Henry D. Thoreau by Elbert Hubbard

Story type: Essay

Seeing how all the world’s ways came to nought,
And how Death’s one decree merged all degrees,
He chose to pass his time with birds and trees,
Reduced his life to sane necessities:
Plain meat and drink and sleep and noble thought.
And the plump kine which waded to the knees
Through the lush grass, knowing the luxuries
Of succulent mouthfuls, had our gold-disease
As much as he, who only Nature sought.

Who gives up much the gods give more in turn:
The music of the spheres for dross of gold;
For o’er-officious cares, flame-songs that burn
Their pathway through the years and never old.
And he who shunned vain cares and vainer strife
Found an eternity in one short life.

As a rule, the man who can do all things equally well is a very mediocre individual. Those who stand out before a groping world as beacon-lights were men of great faults and unequal performances. It is quite needless to add that they do not live on account of their faults or imperfections, but in spite of them.

Henry David Thoreau’s place in the common heart of humanity grows firmer and more secure as the seasons pass; his life proves for us again the paradoxical fact that the only men who really succeed are those who fail.

Thoreau’s obscurity, his poverty, his lack of public recognition in life, either as a writer or lecturer, his rejection as a lover, his failure in business, and his early death, form a combination of calamities that make him as immortal as a martyr. Especially does an early death sanctify all and make the record complete, but the death of a naturalist while right at the height of his ability to see and enjoy–death from tuberculosis of a man who lived most of the time in the open air–these things array us on the side of the man ‘gainst unkind Fate, and cement our sympathy and love.

Nature’s care forever is for the species, and the individual is sacrificed without ruth that the race may live and progress. This dumb indifference of Nature to the individual–this apparent contempt for the man–seems to prove that the individual is only a phenomenon. Man is merely a manifestation, a symptom, a symbol, and his quick passing proves that he isn’t the Thing. Nature does not care for him–she produces a million beings in order to get one who has thoughts–all are swept into the dustpan of oblivion but the one who thinks; he alone lives, embalmed in the memories of generations unborn.

One of the most insistent errors ever put out was that statement of Rousseau, paraphrased in part by T. Jefferson, that all men are born free and equal. No man was ever born free, and none are equal, and would not remain so an hour, even if Jove, through caprice, should make them so.

The Thoreau race is dead. In Sleepy Hollow Cemetery at Concord there is a monument marking a row of mounds where a half-dozen Thoreaus rest. The inscriptions are all of one size, but the name of one alone lives, and he lives because he had thoughts and expressed them. If any of the tribe of Thoreau gets into Elysium, it will be by tagging close to the only man among them who glorified his Maker by using his reason.

Nothing should be claimed as truth that can not be demonstrated, but as a hypothesis (borrowed from Henry Thoreau) I give you this: Man is only the tool or vehicle–Mind alone is immortal–Thought is the Thing.

* * * * *

Heredity does not account for the evolution of Henry Thoreau. His father was of French descent–a plain, stolid, little man who settled in Concord with his parents when a child; later he tried business in Boston, but the march of commerce resolved itself into a double-quick, and John Thoreau dropped out of line, and turned to the country village of Concord, where he hoped that between making lead-pencils and gardening he might secure a living.

He moved better than he knew.

John Thoreau’s wife was Cynthia Dunbar, a tall and handsome woman, with a ready tongue and nimble wit. Her attentions were largely occupied in looking after the affairs of the neighbors, and as the years went by her voice took on the good old metallic twang of the person who discusses people, not principles.

Henry Thoreau was the third child in the family of seven. He was born in an old house on the Virginia Road, Concord, about a mile and a half from the village. This house was the home of Mrs. Thoreau’s mother, but the Thoreaus had taken refuge there, temporarily, to escape a financial blizzard which seems to have hit no one else but themselves.

John Thoreau was assisted in the pencil-making by the whole family. The Thoreaus used to sell their pencils down at Cambridge, fifteen miles away, and Harvard professors, for the most part, used the Concord article in jotting down their sublime thoughts. At ten years of age, Thoreau had a furtive eye on Harvard, directed thither, they say, by his mother. All the best people in Concord, who had sons, sent them to Harvard–why shouldn’t the Thoreaus? The spirit of emulation and family pride were at work.

Henry was educated principally because he wasn’t very strong, nor was he on good terms with work, and these are classic reasons for imparting classical education to youth, aspiring or otherwise.

The Concord Academy prepared Henry for college, and when he was sixteen, he trudged off to Cambridge and was duly entered in the Harvard Class of Eighteen Hundred Thirty-seven. At Harvard, his cosmos seemed to be of such a slaty gray that no one said, “Go to–we will observe this youth and write anecdotes about him, for he is going to be a great man.” The very few in his class who remembered him wrote their reminiscences long years afterward, with memories refreshed by magazine accounts written by pious pilgrims from Michigan.

In college pranks and popular amusements he took no part, neither was he a “grind,” for he impressed himself on no teacher or professor so that they opened their mouths and made prophecies.

Once safely through college, and standing on the threshold (I trust I use the right expression), Henry Thoreau refused to accept his diploma and pay five dollars for it–he said it wasn’t worth the money.

