[PDF Notes] Short biography of Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862)

His work:

Among American men of letters there are more winning personalities than that of Thoreau, more versatile literary artists, but none-not even Whitman himself-more interesting. One proof of this lies in the widely varying estimate of Thoreau’s character and genius to be found in contemporary criticism.

By some he is regarded as a poor imitation of Emerson, given to posing and the Walden episode has been referred to as a theatrical flourish. Lowell and Robert Louis Stevenson, to mention two of his most formidable critics, have covered him with sarcastic ridicule and even Mr. Watts-Dunton, the avowed friend of the “Children of the open Air”, in his introduction to an edition of Walden, impugned his sincerity, leaving us with the impression that Thoreau was an uncomfortable kind of egotist.

As it is the Walden episode which has been chiefly responsible for the critical diatribes, it may be well to examine this two years’ sojourn in the woods near Concord and see how far it deserves the ire that has been called down upon it.

From his earliest years, Thoreau showed a passion for the open-unmistakably sincere and wholehearted. In 1839, soon after leaving college, he made his first long jaunt in company with his brother John. This was a voyage on the Concord and Merrimac rivers.

The keen enjoyment afforded to mind and body by this and subsequent outings suggested to Thoreau the desirability of a longer and more intimate association with Nature. Walden Wood had been a familiar and favored spot for many years and so he began the building of his tabernacle there. So far from being a sudden, sensational resolve with an eye to effect, it was the natural outcome of his passion for the open.

He had his living to earn and would go down into Concord from time to time to sell the results of his handiwork. He was quite willing to see friends and any chance travelers who visited from other motives than mere inquisitiveness. On the other hand, the life he proposed for himself as a temporary experiment would afford many hours of congenial solitude, when he could study the ways of the animals that he loved and give free expression to his naturalistic enthusiasms.

Far too much has been made of the Walden episode. It has been written upon as if it had represented the totality of Thoreau’s life, instead of being merely an interesting episode. Critics have animadverted upon it, as if the time had been spent in brooding, self-pity and sentimental affections, as if Thoreau had gone there to escape from his fellow-men. All this seems to me wide off the mark. He went to Walden not to escape from ordinary life, but to fit himself for ordinary life. The sylvan solitudes, as he knew, had their lessons for his no less than the busy haunts of men.

Yet it is a mistake to think, as some do, that he favored a kind of Rousseau-like “return to Nature”, without any regard to the conventions of civilization.

“It is not”, he states emphatically, “for a man to put himself in opposition to society, but to maintain himself in whatever attitude he finds himself through obedience to the laws of his own being, which will never be one of opposition to a just government. I left the woods for as good a reason as I went there. Perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live and could not spare any more time for that one.”

In one particular, however, Thoreau’s attitude towards the earth and all that therein is differed from the Buddhist, inasmuch as the fear that enters into the Easter’s earth-worship was entirely purged from his mind. Mr. Page has instituted a suggestive comparison between Thoreau and St. Francis Assisi.

Certainly the rare magnetic attraction which Thoreau seemed to have exercised over his “brute friends” was quite as remarkable as the power attributed to St. Francis and it is true to say that in both cases the sympathy for animals is constantly justified by a reference to a dim but real brotherhood.

The brutes are “undeveloped men”; they await their transformation and stand on their defense; and it is very easy to see that inseparably bound up with this view there are certain elements of mysticism common to the early saint and the American “hut builder.”

And yet perhaps, Mr. Page presses the analogy between the mediaeval saint and the American “pet-naturalist” too far. St. Francis had an ardent, passionate nature and whether leading a life of dissipation or tending to the poor, there is about him a royal impulsiveness, a passionate abandonment, pointing to a temperament far removed from Thoreau’s.

Prodigal in his charities, riotous in his very austerities, his tenderness towards the animals seems like the overflowing of a finely sensitive and artistic nature. With Thoreau one feels in the presence of more tranquil, more self-contained spirit; his affection is the affection of kindly scientist who is intensely interested in the ways and habits of birds, beasts and fishes; one who does not give them the surplus of love.

Thoreau’s intellectual indebtedness to Emerson must not be overlooked; some of his earlier work suffers somewhat from a too-faithful discipleship, in the vocal imitation of the “voice oracular.” Occasionally, indeed, it is hard to distinguish the disciple from his master, as when he writes:

“How can we expect a harvest of thought who have not a seedtime of character?”

