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Full text of "History of the Seventy-fifth regiment of Indiana infantry voluteers. its organization, campaigns, and battles (1862-65.)"

pEVISITEB 

lH-^ Centennial Tribute to Henry David Thoreau 



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ALLEN COUNTY PUBLIC LIBRARY 



WdLBEH KEVISITEB 



REVISITED 



A Centennial Tribute to Henry David Thoreau 
By George F. Whicher 



PACKARD AND COMPANY 
CHICAGO 



COPYRIGHT. 1945, BY PACKARD AND COMPANY 



All rights reserved. No part of this book may be 
reproduced in any form, by mimeograph or any other 
means, without written permission from the publisher. 



DESIGNED BY BERT KEMPSHALL, CHICAGO. 
AND PRINTED IN THE UNITED STATES OF 
AMERICA BY KENAGA PRESS, CHICAGO, ILLINOIS 



^ 593677 



^ WALDEN REVISITED 



to 



PREFACE 

Walden Pond, in spite of the twentieth century mania for 
calling every body of fresh water a lake, still keeps its old- 
fashioned name. Beside the heap of stones that marks the 
site of Thoreau's cabin the young pines are springing up. 
Standing there in the hush of an early morning in summer, 
one may look across the unruffled surface to wooded shores 
and recapture momentarily the sense of a landscape attuned 
to leisurely living and the delights of meditation. 

But the drive and grind of modernity are not far distant. 
A glance at the ground where bottle caps and torn papers 
mingle with the dry pine needles or a whiff, not of a chance 
traveler's pipe, but of a passing motor-car's exhaust brings 
back the insistent realities of an era of speed and waste. 
Though Walden Pond is preserved as a State Reservation, 
it is no longer a refuge of the spirit. Free enterprise has ex- 
ploited its bathing beach as a location for hot-dog stands 
and amusement booths. Official tests of the water at the 
beaches of popular resorts within the reach of Greater Boston 
show that Walden sometimes ranks among the most favored 
in urine-content. 

Of more concern than the state of Walden's water or the 
beauty of its shores is the moral heritage of human freedom 
and loyalty to principle that descends from Thoreau. Nothing 
could be more opposite to the totalitarian doctrines of our 
times than the transcendentalist's belief in the dignity of man 
and the supremacy of individual conscience over a debased 
collective authority. The hope that these ideas may still be 
cherished and made valid is the mainspring of this essay. 

G.F.W. 
Amherst, Massachusetts 
February, 1945 



ACKNOWLEDGMENT 

Passages from the Journal of Henry David Thoreau, edited 
by Bradford Torrey (Vols. VII to XX of the Manuscript and 
Walden editions of Thoreau's Writings) 1906, and passages 
from the Journals of Ralph Waldo Emerson, edited by Ed- 
ward Waldo Emerson and Waldo Emerson Forbes, 1904- 
1914, are quoted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Com- 
pany. 

Passages from The Journals of Bronson Alcott, edited by 
Odell Shepard, 1938, are quoted by permission of Little, 
Brown and Company. 



CONTENTS 

1 
Walden Revisited 11 

2 
Biography 17 

3 
Journeys 26 

4 
Transcendental Miscellany 33 

5 
Reading 41 

6 
Friendships 49 

7 
Life in the Village 58 

8 

Civil Disobedience 65 

9 

Understanding Nature 72 

10 
Literary Artistry 80 

11 
Higher Laws 87 



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WALDEN REVISITED 

No doubt the townsmen of Concord, Massachusetts, cele- 
brated the anniversary of national independence on July 4, 
1845, with the customary eflPusion of gingerbread, spruce 
beer, and popular oratory. The cradle of liberty may even 
have been rocked more violently than usual that year, since 
it was a time of mounting tension. War was gathering on 
the southern borders. United States troops under General 
Zachary Taylor were massed at the Sabine River ready for 
an advance to the Rio Grande. On that very July 4, though 
Concord would not hear of it until two weeks later, a con- 
vention assembled in the Republic of Texas had voted all but 
unanimously in favor of annexation to the United States. By 
May, 1846, President Polk had committed the country to a 
vigorous expression of the bad neighbor policy, otherwise 
known as manifest destiny. The famous States, as Ralph 
Waldo Emerson wrote, were soon to be 

"Harrying Mexico 

With rifle and with knife!" 

Concord, whose westernmost section commonly went by the 
name of "Texas," could hardly have failed to feel that the 
air was electric with great events. 

Or if the town, like New England in general, disapproved 
of territorial expansion engineered for the benefit of the 
slave states, it might still be stirred by the unresolved Oregon 
boundary dispute with Great Britain. A generation before, 
the British had seized John Jacob Astor's fur-trading post at 
the mouth of the Columbia River. Now "Fifty-four forty or 
fight!" was the popular slogan. Two wars threatening to 
burst into flame were surely enough to make the patriotic 
kettle simmer. 

11 



Yet the most memorable event of that Independence Day 
passed uncelebrated and almost unnoted. Henry David 
Thoreau, a young man just short of twenty-eight, moved 
from his parents' home in the village to a cabin he had built 
with his own hands on the shore of Walden Pond, a mile and 
a half away. There was no special significance attached to his 
selection of a day for his going; the Fourth of July, viewed 
in the light of eternity, would serve as well as any day. 
Young Mr. Thoreau was a friend of Ralph Waldo Emerson's, 
and had often met in the smdy of that advanced thinker the 
little group of serious souls whom the neighbors referred to 
with a smile as the Transcendental Club. A witty lady sup- 
plied a definition of transcendental: it meant, she said, "a 
little beyond." You could think it a little beyond common 
sense if you liked. Thoreau had recently contributed poems 
and articles to the short-lived and esoteric Dial. But he was 
also in his own peculiar way a shrewd and practical man who 
could tell where blueberries grew thickest and was likely to 
bring home a good string of fish when he chose to go fishing. 
He seemed to know instinctively how to find the crops that 
he was best able to gather. 

When young men have something to do, they not uncom- 
monly hunt for a place where they may work without distrac- 
tion. An attic room or a lonely hut in the woods seems at 
such times the first necessity of their being. Soon after 1840 
Thoreau's journal bears witness to the consuming desire for 
self-realization that possessed him. "It is a great relief when 
for a few moments in the day we can retire to our chamber 
and be completely true to ourselves," he wrote in March, 
1841. And by December comes this revealing entry: "I want 
to go soon and live away by the pond, where I shall hear only 
the wind whispering among the reeds. It will be success if I 
shall have left myself behind. But my friends ask what I will 
do when I get there. Will it not be employment enough to 
watch the progress of the seasons?" 

12 



Thoreau was probably thinking at this time of the reedy 
island in the middle of Flint's or Sandy Pond in the town- 
ship of Lincoln, where his friend Stearns Wheeler had built 
a shack to study in. He had lived with Wheeler for possibly 
as much as six weeks. This taste of unimpeded existence only 
whetted his appetite for more. He was drawn to solitude by 
what was deepest in his nature. He could no more tell what 
it was than a lover can set down in words the reasons for his 
devotion. There was nothing any more original in Thoreau's 
going to the woods than there is in a young man's falling in 
love, but in both cases the participant feels that no one has 
ever had such an experience before. 

At various times Thoreau attempted to explain why he 
eleaed to live for two years alone in his cabin by Walden. 
It was the fulfillment, he said, of a dream of his childhood 
that he should make the spot a nursery of his spirit. Again 
he declared that he could not account for his action: "To 
speak sincerely, I went there because I had got ready to go; 
I left it for the same reason." Even when writing Walden 
he could not decide what his true motives had been. "My 
purpose in going to Walden Pond was not to live cheaply 
nor to live dearly there, but to transact some private business 
with the fewest obstacles." We know that he had a book to 
put together and wanted long uninterrupted hours for the 
task. This would have been a sufficient reason if he had left 
it at that. But there was more to come: 

"I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, 
to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not 
learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, dis- 
cover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was 
not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resigna- 
tion, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep 
and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and 
Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a 
broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and 

13 



reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, 
why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and 
publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to 
know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of 
it in my next excursion." 

This ringing statement is no afterthought composed for 
purposes of publication. It is an expansion of a passage be- 
ginning, "I wish to meet the facts of life," written down in 
Thoreau's journal two days after he had moved into his cabin. 

None of these various explanations need be discarded, for 
all are in some measure true. Yet their variety is significant. 
Thoreau was usually very conscious of his motives and ready 
to render an account. But in building a house where he could 
feel to the uttermost the beauty of solitude he was simply 
obeying an impulse akin to that which draws the sap upward 
in spring. 

Since he was not aware of a definite motive, some inter- 
pretations that have been placed on his retreat to Walden 
may be ruled out at once. It was not an act of discourage- 
ment, nor was there anything sullen in his withdrawal. 
Thoreau was certainly innocent of any intention to break 
relations with his family or fellow-townsmen when he left 
the village. He was not in any serious sense a hermit. The 
house that he had helped his father to build on the Texas 
road was still his home, and few days passed that he did not 
visit it. He saw the friends that he cared to see. Except in 
his refusal to pay a poll tax to a government whose acts he 
could not condone, he was not conscious of any falling out 
between society and himself. 

Furthermore, Thoreau was not setting up at Walden a 
model community of one, with the thought that others might 
go and do likewise. He did have a message for the discon- 
tented and the jnalad justed, but it was couched in general 
terms: "Simplify your life." What form the simplification 
should take was for each to decide. For Thoreau himself 

14 



Walden was conceived in other terms than the Utopian ex- 
periments at Brook Farm or Fruitlands. He was not a phil- 
anthropic social theorist like George Ripley nor an ideahstic 
reformer like Bronson Alcott. His supreme intention was to 
mind his own business. 

At Walden Pond Thoreau kept house for two years and 
two months. Then on September 6, 1847, he returned to the 
village as casually as he had left it, to take care of Emerson's 
house and family while his friend made a voyage to Europe. 
The fruits of his stay in the woods were two book manu- 
scripts, one which was .practically complete, built around 
his notes on a boating trip that he had taken several years 
before, and the other, then only beginning to round into 
shape, based on the journals that he had kept while living in 
his cabin. These two products of the years 1845 to 1848 
were eventually published as A Week on the Concord and 
Merrimack Rivers in 1849, and Walden; or, Life in the 
Woods in 1854. Out of twenty volumes that now constitute 
the definitive edition of Thoreau's writings only these two 
were issued in book form before his death. 

His second book, Walden, is by common consent the finest 
expression of New England idealism and one of the greatest 
books of the nineteenth century. It has been called an Ameri- 
can Robinson Crusoe, because it tells how a man by his own 
eflForts managed to feed, warm, and shelter himself. But this 
is to belittle it. Thoreau's book is more many-sided than 
Defoe's. What he chiefly accomplished was to convey better 
than any other writer the sense of a special American exper- 
ience. He knew the meaning of contact with unspoiled wild- 
ness, and how it seemed to confirm the hope of a world that 
was all to be begun anew. Thoreau embodied in the symbol 
of an independent forest-dweller the American dream of an 
open frontier and of unlimited expansion. Walden like Whit- 
man's Leaves of Grass brings to imaginative fulfillment the 

15 



New World promise of dignity to the individual man. It 
marks a culmination of the faith implicit in the Declaration 
of Independence. 

A war and a book, both products of American expansive- 
ness, were in the making on the day when Texas voted to join 
the Union and Henry Thoreau went to live among the pines. 
Before reading the book it is worth while to consider what 
kind of man made it, for though Thoreau believed that he 
had put the best of himself into his books, he committed to 
life much that he never had opportunity to commit to paper. 



16 



BIOGRAPHY 

Thoreau's life is full of apparent contradictions. It is 
paradoxical, to begin with, that he, a quintessential New Eng- 
lander and the only writer native to Concord among those 
who came to be associated with the town, should be the 
grandson of a French-speaking immigrant from the Isle of 
Jersey and should himself have retained slight traces of a 
French accent. Moreover his father's mother and his mother's 
father were both of Scottish ancestry. Only through his ma- 
ternal grandmother, a daughter of the Tory Colonel Elisha 
Jones of Weston, could Thoreau claim descent from a family 
long established in Massachusetts. It was in the house of this 
grandmother on the Virginia Road east of the village that he 
was born on July 12, 1817. 

The following year the Thoreaus moved away from Con- 
cord, first to near by Chelmsford, then to Boston. Conse- 
quently Henry did not grow up to take his native town for 
granted, but discovered it with the eager curiosity of a six- 
year-old when his parents reestablished a home there. John 
Thoreau, the father, a not quite successful storekeeper, was a 
reasonably ingenious mechanic and made a comfortable liv- 
ing by the manufacture of lead-pencils, a home industry in 
which all the family helped. His lively and voluble wife, 
born Cynthia Dunbar, was not unwilling to take boarders to 
increase the family income. There were four children, Helen, 
John, David Henry (as he was christened), and Sophia. Mrs. 
Thoreau with her younger daughter lived to make a home for 
Henry until the time of his death. 

Northward from Concord lay a great traa of little settled 
country, full of ponds and streams, where wild creatures were 
still abundant. The beaver had been hunted out, but muskrat 
and mink were often seen. Old trappers still recalled anec- 

17 



dotes of wolves and bears. Henry Thoreau and his brother 
John lived a free outdoor existence, ranging the woods and 
clearings for nuts and berries and becoming expert with rod 
and gun. Later in life Henry never hunted bird or beast, and 
seldom fished, but he was always ready to entertain children 
with endless stories of his boyish sallies into the wilds. "We 
seem but to linger in manhood to tell the dreams of our 
childhood, and they vanish out of memory ere we learn the 
language," he confided to his journal. Memories of his early 
days remained vivid to Thoreau all his life. 

His parents were respeaers of education and ready to deny 
themselves in order that their children might have it. With 
some difficulty they managed to acquire a piano for the two 
girls, who proved to have some musical talent. Henry turned 
out to be a studious boy, fond of reading, and so when he had 
finished Concord Academy the family scrimped and saved to 
send him to Harvard College, where he held a scholarship 
and contributed what he could earn occasionally by teaching 
school. In college he spent much time in the library, especial- 
ly in the alcove where English authors were kept. Though 
he became reasonably conversant with Latin and Greek 
classics and remarkably well read in English poetry, his 
standing in his class was no more than moderately high. 
Already he was showing a strong preference for going his 
own way rather than following in the path marked out for 
him. During his college years Thoreau read Wordsworth, 
Coleridge, and Carlyle with enthusiastic approval, and he 
bought and presumably read the httle book called Nature, 
Emerson's first publication, which was a kind of manifesto of 
transcendentalism. But not until he returned to Concord to 
live was Thoreau really drawn into the current of new 
thought that was flowing so strongly there. 

He graduated from Harvard with the class of 1837. As yet 
he had discovered no affinity for any particular profession. 
The great resource for the uncommitted, then as now, was 

18 



schoolteaching, but an experience of a few days in the com- 
mon school at Concord convinced Thoreau that he could not 
succeed as a teacher if he were obliged to use the rod as con- 
vention then demanded. Accordingly he joined with his 
brother John in opening a private school, where discipline 
was enforced without whipping and where teachers and 
pupils often took long walks together to study the plant and 
animal life of the countryside. The routine pursuits of an 
academy were not neglected. Henry, as the more learned 
brother, taught Greek, Latin, French, and higher mathematics 
when it was called for, while John acted as principal, business 
manager, and teacher of elementary mathematics and Eng- 
lish studies. The school, notwithstanding its unusual meth- 
ods, was a decided success. It flourished for the short time 
until John's uncertain health obliged the brothers to discon- 
tinue it. 

Meanwhile Henry had begun to keep a journal and was 
secretly writing verses. He took a great interest in the village 
lyceum and regularly lectured before it. His vocation as a 
writer was declaring itself. One literary man Concord already 
possessed in Emerson, a tall clergyman-scholar in his middle 
thirties, who in the year Thoreau graduated from college had 
electrified Harvard by his address to the Phi Beta Kappa 
society. As yet Emerson had published little, but he was 
clearly marked as an intellectual leader. Orthodox people 
were even beginning to suspect that he might prove a dan- 
gerous heretic. Some sentences that Thoreau had written 
came to the attention of Emerson's sister-in-law, who was 
boarding at the Thoreaus', and soon the two men were taking 
walks together and exchanging thoughts. Both secretly 
longed for perfect companionship; in practice neither could 
pass the barrier of an ingrained reserve. 

Yet even their unconsummated friendship was immensely 
stimulating. It was Emerson more than anyone else who con- 
firmed and brought to the surface Thoreau's innate powers. 

19 



Through Emerson the younger man became a "transcenden- 
tal brother." He had previously known as his college tutor 
in Greek the eccentric poet and essayist Jones Very, and dur- 
ing one of his vacation intervals of teaching country school 
he had met the dynamic Orestes W. Brownson, with whom 
he had read a little Goethe in the original. But these were 
uncertain guides. Emerson more than any thinker of the 
moment was becoming the prophet of New England idealism 
and self-sufficiency. Under his encouragement Thoreau read 
oriental scriptures and found himself as an author. His first 
outpouring of poems occurred while he was living as an in- 
mate of Emerson's house. But something else happened too. 
A young man in daily contact with a forceful personality 
must either turn into a disciple or fight hard to preserve his 
independent identity. Thoreau fought. To the end he never 
let his sympathy with "Emerson's ideas deflect him from the 
convictions he had decided on for himself. 