In his “Walden,” Thoreau expresses his opinion of college training this way: “If I wished a boy to know something about the arts and sciences I would not pursue the common course, which is merely to send him into the neighborhood of some professor, where everything is professed and practised but the art of life. To my astonishment, I was informed when I left college that I had studied navigation! Why, if I had taken one turn down the harbor I would have known more about it.”

It is well to remember, however, that Thoreau had no ambitions to become a navigator. His mission was simply to paddle his own canoe on Walden Pond and Concord River. The men who really launched him on his voyage of discovery were Ellery Channing and Ralph Waldo Emerson–both Harvard men. Had he not been a college man, it is quite probable he would never have caught the speaker’s eye. His efforts in working his way through college, assisted by his poverty-stricken parents, proved his quality. And as for his life in a shanty on the shores of Walden Pond, the occurrence is too commonplace to mention, were it not for the fact that the solitary occupant of the shanty was a Harvard graduate who used no tobacco.

Harvard prepares a youth for life–but here is a man who, having prepared for life, deliberately turns his back on life and lives in the woods.

A genuine woodsman is no curiosity, but a civilized woodsman is. The tendency of colleges is to turn men from Nature to books; from bonfires to stoves, steam-heat and cash-registers; but Thoreau, by reversing all rules, suddenly found himself, and others, explaining his position in print.

Harvard supplied him the alternating current; he influenced the people in his environment, and he was influenced by his environment.

But without Harvard there would have been no Thoreau. Having earned his diploma, he had the privilege of declining it; and having gone to college, it was his right to affirm the emptiness of the classics. Only the man with a goodly bank-balance can wear rags with impunity.

* * * * *

John Thoreau made his lead-pencils and peddled them out, and we hear of his saying, “Pencils, I fear, are going out of fashion–people are buying nothing but these miserable new-fangled steel pens.” When called upon to surrender, Paul Jones replied, “We haven’t yet begun to fight.” The truth was, the people had not really begun to use pencils. Pencils weren’t going out of fashion, but John Thoreau was. The poor man moved here and there, evicted by rapacious landlords and taken in by his relatives, who didn’t care whether he was a stranger or not. If he owed them ten dollars, they took fifty dollars’ worth of pencils and called it square.

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Then they undersold John one-half, and he said times were scarce.

This, it need not be explained, was in Massachusetts.

A hundred years ago, these men who whittled useful things out of wood during the long winter days were everywhere in New England. The sons of these men invented machines to make the same things, and thus were started the New England manufactories. It was brains against hands, cleverness against skill, initiative against plodding industry. And the man who can tell of the sorrow and suffering of all those industrious sparrows that were caught and wound around flying shuttles, or stamped beneath the swift presses of invention, hadn’t yet been born. God doesn’t seem to care for sparrows–three-fourths of all that are hatched die in the nest or fall fluttering to the ground and perish, Grant Allen says.

Comparatively few persons can adjust themselves happily to new conditions: the rest are pushed and broken and bent–and die.

When Dixon and Faber invented machines that could be fed automatically, and turn out more pencils in a day than John Thoreau could in a year, John was out of the game.

John had brought up his children to work, and Henry became an expert pencil-maker. Henry, we say, should have found employment with Faber and Company, as foreman, or else evaded their patents and made a pencil-machine of his own. Instead, however, he settled down and made pencils just like his father used to make, and in the same way. He peddled out a few to his friends, but his business instinct was shown in that he himself tells how one year he made a thousand dollars’ worth of pencils, but was obliged to sacrifice them all to cancel a debt of one hundred dollars.

And yet there are people who declare that genius is not transmissible.

John Thoreau failed at pencil-making, but Henry Thoreau failed because he played the flute morning, noon and night, and went singing the immunity of Pan. He fished, and tramped the woods and fields, looking, listening, dreaming and thinking.

At Keswick, where the water comes down at Lodore, there is a pencil-factory that has been there since the days of William the Conqueror. The wife of Coleridge used to work there and get money that supported her philosopher-husband and their children. Southey lived near, and became Poet Laureate of England through the right exercise of Keswick pencils; Wordsworth lived only a few miles away, and once he brought over Charles and Mary Lamb, and bought pencils for both, with their names stamped on them. The good old man who now keeps the pencil-factory explained these things to me, and also explained the direct relationship of good lead-pencils to literature, but I do not remember what it was.

If Henry Thoreau had held on a few years, until the pilgrims began to arrive at Concord, he could have gotten rich selling souvenir pencils. But he just dozed and dreamed and tramped and philosophized; and when he wrote he used an eagle’s quill, with ink he himself distilled from elderberries, and at first, birch-bark sufficed for paper. “Wild men and wild things are the only ones that have life in abundance,” he used to say.

* * * * *

Brook Farm was a serious, sober experiment inaugurated by the Reverend George Ripley with intent to live the ideal life–the life of useful effort, direct honesty, simplicity and high thinking.

But Thoreau could not be induced to join the community–he thought too much of his liberty to entrust it to a committee. He was interested in the experiment, but not enough to visit the experimenters. Emerson looked in on them, remained one night, and went back home to continue his essay on Idealism.