“Only he can be trusted with goods who can present a face of bronze to expectations.”

But this is only a passing phase. Thoreau is no weak replica of Emerson; and the bond between them is at bottom a real spiritual bond; a common outlook on life; the imitativeness is a pure literary trick that young inexperienced writers frequently fall into before they have found their own individual style.

This Thoreau did in his Walden. Beyond an imaginative affinity with the author of Nature, there is nothing Emerson an in the following individual and characteristic passage:

“The stillness was intense and almost conscious, as if it were a natural Sabbath. The air was so elastic and crystalline that it had the same effect on the landscape that a glass has on a picture-to give it an ideal remoteness and perfection. The land ape was bathed in a mild and quiet light, while the woods and fences chequered and partitioned it with new regularity and rough and uneven fields stretched far away with lawn-like smoothness to the horizon and the clouds, finely distinct and picturesque, seemed to fit drapery to hang over fairyland.”

The ascetic hardiness of Thoreau is well illustrated in the “Naturalistic” sketch:

“The wonderful purity of Nature at this season is a most pleasing fact. Every decayed stump and moss-grown stone and rush of the dead leaves of autumn is concealed by a clean napkin of snow.

In the bare fields and trickling woods see what virtue survives. In the coldest and bleakest places the warmest charities still maintain a foothold. A cold and searching wind drives away all contagion, and nothing can withstand it, but what has a virtue in it; and accordingly whatever we meet with in cold and bleak places as the tops of mountains, we respect for a sort of sturdy innocence, a Puritan touchiness.”

Thoreau, indeed, is at his best as a poetic observer of Nature. His style lacks the rich opulence of Jefferies, but it has a cool clarity and austere beauty of its own. Ha has been called “the Poet- Naturalist,” by nanny; and by a few acclaimed as a Philosopher.

But he is really neither the one nor the other. He had neither the intellectual equipment of the naturalist, nor the ratiocinative power of the philosopher. He had neither the scientist’s faculty of correlating facts, nor the philosopher’s faculty generalizing from them. He is literary Vagabond.

At the same time I do not wish to underrate Thoreau’s work as a thinker or as an observer Nature. He was a fresh-minded and keen observer of natural phenomena, But his observations are far less valuable for scientific data (as are the naturalists) than as supplying him with agreeable material for humorous fancy, for ethical reflection or for graceful and delicate description.

In like manner, while as a thinker he is vigorous and effective in his own discursive and fragmentary way, with flashes of gnomic wisdom that, if less impressive than Emerson at his best, are more relish able; yet it is ultimately his manner of speech rather than his matter of thought that arrests us the most.

For his thought after all is a piquant blend of pantheism, orientialism, Puritanism, paganism: an attractive enough patchwork to deck a literary vagabond, but a shade distracting in a philosopher.

Why not leave him then as the “wise, wild beast”; a curious and arresting personality, half scholar, half faun; a mystic and a realist, sarcastic moralist and idyllic naturalist. In this way we can enjoy best his vagrant moods, according ‘to our own inclination and the mood of the moment; acclaiming him when, as the fervent moralist, he writes in lofty vein of “Life without Principle underlying it”; or delighting in his pagan humor, as when while dying, an earnest young friend asked him whether he had made his peace with the next world and Thoreau replied: “One world at a time”; or lingering with the poetic observer of Nature, with his cold, bracing imagination and love of elemental things; or finally, responding to the fierce enthusiasm of the hero-worshipper, when he writes on John Brown or Thomas Carlyle.

Thus, there is abundant diversity in Thoreau. Herein lies his charm as a man of letters. Of his verse I have said little, for though, like all wrote, it is striking and individual, he was a poetic thinker rather than a poetic artist. Yet he wrote one set of verses, which may not unfittingly serve to round off this review of the man and his work; for they abound in self-revealing touches and are among the happiest that he wrote:

“I am a parcel of vain strivings tied

By a chance bond together,

Dangling this way and that, their links

Were made so loose and wide


For milder weather.

A bunch of violets without their roots

And sorrel intermixed,

Encircled by a wisp of straw

Once coiled about their shoots,

The law

By which I’m fixed.

Some tender buds were left upon my stem

In mimicry of life,

But ah, the children will not know

Till time has withered them,

The woe

With which they’re rife.”

“It was his peculiar doctrine that a man has a perfect right to interfere by force with the slaveholder, in order to rescue the slave. I agree with him. They who are continually shocked by slavery have some right to be shocked by the violent death of the slaveholder, but no others.