One freedom that he jealously guarded, no matter what 
occupation he was nominally pursuing, was an ample leisure 
for doing what he wanted to do. A broad margin of time was 
his only luxury. He did not believe in postponing the best 
of life to some other occasion. He wanted to catch the full 
savor of experience at once. So he seized the hours that he 
needed for reading and writing, and saw to it that there was 
room in the day for rambles afoot or excursions on the placid 
Musketaquid or Concord River. Now and then he was able 
to go farther afield. With his brother he had even planned 
to set up a school in Kentucky, and when this project fell 
through he made his first visit to Maine in an unsuccessful 
search for a position as schoolteacher there. It was partly an 
accident that he remained so closely bound to his native vil- 
lage. He enjoyed the trips he was able to make to distant 
mountains and waters, and his journal records of such ex- 
cursions often served him as material for essays or as frames 
upon which he constructed his books. 

20 



Early in 1842 Thoreau suffered the sudden and agonizing 
loss of his brother John, who died of lockjaw. He and Henry 
had been inseparable companions. They were both attracted 
by a sensible, merry-hearted girl of seventeen named Ellen 
Sewall, whose brother Edmund had been a favorite pupil in 
the Thoreaus' school; and each without knowing what the 
other was doing proposed marriage to her. Though she liked 
Henry very much, she refused both offers because of her 
father's opposition. Later she married happily an undistin- 
guished clergyman. Years afterward Thoreau told Ellen's 
aunt that he was thinking of Edmund Sewall, his brother 
John, and Ellen when he wrote of "a hound, a bay horse, and 
a turtle dove" that he had lost and was forever seeking. 

Thoreau never married. His emotional need of a home was 
satisfied by his attachment to his parents and sisters. It is 
doubtful if he ever cared for anyone with as deep a devotion 
as he felt for his brother. For years he could not speak of 
John's death without tears. Within a few weeks of his own 
bereavement he was again afflicted when Emerson's entranc- 
ing child Waldo died at the age of six. Companionship in 
grief drew the two friends together more closely than at any 
other time in their lives. 

At Emerson's insistence a quarterly review named by Bron- 
son Alcott the Dial was launched late in the year 1840, in 
the hope that the thinking and writing of the transcenden- 
talists might reach a larger public. The effort was greeted 
with some amusement. It is doubtful if the Dial ever had 
more than a few hundred readers, but even this limited au- 
dience called out the best talents among Emerson's friends. 
Thoreau, who was living in Emerson's house and attending 
to Emerson's garden and woodpile, contributed a poem and 
an essay on the Roman poet Aulus Persius Flaccus to the 
first number of the new publication. While the Dial lasted 
he continued to offer poems from his now considerable stock 
and to prepare prose papers on a variety of subjects from 

21 



notes on the ethical books of the Orient to the "Natural His- 
tory of Massachusetts." Though Margaret Fuller, who re- 
mained the magazine's somewhat captious editor for two 
years, did not always accept the material Thoreau submitted, 
she never declined his work without giving ample reasons for 
her refusal and stimulating suggestions for improvement. 
Under discipline Thoreau's work did improve. Along with 
translations and much hack writing that he did for the Dial 
appeared one of his best country essays, "A Winter Walk." 

Except for contributing to the Dial and to a very few other 
publications Thoreau was showing little interest in the ordi- 
nary occupations of men. At home he helped his father grind 
graphite for superior crayons, at Emerson's he acted as gen- 
eral handy man, and for the community at large he occasion- 
ally accepted a job as a surveyor. On his small earnings he 
was contented to lead a life of Spartan simplicity, provided 
he might be unhindered in his favorite pursuits. Like Long- 
fellow, Lowell, and others he was trying to find out how an 
author could make a living in a country where there was no 
recognized way of following a literary career. His ultimate 
solution was highly original in that it involved no com- 
promise of his ideals. But before he came to that he tried 
teaching once more, spending most of 1843 at Staten Island 
as a tutor to the children of William Emerson, Ralph Wal- 
do's uninspiring elder brother. There he first saw the ocean, 
which he was later to know better from Cape Cod. In New 
York he made the acquaintance of Horace Greeley, founder 
of the Tribune, who had a partiality for radicals and who 
remained Thoreau's loyal and serviceable friend. 

With Greeley's expert help Thoreau was able to place two 
or three articles in such periodicals as the Democratic Re- 
view and Graham's Magazine, and even to wring payment 
for his work from reluctant editors. But when the Dial ceased 
publication at the end of its fourth year, he was deprived of 
the prindpai medium that brought his writings before the 

22 



public. Perhaps it was just as well that his energies were not 
dissipated in minor enterprises. Thrown back upon himself, 
he did not try to earn his living by his pen — an almost hope- 
less endeavor, as Edgar Poe was currently proving — but 
settled the problem of his livelihood by removing to Walden 
Pond, where he could live on almost nothing and write such 
books as pleased his fancy. The best years of authorship for 
him were those that followed. 

After a second residence in Emerson's house Thoreau lived 
for the last thirteen years of his life with his family in a 
sprawling yellow house not far from the center of Concord. 
The year that he came home, 1849, was that of the stampede 
to California. In "Life without Principle" he was later to 
make his protest against the insensate scramble for wealth. 
The year was marked for him by the death of his elder sister 
Helen, by the unsuccessful publication of his first book, by 
the printing of his powerful essay on "Civil Disobedience" 
under the title "Resistance to Civil Government" in a kind of 
aftermath to the Dial called Aesthetic Papers edited by Eliza- 
beth Peabody, and by his first visit to Cape Cod. He was now 
well into his thirties, and the exquisite freshness of youth, 
which Thoreau like Wordsworth felt with exceptional keen- 
ness, was passing from him. After the Mexican War and the 
Gold Rush the high hopes that the transcendentalists had 
cherished of human nature being born again were likewise 
fading. Only one decade elapsed between Brook Farm and 
the Fugitive Slave Law! 

Through the 1850's Thoreau occasionally interrupted his 
quiet routine of reading and writing in the mornings and ex- 
ploring the neighboring countryside in the afternoons to 
make excursions to Maine or the White Mountains, or in 
another mood to New York, where he met Walt Whitman 
and Henry Ward Beecher. These journeys and their relation 
to his work will be considered later. After Walden appeared 
in 1854 he became known to a wider public, though he com- 

23 



pletely avoided the perplexities incident to popularity. Nev- 
ertheless, young men were moved to seek him out, and with 
a few of his admirers he formed warm and lasting connec- 
tions. The most striking change in his way of life during this 
period, however, was due to his increasing concern over the 
question of slavery. Stirred by the humiliating seizure of al- 
leged fugitive slaves in Boston, he delivered a strong address 
on "Slavery in Massachusetts" before an Anti-Slavery conven- 
tion at Framingham in 1854. Twice John Brown of Kansas 
fame came to Concord, and Thoreau was captivated from the 
start by his simple, uncompromising fervor. After the raid on 
Harper's Ferry Thoreau was sickened by the pusillanimous 
tone of the northern press and immediately came out with a 
flaming defense of Brown's character. Anyone who may be 
inclined to take seriously Stevenson's too hasty charge that 
Thoreau was a "skulker" from the normal obligations of 
society should recall that he was probably the first man in 
the United States to speak an unhesitating word in favor of 
a conscientious assailant of the national crime of slavery. 

His outburst over John Brown was the last important 
concentration of Thoreau's powers. Through I860 and 1861 
he was slowly dying of tuberculosis. The Civil War saddened 
and depressed him. He resented the fact that he was obliged 
to hear about it. Too late he realized that he would not be 
able to use a tithe of the enormous accumulation of material 
gathered in his journal and in his notebooks devoted to In- 
dian lore. As long as he could hold a pen he labored grimly 
to prepare for the press the five papers that were printed in 
the Atlantic Monthly shortly after his death. In his final re- 
vision he cut away every hint of levity such as had once de- 
lighted him. With stoical fortitude he bore his wasting ill- 
ness, trusting in the universal frame of things, and died 
peacefully on May 6, 1862. His friend Ellery Channing, 
leaning over to catch his last mutterings, thought he distin- 
guished the words "moose" and "Indian." 

24 



In a deeply felt eulogy of his dead friend Emerson said: 
"His soul was made for the noblest society; he had in a short 
life exhausted the capabilities of the world; wherever there 
is knowledge, wherever there is virtue, wherever there is 
beauty, he will find a home." The truth at the core of this 
tribute has been proved by the steady growth of Thoreau's 
reputation. 



25 



5 



JOURNEYS 

Few writers have ever studied the countryside about them 
with more devoted interest than Thoreau lavished on the 
woods, meadows, and streams around Concord. During most 
of his mature life he made it his business to spend some part 
of every day in a tour of observation by field or river in order 
that he might note the progress of the seasons in the minutest 
detail. Often he was abroad at all hours of the night. The 
many volumes of his journal are an assiduous record of the 
work of sun, rain, wind, frost, and flowing water, the state of 
vegetation, the habits of muskrats, frogs, toads, turtles, and 
fishes, the migration, songs, and nesting of birds. Thoreau 
was not systematically classifying these things as a scientist 
might do; he was engaged in deeply absorbing them for the 
sake of the pleasure that such intimacy with the ways of 
nature brought him. Bronson Alcott declared that Thoreau 
was destined to write the perfect "Atlas of Concord." There 
can be no doubt that he assembled voluminous materials. 

Yet for a person so firmly attached to a single spot Thoreau 
managed to make a fairly large number of excursions to dis- 
tant points. Two circumstances, moreover, are notable about 
these travels. He seldom made them because he had business 
to transact, but purely for the sake of recreation; and though 
he was a confirmed lover of solitude, he almost always took 
one companion with him. 

Exception to the first of these rules must be made for his 
journey to New York with his father in 1836 for the purpose 
of promoting the sale of lead-pencils; for his visit to Maine 
two years later in search of a school to teach; for his long 
sojourn on Staten Island while he acted as tutor in the family 
of William Emerson; for his hurried trip to Fire Island in 
July, 1850, in the hope of finding relics of Margaret Fuller 

26 



after her death by shipwreck; and for his third journey to 
New York and its environs in 1856 when he had the excuse 
of surveying Marcus Spring's estate at Perth Amboy. Thoreau 
seldom went to cities unless he had an errand that obliged 
him to go there, and he commonly left the crowded streets 
as soon as possible. "I am afraid to travel much or to famous 
places," he wrote, "lest it might completely dissipate the 
mind." The only time when he deliberately went sight-seeing 
was when he and Ellery Channing took a brief excursion by 
train to Montreal and Quebec in the early autumn of 1850. 

But wild places he visited for the joy of the experience. 
There was no danger that nature would exhaust him. No pre- 
cise record of all his travels can be recovered from his letters 
and journals, but by 1852 he could say that he had camped 
out all night on the tops of four mountains, — Wachusett, 
Saddleback [Grey lock], Katahdin, and Monadnock, — and 
had rambled over the summits at midnight by moonlight. To 
the first and last mountains he frequently returned, sometimes 
merely to climb them in the course of a day's outing, some- 
times to camp out for several nights with such companions as 
Ellery Channing, Harrison Blake, or Edward Hoar. With 
Channing he made a pedestrian tour in 1844 over the Hoo- 
sacs and the Catskills. He first visited the White Mountains 
and climbed Mount Washington, which he preferred to call 
by its Indian name of Agiocochook, with his brother John in 
1839 as an extension of their boating trip on the Concord and 
the Merrimack, and he ascended Mount Washington a second 
time in 1858 with Edward Hoar and others, spending several 
days perforce at the foot of Tuckerman's Ravine as a conse- 
quence of spraining his ankle. His last camping out trip was 
taken with Channing in I860, when the two friends passed 
five nights in a brush shelter on the shoulder of Monadnock. 

Thoreau visited Cape Cod four times in all, in 1849, 1850, 
1855, and 1857, twice with Channing for company. From 
the beaches of Staten Island he had gained some first impres- 

27 



sions of the ocean, or at least of the lower bay of New York, 
but on Cape Cod he came as close as he was ever to come to 
feeling a sense of how the ocean might dominate the lives 
of those who lived beside it and who looked to it for a living. 
His was the view of an outsider. He was always emphatically 
a landsman, more at home on inland rivers than at sea. 

The most extensive and on many accounts the most re- 
warding of his excursions were undertaken partly to observe 
the methods of river travel in the wilderness of Maine. At 
the end of his second summer at Walden Pond, on the last 
day of August, 1846, he journeyed to Bangor and accom- 
panied by a Thatcher cousin who had some connection with 
the lumber business he penetrated the forest to Mount Ka- 
tahdin. Only half a dozen ascents of this mountain had then 
been recorded. Thoreau on this occasion had his first exper- 
iences of the untouched wilds. In 1853 he returned to follow 
the inland waterways of Maine in a birch canoe and see how 
the moose was hunted. He was again accompanied by his 
cousin, this time with an Indian hunter as guide. Thoreau's . 
third trip, in July, 1857, took him into the still wilder region 
of the Allegash and the East Branch of the Penobscot, and 
brought him into contact with a remarkable personality, the 
Indian Joe Polls, from whom he learned much of the ele- 
mental wisdom of a people long adapted to life in the forest. 
This taste of the wilderness was the last that deeply affected 
him. He was to see something of Plains Indians during his 
journey to Minnesota in 1861, but by that time Thoreau had 
no energy to absorb what he was seeing. His intention to 
write a book on the Indians was never carried beyond the 
preliminary stage of amassing a quantity of notes from the 
narratives of explorers and fur-traders. 

Out of the more than two million words that Thoreau 
wrote in his journal between 1837 and 1861, the most read- 
ily detachable sections were those that had to do with his 
travels, and it is out of these that all the books that he had 

28 



time to prepare for the press were made, with the single ex- 
ception of Walden, And even that may be considered in 
some sense a travel book if one takes literally Thoreau's re- 
mark that he had traveled much in Concord. All of his works 
were the unforced emanations of episodes that he had lived 
through before he wrote them down. 

Yet the best of Thoreau does not lie in mere descriptions 
of scenery and incidents of travel. His journeys in fact sup- 
plied only the framework on which he wove poetic tapestries 
of reflection and allusion. It is worth while to study briefly 
the ways in which he secured the kind of heightened effect 
that distinguishes the work of a master artist in prose from 
the uncomplicated style of plain communication, which is his 
basic medium. "In writing," Thoreau said, "conversation 
should be folded many times thick." The folding in some of 
his books was quite literal, so that it is possible to distinguish 
several of the layers. 

Probably the thinnest of the narratives of travel is A Yan- 
kee in Canada, the record of a tour which touched little that 
deeply concerned Thoreau. He was not at home in French 
Canada. Neither the grace of its Old World Catholic tradi- 
tion, as felt in Willa Cather's Shadows on the Rock, nor 
memories of the great historical drama once enacted at Que- 
bec, memories so lively to Francis Parkman, moved him. He 
gazed at the Plains of Abraham with lack-lustre eye, and 
passed somewhat carping remarks about the primitive shift- 
lessness of sawing logs by hand when water-power from the 
Falls of Montmorenci might be made available. The only 
overtones awakened by what he observed were overtones of 
prejudice. Thus at the sight of redcoats in the citadel of Que- 
bec all his dislike of regimentation comes to the surface, and 
he applies caustic reflections to the scene he is describing, as 
for example: "It is impossible to give the soldier a good edu- 
cation without making him a deserter." This may be a pro- 
found observation in its way, but making it just at this point 

29 



is like propounding a critical comment on the textile industry 
at the moment when the flag is being raised. 

When Thoreau is truly at ease and happy in his material, 
the incongruous superposition of thought upon fact yields at 
once to more subtle implications. The tensions of emotional 
involvement multiply the interfoldings of awareness. So in 
the following sentence from "A Walk to Wachusett" the 
primary factual perception of the degree of light within the 
tent is overlaid first by a sense of the immensities of space in 
the night outside, then by a whimsical feeling of fellowship 
with the heavenly bodies, and finally by a realization of their 
infiniteness and mystery: "It was at no time darker than 
twilight within the tent, and we could easily see the moon 
through its transparent roof as we lay; for there was the 
moon still above us, with Jupiter and Saturn on either hand, 
looking down on Wachusett, and it was a satisfaction to 
know that they were our fellow-travelers still, as high and 
out of reach as our own destiny." 

Or consider, overleaf in the same essay, a description of 
sunrise where the actual scene is sublimated by imperceptible 
stages into a poetic comparison: "At length we saw the sun 
rise up out of the sea, and shine on Massachusetts; and from 
this moment the atmosphere grew more and more transpar- 
ent till the time of our departure, and we began to realize the 
extent of our view, and how the earth, in some degree, an- 
swered to the heavens in breadth, the white villages to the 
constellations in the sky." 