Hawthorne remained long enough to get material for his “Blithedale Romance.” Margaret Fuller secured good copy and the cordial and lifelong dislike of Hawthorne, all through misprized love, alas! George William Curtis and Charles Dana graduated out of Brook Farm, and went down to New York to make goodly successes in the great game of life.

At Brook Farm they succeeded in the high thinking all right, but the entrepreneur is quite as necessary as the poet–and a little more so. Brook Farm had no business head, and things unfit fall into natural dissolution. But the enterprise did not fail, any more than a rotting log fails when it nourishes a bank of violets. The net results of Brook Farm’s high thinking have passed into the world’s treasury, smelted largely by Emerson and Thoreau, who were not there.

* * * * *

Immanuel Kant has been called the father of modern Transcendentalists: but Socrates and his pupil Plato, so far as we know, were the first of the race.

Neither buzzing bluebottles nor the fall of dynasties disturbed them. “The soul is everything,” said Plato. “The soul knows all things,” says Emerson.

In every century a few men have lived who knew the value of plain living and high thinking, and very often the men who reversed the maxim have passed them the hemlock.

All those sects known as Primitive Christians represent variations of the idea–Quakers, Mennonites, Communists, Shakers and Dunkards!

A Transcendentalist is a Dukhobortsi with a college education. A Quaker with an artistic bias becomes a Preraphaelite, and lo! we have News from Nowhere, a Dream of John Ball, Merton Abbey, Kelmscott, and half a world is touched and tinted by the simplicity, sterling honesty and genuineness of one man.

George Ripley, Bronson Alcott, and Ralph Waldo Emerson evolved New England Transcendentalism, and very early Henry Thoreau added a few bars of harmonious discords to the symphony. Horace Greeley once contended in a “Tribune” editorial that Sam Staples, the bum bailiff who locked Thoreau behind the bars, was an important factor in the New England renaissance, and as such should be immortalized by a statue made of punk, set up on Boston Common for the delectation of bean-eaters. I fear me Horace was a joker.

California quail are quite different from the quail of New York State, and naturalists tell us that this is caused by a difference in environment–quail being a product of soil and climate.

And man is a product of soil and climate–for only in a certain soil can you produce a certain type of man. As a whole, this world is better adapted for the production of fish than genius–most of the really good climate falls on the sea. Christian Scientists are Transcendentalists whose distinguishing point is that they secrete millinery–California quail with rainbow tints and topknots, Balboaic instincts well defined.

* * * * *

Let this fact stand: it was Emerson who made Concord. He saw it first–he was on the ground, and the place was his by right of discovery, the title strengthened by the fact that four of his ancestors had been Concord clergymen, and the most excellent and venerable Doctor Ripley, a near kinsman.

Concord and Emerson, as early as Eighteen Hundred Forty, when Emerson was thirty-seven years old, were synonymous. He had defied the traditions of Harvard, been excommunicated by his Alma Mater, published his pantheistic Essay on Nature, and his thin little books and sermons had been placed on the Boston Theological Index Expurgatorius.

Through it all he had remained gentle, smiling, sympathetic, unresentful.

The world can never spare the man who does his work and holds his peace. Emerson was being lifted up, and souls were being drawn unto him.

In Eighteen Hundred Forty, Bronson Alcott, the American Socrates, with his interesting family, moved to Concord, drawn thither by the magnet of Emerson’s personality. Louisa wore short dresses, and used to pick wild blackberries and sell them to the Emersons and get goodly reward in silver, and kindly smiles, and pats on her brown head by the hand that wrote “Compensation.”

Alcott was a great, honest, sincere soul, and a true anarch, for he took his own wherever he saw it. He used to run his wheelbarrow into Emerson’s garden and load it up with potatoes, cabbages or turnips, and once in response to a hint that the vegetables were private property, the old man somewhat petulantly exclaimed, “I need them!–I need them!”

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And that was all: anything that any man needed was his by divine right. And the consistency of Alcott’s philosophy was shown in that he never took anything or any more than he needed, and if he had something that you needed, you were certainly welcome to it. If Alcott helped himself to the thrifty Emerson’s vegetables, both Emerson and Thoreau helped themselves to Alcott’s ideas.

Once a wagonload of wood broke down in front of Alcott’s house, and the farmer unhitched his horses and went on to the village to procure a new wheel. Before he got back, Alcott had carried every stick of the combustibles into his own wood-shed. “Providence remembers us!” he said. His faith was sublime.

When all the world reaches the Alcott stage, there will be no need of soldiers, policemen, night-watchmen, or bolts, bars and locks.

In Eighteen Hundred Forty, Nathaniel Hawthorne came to Concord from Salem, where he had resigned his clerkship in the custom-house, that he might devote all his time to literature. He moved into the Old Manse, which had just been vacated by Doctor Ripley, who had gone a-Brook-Farming–the Old Manse where Emerson himself once lived. Elizabeth Peabody, the talented sister of Hawthorne’s wife, lived at a convenient distance, and to her Hawthorne read most of his manuscript, for I need not explain that literature is not literature until it is read aloud and reflected back by a sympathetic, discerning mind. Literature is a collaboration between the reader and the listener.

