Miscellaneous Writings on Thoreau

Thoreau has just come back from reading to Parker’s company a revolutionary Lecture on Osawatomie Brown, a hero and martyr after his own heart and style of manliness. It was received here by our Concord folks with great favor, and by the Worcester friends of his. I wish the towns might be his auditors throughout the length and breadth of states and country. He thinks of printing it in pamphlet and spreading it far and wide, North and South.

Source: A. Bronson Alcott to Daniel Ricketson, November 7, 1859, in Anna and Walton Ricketson, eds., Daniel Ricketson: Autobiographic and Miscellaneous (New Bedford: Anthony, 1910), pp. 130-131.


January 26, 1848.
Heard Thoreau’s lecture before the Lyceum on the relation of the individual to the State — an admirable statement of the rights of the individual to self-government, and an attentive audience.

His allusions to the Mexican War, to Mr. Hoar’s expulsion from Carolina, his own imprisonment in Concord Jail for refusal to pay his tax, Mr. Hoar’s payment of mine when taken to prison for a similar refusal, were all pertinent, well considered, and reasoned. I took great pleasure in this deed of Thoreau’s.

September 11, 1856. [Written at Walpole, New Hampshire, where Thoreau was visiting Alcott.]
Thoreau is persistency manly and independent as of old. His criticisms on men and the times as characteristic, individual, and urged with all the honest pertinacity befitting a descent of the Scandinavian Thor. A man of a genealogy like his — Franko-Norman-Scottish-American — may well be forgiven for a little foolhardiness, if not pugnacity, amidst his great common sense and faithfulness to the core of natural things. . . .

In the evening Thoreau reads Dr. Bellow’s Historical Sketch of the Founder’s Family, and takes all there is known of Walpole [New Hampshire] to bed with him, to be used for such ornaments of his jaunt this day as our traveller’s humour shall dictate.

November 2, 1856. [Written at the Fourier community, Eagleswood, Perth Amboy, New Jersey, where both Alcott and Thoreau were visiting.]
Thoreau reads his lecture on "Walking," and interests his company deeply in his treatment of nature. Never had such a walk as this been taken by any one before, and the conversation so flowing and lively and curious—the young people enjoying it particularly.

November 10, 1856. [Written at Eagleswood after Alcott had taken Thoreau to Brooklyn to visit Walt Whitman.]
I hoped to put him [Walt Whitman] in communication direct with Thoreau, and tried my hand a little after we came down stairs and sat in the parlour below; but each seemed planted fast in reserves, surveying the other curiously,—like two beasts, each wondering what the other would do, whether to snap or run; and it came to no more than cold compliments between them. Whether Thoreau was meditating the possibility of Walt’s stealing away his "out of doors" for some sinister ends, poetic or pecuniary, I could not well divine, nor was very curious to know; or whether Walt suspected or not that he had here, for once, and the first time, found his match and more at smelling out "all Nature," a sagacity potent, penetrating and peerless as his own, if indeed not more piercing and profound, finer and more formidable. I cannot say. At all events, our stay was not long.

April 11, 1859.
Comes Thoreau and sups with us. We discuss thought and style. I think his more primitive than that of any of our American writers — in solidity, in organic robust quality unsurpassed, as if Nature had built them out for herself and and breathed into them free and full, seasoning every member, articulating every sense with her salubrities and soul of soundness. He is rightly named Thorough, Through, the pervading Thor, the sturdy sensibility and force in things.

June 9, 1859
Sanborn, Henry Thoreau, and Allen take tea and pass the evening with us. We discuss questions of philosophy and the Ideal Theory as applied to education. Thoreau is large always and masterly in his own wild ways. With a firmer grasp of the shows of Nature, he has a subtler sense of the essence and personality of the flowing life of things than most men, and he defended the Ideal Theory and Personal Identity to my great delight.

July 3, 1859.
Thoreau comes and stays an hour or two. Students of Nature alike, our methods differ. He is an observer of Nature pure, and I discern her as exalted and mingled in Man. Her brute aspects and qualities interest him, and these he discriminates with a sagacity unsurpassed. He is less thinker than observer; a naturalist in tendency but of a mystic habit, and a genius for detecting the essence in the form and giving forth the soul of things seen. He knows more of Nature’s secrets than any man I have known, and of Man as related to Nature. He thinks and sees for himself in way eminently original, and is formidably individual and persistent.

August 21, 1859.
Henry Thoreau is here and spends the evening conversing in his remarkable way on Nature and naturalists. I think him the naturalist by birth and genius, seeing and judging by instinct and first sight, as none other I have known. I remark this in Thoreau, that he discerns objects individually and apart, never in groups and collectively, as a whole, as the artist does. Nature exists separately to him and Individually. He never theorizes; he sees only and describes; yet, by a seventh sense as it were, dealing with facts shooting forth from his mind and mythologically, so that his page is a creation. His fancy is ever the complement of his understanding, and finishes Nature to the senses even. If he had less of fancy, he would be the prose naturalist and no more; and had he less of understanding he would be a poet—if, indeed, with all this mastery of things concrete and sensible, he be not a poet, as Homer was.