These passages are good examples of Thoreau's almost 
magical power to convey in words the effect of space and 
cold pure air and the light of dawn. He found the perfect 
word for his style when he spoke of it as "hypaethral," bor- 
rowing a word that is applied to a type of Egyptian temple 
open to the sun and air. 

He can also be of the earth earthy and write with undimin- 
ished gusto. In the three papers that make up his book on 

30 



The Maine Woods he was recording impressions of the wild, 
half brutal world of the backwoods, where the savage up- 
thrust of the forest was only varied by the reckless slashings 
of lumbermen and the wanton killings of moose and deer by 
hide-hunters. Plenty of rawness and ugliness is in the book, 
the squalor of the roving natives, the putrifying carcasses of 
moose lying in the shallows where they have been slaughter- 
ed and skinned. But in the midst of his faithful and often 
prosaic recording of these things there are moments when the 
spirit of the wilderness is marvelously rendered. The follow- 
ing passage has been often quoted: "Once, when Joe had 
called again, and we were listening for moose, we heard, 
come faintly echoing, or creeping from far through the moss- 
clad aisles, a dull, dry rushing sound with a solid core to it, 
yet as if half smothered under the grasp of the luxuriant and 
fungus-like forest, like the shutting of a door in some distant 
entry of the damp and shaggy wilderness. If we had not been 
there, no mortal had heard it. When we asked Joe in a whis- 
per what it was, he answered, 'Tree fall'." 

The fact that Thoreau returned at intervals to the Maine 
woods gives his account of these excursions a cumulative 
force which is missing from the slender narrative of his Cana- 
dian tour. Each time he comes back he seems to be pene- 
trating further into the mystery of the forest, and to go on 
from where he left off before. The "Ktaadn" chapter gives a 
general first impression of the forest itself as a phenomenon, 
the "Chesuncook" excursion is concerned mainly with how 
lumbermen and hunters live and travel on the lakes and 
rivers of the interior, and finally in the paper on "The Alle- 
gash and East Branch" Thoreau is exploring not so much the 
country as the mind of the Indian. The superposing of each 
successive chapter upon the insights that have gone before 
gives the book as a whole a power of density and depth that 
is impressive. 

Cape Cod like the Maine woods was strange country to a 

31 



resident of an inland town. In writing of it Thoreau again 
had the advantage of several sets of observations or field 
notes made at different times. When he composed a book 
out of his journal entries, he adopted a device more elaborate 
and more successful than that of printing in succession the 
narratives of his various trips. Taking his first pedestrian 
tour as a basis, he imposed upon it materials subsequently 
gathered, thus fusing all that he had to say into one unified 
and enriched narrative. A happy consequence of this method, 
which Thoreau was to use again when he compressed the 
story of his two years at Walden within the compass of a 
single year, was the multiplication of encounters with people 
of the region and other incidents of travel. In any one trip 
such meetings would be infrequent and hence vividly remem- 
bered. In combination none of the vividness is lost, while the 
intervals of sheer factual description are shortened. By such 
interfolding the whole book is enlivened. It is no accident 
that readers have found Cape Cod the most human of Thor- 
eau s travel books. 

In none of these works, however, does Thoreau's writing 
reach the level of sustained power that marks his Week and 
Walden. Something more went into the making of these 
two projections of a soul in matter than mere honesty of re- 
cording, or deftness in expression, or skill in the combining 
of factual impressions. Still the basis on which Thoreau 
worked was invariably a solid foundation of fact drawn from 
his journals. 



32 



TRANSCENDENTAL MISCELLANY 

Thoreau would hardly have said of any of his books, "God 
wrote it," as Mrs. Stowe in her old age was accustomed to 
say of Uncle Tom's Cabin, yet he with other transcendental- 
ists was suspicious of books produced by conscious intention. 
More than the surface of the mind should be involved, they 
thought, in the creation of a work of enduring worth. It 
should rise from the depths of a man's being as though dic- 
tated by a more than human power. It should be an irresist- 
ible outpouring like the flow of lava from a crater. It should 
have organic growth like a tree. "God lets alone," as Thoreau 
put it, "the work we choose should be our own." 

This theory of literary creation is expressed with perfect 
clearness in Thoreau's poem entitled "Inspiration." What is 
written out of a man's "poor love of anything" is sure to 
prove "weak and shallow as its source," no matter how clev- 
erly it may be contrived. 

"But if with bended neck I grope, 

Listening behind me for my wit, 
With faith superior to hope, 

More anxious to keep back than forward it, 

"Making my soul accomplice there 

Unto the flame my heart hath lit, 
Then will the verse forever wear, — 

Time cannot bend the line which God hath writ." 

By some such process of spontaneous upwelling may in- 
deed be produced a striking phrase or a memorable single 
line. It may even suffice for the making of an epigram or a 
brief lyric cry. But sheer inspiration seldom provides the 
principle of construction on which long and complicated 

33 



works can be based. Emerson found it next to impossible to 

weld his sparkling single sentences into coherent wholes, and 
other transcendentalists when they wrote books were driven 
to adopt sundry mechanical devices to secure an appearance 
of unity in a composition which not infrequently failed to sus- 
tain the hopeful notion that whatever is sincerely spoken by 
a simple separate person will be found to have a sufficient 
inner consistency. In theory the ideal book should unfold 
into form as naturally as leaves in the spring. In practice 
what the transcendental writer produced was often a miscel- 
lany on which a semblance of form was imposed as by after- 
thought. 

One way of obtaining an artificial beginning and end was 
to build the book around the record of a journey or excur- 
sion, even though the "middle" which Aristotle also held to 
be necessary should turn out to be little else than a mere un- 
differentiated continuum. This device, as has already been 
noted, Thoreau frequently employed. Another kind of me- 
chanical form might be secured by limiting the work to a 
single unit of time, such as a day, a week, a season, or a year. 
In this respect Thoreau was anticipated by Margaret Fuller, 
whose first piece of original writing was the narrative of a 
journey to the unsettled frontier country of Illinois and Wis- 
consin under the title Summer on the Lakes. Since the au- 
thor's death this work has always been reprinted in an edited 
version which reduces it to three-fifths of its former length 
and makes it a. simple description of travel. As Margaret 
Fuller composed it, however, the book was a characteristic 
transcendental miscellany which deserves examination for its 
possible influence on Thoreau's practice. 

Miss Fuller had no idea of limiting her material to exter- 
nal observations of the country she was to pass through. Her 
opening sentence invites the reader to share "such foot-notes 
as may be made on the pages of my life during this summer's 
wanderings." The book, in other words, was to be a record 

34 



of random thoughts as well as sights, and anything that occu- 
pied the author's mind might be considered germane to her 
subject. So among verbal pictures of Niagara, Mackinaw, 
and the prairies, and pertinent remarks on the Indians and 
the life of the white settlers, are mingled poems composed 
during the trip, a tale of Mariana which is not improbably 
a bit of disguised autobiography, reflections on books read, 
a long digression on a German girl who possessed visionary 
powers, and other extraneous material. Miss Fuller even man- 
ages to insert a glowing appreciation of Titian's painting of 
Venus and Adonis "with.no excuse, except that it came to 
memory at the time." The saying that all is grist that comes 
to the mill has seldom been given more uninhibited appli- 
cation. 593677 

Written by a member of Thoreau's intimate circle and 
published a year before he went to Walden and five years 
before his own first book, Summer on the Lakes must have 
been a kind of model for him to excel when he meditated 
on the writing of the Week. Both books are ostensibly rec- 
ords of travel, but records enriched by occasional verses, 
philosophical and moral reflections, essays, and digressions of 
all kinds. Each takes as its ultimate object the entertainment 
of the reader by a great variety of substance, which will also 
prove instructive and will in a way not too clearly defined 
indicate the scope of man's powers and the interactions of 
man and nature. 

In 1839 John and Henry Thoreau, young schoolteachers 
in their early twenties, launched on the placid Concord River 
a boat that they had built themselves and named the Musket- 
aquid. It was large enough so that both could row at once 
and was rigged with two small masts and sails. In this craft 
they loaded provisions, buffalo robes, and a home-made tent, 
and on the last day of August pushed off for a thirteen-day 
adventure, partly afloat and partly ashore, from Concord to 
the summit of Mount Washington. The expanded journal 

35 



of the fluvial portion of this excursion, the first of Henry's 
longer camping trips, made up approximately one half of 
the book that he put together during the first year that he 
lived at Walden. 

The first step in preparing the manuscript for publication 
was the decision to omit entirely the half of the diary that had 
to do with land travel and mountain climbing. This aspect 
of the trip is summarized in a few pages. There remained the 
cycle of one week, Saturday to Friday, and Thoreau took his 
luck as he found it and wrote one chapter around each day 
with a slight prologue to introduce the whole. It was part of 
his theory not to disturb the setting of his thoughts any more 
than he could help. Better print them in journal form as they 
actually occurred than try to detach and rearrange them in 
coherent essays. If his thoughts had been golden, he would 
have wanted to present to his readers not the refined metal, 
nor even chance nuggets, but the whole mine. 

Next, as a beginning of the process of elaboration or en- 
richment, Thoreau did what Herman Melville and other 
travel writers have commonly done: he read widely in town 
histories, colonial chronicles, and such descriptive books as 
were available and collected a mass of anecdotes, adventures, 
statistics, and picturesque factual material that might be 
worked into his record from point to point. Thus in connec- 
tion with the scenes he was reviewing he was led naturally 
to recall the old frontier ballad of "Lovewell's Fight" and to 
retell the story of Hannah Dustin's exploit in escaping from 
the Indians that had taken her captive. A great deal of such 
local detail, culled from various records, is given incidentally 
as he goes along. 

But besides supplementing the journal of his travels from 
local history, Thoreau like Margaret Fuller inserted in the 
book pieces of verse and prose that were little or not at all 
connected with the rowers' progress on the rivers, except that 
like the essay chapters in Melville's Moby Dick these digres- 

36 



sions serve to give the reader a sense of the passage of time 
and of distance covered without the necessity of watching 
every operation that carries the vessel onward. In thus alter- 
nating selections from his commonplace book with pages 
from his diary Thoreau was not merely inventing a device to 
secure variety, as Mark Twain, for example, did when he 
interjected "Jim Baker's Blue-Jay Yarn" in the midst of a 
description of student life at the University of Heidelberg. 
He was attempting to create a new species of travel book, 
one that would parallel the physical journey of a young man 
on the waters with the procession of a soul on the stream of 
time. Hence he drew largely on work that he had already 
published as well as on new pages from his notebooks. Read- 
ers should have him in the lump. From the Dial came essays 
on Aulus Persius Flaccus and on Anacreon, and a number of 
the more than fifty poems or scraps of poems that he scatter- 
ed through the text. Besides a discussion of fishes which rose 
naturally from a consideration of the watery road on which 
the voyagers were proceeding and from the sight of a fisher- 
man on the bank, Thoreau took advantage of the coming of 
Sunday to air his views on mythology and religion, Greek, 
Hindoo, and Christian. But with no shadow of excuse he 
introduced in his Sunday chapter also an essay on Books and 
Reading, and in the course of Wednesday the famous essay 
on Friendship, while his discussion of Poetry is intermittent 
and ranges over Homer, Ossian, Chaucer, and Goethe, in 
addition to the two classical writers previously mentioned. 
Lowell, who seldom did justice to Thoreau, missed the point 
when in reviewing the Week he spoke of these digressions 
as "snags" and considered them "out of proportion and out 
of place." They are essential to the kind of work that Thoreau 
planned. Without them it would have been impossible for 
him to achieve that effect of "happy fortuity" as of thoughts 
bubbling up from a living spring which Lowell rightly 
praises. 

57 



The "hypaethral" quality of Thoreau's writing is very pure 
in some of the fluvial passages of the Week and in descrip- 
tions of rambles in the Hoosacs and on Greylock. Only 
Hazlitt can so describe the lift of spirits that comes of going 
a journey. But there are many good outdoor books, full of 
sun and air, that do not impress the reader as so vitally a part 
of the writer's being as this one. Probably Henry Seidel 
Canby in his ample biography of Thoreau has come as near 
as a critic can to explaining the elusive and dynamic power 
of these pages. "I believe," he writes, "that his deep love for 
John, the tension which rose between them over Ellen, which 
must have colored the memory of those intimate days on the 
rivers, and John's sudden and terrible death, gave to his many 
tentative records of the voyage a significance and a worth 
which no casual tramping over the Catskills or on Cape Cod 
with Ellery could equal." It is possible also to suppose that 
the freedom of his life at Walden had something to do with 
the buoyancy and exuberance of his writing and with the 
extraordinary release of his energies between 1845 and 1848 
when both the books that appeared during his lifetime were 
in effect composed. The Week may be in some conventional 
respects an ungainly book, but it indubitably comes alive as 
few books of travel ever do. 

By the time he left Walden Thoreau had the manuscripts 
of his two books in hand and was ready to look for a pub- 
lisher for the first. As the author of a few pieces of prose and 
verse in the transcendental Dial he could hardly have ex- 
pected that a commercial firm would see much profit in his 
volume, and in fact none did. After four different publish- 
ers had declined to undertake the work at their own risk, 
Thoreau commissioned the house of James Monroe of Bos- 
ton and Cambridge, the publishers of Emerson's Essays and 
Poems, to bring out the book at his expense. Many hours of 
surveying and many gross of lead-pencils went to the paying 
for it. When A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Riv- 

38 



ers appeared in the summer of 1849, it was reviewed not 
unkindly by friends such as Lowell and George Ripley, but 
roused little general interest in that feverish year of the Cali- 
fornia Gold Rush. In the autumn of 1853 the publishers 
("falsely so called," muttered Thoreau) insisted on return- 
ing to the author 706 unsold copies out of an edition of one 
thousand. After stacking up the bundles like cordwood 
along the wall of his attic bedroom Thoreau entered in his 
journal the immortal comment: "I have now a library of 
nearly nine hundred volumes, over seven hundred of which 
I wrote myself." 

No external appreciation was needed to confirm Thoreau's 
conviction of the soundness of his work, yet it is pleasant to 
recall that a just appraisal of the book which the public 
would not buy was put on record even before the manu- 
script was completed. After hearing some passages from the 
work in progress read in Thoreau's cabin, Bronson Alcott 
entered in his journal for March 16, 1847, a verdict which 
may still stand as definitive: 

"The book is purely American, fragrant with the lives of 
New England woods and streams, and could have been writ- 
ten nowhere else. It preserves to us whatever of the wild and 
mystic remains to us along our brooksides and rivers, and is 
written in a style as picturesque and flowing as the streams 
he sails on . . . 

"It has the merit, moreover, that somehow, despite all 
presumxptions to the contrary, the sod and sap and fibre and 
flavour of New England have found at last a clear relation 
to the literature of other and classic lands . . . Egypt, India, 
Greece, England, flow from the poet's hand as he scoops the 
waters for us from the rivers . . . 

"Especially am I touched by this soundness, this aborig- 
inal vigour, as if a man had once more come into Nature . . . 

"I came home at midnight through the woody snow-paths 
and slept with the pleasing dream that presently the press 

39 



would place on my shelves a second beside my first volume, 
also written by my townsman, and give me two books to be 
proud of: Emerson's Poems and Thoreau's Week." 



A(\ 



5 



READING 

Alcott's testimony to Thoreau's familiarity with the litera- 
tures of other lands is not to be dismissed as a mere rhetori- 
cal flourish. His knowledge was genuinely acquired by hard 
reading. Books to him were not, as Emerson intimated they 
should be, "for the scholar's idle times," but for hours of 
strenuous application. "To read well," wrote Thoreau, "that 
is, to read true books in a true spirit, is a noble exercise, and 
one that will task the reader more than any exercise which 
the customs of the day esteem. It requires a training such as 
the athletes underwent, the steady intention almost of the 
whole life to this object." His specifications for satisfactory 
reading matter are surely such as only a reader of athletic 
mind would make. "Books, not which afford us a cowering 
enjoyment, but in which each thought is of unusual daring; 
such as an idle man cannot read, and a timid one would not 
be entertained by, which even make us dangerous to exist- 
ing institutions, — such call I good books." On subjects that 
concerned him Thoreau read widely, but his preference was 
for a few inexhaustible books to which he could return again 
and again. 

Before he entered Harvard, if we may believe tradition, he 
had performed a feat of reading that required no little steady 
intention: he had read straight through the twenty-one vol- 
umes of Alexander Chalmers' Works of the English Poets, 
from Chaucer to Cowper (London, 1810). He is said to 
have repeated the same exploit at a later date. These com- 
prehensive assaults on the whole realm of English poetry 
made him familiar with several early writers that are seldom 
opened, such as Gower and Lydgate as well as Chaucer. 
They also determined his taste for the late Elizabethan and 
early Jacobean authors, such men as Daniel, Drayton, Ra- 

41 



leigh, and Donne among Shakespeare's contemporaries, and 
from the later group the reHgious poets Herbert, Vaughan, 
and Crashaw. A special favorite, Quarles, was a later dis- 
covery. Thoreau preferred Milton as a poet to Shakespeare. 
It is noteworthy that his taste was not for poets that the 
nineteenth century delighted to honor. With the possible 
exception of Herbert none of the lesser men that he speaks 
of were greatly admired at the time. In reading as in life 
Thoreau liked to find his own way about. 