Margaret Fuller, with her tragic life-story still unwound, lived hard by, and Hawthorne had already worked her up into copy as “Zenobia.” Margaret’s sister Ellen had married Ellery Channing, the closest, warmest friend that Henry Thoreau ever knew. The gossips arranged a doublewedding, with Henry and Margaret as the other principals; but when interviewed on the theme, Henry had merely shaken his head and said, “In the first place, Margaret Fuller is not fool enough to marry me; and second, I am not fool enough to marry her.”

An Irishman who saw Thoreau in the field making a minute in his notebook took it for granted that he was casting up his wages, and inquired what they came to. It was a peculiar farmhand who cared more for ideas than for wages.

George William Curtis was also a farmhand out on the Lowell Road, but came into town Saturday evenings–taking a swim in the river on the way–to attend the philosophical conferences at Emerson’s house, and then went off and made gentle fun of them.

Little Doctor Holmes occasionally drove out from Boston to Concord in a one-horse chaise; James Russell Lowell had walked over from Cambridge; and Longfellow had invited all hands to a birthday fete on his lawn at Cambridge, but Thoreau had declined for himself, saying he had to look after his pond-lilies and the field-mice on Bedford flats.

Thoreau, at this time, was a member of Emerson’s household, and in a letter Emerson says, “He has his board for what labor he chooses to do; he is a great benefactor and physician to me, for he is an indefatigable and skilful laborer, besides being a scholar and a poet, and as full of promise as a young apple-tree.”

And again, in a letter to Carlyle: “One reader and friend of yours dwells in my household, Henry Thoreau, a poet whom you may one day be proud of–a noble, manly youth, full of melodies and invention. We work together day by day in my garden, and I grow well and strong.”

To work and talk is the true way to acquire an education. All of our best things are done incidentally–not in cold blood. Hawthorne says in his Journal that most of Emerson’s and Thoreau’s farming was done leaning on the hoe-handles, while Alcott sat on the fence and explained the Whyness of the Wherefore.

But we must remember that in Hawthorne’s ink-bottle there was a goodly dash of tincture of iron. In his Journal of September First, Eighteen Hundred Forty-two, he writes: “Mr. Thoreau dined with us yesterday. He is a singular character–a young man with much of wild, original nature still remaining in him; and so far as he is sophisticated, it is in a way and method of his own. He is as ugly as sin, long-nosed, queer-mouthed, and with uncouth and somewhat rustic ways, though his courteous manner corresponds very well with such an exterior. But his ugliness is of an honest character and really becomes him better than beauty.” Little did Hawthorne’s guests imagine they were being basted, roasted, or fricasseed for the edification of posterity.

Prosperity at this time had just begun to smile on Hawthorne, and among other extravagances in which he indulged was a boat, bought from Thoreau–made by the hands of this expert Yankee whittler. Hawthorne quotes a little transcendental advice given to him by the maker of the boat: “In paddling a canoe, all you have to do is to will that your boat shall go in any particular direction, and she will immediately take the course, as if imbued with the spirit of the steersman.” Hawthorne then adds this sober postscript: “It may be so with you, but it is certainly not so with me.”

Admiration for Thoreau gradually grew very strong with Hawthorne, and he quotes Emerson, who called Thoreau “the young god Pan.” And this lends much semblance to the statement that Thoreau served Hawthorne as a model for Donatello, the mysterious wood-sprite in the “Marble Faun.”

As to the transformation of Thoreau himself, one of his classmates records this:

Meeting Mr. Emerson one day, I inquired if he saw much of my classmate, Henry D. Thoreau, who was then living in Concord. “Of Thoreau?” replied Mr. Emerson, his face lighting up with a smile of enthusiasm. “Oh, yes, we could not do without him. When Carlyle comes to America, I expect to introduce Thoreau to him as the man of Concord,” and I was greatly surprised at these words. They set an estimate on Thoreau which seemed to be extravagant…. Not long after I happened to meet Thoreau in Mr. Emerson’s study at Concord–the first time we had come together after leaving college. I was quite startled by the transformation that had taken place in him. His short figure and general cast of countenance were, of course, unchanged; but in his manners, in the tones of his voice, in his modes of expression, even in the hesitations and pauses of his speech, he had become the counterpart of Mr. Emerson. Thoreau’s college voice bore no resemblance to Mr. Emerson’s, and was so familiar to my ear that I could have readily identified him by it in the dark. I was so much struck by the change that I took the opportunity, as they sat near together talking, of listening with closed eyes, and I was unable to determine with certainty which was speaking. I do not know to what subtle influences to ascribe it, but after conversing with Mr. Emerson for even a brief time, I always found myself able and inclined to adopt his voice and manner of speaking.

* * * * *

Thoreau had tried schoolteaching, but he had to give up his position because he would not exercise the birch and ferule. “If the scholars once find out the teacher is not goin’ to sting ’em up when they need it, that is an end to the skule,” said one of the directors, and he spat violently at a fly, ten feet away. The others agreeing with him, Thoreau was asked to resign.

William Emerson, a brother of Ralph Waldo’s, a prosperous New York merchant, had lured Ralph Waldo’s hired man away from him and taken him down to Staten Island, New York. Here Thoreau acted as private tutor, and imparted the mysteries of woodcraft to boys who cared more for marbles.

Staten Island was about two hundred miles too far from Concord to suit Thoreau.

