Thoreau used to walk through Concord with the long step of an Indian, looking straight before him, but at the same time observing everything. Occasionally he would stop, make an incision in the bark of a tree with his knife, or pick up a stone and examine it. It was not often that he was met with in anybody’s house, or seen in company with other men.
His profession was that of a surveyor; and it is easy to imagine how, with his poetic temperament, while laying out roads and measuring woodlots, he came to be what he was. Many people thought his peculiar ways were an affectation, but I believe that he was one of the plainest and simplest of men; as plain and single-minded as President Lincoln himself. It was his theory of the way men should live. He was a Diogenes without being a cynic.
James Russell Lowell (as he himself tells us) was sent to Concord to rusticate while he was at college, and conceived at that time an aversion for Thoreau which never left him. In his celebrated “Fable for Critics” he satirized him as an imitator of Emerson, and so plainly that there was no mistaking the portrait. This could not have troubled Thoreau much for he was a perfect stoic, and cared little for the opinions of others so long as he satisfied his own conscience. Emerson, however, felt it keenly, for it was equally a reflection on his friend and his own sagacity. In his last volume of poems Lowell also speaks of Emerson in a way which indicates rater a diminished respect for him.
It is true that Thoreau imitated Emerson’s manner a good deal — and it was often difficult to avoid doing this while in Emerson’s company — but Lowell also in his younger days affected a grave and reserved demeanor which he afterwards became tired of and threw entirely aside. About the time of which we speak Emerson complained that he saw too little of Thoreau, and was afraid that he avoided him. The man was sufficiently original. He did not pretend to be a poet, and his prose writing is not at all like Emerson’s or Lowell’s; and these two lines of his,
“In the good then who can trust.
Only the wise are just,”
certainly deserve to be set up somewhere in letters of gold.
He had a strong dislike of matrimony. Once while walking across a field with David A. Wasson he kicked a skunk-cabbage with his boot and said, “There, marriage is like that.” Lowell was without doubt right about him in this respect. Thoreau’s notions of life, like the socialistic theories of Henry George, would if generally adopted put an end to civilization. He wanted like the French theorists of the last century to separate himself from the history of his race; a most dangerous attempt. It is like cutting a tree from its roots. Wasson had many a hard argument with him on this point, and tried to show him that customs are the good logic of the human race: but it was too late. However, logic is one thing and character another.
The best eulogy of Thoreau is to be found in Emerson’s poetry. he is evidently the subject of the beautiful little poem called “Forbearance.” The opening lines,
“Thou who hast named the birds without a gun;
Loved the wood-rose, and left it on its stalk;
At rich men’s table’s eaten bread and pulse; —”
This describes the hermit of blue Walden exactly. A large portion of “Woodnotes” is devoted to an account of his pilgrimage in the forests of Maine; and the ode to “Friendship” must have been inspired either by him or Carlyle.
“I fancied he was fled —
And after many a year,
Glowed unexhausted kindliness,
Like daily sunrise there.”
He delivered a lecture one winter before the Concord lyceum on wild apple-trees. The subject made his audience laugh, but their laughter was of short duration. The man who had lived there so long unknown was at last revealed before them. It was the best lecture of the season, and at its close there was long continued applause.
A Note on the Text: Source: Sketches from Concord and Appledore by Frank Preston Stearns (New York: G.P. Putnam’s, 1895) pp. 24-28.