He was reasonably acquainted also with the prose writers 
of the seventeenth century, as may be evident to one who 
listens for echoes of the English Bible or the rhythms of Sir 
Thomas Browne in the cadences of Thoreau's sentences. An 
obviously imitative passage, with a geographical borrowing 
from Paradise Lost to boot, is the last paragraph of the chap- 
ter on "The Pond in Winter" in W alien. 

Next to English writers he early felt the influence of the 
Greek and Latin classics, in which he was thoroughly drilled 
both in school and in college. Thoreau was in fact the best 
linguist of the Concord group. According to his friend and 
biographer Frank Sanborn, he could read Latin and French 
as easily as English, was conversant with Greek, and pos- 
sessed some knowledge of German, Spanish, and Italian. He 
was not fond of the modern languages, however, and he 
seems to have read few masterpieces in the original, except 
in the ancient tongues. His enthusiasm for Greek gradually 
waned. While he was spending six hours a day, in his early 
twenties, in the drudgery of schoolteaching, he was as willing 
to read a few extra pages of Homer as to go for a walk. He 
made English translations of two Aeschylean plays and of a 
few poems by Pindar and the pseudo-Anacreon. The Iliad 
was one of the few books that he took to his Walden cabin, 
but he confessed that he seldom found time to look at it. 
Thereafter there are few records of his reading further in 
Greek. Unlike Emerson he was not attracted by Plato. 

42 



In Latin, on the other hand, he continued to explore with 
zest, soon turning away from the generally read masters of 
prose and verse to less known satirists such as Persius and to 
writers of utilitarian prose like Columella and Varro. He 
was as ready as ever to justify his idiosyncrasies. "If the writ- 
ers of the bronze age are most suggestive to thee, confine 
thyself to them, and leave those of the Augustan age to dust 
and to the book worms." Though Thoreau's sense of style 
was no doubt shaped in some degree by his early immersion 
in the classics, he was not one to follow tamely the ancient 
models. Before long he. was asserting his own taste in the 
selection of writers who handled plain factual matters con- 
nected with plowland and vineyard, and leaving his Virgil 
and Horace to teach elegance to those who might value it. 

In Thoreau's opinion no poetry, either English or classi- 
cal, adequately expressed the freshness and vigor that he felt 
in wild nature. All the literature he knew seemed tame and 
artificial. Only in momentary flashes in works of the highest 
genius, in Hamlet or the Iliad, could he discover passages 
whose inevitable perfection suggested the expanding of buds 
at the approach of spring. He was demanding what no civ- 
ilized culture could achieve, an unconscious flowering of 
man's being into art. Mythology, the age-old accumulations 
of folk-wisdom, came nearer than any premeditated poetry 
to satisfying his yearning for unspoiled primitive natural- 
ness, "wild lands where no settler has squatted." Nothing 
was more characteristic of him than his quaint way of fusing 
scraps of Greek myth and legend with the New England 
countryside, as when in Walden he sees the weeds in his 
beanfield as "Trojans who had sun and rain and dews on 
their side," or as when he revives the obscure tradition that 
Hebe, the cupbearer of Jove and the personfication of im- 
mortal youth, was the "daughter of Juno and wild lettuce." 
One can hear the Yankee twang as he adds: "She was prob- 
ably the only thoroughly sound-conditioned, healthy, and 

43 



robust young lady that ever walked the globe, and wherever 
she came it was spring." 

It was typical of a mind early stored with classical images 
that the hum of telegraph wires should seem to speak of 
Greece and the Muses. Let us grant that in Thoreau's youth- 
ful writing the frequent resort to classical allusion seems 
often far-fetched and pedantic. It is difficult to believe that 
Achilles and Hector have left footprints on the Concord 
meadows. Yet the same miracle of imaginative acclimatiza- 
tion that made the Athenian Theseus a duke and citizen of 
Shakespeare's London can at moments almost persuade us 
that Homer's trumpets still sound along the Musketaquid. 
Consider the poetic fusion of the disparate elements in the 
following passage: "Morning brings back the heroic ages. 
I was as much affected by the faint hum of a mosquito mak- 
ing its invisible and unimaginable tour through my apart- 
ment at earliest dawn, when I was sitting with door and 
windows open, as I could be by any trumpet that ever sang 
of fame. It was Homer's requiem; itself an Iliad and Odyssey 
in the air, singing its own wrath and wanderings." What two 
words can more fittingly convey the thin, angry whine of the 
m.osquito's air-borne assault than the two key-words of 
Homer's epics, Achilles' wrath, Odysseus' wanderings? Only 
a fancy akin to Donne's, however, could detect and success- 
fully exploit such remote analogies, and only a master of 
tonal effects could so concentrate nasal consonants as to make 
the words faintly vibrant with an echo of the mosquito's 
hum. 

A desire to deepen his mystical love of nature was prob- 
ably what led Thoreau to explore the scriptures of India, 
China, and Persia, the third great reservoir from which he 
drew inspiration for his work. Emerson likewise was a dev- 
otee of oriental writings, and it was in Emerson's study that 
Thoreau first soaked himself in the books of the East. This 
was in the year 1841, when at the age of twenty-four Thor- 

44 



eau seems first to have made up his mind to devote himself 
to a literary career. Previous to this he must have known the 
paraphrases of oriental poems by Sir William Jones and the 
comprehensive essay "On the Poetry of the Eastern Nations" 
contained in Chalmers' Poets. He was not entirely a novice 
in respect to the great books of Asia when he set himself to 
examine them more closely and to make excerpts for several 
articles that appeared in the Dial in 1843 and 1844. Vigor- 
ous entries in his journal attest his first ardent enthusiasm for 
Manu, Confucius, Zoroaster, and the like, and reveal the 
deeper insight into these writings that came to him after he 
had spent years in their company. When in 1855 a British 
visitor named Thomas Cholmondeley wished to givQ Thor- 
eau what would please him most, he sent from London a 
"nest of Indian books" consisting of forty-four volumes of 
Hindoo scriptures, some in English, French, or Latin transla- 
tion, others in the original Sanskrit. By that time the oriental 
classics were familiar friends to Emerson, Alcott, and Thor- 
eau. From them they drew telling sayings in support of the 
ideas that were already theirs. It should not be supposed 
that any of the transcendentalists penetrated to the actual 
meaning and spirit of the wisdom of the East. 

The eflfect of Thoreau's reading of oriental philosophy is 
superficially evident in the quotations scattered through his 
works and in the occasional parables modeled on the oriental 
pattern that occur in Walden. How far he accepted some of 
the religious practices and underlying ideas of Hindoo ascetic 
philosophy it is not possible to say precisely. During his so- 
journ at the pond he seems to have experimented with auster- 
ities of diet and other ascetic practices, and what he records 
on one occasion about sitting in his sunny doorway from sun- 
rise till noon, rapt in revery, would lead one to suppose that 
he was attempting to induce a state of mystical contemplation 
akin to that sacramentally practiced by oriental devotees of 
the yoga. With the rules of this system of ascetic discipline 

45 



Thoreau was certainly acquainted, since he wrote to his friend 
Harrison Blake in 1849: "To some extent, and at rare inter- 
vals, even I am a yogi." Such exercises, even amateurishly 
and unsystematically followed, may have served to deepen 
Thoreau's sense of the spirituality of life and to carry him 
above the petty routine of a small New England village. 

From Concord Thoreau liked to send his imagination 
ranging to distant lands and strange seas. He was an avid 
reader of travel books, including narratives of Elizabethan 
exploration such as Purchas His Pilgrimes. He kept up with 
recent voyages of discovery also, often noting in his journal 
some curious bit of information relating to Africa or the Arc- 
tic or Australia and the South Seas. Bits of this flotsam and 
jetsam are strewn through his works. He was not neglectful 
of American travels either, but showed an acquaintance rang- 
ing from Timothy Dwight's account of his trips through New 
England to Benjamin G. Ferris's Utah and the Mormons. 
Perfect books for Thoreau were Charles Darwin's Voyage of 
the Beagle, which combined descriptions and anecdotes of 
South America with much scientific lore, and William Bar- 
tram's Travels, with its accounts of the virgin forests and 
Indian tribes of the southern United States. 

To supplement his own observations of the flora and fauna 
around Concord Thoreau had browsed through all the nat- 
ural histories and herbals he could find. He knew Topsell's 
quaint History of Four-F ooted Beasts, Gerard's Herbal, Eve- 
lyn's Sylva, and other authorities of the Renaissance and sev- 
enteenth century. He refers to John Josselyn's description of 
Netv England's Rarities and to Gilbert White's Natural His- 
tory of Selborne. More modern scientific books and govern- 
ment reports on animals,, birds, reptiles, fishes, insects, and 
plants were his constant study. 

Whenever he visited a place like Cape Cod or Plymouth, 
he was sure to look up the histories of its discovery and set- 
tlement. As connected with the former he had read the voy- 

46 



ages of Gilbert, Gosnold, Archer, Brereton, Pring, and Cap- 
tain John Smith. Of the colonial chronicles of Plymouth 
he was familiar with Bradford, Winslow, and Mourt's Rela- 
tion, and he had read the journal of Boston's Governor Win- 
throp. He also consulted such later histories as Edward 
Johnson's Wonder-Working Providence and Cotton Math- 
er's Magnalia Christi Americana. 

The literature of the early Indian wars and captivities had 
from the first attracted his attention. Partly from still sur- 
viving local traditions and partly from books he had derived 
the story of Hannah Dustin's famous escape. He knew the 
vivid narratives of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson and of Joseph 
Bartlett. Samuel Penhallow was his authority for the Indian 
wars of Maine, and he enjoyed repeating the stirring ballad 
of "Lovewell's Fight" which commemorated a bloody episode 
of the struggle down east. 

Much of his detailed information about the New England 
past was gained from such books as J. W. Barber's Historical 
Collections, or from state and town histories. He mentions 
at one time or another reading histories of New Hampshire 
(Jeremy Belknap), Virginia (Robert Beverly), Vermont 
(Zachary Thompson), and Connecticut (Samuel Peters). 

He had scanned extensively the records of the American 
frontier, beginning with such French sources as Champlain's 
Voyages and the Jesuit Relations and continuing with Char- 
levoix and other historians of New France. Jonathan Car- 
ver's Travels Through the Interior Parts of North Amer- 
ica and Alexander Henry's Travels and Adventures in Canada 
were favorite classics of the fur-trade with many anecdotes 
of Indians in the western regions. In the later years of his 
life Thoreau read everything he could find on the American 
aborigines, as well as studying the red men wherever he 
could meet them from Maine to Minnesota. His voluminous 
notes are now in the Pierrepont Morgan Library in New 

47 



York. The book that he dreamed of making on the Indian 
was never written. 

In these factual books and records of travel and explora- 
tion Thoreau encountered the kind of gritty, unaffected prose 
that pleased him. Here was the antidote to the effeminacy of 
his contemporaries. "The sentences written by such rude 
hands are nervous and tough, like hardened thongs, the 
sinews of the deer, or the roots of the pine." Here were 
"sentences which ... lie like boulders on the page, up and 
down or across." They supplied him with ballast while his 
contact with the mystical writings of the orient served as a 
great wind to fill his sails and to drive him forward in a 
quest for perfection. It should be remarked that Thoreau, 
like Herman Melville, felt no opposition between lofty spir- 
itual contemplation and an abundant sensuous delight in the 
earth. The perfection that he wanted was not to be gained 
by a denial of what was dear to him in this world. And so 
his choice of reading reflects his attachment to both realms 
of being. 



48 



FRIENDSHIPS 

Friends, Thoreau found, are not easily subordinated to a 
program of perfection. Books, nature, the day's tasks, may 
all be manipulated to suit the soul's needs, but friends consti- 
mte an unpredictable element. It is too much to hope that a 
friend's arrival will never be untimely, nor his departure 
welcome. Perhaps a perfectionist can only exist in solitude. 
In the give and take of human intercourse the illusion of 
spiritual advancement is difficult to maintain. Consequently 
in so far as Thoreau became the Yankee counterpart of a 
yogi he was unfitted for friendship. It is significant that his 
most successful human relations, outside his own family, 
were established with children, or with farmers, woodchop- 
pers, and village reprobates. In the presence of respectable 
folks he generally maintained a polite but impenetrable re- 
serve. "I love Henry," said the intellectual Elizabeth Hoar, 
"but I cannot like him; and as for taking his arm, I should 
as soon think of taking the arm of an elm-tree." Emerson 
endorsed, if he did not originate, this remark. 

Nevertheless Thoreau gave a great deal of attention to 
elaborating a theory of friendship and to testing it in prac- 
tice. His experiments were not as devoid of success as one 
might suppose from reading the passages in his journal where 
he bemoans the fact that friends in actuality never come up 
to expectations. If he was never able to find the ideal friend 
of his imagination, he was not unwilling to acknowledge the 
solid satisfactions he derived even from the partial fulfill- 
ment of his dream. 

Both Emerson and Thoreau published essays on Friend- 
ship during the 1840's, Emerson in the first series of his 
Essays (1841) and Thoreau in the Week (1849). To place 
them side by side is to illuminate some important differences 

49 



between the two men. Each, as might be expected, had no 
use for the merely utilitarian aspects of friendship, yet Emer- 
son in the midst of his etherealizing of the friendly relation- 
ship never lost sight of the principle of self-development. 
"We must be our own before we can be another's." Friends 
supply one of the conditions that enable a man to realize 
his personality. "The soul environs itself with friends that 
it may enter into a grander self-acquaintance or solitude; 
and it goes alone for a season that it may exalt its conversa- 
tion or society." Society and solitude are the systole and 
diastole of life. But Emerson recoiled from any thought of 
combining friendship with "politics and chat and neighborly 
conveniences." These can be had cheaply. "Should not the 
society of my friend be to me poetic, pure, universal and 
great as nature itself?" The ideal of friendship "may be said 
to require natures so rare . . . that its satisfaction can very 
seldom be assured." "Friends such as we desire are dreams 
and fables." So difficult is perfect intercourse on the high 
ground that Emerson takes, that before he has finished he 
has in effect abolished the conception of friendship and set 
up instead a solipsistic ideal of benevolent friendliness that 
never asks to be requited. When indeed did Emerson ever 
know an intimacy such as he describes? His essay gives the 
impression of comment by an outsider. 

In the case of Thoreau, however, the actuality of the ex- 
perience is written in his pulse-beats. "The only danger in 
Friendship is that it will end." He like Emerson is aware of 
the possibility of disappointment when friends fail to meet 
on an ideal level. He knows that friendship is evanescent 
and cannot be long sustained at its best, that its joys must be 
mainly of expectation and retrospect. But what for Emerson 
is essentially a form of education is for Thoreau a means of 
rapture. "There are passages of affection in our intercourse 
with mortal men and women, such as no prophecy had 
taught us to expect, which transcend our earthly life, and 

50 



anticipate Heaven for us." Defects in intimacy he can take 
in his stride. "Ignorance and bungling with love are better 
than wisdom and skill without." And though he also realizes 
that intercourse with friends is improved by intervals of soli- 
tude, he conceives of these intervals not as occasions for con- 
solidating one's gains in a grander self-acquaintance but for 
preparing oneself for a loftier intimacy. His tone is poetic. 
"Silence is the ambrosial night in the intercourse of Friends, 
in which their sincerity is recruited and takes deeper root." 

There can be little doubt that Thoreau's essay on Friend- 
ship is a tribute to his brother John, his only close comrade 
until the elder brother's sudden and painful death. And min- 
gled with recollections of that dear companionship were 
ecstatic memories of an idealized relationship with Ellen 
Sewall, a friend whom he cherished all the more because 
she remained aloof. Embedded in the essay is a poem that 
he had written to express his affectionate regard for the boy 
Edmund Sewall, her brother, on whose potential but unrip- 
ened friendship Thoreau set a romantically high value. Other 
poems that spoke of Ellen herself appeared on an earlier 
page. Indeed he could hardly think of boating on the Con- 
cord without recalling the brief and happy visit that she had 
paid to his family when he and John had taken her rowing. 
The reference is explicit: 

"On this same stream a maiden once sailed in my boat, 
thus unattended but by invisible guardians, and as she sat in 
the prow there was nothing but herself between the steers- 
man and the sky. I could then say with the poet, 

"Sweet falls the summer air 
Over her frame who sails with me; 
Her way like that is beautifully free, 

Her nature far more rare 
And is her constant heart of virgin purity" — 

51 



"At evening, still the very stars seem but this maiden's 
emissaries and reporters of her progress. 

"Low in the eastern sky 
Is set thy glancing eye" .... 

Thoreau's most noted friend was Emerson himself. Their 
relationship was at first extremely cordial. The younger man, 
just out of college, responded to a personal stimulation that 
was proving extremely attractive to young men everywhere. 
In Emerson he saw "more of the divine realized" than in 
any other person. "In his world every man would be a poet, 
Love would reign. Beauty would take place, Man and Nature 
would harmonize." Emerson in turn enjoyed the singular 
experience of discovering a living embodiment of his Amer- 
ican Scholar, moulded by nature, books, and action, right in 
his home town. It should be noted that Emerson's Phi Beta 
Kappa address was written before he knew Thoreau, and 
equally that Thoreau had shaped his character independently 
of Emerson. There could be no question of imitation or dis- 
cipleship. 