His loneliness in New York City made Concord and the pine-trees of Walden woods seem paradise enow. There is no heart desolation equal to that which can come to one in a throng.

Margaret Fuller was now in New York City, working for Greeley on the editorial staff of the “Tribune.” Greeley was so much pleased with Thoreau that he offered to set him to work as reporter, for Greeley had guessed the truth that the best city reporters are country boys. They observe and hear–all is curious and wonderful to them: by and by they will become blase–sophisticated–that is, blind and deaf.

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Greeley was a great talker, and he had a way of getting others to talk also. He got Thoreau to talking about communal life and life in the woods, and then Horace worked Henry’s words up into copy–for that is the way all good newspaper-writers evolve their original ideas.

Thoreau was amazed to pick up a number of the daily “Tribune” and find his conversation of the day before, with Greeley, skilfully transformed into a leader.

Fourierism had been the theme–the Phalanstery versus Individual Housekeeping. Greeley had prophesied that the phalanstery, with one kitchen for forty families, instead of forty kitchens for forty families, would soon come about. Greeley’s prophetic vision did not quite anticipate the modern apartment-house, which perhaps is a transitional expedient, moving toward the phalanstery, but he quoted Thoreau by saying, “A woman enslaved by her housekeeping is just as much a chattel as if owned by a man.”

This was in Eighteen Hundred Forty-five, and Thoreau was now twenty-eight years of age. He was homesick for the dim pine-woods with their ceaseless lullaby, the winding and placid river, and the great, massive, sullen, self-sufficient boulders of Concord.

He was resolved to follow the example of Brook Farm, and start a community of his own in opposition. His community would be on the shores of Walden Pond, and the only member of the genus homo who would be eligible to membership would be himself; the other members would be the birds and squirrels and bees, and the trees would make up the rest. Brook Farm was a retreat for transcendentalists–a place to meditate, dream and work–a place where one could exist close to Nature, and live a simple, hardy and healthful life.

Thoreau’s retreat would be the same, with the disadvantage of personal contact eliminated.

It was in March, Eighteen Hundred Forty-five, that Thoreau began building his shanty. The spot was in a dense woods, on a hillside that gently sloped down to the clear, cold, deep water of Walden Pond. The land belonged to Emerson, who obligingly gave Thoreau the use of it, rent free, with no conditions. Alcott helped in the carpenter work, and discussed betimes of the Wherefore, and when it came to the raising, a couple of neighboring farmers were hailed and pressed into service. The cabin was twelve by fifteen, and cost–furnished–the sum of twenty-eight dollars, good money, not counting labor, which Thoreau did not calculate as worth anything, since he had had the fun of the thing–something for which men often pay high.

The furniture consisted of a table, a chair, and a bed, all made by the owner. For bedclothes and dishes the Emerson household was put under contribution. On the door was a latch, but no lock.

And Thoreau looked upon his work and pronounced it good.

Stripped of the fact that a man of culture and education built the shanty and lived in it, the incident is scarcely worth noting. Boys passing through the shanty stage, all build shanties, and forage through their mothers’ pantries for provender, which they carry off to their robbers’ roost. Thoreau was an example of shanty-arrested development.

But as the import of every sentence depends upon who wrote it, and the worth of advice hinges upon who gave it, so does the value of every act depend upon who did it. Thus when a man, who was in degree an inspiration of Emerson, takes to the woods, it is worth our while to follow him afield and see what he does.

Thoreau set to work to clean up two acres of blackberry brambles for a garden-patch. He did not work except when he felt like it. His plan was to go to bed at dusk, with window and door open, and get up at five o’clock in the morning. After a plunge in the lake he would dress and prepare his simple breakfast. Then he would work in his garden, or if the mood struck him, he would sit in the door of his shanty and meditate, or else write. In the arrangement of his home he followed no system or rule, merely allowing the passing inclination to lead.

His provisions were gotten of friends in the village, and were paid for in labor. It was part of Thoreau’s philosophy that to accept something for nothing was theft, and that the giving or acceptance of presents was immoral. For all he received he conscientiously gave an equivalent in labor; and as for ideas, he always considered himself a learner; if he had thoughts they belonged to anybody who could annex them. And that Emerson and Horace Greeley were alike in their capacity to absorb, digest and regurgitate, is everywhere acknowledged. To paraphrase Emerson’s famous remark concerning Plato: Say what you will, you will find everything mentioned by Emerson hinted at somewhere in Thoreau. The younger man had as much mind as the elder, but he lacked the capacity for patient effort that works steadily, persistently, and weighs, sifts, decides, classifies and arranges. The voice was the voice of Jacob, but the hand was the hand of Esau. That is to say, Thoreau lacked business instinct. During the Winter at Walden Pond, all the work Thoreau had to do was to gather firewood. There was plenty of time to think and write, and here the better part of “Walden” and “A Week on the Concord and Merrimac Rivers” were written. He had no neighbors, no pets, no domesticated animals–only the squirrels on the roof, a woodchuck under the floor, the scolding blue jays in the pines overhead, the wild ducks on the pond, and the hooting owls that sat on the ridgepole at night.

