By George Willis Cooke (1848-1923)
There are evidently two Thoreaus — one that of his admirers, and the other that of his detractors. His admirers include such persons as Mr. Frank B. Sanborn and Mr. H. S. Salt, who have both written biographies of Thoreau, and who cannot easily accept any criticism of one they love almost to excess. Whatever of genius there was in him they are quick to recognize; but his faults they ignore or prefer to overlook. The other class, whose chief representative is Lowell, are inclined to see what was odd in Thoreau; they emphasize his excesses, and do not fully credit the genius which he undoubtedly possessed.
A willingness to recognize both phases of Thoreau’s nature led me, the other day, to seek out two persons who knew him well—the one a most ardent admirer, and the other, not so much a detractor as one who is inclined to emphasize his faults. I will permit the detractor to speak first, in order that the admirer may give the last and most important word.
The detractor said that he went to school with Thoreau in the Concord Academy, that he was an odd stick, not very studious or devoted in his lessons, but a thoughtful youth and very fond of reading. He was not given to play or to fellowship with the boys; but he was shy and silent. When he was in college at Harvard he was not inclined to hard study, but spent much of his time in the library, had no special rank in his class, and took no part in commencement. As a teacher in Concord Academy he was a failure, and only remained for a short time.
Then Thoreau spent a year or two in Emerson’s family, as the tutor of his children and as his literary assistant. This resulted in his becoming a thorough-going imitator of Emerson, whose manner, speech, and ideas he copied with great fidelity and success. This was carried to such an extent as to make a decided change in Thoreau’s life; and the change was for the better. When he sometimes gave lectures, as he did before the Concord Lyceum, and on other occasions, his manner of speaking was a coarse imitation of Emerson’s, and so badly done as to make it painful to listen to him. He caught Emerson’s hesitating manner, with all that was ungraceful and awkward in it. On these occasions Thoreau had but a small audience, no one but his personal friends turning out to hear him; and he had only a small personal following in the village.
Thoreau was an odd, shy recluse man, an intense egotist, who thoroughly believed in himself and his own ideas. He was an Indian in his nature, with the advantages of Harvard library and Plato’s philosophy. He was a good deal of a Stoic; and he always judged of everything, even that Nature which he loved so well, with reference to himself. He could not see anything except with his own personality as its test, and with reference to what bearings it had upon his own life and thought. In his books he loved to play upon words, and cultivated a punning, alliterative style. The mere jingle of words seemed to attract him; and what was odd or bizarre gave him much pleasure.
The detractor went to visit Thoreau half-a-dozen times while he was living in his hut on Walden Pond. His life there was helped out by many tea-drinkings and dinners to which he was invited by his relatives and friends in the village, as well as by food which was frequently sent to him. He enjoyed his stay there, and had the feeling that he was performing a great feat to live without the trappings of civilization. He did not much care for the conventionalities of life, and readily broke away from its customs and ceremonies. In the last years of his life he became a thorough convert to not blacking his shoes, but never did anything to them until they were worn out. He thought it a waste of time to blacken and polish them, and a useless concession to mere custom.
His attitude toward society was shown in his refusal to pay taxes. Being an extreme individualist, he felt that he had no use for Government; that it hampered him, and did not permit him to do as he liked. He refused to yield obedience to it, or to add anything to its means of support. When called upon by the tax gatherer he excused himself on the ground of not caring to pay. After repeated requests for the dollar and a half which the tax roll had put down against his name, the tax collector, who was also the constable, grew impatient of the delay, and took Thoreau away to jail. In a few hours the tax was paid by one of his friends, and he was liberated. He protested against any one paying for him, but walked away as if nothing had happened.
Thoreau greatly enjoyed talking with the quaint people of the town, those who were racy in speech and personal in character. The more of oddity he found in them the greater liking he had for their society, and the greater enjoyment he found in their expressions and ideas. He talked with the old farmers of nature and outdoor life, of what they had learned on their farms, and of what they had gained of practical wisdom. He seldom came into close contact with the educated people of the village, with the exception of Emerson, Hawthorne, Channing, and the few others who were his special admirers and friends.
The detractor said that he knew quite well that his way of regarding Thoreau was that of the Philistine; but it was that of the people generally in Concord who knew Thoreau intimately. He said that he had all of Thoreau’s books, had read them carefully, and enjoyed much of what was in them. He procured “Walden” and “The Week” when they first appeared, and he had recently read the books on the four seasons. Thoreau’s descriptions he regards as accurate and delightful; but his philosophy he always skips, as he does not care for it or agree with it. Those who knew Thoreau personally have found nothing so surprising as the cult which has grown up about him or so difficult of a rational explanation.
The admirer gave me a very different account of Thoreau, for he grew up with him, being only a few years younger. He had a boy’s admiration for his friend, took lessons of him in woodcraft, came to love the woods and its creatures under his guidance, and had that enthusiasm about him which the boy conceives for his hero. Even now he does not like to hear a word said against Thoreau; and he has never yet forgiven Lowell for his cruel word of detraction and misrepresentation. By the admirer Thoreau is regarded with that fondness which would have been natural if he had been an older brother; and this is, in reality, the relation in which they stand to each other, not by blood, but in the feeling which is cherished for the intimate friend of now so many years past. Thoreau’s memory is not only cherished, but most warmly defended by this admirer of whatever was good and noble in him. He is talked of with the keenest zest, and all his bright qualities, his genius, his gifts which appealed to a boy’s admiration, are described with strong appreciation.
Thoreau’s room in his later years was in a back attic of the house in Concord where he died, and which was afterward owned by the Alcott family. It was sparsely furnished, with Spartan-like simplicity. There was in it a bureau, in which he kept a collection of birds’ eggs and one of arrowheads. A rude cot on which he slept, a chair or two, and a washstand, bowl and pitcher, made up all the room contained.