But it is not certain that Emerson was able to avoid a few 
proprietary airs. "My good Henry Thoreau," he wrote in 
1838, "made this else solitary afternoon sunny with his sim- 
plicity and clear perception." And again in 1841: "I told 
Henry Thoreau that his freedom is in the form, but he does 
not disclose new matter. I am very familiar with all his 
thoughts, — they are my own quite originally drest." Thoreau 
may have had his own ideas about his originality. If he be- 
came aware of the local jests that pictured him as trying to 
imitate Emerson in gait and gesture, he could hardly have 
avoided being sensitive on the subject. After James Russell 
Lowell in A Fable for Critics (1848) had associated him 
with one who was accustomed to 

"Tread in Emerson's tracks, with legs painfully short," 

52 



Thoreau cannot have failed to know that he was being ridi- 
culed. The natural effect would have been to make him 
emphasize in every possible way his divergencies from the 
man who was popularly regarded as his master. 

By 1853 each man was confiding to his journal how diffi- 
cult he found it to converse with the other. On a day late in 
May Thoreau wrote: "Talked, or tried to talk, with R.W.E. 
Lost my time — nay, almost my identity. He, assuming a false 
opposition where there was no difference of opinion, talked 
to the wind — told me what I knew — and I lost my time 
trying to imagine myself somebody else to oppose him." 

In the course of the following month Emerson noted that 
Thoreau was "military" and "rarely sweet," "One would say 
that, as Webster could never speak without an antagonist, 
so Henry does not feel himself except in opposition. He 
wants a fallacy to expose, a blunder to pillory, requires a 
little sense of victory, a roll of the drums, to call his powers 
into full exercise." 

Thoreau was fully conscious that he was parting company 
with the most sympathetic friend he ever had. Each was pur- 
suing his proper path. The nature of the divergence was 
perhaps not as clear then as it has since become. The early 
years of their acquaintance had coincided with the peak of 
the transcendental excitement, when Emerson was sounding 
the call for a new relation of man to the universe and plead- 
ing with Americans to discover the divine nature inherent in 
their being. But, as Thoreau wrote in one of his letters, the 
whole enterprise of the nation was "not an upward, but a 
westward one, toward Oregon, California, Japan, etc." The 
message of the transcendental prophet was unheeded, and he 
remained an increasingly lonely figure on his mount of vi- 
sion. Thoreau and Emerson differed profoundly in the way 
each proceeded from that point. Emerson tended to recede 
more and more into a mild and mystical meliorism which 
held that nature would inevitably right what was wrong and 

53 



bring all back to an even keel. Thoreau, on the contrary, 
though seemingly in retreat from men to muskrats, moved 
in the direction of civil disobedience. If the state was dull 
and evil, it was for men of conscience to do something about 
it. At the time of the John Brown incident Thoreau could 
not have been mistaken as a follower of Emerson. 

Bronson Alcott, as early as 1852, became aware of the 
difference in the quality of his two friends. We find him 
writing in his journal for January 6: "Emerson said fine 
things last night about 'Wealth,' but there are finer things 
far to be said in praise of Poverty, which it takes a person 
superior to Emerson even to say worthily. Thoreau is the 
better man, perhaps, to celebrate that estate, about which 
he knows much, and which he wears as an ornament about 
himself. . . . Eloquent, wise, and witty as were the orator's 
praises of Gold, and just to this transition period of civiliza- 
tion, the merchant's day as none ever before — still the moral 
laws were too faintly implied, and so left not without detri- 
ment in the auditor's mind." Alcott was correct in discerning 
a Cromwellian fiber in the younger man. 

With the high-minded and intransigent Alcott himself 
Thoreau remained in close accord. Though the Connecticut 
idealist was three years older than Emerson, he seemed to 
Thoreau at thirty "the youngest man of his age we have seen, 
— just on the threshold of life." He went about his business 
of being a spiritual philosopher with a directness and sin- 
cerity that won respect. Thoreau found his attitude "one of 
greater faith and expectation than that of any man I know." 
Alcott was the first resident of Concord to be put in jail for 
conscientious refusal to pay a tax in support of a government 
he considered unjust; and Sam Staples, the local constable, 
who was later to lock up Thoreau on a similar charge, de- 
clared, "I vum, I believe it was nothing but principle, for I 
never heerd a man talk honester." Where principle was con- 
cerned Alcott demonstrated on several occasions that he did 

54 



not know the name of fear. Nor was he afraid to earn his 
living on occasion by menial labor. Thoreau found his ideas 
indefinite and undisciplined, yet was unwilling to cavil at his 
impracticality. "The feelers of his thought diverge, — such is 
the breadth of their grasp, — not converge; and in his society 
almost alone I can express at my leisure, with more or less 
success, my vaguest but most cherished fancy or thought. 
There are never any obstacles in the way of our meeting. 
He has no creed. He is not pledged to any institution. The 
sanest man I ever knew; the fewest crotchets, after all, has 
he." At the end of the chapter on "Winter Visitors" in 
W alien may be found Thoreau's considered tribute to the 
least worldly of philosophers. 

Alcott's crotchets did not escape the amused notice of his 
irreverent friend, who found it incongruous that the geneal- 
ogy of the Alcock family should absorb so much of the sage's 
interest, — "he whom only the genealogy of humanitjr, the 
descent of man from God should concern!" The rustic sum- 
merhouse that Alcott constructed in Emerson's garden also 
awakened Thoreau's mind to derision. But the two men 
shared too many loyalties to have any serious falling out. 

Alcott on his part early acknowledged the spirimal kin- 
ship of the younger man, but in terms that derogated nothing 
from his independence. "Emerson, Miss Fuller, Thoreau, and 
myself," he wrote in 1846," are the only persons who treat 
things in the new spirit, each working distinct veins in the 
same mine of Being." He perceived at once the poetic qual- 
ity of Thoreau's mind, but considered his a "walking" (he 
did not say pedestrian) Muse. "But this fits him all the bet- 
ter for his special task of delineating these yet unspoiled 
American things, and of inspiring us with a sense of their 
homelier beauties — opening to us the riches of a nation 
scarcely yet discovered by her own population." Admiring 
and perceptive comments on Thoreau's writing and conver- 
sation are thickly scattered through the pages of Alcott's jour- 

55 



nal. Perhaps the most condensed appraisal is this, written 
in 1859: 

"He is less thinker than observer; a naturalist in tendenqr 
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 ways eminently original, and is formidably indi- 
vidual and persistent." 

Alcott was often accused of having his head in the clouds, 
but he saw things on earth with extremely clear vision. Prac- 
tically all the things that are important to say about Thoreau 
are contained in his journal. 

With other Concord writers Thoreau was acquainted, 
though his shyness kept him from reaching anything like 
intimacy, except with one or two. He and Margaret Fuller 
learned much from each other. Hawthorne, who bought 
Thoreau's boat and rechristened it the "Pond-Lily," was a 
more distant friend, accustomed to move in a different social 
sphere. The man who came nearest to becoming a compan- 
ion of Thoreau's later years was the poet "William Ellery 
Channing, the namesake of the well-known Unitarian cler- 
gyman and the husband of Margaret Fuller's sister. But 
Channing, though an admirable partner on what he called 
their riparial excursions along the river, was intellectually 
of flimsy stuff. He never managed to make even one passa- 
bly good poem, though he could sometimes produce an 
arresting phrase. Thoreau called his way of writing the 
"sublimo-slipshod style," and thought it would be good dis- 
cipline for him to write in Latin, "for then he would be 
compelled to say something always, and frequently have 
recourse to his grammar and dictionary." Edgar Allan Poe 
mercilessly dissected his failings in a review full of animus 
against the New England "school" of writers. 

Other men, too, many of them younger, came to know 

56 



Thoreau through his books and articles and to occupy a sta- 
tion between that of friends and disciples. Among them 
were Harrison Blake and Theodore Brown of Worcester, 
Daniel Ricketson of New Bedford, Edward Hoar of Concord, 
Thomas Cholmondeley the English visitor, and Horace 
Mann, Jr., who accompanied Thoreau on his last long jour- 
ney to Minnesota. There were many who delighted to share 
his walks on occasion and to join him in serious reflection, 
for though Thoreau has written vehemently of the joys of 
solitude and self-sufficiency he v/as not indifferent to the 
pleasures of companionship with his peers. But let the com- 
panions come one at a time, so that there might be a true 
exchange of thoughts, not a mere bandying of compliments. 
Alcott, who so often spoke the definitive word about Thor- 
eau, may appropriately offer a final definition of the kind of 
response he aroused in those who best knew him: "I should 
say he inspired love, if indeed the sentiment he awakens did 
not seem to partake of something yet purer, if that were pos- 
sible, and as yet nameless from its rarity and excellency." 



57 



1 



UFE IN THE VILLAGE 

Airplane pilots have commonly remarked that merely by 
flying high among the clouds they acquire an extraordinary 
detachment from the concerns of men on the ground. They 
have an intoxicating feeling of superabundant power, of 
room to expand in all directions. They are released from the 
pressure of the crowd, and forthwith they are no longer 
afflicted by the worries and apprehensions of life at the cus- 
tomary level. 

Thoreau attained somewhat the same detached point of 
view in regard to human affairs, not by soaring above the 
earth, but by identifying himself with the earth and its vari- 
ous natural phenomena more closely than the average man 
is likely to do. The earth was his airplane swung in space. 
The planets were his neighbors. His mind was so occupied 
with moon and stars, clouds and winds, swamps and woods 
and their inhabitants that he had little time to bother about 
what his human neighbors were doing. Toward them and 
their affairs in fact he adopted a slightly quizzical attimde 
which can hardly have increased his popularity with the 
majorirj^ of Concord citizens. His opinion of their import- 
ance was obviously low, and he had an irritating forthright- 
ness in saying so. They seemed to him to swarm like ants by 
his woodpile or tadpoles at the pond's edge. As he put it in 
Walden: "In one direction from my house there was a col- 
ony of rmiskrats in the river meadows; under the grove of 
elms and buttonwoods in the other horizon was a village of 
busy men, as curious to me as if they had been prairie-dogs, 
each sitting at the mouth of its burrow, or running over to 
a neighbor's to gossip. I went there frequently to observe 
their habits." 

The relations between Thoreau and the villagers were 

58 



often little better than an armed truce. His way of life was 
a criticism of theirs. His negations challenged their scheme 
of values. Emerson summed it up in a striking if slightly 
exaggerated sentence: "He was bred to no profession; he 
never married; he lived alone; he never went to church; he 
never voted; he refusd to pay a tax to the State; he ate no 
flesh, he drank no wine, he never knew the use of tobacco; 
and, though a naturalist, he used neither trap nor gun." Con- 
sidering what human sensibilities are, it speaks well for Con- 
cord that Thoreau was even tolerated. Many resented and 
ridiculed him, many regarded his supposed shiftlessness as a 
scandal. When on one occasion a campfire got away from 
him and burned over a tract of woodland, it was only the 
lucky circumstance that the son of Judge Hoar was with him 
and equally guilty that saved Thoreau from vigorous repris- 
als. For years afterward he was not allowed to forget that 
he was the man who set the woods afire. 

Yet once Thoreau's wide divergence from conventional 
attitudes of mind is realized, it is necessary to add immedi- 
ately that he expressed his radicalism far more in words than 
in action. It is only in comparison with Emerson that he 
seems a doer rather than a thinker. He was not anti-social, 
though he favored a stringent revision of social values. And 
above all, his opinions were not those of a misfit or a failure. 
When he chose to do so he could adapt himself to ordinary 
standards. It was several times within his power to be what 
his neighbors would have considered successful. His early 
venture at keeping a private school was prospering until his 
brother's failing health put an end to it. The pencils that 
the family manufactured were of superior quality, and the 
plumbago, ground by a secret float-process invented by Thor- 
eau and his father, was the finest that lithographers could 
obtain. If he had cared to devote his time and energy to the 
pencil business, he could almost certainly have developed a 
thriving trade. He was also a competent surveyor, and found 

59 



as much to do in that way as he wished to undertake. And 
finally in the unremunerative profession of authorship, 
where few Americans of his generation were able to make a 
living without resorting to other callings, Thoreau worked 
out as successful a modus vivendi as anyone and before he 
died in middle age had published a book that was distinctly 
a success by commercial standards. It is impossible, therefore, 
to dismiss Thoreau as an embittered failure. 

In Walden, when he announces that he is addressing pri- 
marily those of his countrymen who are dissatisfied with 
their lot and don't know what to do about it, Thoreau is 
careful to dissociate himself from the discontented and to 
reckon himself among "those who find their encouragement 
and inspiration in precisely the present condition of things, 
and cherish it with the fondness and enthusiasm of lovers" — 
at least this is where he thinks he belongs "to some extent." 
It would not be easy to cast doubt on Thoreau's sincere at- 
tachment to the place of his birth. In spite of the faults he 
saw in G)ncord, he was willing to present himself with the 
freedom of the village. 

Nevertheless this indigenous New Englander was a per- 
sistent critic of what the universal Yankee nation most prided 
itself upon and worshipped, its increasing material prosperity 
and its progress in mechanical invention. By 1845 the indus- 
trial revolution was in full swing in the northeastern section 
of the United States. Steamboats were running, railroads 
were being built, textile mills were in full operation, the 
electric telegraph was being extended, and the successful lay- 
ing of a cable between France and England forecast the At- 
lantic cable to come a decade later. Except for the regression 
caused by the financial panic of 1837, wealth was increasir. "^ 
and the standard of living was steadily advancing. Who 
could look upon these multiplied wonders as anything but 
unalloyed benefits? Only a few perfectionists and cranks 
such as Emerson, who declared that 

60 



"Things are in the saddle 
And ride mankind," 

and, of course, Thoreau, who persisted in describing all mod- 
ern inventions as improved means to unimproved ends. 

Thoreau's transcendental economics was not concerned 
with wealth as understood on the stock exchange. As he 
figured it, the fundamental questions were: What kind of 
life is a man enabled to lead? How much of his time is con- 
sumed by distasteful drudgery incident to earning a living 
merely? What margin has he left for doing the things that 
he really wants to do? Thoreau did not feel (and here many 
plain people who enjoy the occupations whereby they earn 
their livings may disagree with him) that time spent in pro- 
viding the necessaries of life could possibly be as well in- 
vested as free time. Consequently, if all his waking hours 
were to be used up in earning his living, he would consider 
his life a blank. His problem was to secure as large a portion 
of time as possible for voluntary occupations. The richest 
man by his scheme of values would be the one who could 
devote the greatest amount of time to his own affairs. 
Thoreau is assuming, of course, that his economic man is 
high-minded and will not choose to waste his spangle of 
existence in riot and indulgence. 

The test of value that he applied to any item that might 
be included in the apparatus of living was, therefore, deter- 
mined by the question: How much life is required to be ex- 
changed for it, either immediately or in the long run? In 
Thoreau's opinion the comforts, conveniences, and luxuries 
of civilized living had so multiplied that many men virtually 
made slaves of themselves in the effort to secure them, or to 
keep up the properties that they supposedly owned, but 
which in reality possessed them. His first suggestion to those 
who were discouraged in the struggle was to simplify their 
lives by seeing how much they could manage to do without. 

61 



This was a solution that he found eminently satisfactory in 
his own practice, and in Walden he describes with an elab- 
orate parody of economic statistics his not too serious demon- 
stration that the problem of earning a living need occupy 
only a small fraction of the time, if a man is young, unbur- 
dened with a family, in good health, and not eager to encum- 
ber himself with many possessions. This "experiment" in the 
art of simple living is partly a burlesque, put forward with 
tongue in cheek. Thoreau did not even adopt it for himself 
as a permanent way of living. But the advice to center one's 
aims in something other than material possessions is earnest- 
ly meant. 

Thoreau perceived at once that an economic system based 
on sheer acquisitiveness could not lead to the beneficent 
effects that current theory claimed would flow from it. The 
inhuman conditions that workers had to face in British mines 
and mills before working conditions became subject to gov- 
ernment regulation were notorious in the United States, and 
it was hoped that such brutality might be avoided here. The 
managers of the textile mills at Lowell, for example, took 
pains to provide proper housing for the girls they employed 
and to see that the operatives were not driven to the limit of 
their endurance, even though they spent a twelve-and-a-half- 
hour day at the. looms. They encouraged the formation of 
"improvement circles," and were proud of the literary maga- 
zine called the Lowell Offering which the young women 
conducted without outside assistance. To Whittier, who wrote 
a series of journalistic articles collected in 1845 as The Stran- 
ger in Loivell, it seemed that the American industrial experi- 
ment was avoiding the worst mistakes of the British and was 
a marvel of efficient economic organization. 