Thoreau loved solitude more because he prized society–the society of simple men who could talk and tell things. Thoreau was no hermit–at least twice a week he would go to the village and meander along the street, gossiping with all or any. Often he would accept invitations to supper, but on principle refused all invitations to remain overnight, no matter what the weather. Indeed, as Hawthorne hints, there is a trace of the theatrical in the man who leaves a warm fireside at nine or ten o’clock at night and trudges off through the darkness, storm and sleet, feeling his way through the blackness of the woods to a cold and cheerless shanty which he with unconscious humor calls home. Hawthorne hints that Thoreau was a delightful poseur–he posed so naturally that he deceived even himself. On one particular visit to the village, however, he did not go back home for the night. It seems that he had been called upon by the local taxgatherer for his poll-tax, a matter of a dollar and a quarter. Thoreau argued the question at length, and among other things, said, “I will not give money to buy a musket, and hire a man to use this musket to shoot another.” And also, “The best government is not that which governs least, but that which governs not at all.”

“But what shall I do?” said the patient publican.

“Resign,” said the philosopher.

Thoreau seemed to forget that officeholders seldom die and never resign. In the argument the publican was worsted, but he was not without resource. He went back to town and told the other officials what had happened. Their dignity was at stake. Alcott had been guilty of a like defiance some time before, and now it was the belief that he was putting the younger man up to insurrection.

The next time Thoreau came over to the village for his mail he was arrested and lodged in the local bastile.

Emerson, hearing of the trouble, hastened to the jail, and reaching the presence of the prisoner asked sternly, “Henry, why are you here?”

And the answer was, “Waldo, why are you not here?” Emerson had no use for such finespun theories of duty, and the matter was too near home for a joke, so he turned away and let the culprit spend the night in limbo. The next morning Thoreau was released, the tax having been paid by some unknown person–Emerson, undoubtedly. This was a tame enough ending to what was rather an interesting affair–the hope of the best citizens being that Thoreau would get a goodly sentence for vagrancy. The townfolk looked upon Thoreau and Alcott with suspicious eyes. They both came in for much well-deserved censure, and Emerson did not go unsmirched, since he was guilty of harboring and encouraging these ne’er-do-wells.

Thoreau’s cabin-life continued for two Summers and Winters. He had proved that two hours’ manual work each day was sufficient to keep a man–twenty cents a day would suffice.

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The last year in the woods he had many callers: Agassiz had been to see him, Emerson had often called, Ellery Channing was a frequent visitor, and picnickers were constant. Lowell had made a few cutting remarks to the effect that “as compared with shanty-life, the tub of Diogenes was preferable, as it had a much sounder bottom,” and Hawthorne had written of “the beauties of conspicuous solitude.”

Thoreau felt that he was attracting too much attention, and that perhaps Hawthorne was right: a recluse who holds receptions is becoming the thing he pretends to despise. Besides that, there was plenty of precedent for quitting–Brook Farm had gone by the board, and was but a memory.

Thoreau’s shanty was turned over to a utilitarian Scotchman with red hair. Later the immortal shanty was a useful granary. Thoreau went back to the village to live in a garret and work at odd jobs of boat-building and gardening.

Now only a pile of boulders marks the place where the cabin stood. For some years, each visitor to the spot threw a stone upon the heap, but recently the proposition has been reversed, and each visitor takes a stone away, which reveals not a reversal in the sentiment toward the memory of Thoreau, but a change in the quality of the Concord pilgrim.

* * * * *

Thoreau’s early death was the direct result of his reckless lack of common prudence. That which made him live, in a literary way, curtailed his years. The man was improperly and imperfectly nourished, physically. Men who live alone do not cook any more than they have to: men and women, both, cook for emulation. That is to say, we work for each other, and we succeed only as we help each other.

Thoreau was such a pronounced individualist that he cared for no one but himself, and he cared for himself not at all. It is wife, children and home that teach a man prudence, and make him bank against the storm. “At Walden no one bothered me but the State,” said Thoreau. If Thoreau had had a family and treated his household as he treated himself, that scorned thing, the State, would have stepped in and sent him to the workhouse, and his children to the Home for the Friendless.

If he had treated dumb animals as he treated himself, the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals would have interfered. The absence of social ties and of all responsibilities fixed in his peculiar temperament an indifference to hunger, heat, cold, wet, damp, and all bodily discomfort that classes the man with the flagellants. He tells of whole days when he ate nothing but berries and drank only cold water; and at other times of how he walked all day in a soaking rain and went to bed at night, supperless, under a pine-tree. Emerson records the fact that on long tramps Thoreau would carry only a chunk of plum-cake for food, because it was rich and contained condensed nutriment.

The question is sometimes asked, “How can one eat his cake and keep it too?” but this does not refer to plum-cake.

A few years of plum-cake, cold mince-pie and continual wet feet will put the petard under even the stoutest constitution.

During his shanty-life Thoreau was imperfectly nourished, and for the victim of malassimilation, tuberculosis hunts and needs no spyglass.

It is absurd for a man to make a god of his digestive apparatus, but it is just as bad to forget that the belly is as much the gift of God as the brain.