He was a true companion of the boys of the village, entered into their sports, and was delighted in their outdoor life. He was pleased to show them birds’-nests; but he was shy of those who had not a genuine love of the life of the wood, and who hunted merely because they followed the other boys. Those who loved outdoor life found in him a true companion, one who was always willing and glad to serve them, and who entered into all their interests with a delight equal to their own. He was ready to initiate them into a knowledge of the country around, and into all the mysteries of woodcraft and the hidden secrets of Nature.
According to his admirer Thoreau was an impressive speaker, and had a large hearing whenever he spoke in Concord. There was a tang, something queer, in his manner of speech and in his ideas, which attracted people. On the day when John Brown was hanged he sent a boy about to notify people that he would speak in the vestry of the church. The boy returned, and said that Mr. Sanborn thought it a bad thing to do, that the time was dangerous, and it would be better to wait until there was a better feeling among the people. Thoreau sent the boy back with this message: “Tell Mr. Sanborn that he has misunderstood the announcement, that there is to be a meeting in the vestry, and that Mr. Thoreau will speak.”
The vestry was full, but people came in shyly, as if afraid to be seen there; but they listened to the end, and then went out without discussion or comment. Thoreau was full of his subject on this occasion, was deeply agitated, and was so moved by his feelings as scarcely to be able to speak or to control his voice. It was a bold, strong argument he made, but in a time of fear and doubt. He had no hesitation himself, knew clearly his own attitude, and what he wished to say. Few other persons had a definite opinion or dared utter their thoughts openly. He was himself a non-resistant, decidedly preferred the interests of the individual to those of the State, would not pay taxes because he did not believe in the attitude of the nation on the great moral questions of the hour; but he saw at once to the core of Brown’s character, was his earnest champion, and had for him the greatest admiration.
Thoreau’s lectures were listened to with delight, and admired for their fresh and unique qualities. His descriptions of scenery and outdoor life were much appreciated and admired, and were fully understood by the farmers and other such people. He had a poetic fervor and charm which made his speaking attractive and pleasant for the listener.
The gossip about his being furnished with doughnuts, pies, and other delicacies, while he was living at Walden, is not worth listening to; for he was quite capable of living in the woods on his own fare. He did in no sense depend upon the supplies from the village; but these were accepted out of good will to the donors, not from any desire on his part to receive them. The fact is, he loved society in a way of his own, desired the companionship of people, cared for all simple, sincere and genuine persons, and went to see them at their houses from time to time. He could depend upon himself, but he was no misanthrope, no mere recluse, certainly not one to distrust or to hate his kind. He sought the company of the people of the village when he found it convenient to do so or the impulse called. He did not shun good food, but accepted it willingly; yet he was not in any degree dependent upon it. He did not seek it or beg for it; when it was offered he used it, but not to his own detriment.
He was a genuine man, sound, wholesome, thoroughly natural, and of noble impulses and purposes. His life was without any mortal taint, and it was clean throughout. He was not narrow or warped, but sound in his principles and upright in his conduct. There was no deceit about him, no pretense, no stunted elements of character; but he was genuinely loyal and faithful in all the relations of life. In his relations to his friends he was fidelity itself; and to those who were in any way dependent upon him or who appealed to his sympathies he gave the most unfailing loyalty. To an elderly woman, a dependent and complaining person, he gave much of his time, made great efforts to cheer her and to give her courage, constituted himself her protector, and was persistent in his acts of kindness. He was patient, sympathetic and self-forgetful in her behalf, would run on errands for her, and did not fail in even the most lowly service.
Thoreau loved the society of boys, he knew boy character intimately, and he thoroughly sympathized with them; but he would not tolerate bad language or meanness in any boy who was in his company. Evil habits he scorned, and he used his best effort to destroy them in all the boys who associated with him. He sought to develop whatever was good in the characters of his boy friends, and to give them moral backbone and manliness.
By nature Thoreau was independent in character and opinion, institutions were indifferent to him, while social forms and requirements repulsed him. He was an individualist of the most pronounced type, maintaining that institutions oppressed the individual, and were not to be trusted or their arbitrary laws obeyed. This faith of his he carried into daily life, not in an aggressive or offensive manner, but in his disregard of mere conventionalities. He was one of the most sturdy and uncompromising democrats who ever lived. He dressed plainly, like a farmer, not slovenly, but with no extra care or nicety. He fitted his dress to his outdoor life and its requirements. He was scrupulously clean, but did not love show or parade.
When Thoreau lived at Walden he read and wrote much, carried there the best books and read them diligently. It was a time of quiet thought with him, and of putting his thoughts upon paper. He had many visitors; and all of those who had raciness of speech or any native force of character he was glad to welcome. He loved native fruit, at least among men, that with the flavor of the soil. One such man in Concord, the constable and tavern-keeper, had the warmest appreciation of Thoreau, and said of him that he was a good fellow and a delightful man to meet. Such was the testimony of all who knew him intimately on any side of his life, and who got close to that which was best within him.
Thoreau must be understood from the point of view of the detractor as well as from that of the admirer, in order fully to appreciate him. He was a genuine product of the soil of New England, a crab apple from the woods, transplanted to a cultivated garden, but retaining the old flavor along with the new. He was a hunter and backwoodsman, who knew Plato and could talk the language of the latest form of intellectual speculation. Through it all, however, there is something so racy, genuine and incisive about him that he commands our admiration, in spite of all his limitations. The very defects give us a great love for him; and we read him with the more delight that he is always himself, wild, rebellious and scornful. There is a raciness about his books, a manly robust quality, and a freshness as of a spring morning, which commands them, and will keep them alive.
Source: The Independent (10 December 1896) pp. 1671-1672.