In Thoreau's opinion, however, production for profit was 
vitiated at the start by the low motives that inspired it. "I 
cannot believe," he wrote, "that our factory system is the best 
mode by which men may gQt clothing. The condition of the 

62 



operatives is becoming every day more like that of the Eng- 
lish; and it cannot be wondered at, since, as far as I have 
heard or observed, the principal object is, not that mankind 
may be well and honestly clad, but, unquestionably, that the 
corporations may be enriched. In the long run men hit only 
what they aim at. Therefore, though they should fail im- 
mediately, they had better aim at something high." 

For similar reasons Thoreau looked upon railroads with 
suspicion, and amused himself by making somewhat specious 
calculations to show that a man who traveled afoot could 
cover as much ground as one who must first earn his carfare 
by working as a common laborer at a dollar a day. It was not 
so much that he resented the intrusion of the locomotive into 
his solitude at Walden Pond; that he found companionable. 
But he distrusted mechanical improvements as irrelevant to 
the main issue, which was the improvement of the quality of 
human living. He could not overlook the exploitation of the 
miserable Irish immigrants by whose toil the railroad was 
built. And to what end was all this toiling and wretchedness? 
Few readers of Walden will fail to recall Thoreau's gibe at 
the project of "tunneling under the Atlantic" in order that 
America may know instantly that the Princess Adelaide has 
the whooping-cough. There was nothing in Thoreau's dis- 
position to match that elation which Whitman so clearly felt 
in contemplating the triumphs of mechanical ingenuity: 

"The seas inlaid with eloquent gentle wires!" 

Whitman was the more modern in accepting uncritically 
such watchwords of the nineteenth century as science and 
progress. Thoreau insisted with old-fashioned caution on 
examining at once their bearing on man's welfare. 

To him the problem of improving society was a matter 
of self-improvement many times multiplied. Let every man 
live up to his highest possibilities and there would be no need 
to worry about the state of the nation. Anything other than 

63 



individual improvement was beside the point. Hence Thor- 
eau's sturdy independence was revolted by humanitarian 
projects for doing good to one's fellow-men, and to the sub- 
ject of philanthropy he devoted some of his most astringent 
comments. He understood completely the degradation of 
being pflwed over by a would-be benefactor. Let the chari- 
table keep their hands off. The best service that he could 
render to mankind lay, he thought, in developing his specific 
talents to the height of his capacity. Even in preaching and 
practicing simplicity he did not aim at starting a movement. 
"To what end do I lead a simple life at all, pray? That I may 
teach others to simplify their lives? — and so all our lives be 
simplified merely, like an algebraic formula? Or not, rather, 
that I may make use of the ground I have cleared, to live 
more worthily and profitably?" 

From what has been said it can easily be seen that Thor- 
eau's ideas of how social conditions might be ameliorated 
were directly opposite to the techniques of social service as 
practiced at the present time. The basis of his thinking was 
religious, rooted in the Puritan conception of man's respon- 
sibility to God for the disposal of his talents. Man became 
his brother's keeper most effectually when by means of his 
own self-fulfillment he set a high standard for others to live 
up to. What we should labor to do unto others is to impart 
the courage of our example. The essence of Thoreau's social 
philosophy may be summed up in the following two quota- 
tions from his personal letters: 

"Happy the man who observes the heavenly and the ter- 
restrial law in just proportion; whose every faculty, from the 
soles of his feet to the crown of his head, obeys the law of its 
level; who neither stoops nor goes on tiptoe, but lives a bal- 
anced life, acceptable to nature and to God." 

"Do not be too moral. You may cheat yourself out of 
much life so. Aim above morality. Be not simply good; be 
good for something." 

64 



CIVIL DISOBEDIENCE 

Thoreau's conception of the proper relations between the 
individual and his government was at the farthest remove 
from the totalitarian policy of subordinating the rights of the 
subject to the demands of a Moloch-state. Like all the tran- 
scendentalists he exalted the "simple separate person" whom 
Whitman so amply celebrated. But Thoreau, unlike Whit- 
man, never uttered the word en masse. A man was primarily 
an integer of soul. As a corollary he should be a distinct and 
independent economic and political unit. Instead of the 
necessities of statecraft exercising an ultimate compulsion 
upon each and every citizen, he would make the conscience 
of the private man the highest law of the state. It can readily 
be supposed that in holding these opinions Thoreau was mak- 
ing it impossible for himself to live easily under any form of 
organized control. In his view government could only be 
justified as "an expedient by which men would fain succeed 
in letting one another alone." It could be tolerated, in other 
words, only in so far as it protected the private man from the 
anarchy that might still more restrict his freedom if govern- 
ment did not exist. 

Milton's social ideal of a people bred up in "strenuous lib- 
erty," Locke's assumption that the governed should choose 
the directors of their destiny by means of republican institu- 
tions, Jefferson's dream of a nation of independent yeoman- 
farmers, and the instinctive democracy of the American fron- 
tier, all were elements in Thoreau's political attitude. It 
would be difficult to carry the implications of liberalism fur- 
ther than he was willing to carry them. Not for nothing did 
he tread the ground "where once the embattled farmers 
stood." "This man," said Alcott, "is the independent of in- 
dependents — is, indeed, the sole signer of the Declaration, 

65 



and a Revolution in himself — a more than 76 — having got 
beyond the signing to the doing it out fully." Ideally Thoreau 
was prepared to go beyond the saying that that government 
is best which governs least and to state flatly that that gov- 
ernment is best which governs not at all. But if man's pres- 
ent imperfections demanded some form of regulation, con- 
cession should extend only to the establishment of a kind of 
invisible civil service. 

The essays called "Civil Disobedience" and "Life without 
Principle," in which Thoreau's views are asserted without 
qualification, are landmarks of an unfashionable and perhaps 
impossible radicalism. They are not reconcilable with Social- 
ism, Communism, or any modern program for the conversion 
of society to a classless basis through the domination of a 
class. They do not contemplate the fusion of individuals into 
masses, nor the hammering of masses into pressure-groups 
and parties. Nevertheless they have not been without effect, 
even in a world which seems to be discarding as rapidly as 
possible Thoreau's basic philosophy. "Civil Disobedience," 
read by an able political agitator among the Hindoo workers 
of South Africa, bore strange fruit in Gandhi's powerful 
weapon of passive resistance. The chapter called "Economy" 
in Walden became a minor gospel of the British Labor Party 
because of its uncompromising emphasis, not on reform, but 
on proceeding at once to realize the ultimate values of life 
and on living only for them. "I came into this world, not 
chiefly to make this a good place to live in, but to live in it, 
be it good or bad," wrote Thoreau. He belived in having his 
share of immortality now. One man thoroughly imbued with 
such convictions is a force to be reckoned with. Several such 
men might constitute a silent revolution. 

It is conceivable that a resurgence of religious conviction 
might unite men's wills in a passionate determination to make 
justice prevail in human affairs. The enormous force of in- 
flexible and fanatical resolution which is now commonly 

6G 



manipulated for the gaining of political or economic advan- 
tage might thus be turned to helpful social uses. If this should 
happen, Thoreau would at once be recognized as a prophet 
who prepared the way. The final defeat of demogogue and 
dictator occurs when no one can be found to think them im- 
portant. 

The creaky operation of government and politics in Massa- 
chusetts seemed to Thoreau less worthy of interest than the 
perfect functioning of muskrat society on the Concord mea- 
dows and the timeless mysteries of the seasons. But if the 
administration of human afFairs interfered with the cosmic 
duties of citizens, or if the degradation of the state humiliated 
them by outraging their sense of justice, then the state had 
to be attended to. Otherwise it did not deserve to occupy a 
man's thought. 

The issue of negro slavery was a case in point. Thoreau did 
not wish to have any truck with the foul institution, but it 
would not leave him alone. He was forced to consider it, and 
having considered it to condemn it, and having condemned it 
to take action. The Thoreau house was a well-recognized 
station on the underground railroad, and on at least one oc- 
casion Henry himself convoyed a fugitive slave on his way 
to Canada. 

Emerson, it will be recalled, was unwilling to enlist as an 
anti-slavery agitator, partly because he had to guard his none 
too robust health, but partly also because he regarded slavery 
as only one monstrous symptom of the corruption at the heart 
of society which he was trying to combat by intellectual and 
spiritual means. Yet when the Fugitive Slave Law was 
passed, early in 1850, Emerson's reserve was broken and he 
entered in his journal a white-hot resolve, the most furious 
words that ever came from his pen: "This filthy enactment 
was made in the nineteenth century, by people who could 
read and write. I will not obey it, by God." 

Thoreau, like Alcott, had reached a similar stage of in- 

67 



transigence at a considerably earlier date, and his response to 
an offense against his sense of right and wrong was uncom- 
promising. He had discovered the pattern of dissent that he 
was to follow later, when in 1838 he "signed off" from the 
village church and refused to pay his tax for the support of 
the minister. There remained still a long list of institutions 
from which he would prefer to sign off. The war with Mex- 
ico, even if it were not inspired as most northern idealists be- 
lieved it was by a desire to extend slave territory, was in his 
eyes an unrighteous war. "When ... a whole country is un- 
justly overrun and conquered by a foreign army, and sub- 
jected to military law, I think that it is not too soon for hon- 
est men to rebel and revolutionize," he wrote, and added by 
way of pay-off: "What makes this duty the more urgent is the 
fact that the country so overrun is not our own, but ours is 
the invading army." His method of rebelling was more dras- 
tic than the making of any number of pacijfist speeches 
would have been. Thoreau as a sovereign political entity 
seceded from the state of Massachusetts by ostentatiously 
neglecting to pay his poll-tax. As a consequence, he spent 
one night in jail. A friend intervened by paying the tax, and 
in the morning he was released. 

The famous story that Emerson accompanied the jailer to 
the door of the cell and that gazing reprovingly on the de- 
linquent he remarked, "Henry, why are you here?" only to 
have Thoreau reply with blazing indignation, "Waldo, why 
are you not here?" is probably apocryphal. It seems to be 
true, however, that Emerson at first deplored Thoreau's action 
as "in bad taste," but before the month was out he was com- 
paring Webster's truckling to the politicians with Thoreau's 
uncompromising firmness. "My friend Mr. Thoreau has gone 
to jail rather than pay his tax. On him they could not calcu- 
late." 

It was characteristic of the two men that, if we may judge 
by what they confided to their journals, Emerson was more 

68 



disturbed by the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law and Thor- 
eau by the concrete application of it in the forcible return to 
slavery of certain colored residents of Boston, notably by the 
seizure of Anthony Burns. Thoreau could not say enough to 
express his contempt for the compliant officials of the State 
who permitted an injustice to be enacted under the sanction 
of a national statute. "Every man in New England," he wrote, 
"capable of the sentiment of patriotism must have lived the 
last three weeks with the sense of having suffered a vast, in- 
definite loss ... I feel that, to some extent, the State has 
fatally interfered with my just and proper business. It has 
not merely interrupted me in my passage through Court 
Street on errands of trade, but it has, to some extent, inter- 
rupted me and every man on his onward and upward path, 
on which he had trusted soon to leave Court Street far be- 
hind." And his counsel was again that of a confirmed come- 
outer: "My advice to the State is simply this: to dissolve her 
union with the slaveholder instantly. She can find no respect- 
able law or precedent which sanctions its continuance. And 
to each inhabitant of Massachusetts, to dissolve his union with 
the State, as long as she hesitates to do her duty." 

AH that Thoreau had ever said in contempt of a govern- 
ment that paltered with moral issues pales before the words 
that he uttered when the one man who dared to assault the 
very stronghold of a great wrong lay wounded and awaiting 
death on the gallows. Old John Brown of Kansas had visited 
Concord in March, 1857, and had taken meals at Thoreau's 
house. His homely rustic manners and simple directness had 
strongly appealed to Thoreau, who could recognize a man 
when he saw one. Early in October, 1859, Brown was again 
in Concord to secure funds that his supporters had been col- 
lecting for him. From there he proceeded directly to conduct 
his raid on Harper's Ferry. The news of his immortal failure 
shocked the nation, and the first response even of northern 
abolitionists was to disown Brown's act. He was attacked in 

69 



the press and from the pulpit as a misguided and insane 
fanatic, who had succeeded only in making mischief. 

Less than two weeks after the raid, and while the country 
was still seething with indignation, Thoreau announced to his 
neighbors that he intended to speak in behalf of John Brown 
the next Sunday evening in the Town Hall of Concord. To 
some who sought to dissaude him he replied sharply that he 
had not asked for their advice but for their presence to hear 
what he had to say. Before a large audience he delivered his 
"Plea for Captain John Brown," the most forthright of his 
utterances. It was not, as its title might suggest, an appeal 
for clemency for the old fighter. It was the vindication of the 
character of a hero by a man who shared the same qualities 
of straightforwardness and independence. Two days later 
Thoreau read the same speech in Boston, and the day follow- 
ing in Worcester. 

Seldom has a magnanimous deed been more nobly inter- 
preted. Thoreau perceived at once the moral force of Brown's 
example. Here was the antidote to the long course of shuffling 
evasion that politicians had been pursuing. "For once we are 
lifted out of the trivialness and dust of politics into the region 
of truth and manhood." He reviewed Brown's character and 
personal history, contrasting his courage and the generosity 
of his aims with the apathy and caution that editors, clergy, 
and other public men had everywhere exhibited. The Day of 
Judgment for Massachusetts was at hand. "No man in Amer- 
ica has ever stood up so persistently and effectively for the 
dignity of human nature, knowing himself for a man, and the 
equal of any and all governments." 

Thoreau took part, with Emerson, Alcott, and others, in 
the services held at Concord on December 2, the day of John 
Brown's execution, and a little later he recorded in his journal 
a passage which contains the gist of his final tribute to the 
completest man he had ever known, a warrior-saint whose 
heroic stature matched Cromwell's in his imagination: "On 

70 



the day of his translation, I heard, to be sure, that he was 
hung, but I did not know what that meant, — and I felt no 
sorrow on his account; but not for a day or two did I even 
hear that he was dead, and not after any number of days shall 
I believe it. Of all the men who are said to be my contem- 
poraries, it seems to me that John Brown is the only one who 
has not died. I meet him at every turn. He is more alive than 
ever he was. He is not conjfined to North Elba [where he was 
buried] nor to Kansas. He is no longer working in secret 
only. John Brown has earned immortality." 

The American tradition is rich in the memorable sayings 
of our statesmen which have lived in popular esteem long 
after the occasions that gave rise to them. "Give me Uberty 
or give me death!" . . . "All men are created free and equal" 
. . . "government of the people, by the people, for the people." 
But nothing Jefferson or Lincoln ever said is more inherently 
American or deserves to be more deeply engraved on the 
minds of a free people than a sentence wrung from Thoreau 
in the agony of his sympathetic comprehension of what John 
Brown had died for: 

"The only goverrmient that I recognize — and it matters 
not how few are at the head of it, or how small its army — ^is 
that power that establishes justice in the land, never that 
which establishes injustice." 



71 



UNDERSTANDING NATURE 

Defiance of American orthodoxy and respectability was 
endemic among finer spirits of the nineteenth century, par- 
ticularly among men of letters. Emerson, Poe, Hawthorne, 
Melville, and Whitman were all at odds with the world as 
they found it. Emerson in early resigning from his puFpit, 
Hawthorne in Joining the social reformers at Brook Farm, 
Melville in shipping on a whaler, each in his separate way 
was testifying to a sense of alienation from a society more 
and more standardized and dominated by material concerns. 

No protest was more dramatic than Thoreau's. In the 
opinion of a recent student of Melville, the late William El- 
lery Sedgwick: "It is as if the long process of revolt which 
originated in England in the seventeenth century and was 
carried forward by successive generations of Puritans and 
pioneers, which dissented from the Church of England and 
broke away from the British government, came to a climax 
when Thoreau turned his back on civilization and went to 
live alone at Walden Pond." If it seems fantastic to suppose 
that a process of such proportions should culminate in an 
event of such small consequence, we may recall, following 
the way of analogy dear to the transcendentalists, that the 
significance of a mountain's peak is not due to its area as 
compared with the size of its base. The logic of Calvinism and 
Democracy alike pointed to the symbolic figure of a plain 
man with his feet on earth and his head among the stars. 

In setting up a communion of saints in the American 
wilderness the Puritan founders of New England accepted an 
ideal very different from that involved in establishing a gov- 
ernment for all sorts and conditions of men. A government 
theoretically intended to include everybody must be adjusted 
to a catholic conception of human nature, while a com- 

72 



munion of saints implies drastic exclusions. Though Puritan 
clergy and magistrates liked to argue that they had not left 
the Church of England but had only separated themselves 
from its errors, the distinction seemed immaterial to Angli- 
cans who found themselves banished from Massachusetts Bay. 
Somehow a line had been drawn and men were required to 
toe the mark. In spite of occasional politic relentings such as 
the adoption of the "half-way covenant" to permit uncon- 
verted but substantial Christians to become members of the 
Puritan church, the policy of Calvinism was inherently ex- 
clusive. It magnified the -small group of the elect, the Gideon's 
band who could show evidence that they were indeed chosen 
of God. 