In childhood, Thoreau was frail and weak. Outdoor life gradually developed on his slight frame a splendid strength and a power to do and endure. He could outrun, outrow, outwalk any of his townsmen. In him developed the confidence of the athlete–the confidence of the athlete who dies young. Thoreau was an athlete, and he died as the athlete dieth. Irregular diet and continued exposure did their work–the vital powers became reduced, the man “caught cold,” bronchitis followed, and the tuberculae laughed.

* * * * *

During Thoreau’s life he published but two volumes, and these met with scanty sale. Since his death ten volumes have been issued from his manuscripts and letters, and his fame has steadily increased.

Boston had no recognition for Thoreau as long as he was alive. Among the most popular writers of the time, feted and feasted, invited and exalted, were George S. Hillard, N. P. Willis, Caroline Kirkland, George W. Green, Parke Godwin and Charles F. Briggs. These writers, who had the run of the magazines, would have smiled in derision if told that the name and fame of uncouth Thoreau would outlive them all. They wrote for the people who bought their books, but Thoreau dedicated his work to time. He wrote what he thought, but they wrote what they thought other people thought.

In the publication of “The Dial,” Thoreau took a hearty interest, and was a frequent contributor. The official organ of the transcendentalists, however, paid no honorariums–it was both sincere and serious, and died in due time of too much dignity. The “Atlantic Monthly” accepted one article by Thoreau, and paid for it, but as James Russell Lowell, the editor, used his blue pencil a trifle, without first consulting the author, he never got an opportunity to do so again.

Horace Greeley had interested himself in Thoreau’s writings and gotten several articles accepted by Graham’s and also Putnam’s Magazine. “The Week” had been published on the author’s guaranty that enough copies would be sold the first year to cover the cost. After four years, of the edition of one thousand copies only three hundred were disposed of, and these were mostly given away. To pay the publisher for the expense incurred, Thoreau buckled down and worked hard at surveying for a year.

The only man he ever knew, of whom he stood a little in awe, was Walt Whitman. In a letter to Blake he says:

Nineteenth November, Eighteen Hundred Fifty-six.–Alcott has been here, and last Sunday I went with him to Greeley’s farm, thirty-six miles north of New York. The next day Alcott and I heard Beecher preach; and what was more, we visited Whitman the next morning, and we were much interested and provoked. He is apparently the greatest democrat the world has seen, kings and aristocracy go by the board at once, as they have long deserved to. A remarkably strong though coarse nature, of a sweet disposition, and much prized by his friends. Though peculiar and rough in his exterior, he is essentially a gentleman. I am still somewhat in a quandary about him–feel that he is essentially strange to me, at any rate; but I am surprised by the sight of him. He is very broad, but, as I have said, not fine.

Seventh December, Eighteen Hundred Fifty-six.–That Walt Whitman, of whom I wrote you, is the most interesting fact to me at present. I have just read his second edition (which he gave me), and it has done me more good than any reading for a long time. Perhaps I remember best the poem of “Walt Whitman an American” and the “Sundown” poem. There are two or three pieces in the book which are disagreeable, to say the least, simply sensual…. As for its sensuality–and it may turn out to be less sensual than it appears–I do not so much wish that those parts were not written, as that men and women were so pure that they could read them without harm.

On the whole, it sounds to me very brave and American, after whatever deductions. I do not believe that all the sermons, so called, that have been preached in this land, put together, are equal to it for preaching. We ought greatly to rejoice in him. He occasionally suggests something a little more than human. You can’t confound him with the other inhabitants of Brooklyn. How they must shudder when they read him!

To be sure, I sometimes feel a little imposed on. By his heartiness and broad generalities he puts me into a liberal frame of mind, prepared to see wonders–as it were, sets me upon a hill or in the midst of a plain–stirs me well up, and then–throws in a thousand of brick. Though rude and sometimes ineffectual, it is a great primitive poem, an alarum or trumpet-note ringing through the American camp. Wonderfully like the Orientals, too, considering that, when I asked him if he had read them, he answered, “No; tell me about them.”

Since I have seen him, I find that I am not disturbed by any brag or egoism in his book. He may turn out the least of a braggart of all, having a better right to be confident. Walt is a great fellow.

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A lady once asked John Burroughs this question: “What would become of this world if everybody in it patterned after Henry Thoreau?” And Ol’ John replied, “It would be much improved.”

But your Uncle John is a humorist–he knows that Henry Ward Beecher was right when he said, “God never made but one Thoreau–that was enough, but we are grateful for the one.”

Thoreau was a poet-naturalist, and the lesson he taught us is that this is the most beautiful world to know anything about, and there are enough curious and wonderful things right under our feet, and over our heads, and all around us, to amuse, divert, interest and instruct us for a lifetime. We need only a little.

Use your eyes!

“How do you manage to find so many Indian relics?” a friend asked Thoreau. “Just like this,” he replied, and stooping over, he picked up an arrowhead under the friend’s foot. At dinner once at a neighbor’s he was asked what dish he preferred, and his answer was, “The nearest.” To him, everything was good–he uttered no complaints and made no demands.

When asked by a clergyman why he did not go to church, he said, “It is the rafters–I can’t stand them–when I look up, I want to gaze straight into the blue sky.” Then he turned the tables and asked the interrogator a question: “Did you ever happen, accidentally, to say anything while you were preaching?” Yet preachers of brains were always attracted to him: Harrison Blake, to whom he wrote more letters than to any one else, was a Congregational preacher. And when Horace Greeley took Thoreau to Plymouth Church, Beecher invited him to sit on the platform and quoted him as one who saw God in autumn’s every burning bush.