October 30, 1859.
Thoreau reads a paper of his on John Brown, his virtues, spirit, and deeds, at the Vestry this evening, and to the delight of his company I am told — the best that could be gathered on short notice, and among them Emerson.

February 8, 1860.
Thoreau and his lecture on "Wild Apples" before the Lyceum. It is a piece of exquisite sense, a celebrating of the infinity of Nature, exemplified with much learning and original observation, beginning with the apple in Eden and down to the wildings in our woods. I listened with uninterrupted interest and delight, and it told on the good company present.

January 28, 1861.
Channing writes tenderly of Thoreau’s confinement, and I see him this morning and find his hoarseness forbids his going out as usual. ’Tis a serious thing to one who has been less a house-keeper than any man in town, has lived out of doors for the best part of his life, has harvested more wind and storm, sun and sky, and has more weather in him, than any—night and day abroad with his leash of keen senses, hounding any game stirring, and running it down for certain, to be spread on the dresser of his page before he sleeps and served as a feast of wild meats to all sound intelligences like his. If any can make game for his confinement it must be himself, and for solace, if sauce of the sort is desired by one so healthy as he has seemed hitherto. We have been accustomed to consider him the salt of things so long that we are loath to believe it has lost savor; since if it has, then "Pan is dead" and Nature ails throughout.

I find him in spirits — busied, he tells me, with his Journals, and, bating his out-of doors, in his usual working trim. Fair weather and spring time, I trust, are to prove his best physicians, and the woods and fields know their old friend again presently.

January 1, 1862.
To Thoreau, and spend the evening, sat to find him failing and feeble. He is talkative, however; is interested in books and men, in our civil troubles especially, and speaks impatiently of what he calls the temporizing policy of our rulers; blames the people too for their indifferency to the true issues of national honor and justice. Even Seward’s letter to Earl Grey respecting Mason’s and Liddell’s case, comforting as it is to the country and serving as a foil to any hostile designs of England for the time at least, excites his displeasure as seeming to be humiliating to us, and dishonorable.

We talk of Pliny, whose books he is reading with delight. Also of Evelyn and the rural authors. If not a writer of verse, Thoreau is a poet in spirit, and has come as near to the writing of pastorals as any poet of his time. Were his days not numbered, and his adventures in the wild world once off his hands, then he might come to orchards and gardens, perhaps treat these in manner as masterly, uniting the spirit of naturalist and poet in his page. But the most he may hope for is to prepare his manuscripts for others’ editing, and take his leave of them and us. I fear he has not many months to abide here, and the spring’s summons must come for him soon to partake of "Syrian peace, immortal leisure."

May 7, 1862.
I am at Mrs. Thoreau’s. She tells me about Henry’s last moments and his sister Sophia showed me his face, looking as when I last saw him, only a tinge of paler hue. 44 years last July.

Source: Bronson Alcott, Journals (Boston: Little, Brown, 1938)


I always think of Thoreau when I look at a sunset. . . . He said to me in his last illness, ’I shall leave the world without regret,’—that was the saying either of a grand egotist or of a deeply religious soul.

Source: Bronson Alcott, in F. B. Sanborn, Henry D. Thoreau (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1882), 306-307.


SONNET XIII

Who nearer Nature’s life would truly come
Must nearest come to him of whom I speak;
He all kinds knew,—the vocal and the dumb;
Masterful in genius was he, and unique,
Patient, sagacious, tender, frolicsome.
This Concord Pan would oft his whistle take,
And forth from wood and fen, field, hill, and lake,
Trooping around him, in their several guise,
The shy inhabitants their haunts forsake:
Then he, like Esop, man would satirize,
Hold up the image wild to clearest view
Of undiscerning manhood’s puzzled eyes,
And mocking say, "Lo! mirrors here for you:
Be true as these, if ye would be more wise."

SONNET XIV

Much do they wrong our Henry, wise and kind,
Morose who name thee, cynical to men,
Forsaking manners civil and refined
To build thyself in Walden woods a den, —
Then flout society, flatter the rude hind.
We better knew thee, loyal citizen!
Thou, friendship’s all-adventuring pioneer,
Civility itself didst civilize:
Whilst braggart boors, wavering twixt rage and fear,
Slave hearths lay waste, and Indian huts surprise,
And swift the Martyr’s gibbet would uproar:
Thou hail’dst him great whose valorous emprise
Orion’s blazing belt dimmed in the sky, —
Then bowed thy unrepining head to die.

Source: A. Bronson Alcott, Sonnets and Canzonets (Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1882) p.119, 121.