Democracy likewise, and paradoxically enough, was not 
available for all men. Born of the Protestant revolt against 
the traditional order, it commended itself to vigorous radicals 
as a method of discarding institutions which had become en- 
cumbrances. Democracy was justified in view of the dilapi- 
dations committed in its name. In one of his most cryptic sen- 
tences Melville remarked that, "Democracy lops, lops." The 
process of stripping government of its outworn trappings, 
however, could be carried out only as long as the citizenry 
remained alert and militant. Only the strenuous could keep 
Democracy from degeneration. 

The winnowing implied in both Calvinism and Democ- 
racy might lead ultimately to profound spiritual isolation. 
The communion of saints, refined by successive purges, could 
in the end resolve itself into a community of one. Or in the 
political sphere the standard of fitness in the body politic 
might be raised until the majority of those fit to rule con- 
sisted of no more than Luther's "one with God." Sensitive 
men in nineteenth century America were becoming increas- 
ingly aware of the tendencies making for individual isolation. 
The thought of aloofness was dreadful to Hawthorne and he 
constantly recurred to it in his stories. Both Melville and 

73 



Thoreau were obliged to cope with the same specter. Captain 
Ahab in Moby Dick, like the Puritan spirit constantly dis- 
carding appliances and rejecting human sympathies in his 
fanatical desire to pursue and grapple with the white whale 
of universal mystery, is an incarnation of loneliness. Mel- 
ville, however, after following his thought to a dead end of 
disillusionment, recoiled and gradually recovered. Thoreau, 
who experienced no powerful revulsion of feeling, dallied 
with solitude until his death. 

Two quotations from the journal for the summer of 1852 
show that Thoreau was beginning to feel that his closeness 
to nature was cutting him off from human associations. The 
first entry is admonitory: "Nature must be viewed humanly 
to be viewed at all; that is, her scenes must be associated with 
humane affections, such as are associated with one's native 
place, for instance. She is most significant to a lover. A lover 
of Nature is preeminently a lover of man. If I have no 
friend, what is Nature to me? She ceases to be morally signi- 
ficant." Only a month or two later seclusion is announced as 
an accepted fact. "By my intimacy with nature I find myself 
withdrawn from man. My interest in the sun and the moon, 
in the morning and the evening, compels me to solitude." 
Thoreau's resignation to loneliness might be called stoical if 
he had not been so vocal about it. 

His chapter on "Solitude" in Walden is a masterpiece of 
extravagance compounded of paradox and romantic fallacies. 
"Why should I feel lonely? is not our planet in the Milky 
Way?" "I find it wholesome to be alone the greater part of 
the time ... I never found the companion that was so com- 
panionable as solitude. We are for the most part more 
lonely when we go among men than when we stay in our 
chambers." "Society is commonly too cheap . . . We meet at 
meals three times a day, and give each other a new taste of 
that old musty cheese that we are." "I am no more lonely 
than the loon on the pond that laughs so loud, or than Wal- 

74 



den Pond itself ... I am no more lonely than a single mullein 
or dandelion in a pasture, or a bean leaf, or sorrel, or a horse- 
fly, or a humblebee. I am no more lonely than the Mill 
Brook, or a weathercock, or the north star, or the south wind, 
or an April shower, or a January thaw, or the first spider in a 
new house." A truce to similitudes! Is this the Thoreau who 
as a young man burst into tears at the mere thought of leav- 
ing his home and family? 

A note of false sentimentality very infrequent in Thoreau's 
writing occurs at the end of this same chapter where he per- 
sonifies external nature as "an elderly dame , . . invisible to 
most persons, in whose odorous herb garden I love to stroll 
sometimes, gathering simples and listening to her fables." 
The enjoyment of solitude depended in a measure on the 
fancied sympathy of the out-of-door world. For a time the 
companionship of nature seemed a happy substitute for the 
more exacting association with men and women, and so 
Thoreau's isolation was at once deepened and made to seem 
tolerable. If we may trust certain entries in his journal that 
become more numerous toward the end, Thoreau was in- 
creasingly aware of a growing impoverishment and emptiness 
in his life. It is doubtful if he ever realized explicitly that 
worship of nature is only a thinly disguised form of self- 
worship, leading to sterility. Walking and boating trips had 
always been a part of his life before he exalted them into a 
chief concern. By the time he perceived that the path he was 
following did not lead where he wanted to go, it was too late 
to change. His quest for a free, abundant life ended in his 
being committed to comradeship with rocks and stones and 
trees. There is a trace of defiance in his later comments on 
his situation, as for example the following: "My work is 
writing, and I do not hesitate, though I know that no subject 
is too trivial for me, tried by ordinary standards; for, ye fools, 
the theme is nothing, the life is everything. All that interests 
the reader is the depth and intensity of the life excited . . . 

75 



That is, man is all in all, Nature nothing, but as she draws 
him out and reflects him." 

There were two levels in Thoreau's attitude toward nature, 
and his shifting from one to the other leads to frequent incon- 
sistencies. As a country-bred boy he had ranged the woods 
with his brother, deeply absorbing the healthy animal joys 
of fishing and hunting and camping out. Later in life memo- 
ries of these rambles were associated with the closest human 
intimacy that he had ever known. His excursions also sup- 
plied him with the raw material for the making of essays, and 
after all he was primarily a writer. Hence Thoreau insisted 
on saving a generous portion of every day for trips afield. 
His delight in these jaunts was exquisite and wholesome, if 
still somewhat boyish. 

But his preference for nature also rested on transcendental 
theorizing. His intense enjoyment of outdoor life led him 
to accept without hesitation the rhapsodic and reckless glori- 
fication of nature and of nature's beneficent influence on 
man, of which Emerson, outdoing Wordsworth, had made 
himself a major prophet. Emerson had missed the caveaf 
which Coleridge, disillusioned after his early raptures, ad- 
dressed to his brother poet: 

"O William! We receive but what we give, 
And in our life alone does Nature live." 

Possessed by his mystical confidence in the immanence of the 
universal spirit in nature as well as in man, Emerson could 
see God in the meanest of inanimate objects. "What is there 
of the divine in a load of bricks? What is there of the divine 
in a barber's shop? . . . Much. All." The enthusiast found no 
difficulty in perceiving in the pleasanter aspects of nature a 
power to confirm the soul's health and to discipline the moral 
sense. The laws of spirit seemed to merge into one system 
with the laws of matter, and the ancient precept, Know Thy- 
self, became identical with the modern slogan, Study nature. 

76 



As a poet Emerson, like Wordsworth, was capable of impos- 
ing serenely ethical interpretations on natural phenomena, 
sometimes with tonic effect, but as a thinker he was essen- 
tially uncritical of ideas that commended themselves to his 
blandly optimistic temper. Speaking of Emerson's philoso- 
phy of nature Professor Joseph Warren Beach observes: 
"Must we not admit that it is, for the most part, a loose and 
popular rendering of Coleridge, who gives a loose and popu- 
lar rendering of (mainly) Schelling, who — for all his magni- 
ficent show of dialectic — is no better than a Kant run wild." 

Thoreau, whose element was excess, carried the transcen- 
dental personalizing of nature even further than Emerson. 
What the Puritans had regarded as the garment darkly veil- 
ing God's majesty, and what Emerson had celebrated as a 
flowing revelation of the Over-Soul, he wholeheartedly took 
to his bosom as "friend" and "bride." Nature could give him 
the perfect response, the complete toleration that he could 
not expect from men and women. Nature demanded nothing 
in return. "If I am too cold for human friendship," he wrote 
in 1852, "I trust I shall not soon be too cold for natural in- 
fluences. It appears to be a law that you cannot have a deep 
sympathy with both man and nature. Those qualities which 
bring you near to the one estrange you from the other." As- 
sociation with human beings, in other words, checks a ten- 
dency to unimpeded expansion of the ego, but nature leaves 
one gloriously free: free but unchallenged, unprovoked to 
supreme effort, not subject to criticism. 

Thoreau, even while passionately identifying himself with 
nature, seems to have felt that something was amiss: "I seem 
to be more constantly merged in nature; my intellectual life 
is more obedient to nature than formerly, but perchance less 
obedient to spirit. I have less memorable seasons. I exact 
less of myself. ' But he did not stay to analyze his difficulties. 
"The meaning of Nature," as Emerson noted, "was never 
attempted to be defined by him." A greater assimilation 

77 



either of Christian doctrine or of the spirit of the Greek and 
Roman classics might have preserved him from the Bacchic 
excesses of transcendentalism; but Christianity was obscured 
for him by his dislike for its institutions and the ineptitude 
of its ministers, and with the passing years his reading of the 
classics grew less frequent. Though he cherished independ- 
ence of mind, he was not independent enough to scrutinize 
with appropriate skepticism the romantic doctrines of the 
benefits of solitude and the kindliness of nature. 

It is significant, pathetically so, that Thoreau made much 
of a remarkable echo that he encountered while surveying 
the Hunt farm. After days of unimportant drudgery with 
stupid companions, he says, here was "somebody I could talk 
with." When it is said that in devoting himself to nature 
Thoreau was "pursuing perfection in a vacuum," it should be 
added that the vacuum was not altogether of his own mak- 
ing. 

There was one important difference between Emerson's 
attitude toward nature and Thoreau's, a difference that sug- 
gests one of the channels by which the too placid accumu- 
lations of transcendental speculation might ultimately be 
drained off. Emerson, who went to nature chiefly for mental 
refreshment, held the world of woods and streams generally 
at arm's length. He was satisfied to theorize about nature in 
general terms. Thoreau, on the other hand, could never 
saturate his senses enough with the concrete and specific 
items from nature's store. His journal for the last ten years 
of his life reads like a vast inventory, often tediously de- 
tailed, often repetitious. But there is this to say for it, that it 
points away from the conception of nature as a projection of 
universal mind in matter. It testifies to an implicit conviaion 
of the separateness of the inner and outer worlds, to a respect 
for the unspoiled integrity of the laner, to a suspicion that 
even the transcendental temperament might profit by "the 
discipline of looking always at what is to be seen." 

78 



Thoreau was not a scientist, and his persistent measuring 
of the girth of trees, the height of floods, the thickness of ice, 
and so on would be dismaying in their clumsiness if regarded 
as attempts to collect scientific data. But probably they were 
not that. They were the awkward caresses that Thoreau lav- 
ished on the one consuming love of his life. He simply could 
not know enough of the world around him. If he was at rare 
intervals a visionary, he lived most commonly in the almost 
savage delicacy of his senses. He guarded them carefully 
from blunting by overstimulation. Fair Nature, which de- 
manded no hard service, smiled upon him and he responded 
by recording in innumerable pages every least shade of ex- 
pression on her countenance. He found his true vocation in 
being the enamored prose-poet of the countryside. 



79 



10 



LITERARY ARTISTRY 

Thoreau was inclined to simplify the business of writing 
as well as the business of living. Toward the close of the 
year 1841, when he was still thinking of himself as a poet 
rather than a prose writer, he adopted in extreme form the 
idea of the poet's community with other men. "Good poetry," 
he declared, "seems so simple and natural a thing that when 
we meet it we wonder that all men are not always poets. 
Poetry is nothing but healthy speech," Prose, he was later 
to discover, was also nothing but healthy speech with the 
weight of a man's full conviction behind it. In 1859, when 
he was deeply stirred by the John Brown affair, he reasserted 
a conception essentially Miltonic that good writing "demands 
earnestness and manhood chiefly" and is a matter of plain 
integrity. All else is mere flummery. "Literary gentlemen, 
editors, and critics think that they know how to write because 
they have studied grammar and rhetoric; but they are egre- 
giously mistaken. The art of composition is as simple as the 
discharge of a bullet from a rifle, and its masterpieces imply 
an infinitely greater force behind them ... It suggests that 
the one great rule of composition — and if I were a professor 
of rhetoric I should insist on this — is to speak the truth. This 
first, this second, this third; pebbles in your mouth or not." 

The tone of depreciation that he employed in speaking of 
mere literary craftsmanship is occasionally repeated. "When 
Thoreau noticed in turning over the biographical sketches in 
Homes of American Authors that many of the New England 
group had at one time or another contributed to the North 
American Review, he asserted at once, "It is one of my quali- 
fications that I have not written an article for the North 
American Review." As Emerson explained when he first 
mentioned Thoreau to Carlyle: "There is a universal timidity, 

80 



conformity, and rage; and on the other hand the most reso- 
lute realism in the young." Thoreau typified youth in revolt 
Like Emily Dickinson he found it iffipossible to speak the 
truth within the decorous literary conventions of late roman- 
ticism and the genteel tradition. He was groping his way 
toward a technique of sincerity beyond anything that his liter- 
ary contemporaries had yet grasped. 

As an experimental poet he met a defeat attributable to 
two causes. The first was his own uncertainty, not of aims, 
but of means; the second was the failure of even the most 
friendly readers to perceive the basis on which he was work- 
ing. Even Emeison, who shared in theory many of Thoreau's 
principles, did not see how close the young poet was coming 
to reaiizmg them in practice. People were obsessed by literary 
tradition. Ultimately it took the robust self-confidence of a 
Wait Whitman to burst through the net of convention. 
Thoreau's confidence wavered. His poems, when some speci- 
mens were published in the Dial, were too radical for the 
public taste and were ridiculed by the uncomprehendittg for 
their "ragged and halting lines." Later he gave a number of 
his pieces, or fragments chipped from them, a setting in the 
pages of the Week, but there too they remained unappre- 
ciated. On the advice of Emerson he burned the bulk of his 
early poems. At the end of his life he looked back on this 
action with regret. Perhaps, he surmised, the poems were not 
as bad as they had thought them twenty years before. 

His final opinion was indeed prescient. Though his con- 
temporaries considered that his poems "lacked lyrical fire and 
melodious utterance," it has at long last been perceived that 
they possess other and more interesting qualities. After not- 
ing that Thoreau's search for a satisfactory poetic style led 
him to range over an unusual variety of models — the Greek 
anthology, Horace, the medieval mystery plays, Skelton, Ben 
Jonson, Herbert, Thomson and Cowper, Blake and Words- 
worth — Professor Henry W. Wells, who has made the only 

81 



competent critical study of the complete poems, comes to the 
conclusion that the largest number of his most memorable 
pieces have no specific connection with the past but in a 
remarkable way anticipate the poetry of the present moment. 
"Thoreau, like Emily Dickinson or Baudelaire, anticipates the 
bold symbolism, airy impressionism, stringent realism, and 
restless inconsistencies of twentieth-century poetry." And 
again: "Thoreau's breadth of vision is precisely what our own 
age, tragically seeking a new consolidation of mankind, most 
of all requires." The one thing his poetry seldom does is to 
lapse into the facile sentimentalism and smooth nullity char- 
acteristic of the nineteenth-century imitators of such fashion- 
able models as Byron and Tennyson. 

It is possible to regret the loss of Thoreau's youthful poems 
without deploring his early change to prose writing. He did 
not feel with Matthew Arnold that any lowering of intention 
was involved. "Great prose of equal elevation," he thought, 
"commands our respect more than great verse, since it im- 
plies a more permanent and level height, a life more pervad- 
ed with the grandeur of thought. The poet only makes an 
irruption, like a Parthian, and is off again, shooting while he 
retreats; but the prose writer has conquered, like a Roman, 
and settled colonies." The instrument of prose was well 
suited to his genius, and within its broader scope he could 
employ the powerful concision and quick responsiveness that 
distinguished his poetry. 

What Thoreau aimed at from first to last in all his writing 
was the expression of ultimate truth or reality. "You may rely 
on it that you have the best of me in my books," he wrote to 
a young inquirer during his last illness, "and that I am not 
worth seeing personally . . . what am I to the truth I feebly 
utter?" One of the most vigorous passages in W olden states 
his determination to penetrate through all shams and illu- 
sions to the very heart of actuality. "Let us settle ourselves, 
and work and wedge our feet downward through the mud 

82 



and slush of opinion, and prejudice, and tradition, and delu- 
sion and appearance, that alluvion which covers the globe, 
. . . through church and state, through poetry and philosophy 
and religion, till we come to a hard bottom and rocks in 
place, which we can call reality, and say, This is, and no mis- 
take; and then begin, having a point d'appui, below freshet 
and frost and fire ... Be it life or death, we crave only real- 
ity." Eloquent as these words are, they do not tell us how and 
by what tests Thoreau proposed to distinguish what was real 
from what was appearance or delusion. Perhaps like jesting 
Pilate on a famous occasion he was more interested in asking. 
What is truth? than in" staying for an answer. 

He seems to have recognized in practice, however, two 
sorts of reality, one of which he called "poetry" and the other 
"fact." The first consisted of an inward and overwhelming 
vitality of conviction, the second of a minute faithfulness to 
the external world. Theoretically the two seemed entirely 
distinct, yet he found that they tended to overlap. "I have a 
commonplace-book for facts and another for poetry, but I 
find it difficult always to preserve the vague distinction which 
I had in my mind, for the most interesting and beautiful facts 
are so much the more poetry and that is their success ... I 
see that if my facts were sufficiently vital and significant, — 
perhaps transmuted more into the substance of the human 
mind, — I should need but one book of poetry to contain them 
all." And as late as 1854 he makes the characteristic trans- 
cendental affirmation that "there is no such thing as pure 
objective observation." He continues: "The sum of what the 
writer of whatever class has to report is simply some human 
experience, whether he be poet or philosopher or man of 
science. The man of most science is the man most alive, 
whose life is the greatest event. Senses that take cognizance 
of outward things merely are of no avail . . . All that a man 
has to say or do that can possibly concern mankind, is in some 
shape or other to tell the story of his love, — toeing; and if he 

83 



is fortunate and keeps alive, he will be forever in love." In 
passages like these our Bachelor of Nature is verging strongly 
toward a rhapsodic humanism. 