The wit of the man–his direct speech, and all of his beautiful indifference for the good opinion of those whom others follow after and lie in wait for–was sublime. Meanness, hypocrisy, secrecy and subterfuge had no place in Thoreau’s nature.

He wanted nothing–nothing but liberty–he did not even ask for your applause or approval. When walking on country roads, laborers would hail him and ask for tobacco–seeing in him only one of their own kind. Farmers would stop and gossip with him about the weather. Children ran to him on the village streets and would cling to his hands and clutch his coat, and ask where the berries grew, or the first spring flowers were to be found. With children he was particularly patient and kind. With them he would converse as freely as did George Francis Train with the children in Madison Square. The children recognized in him something very much akin to themselves–he would play upon his flute for them and whittle out toy boats, regardless of the flight of time.

Imbeciles and mental defectives from the almshouse used occasionally to wander over to his cabin in the woods, and he would treat them with gentle consideration, and accompany them back home.

His lack of worldly prudence, Blake thought, tokened a courage which under certain conditions would have made him as formidable as John Brown. Blake tells this: Once on a lonely road, two miles from Concord, two loafers stopped a girl who was picking berries, and began to bother her. Thoreau just then happened along, and seeing the young woman’s distress, he collared the rogues and marched them into the village, turning them over to that redoubtable transcendentalist, Sam Staples, who locked them up. Thoreau’s hook nose and features could be transformed in rare instances into a look of command that no man dare question–it was the look of the fatalist–the benign fanatic–the look of Marat–the look of a man who has nothing but his life to lose, and places small store on that. “A little more ambition, and a trifle less sympathy, and the world would have had a Caesar to deal with,” says Blake.

Cowardice is only caution carried to an extreme. Thoreau exercised no prudence in making money, securing fame, preserving his health, holding his friends or making new ones. This Spartan-like quality, that counts not the cost, is essentially heroic.

But Thoreau was not given to strife; for the most part, he was non-resistant. The chief thing he prized was equanimity, and this you can not secure through struggle and strife. His game was all captured with the spyglass, or carried home in his botanists’ drum. For worldly wealth and what we call progress, he had small appreciation–this marks his limitations. But his reasons are surely good literature:

They make a great ado nowadays about hard times; but I think that the community generally, ministers and all, take a wrong view of the matter. This general failure, both private and public, is rather occasion for rejoicing, as reminding us whom we have at the helm–that justice is always done. If our merchants did not most of them fail, and the banks too, my faith in the old laws of the world would be staggered. The statement that ninety-six in a hundred doing such business surely break down, is perhaps the sweetest fact that statistics have revealed–exhilarating as the fragrance of the flowers in the Spring. Does it not say somewhere, “The Lord reigneth, let the earth rejoice”? If thousands are thrown out of employment, it suggests that they were not well employed. Why don’t they take the hint? It is not enough to be industrious; so are the ants. What are you industrious about?

The merchants and company have long laughed at transcendentalism, higher law, etc., crying, “None of your moonshine,” as if they were anchored to something not only definite, but sure and permanent. If there were any institution which was presumed to rest on a solid and secure basis, and more than any other, represented this boasted commonsense, prudence, and practical talent, it was the bank; and now these very banks are found to be mere reeds shaken by the wind.

Scarcely one in the land has kept its promise. Not merely the Brook Farm and Fourierite communities, but now the community generally has failed. But there is the moonshine still, serene, beneficent and unchanged.

Thoreau was no pessimist. He complained neither of men nor of destiny–he felt that he was getting out of life all that was his due. His remarks might be sharp and his words sarcastic, but in them there was no bitterness. He made life for none more difficult–he added to no one’s burdens. Sympathy with Nature, pride, buoyancy, self-sufficiency, were his prevailing traits. The habit of his mind was hopeful.

His wit and good-nature were his to the last, and when asked if he had made his peace with God, he replied, “I have never quarreled with Him.”

He died, aged forty-four, in the modest home of his mother. The village school was dismissed that the scholars might attend the funeral, and three hundred children walked in the procession to Sleepy Hollow. Emerson made an address at the grave; Alcott read selections from Thoreau’s own writings; and Louisa Alcott read this poem, composed for the occasion:

We sighing said, “Our Pan is dead;
His pipe hangs mute beside the river,
Around it wistful sunbeams quiver,
But Music’s airy voice is fled.
Spring mourns as for untimely frost:
The bluebird chants a requiem;
The willow-blossom waits for him;–
The Genius of the wood is lost.”

Then from the flute, untouched by hands,
There came a low, harmonious breath:
“For such as he there is no death;
His life the eternal life commands;
Above man’s aims his nature rose.
The wisdom of a just content
Made one small spot a continent,
And turned to poetry life’s prose.

“To him no vain regrets belong,
Whose soul, that finer instrument,
Gave to the world no poor lament,
But wood-notes ever sweet and strong.
O lonely friend! he still will be
A potent presence, though unseen–
Steadfast, sagacious, and serene;
Seek not for him–he is with thee.”

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