with the dear old lady. I call it a conversation,—it was in reality a monologue, for I do not think I found a chance to utter half a dozen consecutive words throughout the interview.
It was Mrs. Thoreau’s 86th birthday; and never, during all the years of our acquaintance, do I remember her as more witty and vivacious, or fuller of life and youthful spirit than on that afternoon of her last earthly May.
So frail was her bodily aspect that she seemed, indeed, almost pure spirit: and her death, which occurred a few months later was but the quiet and painless entrance of the soul on its eternal home. It is the literal truth that she died with a song on her lips; if I remember rightly, it was Sarah Flower Adams’ noble hymn, “Nearer, My God, to Thee.”
On an afternoon of October, 1874, two friends—one a man not unknown to fame stood together on the narrow path that divides the graves of Hawthorne and Thoreau—in the sacred burial-place of old Concord. Presently a procession entered the cemetery, and slowly climbed the hill to the resting-place of the Thoreaus.
It was the funeral-train of the last of the name—Sophia—whose death had occurred a few days earlier in a distant city.
They rest together on the pine-clad slope in Sleepy Hollow—father and mother, sons and daughters; a family re-united in death; close beside them the grave of Hawthorne, and a little farther off that of Emerson.
It is probable that the fame of the singularly gifted son will outlive that of many a writer of loftier genius and nobler endowments of expression, for apart from intellectual power or skill of utterance, there was something in the personality of that sincere student and loving child of nature especially winning and attractive.
BY those who can truly sympathize with the man rather than the author, who really knew him—personally or in his works—will his memory be kept green and fragrant.