As one surveys Thoreau's total deposit of words on paper, 
from his early journals and the Week through W olden to his 
posthumous travel books and the ten years of bookkeeping 
for all outdoors that constitutes the later journal, one cannot 
help being struck by an almost imperceptible shift of empha- 
sis in practice from the poetic to the factual. It is as though 
Thoreau were passing within the compass of his own brief 
lifetime from a seventeenth-century view of a unified world 
of experience to a partial anticipation of the multiple uni- 
verse characteristic of our own times. His earliest concern 
was for the depth and intensity of the life excited by his writ- 
ing. He would attain to truth by the power of his pulses. 
"We cannot write well or truly but what we write with gusto. 
The body, the senses, must conspire with the mmd. Expres- 
sion is the act of the whole man, that our speech may be vas- 
cular ... It is always essential that we love to do what we are 
doing, do it with a heart." Thoreau possessed by the vital 
urgency of his youth is not indifferent to the solidity and 
impact of his pages, but he is stimulated by the sheer ebul- 
lience of his energy into sportive pirouettings, puns, conceits, 
paradoxes, and venbal ingenuities. He is too effervescent to 
care greatly for the form of his writing. Any kind of frame- 
work will serve. 

But as he becomes more sedate and factual the eflferves- 
cence disappears, leaving only a negative scorn for tne formal 
elements of composition. "It is surprising how much, from 
the habit of regarding writing as an accomplishmeiit, is wast- 
ed on form. A very little information or wit is mixed up with 
a great deal of conventionalism in the style of expressing it, 
as with a sort of preponderating paste or vehicle. Some life 
is not simply expressed, but a long-winded speech is made, 
with an occasional attempt to put a little life in ii!' Instead 

84 



of settling down to a "certain dryness" that he considered not 
incongruous with maturity of mind, Thoreau tried the dub- 
ious expedient of accumulating larger and larger stores of 
fresh factual impressions. Insensibly facts came to bulk larg- 
er than the use he could make of them. The sparkle of his 
earlier manner dimmed to sobriety. 

The increase of information at the expense of wit was a 
natural consequence of the reaction from the artificial or 
mechanical sublimity of much early nineteenth-century ro- 
mantic writing. With Emerson, Thoreau sought to poetize 
the commonplace, "the meal in the firkin, the milk in the 
pan." Homeliness stood high in his list of literary virtues. 
"There is a sort of homely truth and naturalness in some 
books," he wrote in 1841, "which is very rare to find, and 
yet looks quite cheap . , . The scholar rarely writes as well 
as the farmer talks. Homeliness is a great merit in a book; 
it is next to beauty and high art ... I like better the surliness 
with which the woodchopper speaks of his woods, handling 
them as indifferently as his axe, than the mealy-mouthed 
enthusiasm of the lover of nature." It is possible to trace 
through the journals a gradual deterioration from homeliness 
to barrenness. At first Thoreau is captured by the challenge 
of making something out of a common theme. "I omit the 
unusual — the hurricanes and earthquakes — and describe the 
common. This has the greatest charm and is the true theme 
of poetry. You may have the extraordinary for your province 
if you will let me have the ordinary." Several years later the 
solid substance of out-of-door experiences is needed "as a 
ballast to thought and sentiment." Finally in 1858, still shy- 
ing away from lofty subjects, Thoreau remarks: "It is a great 
art in the writer to improve from day to day just that soil 
and fertility which he has, to harvest that crop which his 
life yields, whatever it may be, not to be straining as if to 
reach apples or oranges when he yields only ground-nuts. He 
should be digging, not soaring." Thoreau had never been 

85 



inclined to let his feet leave the ground. In the later years he 
became reconciled to digging. 

The special luck of W olden among Thoreau's writings 
was to come neither too early nor too late, but at the happy 
moment when poetry and faa were in exquisite equilibrium. 
Some shadow of what was to come rests upon his recital of 
sundry measurements of the depth of the pond, the thickness 
of the ice, and the like, but on the whole it rests lightly. 
Meanwhile the "flame in the mind" illuminates with playful 
wit Thoreau's discussion of the economy of his sylvan retreat, 
and a passionate enjoyment of the freshness of life breathes 
from every page. The sentences are nervous and sensitive, 
stripped of all excess and flabbiness. Alcott paid his friend 
a deserved tribute in declaring: "Of Americans, Thoreau 
speaks and writes the strongest English . . . Nothing can be 
spared from his sentence; there is nothing superfluous or 
irrelevant, but all is compact, solid, and concrete, as Nature 
is. 



86 



HIGHER LAWS 

The keynote ojf literary aspiration for the period between 
1830 and the Civil War was sounded by the elder William 
Ellery Channing, the Unitarian divine, when he replied to 
Charles J. IngersoU's Discourse Concerning the Influence of 
America on the Mind. Speaking in Philadelphia before the 
American Philosophical Society in 1823, Ingersoll had ar- 
gued that the mind of the new nation was practical and 
utilitarian, and that in consequence a true national literature 
should be expressed in works of utility rather than in belles 
lettres. Channing in his reply, published in 1830, was will- 
ing to agree that literature should not be divorced from life, 
but he could not tolerate the idea that either literature or life 
should be dominated by material interests. Instead he re- 
affirmed the conviction previously voiced by Crevecoeur that 
"the American is a new man, who acts upon new principles; 
he must therefore entertain new ideas, and form new opin- 
ions." But the novelty must attain the heights of a moral and 
spiritual revival. Here on an unpreempted continent man- 
kind might be privileged to make a fresh beginning, slough- 
ing off the old errors and inherited injustices of past centuries. 
Our literature should be founded on our hopes for the future, 
not on dark recollections of old-world defeats nor on a dull 
and sordid present. 

"We want a reformation," exclaimed Channing. "We 
want a literature, in which genius will pay supreme, if not 
undivided homage, to truth and virtue . . . We should have 
no heart to encourage native literature, did we not hope that 
it would become instinct with a new spirit. We cannot admit 
the thought, that this country is to be only a repetition of the 
old world. We delight to believe that God, in the fulness 
of time, has brought a new continent to light, in order that 

87 



the human mind should move here with a new freedom, 
should frame new social institutions, should explore new 
paths, and reap new harvests. We are accustomed to estim.ate 
nations by their creative energies, and we shall blush for our 
country, if, in circumstances so peculiar, original, and cre- 
ative, it shall satisfy itself with a passive reception and me- 
chanical reiteration of the thoughts of strangers." 

This appeal for literary independence prepared the way 
for Emerson, who was but following out Channing's thought 
when he asked in Nature the fundam.ental question: "Why 
should not we also enjoy an original relation to the uni- 
verse?" and proceeded in the Essays to develop his teaching 
of reliance on the godlike powers implicit in man's being. 
In an age of intellectual ferment newness and virtue often 
seemed synonymous, yet in actuality the two ideals that Chan- 
ning hoped to realize in a national literature were not in all 
respects compatible. It is one thing for a writer to illustrate 
a lofty morality, and quite another for him to be informed by 
a new spirit. The principles of ethics are not a discovery of 
yesterday, but matter of venerable antiquity. Somewhere in 
the background of Channing's thought there seems to be 
lurking the characteristic American preconception that Eu- 
rope holds a monopoly on sin. Our native genius would 
pay instinctive homage to truth and virtue if not contami- 
nated from abroad. But Socrates and Saint Paul were not 
born in Boston. 

The bifurcation, if not contradiction, inherent in Chan- 
ning's argument did not lessen its attractiveness to American 
men of letters who immediately followed him. The notion 
of a fresh beginning which should involve at the same time 
a release from the baser side of human nature ran its course 
in the books of the three decades after 1830. The identifica- 
tion of newness and naturalness with truth and virtue is fre- 
quent in Thoreau, and traces of the same attitude may even 
be found in Henry James. Hawthorne was possibly the first 

88 



to detect a potential opposition, as of Siamese twins, between 
the ideals of moral excellence and originality, while Melville 
may be said to have performed the fatal operation in his 
Pierre of cutting the two apart. 

In the chapter of Walden called "Higher Laws" Thoreau 
is paying his homage to truth and virtue. The particular 
quality under discussion is purity of heart, which Thoreau 
associates with virginal freshness of the senses. "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, more starry, more immortal, — that is your suc- 
cess." But the process by which Thoreau would attain this 
crowning bliss turns out to be the time-worn process of 
ascetic negation. He "would fain keep sober always: and 
there are infinite degrees of drunkenness ... Of all ebriosity, 
who does not prefer to be intoxicated by the air he breathes?" 
Such a one may revel at a proper remove with Emily Dickin- 
son, that "debauchee of dew," but he will be unprepared to 
sit down with FalstaflF. 

To a seeker after new ideas Thoreau's refleaions on the 
satisfactions of a life of high moral purity must prove very 
disappointing. They would not be out of place in the mouth 
of a medieval anchorite, but they hardly advance the credit 
of a transcendental thinker. They are an almost perfect ex- 
ample of what Channing called the "mechanical reiteration 
of the thoughts of strangers," or of what are properly called 
ethical truisms. "Our whole life is startlingly moral. There 
is never an instant's truce between virtue and vice. Goodness 
is the only investment that never fails . . . We are conscious 
of an animal in us, which awakens in proportion as our 
higher nature slumbers . . . Chastity is the flowering of man; 
and what are called Genius, Heroism, Holiness, and the like, 
are but various fruits which succeed it . . . Nature is hard to 
be overcome, but she must be overcome." Some of these 
apothegms might worthily adorn Poor Richard's Almanac. 

89 



In the pages of Walden they represent a lapse into moral 
commonplace. Why go to the woods for such thoughts as 
these? 

It may as well be conceded that Thoreau is somewhat de- 
ficient on the side of heartiness. This does not mean that he 
was gloomy. He could even be gay in society on rare occa- 
sions. There is a record of his singing his favorite song, 
"Here a sheer hulk lies poor Tom Bowling," with immense 
gusto and dancing a faun-like impromptu dance to the music 
of the piano in Daniel Ricketson's parlor, taking pains to 
tread now and then on the guileless Alcott's toes. But this 
outburst of high spirits appears almost unique. Either an ac- 
quired Puritanism or an ascetic strain derived from his 
oriental studies made Thoreau exaggerate the benefits of 
austerity and forget that to cultivate one's higher powers 
solely is not to improve but to mutilate human nature. It was 
an excessive prudery that made Thoreau reject Rabelais as 
coarse, and an excessive solemnity that induced him to quali- 
fy his admiration for Chaucer's Prologue by the remark that 
"it is esentially humorous as the loftiest genius never is," a 
remark which if taken literally would immediately relegate 
most of Thoreau's writing to the status of the second-rate. 
There was a vein of adamant in Thoreau's nature, and in 
some of his judgments he was inflexibly conventional. 

But it is fair to say that he sometimes felt the burden of his 
derivative ethics and dropped them with relief. The chapter 
on "Higher Laws" opens significantly with Thoreau's con- 
fession that he would like to pursue a woodchuck and devour 
him raw. The flavor of wildness seemed to him a premoni- 
tion of a sort of virtue that would never stale. A tangle of 
swamp where no man before him had penetrated was his 
substitute for Eden. "I love Nature partly because she is not 
man, but a retreat from him. None of his institutions control 
or pervade her. There a different kind of right prevails. In 
her midst I can be glad with an entire gladness. If this world 

90 



were all man, I could not stretch myself, I should lose all 
hope. He is constraint, she is freedom to me. He makes me 
wish for another world. She makes me content with this." 
In preferring the "kind of right" that nature offers, Thoreau 
was becoming an American writer instinct with a new spirit. 

It was not nature merely as the exterior world nor as the 
open air that he delighted in, but nature in its untouched and 
unsubdued wildness. He liked to keep out of sight of houses. 
In this respect he parted company with Wordsworth, who 
never wandered far from cottage and sheepfold. To Thoreau 
in his youth wildness was a thrilling and romantic experi- 
ence, valued on the ground of its opposition to civilization. 
He hinted at its attractions in a famous passage in the Week : 

"There is in my nature, methinks, a singular yearning 
toward all wildness . . . Gardening is civil and social, but it 
wants the vigor and freedom of the forest and the outlaw. 
There may be an excess of cultivation as well as of anything 
else, until civilization becomes pathetic . . . The young pines 
springing up in the corn-fields from year to year are to me 
a refreshing fact. We talk of civilizing the Indian, but that is 
not the name for his improvement. By the wary independ- 
ence and aloofness of his dim forest life he preserves his inter- 
course with his native gods, and is admitted from time to 
time to a rare and peculiar society with Nature. He has 
glances of starry recognition to which our saloons are stran- 
gers. The steady illumination of his genius, dim only because 
distant, is like the faint but satisfying light of the stars com- 
pared with the dazzling but ineffectual and short-lived blaze 
of candles. The Society Islanders had their day-born gods, 
but they were not supposed to be "of equal antiquity with the 
atua fauau po, or night-born gods!' " 

From nature Thoreau next abstracted the quality of wild- 
ness and hypostatized it as an entity that might exist in the 
mind of man, in books, in actions. It was the matchless 
source of life and vigor, a reservoir of inexhaustible energy. 

91 



"In literature it is only the wild that attracts us." It is synony- 
mous with genius. And finally, "in Wildness is the preser- 
vation of the World," the nourishment and tonic of mankind, 
as the still unsettled West was proving to be the salvation of 
the populated states. In the end nature was not sufficient to 
contain the degree of what might be called aboriginality that 
Thoreau desired. He was homesick for a wildness that could 
only be realized in imagination. 

"We soon get through with Nature. She excites an ex- 
pectation which she cannot satisfy. The merest child which 
has rambled into a copsewood dreams of a wilderness so wild 
and strange and inexhaustible as Nature can never show 
him." 

"I long for wildness, a nature which I cannot put my foot 
through, woods where the wood thrush forever sings, where 
the hours are early morning ones, and there is dew on the 
grass, and the day is forever unproved, where I might have 
a fertile unknown for a soil about me. I would go after the 
cows, I would watch the flocks of Admetus there forever, 
only for my board and clothes. A New Hampshire everlast- 
ing and unfallen." 

The dream of wildness thus came to stand to Thoreau as 
a symbol of the individuality, tang, and freshness of underiva- 
tive things, and as such he held it precious. The exquisite 
unfolding of the leaves to fill out the pattern implicit in the 
seed, the unstudied grace of the bird balancing on the bough, 
the sureness of instinct in wild animals, these things were to 
him akin to the fulfillment of man's intellectual and spiritual 
powers. "We wish man on the higher plane to exhibit also 
the wildness or namre of that higher plane," wrote Emerson, 
and Thoreau entirely concurred. Beauty and integrity, mag- 
nanimity and a luminous mind should not be conscious con- 
trivances, but organic flowerings of the primitive stock of 
human nature. 

92 



Toward the end of his life Thoreau ceased to look to 
nature as a means of romantic escape. He had come to see 
that wildness begins at home. "It is in vain to dream of a 
wildness distant from ourselves. There is none such ... I 
shall never find in tne wilds of Labrador any greater wildness 
than in some recess in Concord, i.e. than I import into it. A 
little more mannood or virtue will mai^e the surface of the 
globe anywhere thrillingly novel and wild." So in his last 
phase Thoreau set to work to run down and corner the wild- 
ness tnat he could create in Concord. The enterprise was a 
part of his passionate pursuit of reality, which refused to stay 
put in either the inward or the outward world. Hundreds of 
pages of journal entries keeping minute record of the coun- 
tryside in ail its aspects, a million words of excerpts dealing 
with Indians, remained among his papers to testify to his 
unflagging 2eai in trie quest. 

Francis Parkman is the only American writer comparable 
to Thoreau in his eagerness to capturd in literature tae most 
unique feature of American experience, the contact of civil- 
ized man with unbroken wilderness. His "History of the 
Forest," as he called his volumes on the struggle for the North 
American continent, is a magnificent achievement that by 
glimpses and flashes of indirection brings home to its readers 
a sense of how Europeans responding to a new enviromnent 
were subtly changed into Americans, new men with new 
ideas. Thoreau attempted in a more personal way to portray 
the inwardness of this experience. For the last time in the 
world's history the freshness of an unvioiated country, the 
wildness of the primitive forest, as American colonists had 
felt these things and as Thoreau could still in a measure re- 
cover them in Concord, were available to a writer who re- 
ceived tnem with deep reverence and attempted with vehe- 
ment sincerity to transfer their inmost reality to his pages. 
Aicott has truly declared, "Of New England men, Thoreau 
came nearest to being indigenous." 

93