Such will be more shocked by his life than by his death. I shall not be forward to think him mistaken in his method who quickest succeeds to liberate the slave. I speak for the slave when I say that I prefer the philanthropy of Captain Brown to that philanthropy which neither shoots me nor liberates me. At any rats, I do not think it is quite sane for one to spend his whole life in talking or writing about this matter, unless he is continuously inspired and I have not done so.

A man may have other affairs to attend to. I do not wish to kill or to be killed, but I can foresee circumstances in which both these things would be by me unavoidable. We preserve the so-called peace of our community by deeds of petty violence every day.

Look at the policeman’s billy and handcuffs! Look at the goal! Look at the gallows! Look at the chaplain of the regiment! We are hoping only to live safely on the outskirts of this provisional army.

So we defend ourselves and our hen-roosts and maintain slavery. I know that the mass of my countrymen think that the only righteous use that can be made of Sharpe’s rifles and revolvers is to fight duels with them when we are insulted by other nations or to hunt Indians or to shoot fugitive slaves with them or the like. I think that for once the Sharpe’s rifles and the revolvers were employed in a righteous cause. The tools were in the hands of one who could use them.”

“Carlyle is no mystic, either, more than Newton or Arkwright or Davy and tolerates none. Not one obscure line, or half line, did he ever write. His meaning lie plain as the daylight and he who runs may read; indeed, only he who runs can read and keep up with the meaning. It has the distinctness of a picture to the mind and he tells us only what he sees printed in largest English type upon the face of things.

He utters substantial English thoughts in plainest English dialects; for, it must be confessed, he speaks more than one of these. All the shires of England and all the shires of Europe, are laid under contribution to his genius; for to be English does not mean to be exclusive and narrow and adapt one’s self to the apprehension of his nearest neighbour only.

And yet no writer is more thoroughly Saxon. In the translation of those fragments of Saxon poetry, we have met with the same rhythm that occurs so often in his poem on the French Revolution.

And if you would know where many of those obnoxious Carlyleisms and Germaniums came from, read the best of Milton’s prose, red those speeches of Cromwell which he has brought to light, or go and listen once more to your mother’s tongue. So much for his German extraction.”

“Indeed, for fluency and skill in the use of the English tongue, he a master unrivalled. His felicity and power of expression surpass even his special merits as historian and critic. Therein his experience has not failed him, but furnished him with such a store of winged, ay and legged words, as only a London life, perchance, could give account of. We had not understood the wealth of the language before.

Nature is ransacked and all the resort and purlieus of humanity are taxed, to furnish of fittest symbol for his thought. He does not go to the dictionary, the word-book, but to the word-manufactory itself and has made endless work for the lexicographers.

Yes, he has that same English for his mother-tongue that you have, but with him it is no dumb, muttering, mumbling faculty, concealing the thoughts, but a keen, unwearied, resistless weapon.

He has such command of it as neither you nor have; and it would be well for any who have a lost horse to advertise or a town-meeting warrant or a sermon or a letter to write, to study this universal letter-writer, for he knows more than the grammar or the dictionary.”

“The style is worth attending to, as one of the most important features of the man which we at this distance can discern. It is for once quite equal to the mater. It can carry its entire load and never breaks down nor staggers.

His books are solid and workman like, as all that England does; and they are graceful and readable also. They tell of huge labour done, well done and all the rubbish swept away, ; like the bright cutlery which glitters in shop windows, while the coke and ashes, the turnings, filings, dust and borings lie far away at Birmingham, unheard of.

He is a masterly clerk, scribe, reporter, writer. He can reduce to writing most things,-gestures, winks, nods, significant looks, patois, brogue, accent, pantomime and how much that had passed for silence before, does he represent by written words.

The countryman who puzzled the city lawyer, requiring him to write, among other things, his call to his horses, would hardly have puzzled him; he would have found a word for it, all right and classical, that would have started his team for him.

Consider the ceaseless tide of speech for ever flowing in countless cellars, garrets, parlors; that of the French, says Carlyle, ‘only ebbs towards the short hours of night’ and what a drop in the bucket is the printed word.

Feeling, thought, speech, writing and, we might add, poetry, inspiration,-for so the circle is completed; how they gradually dwindle at length, passing through successive colanders into your history and classics, from the roar of the ocean, the murmur of the forest, to the squeak of a mouse; so much only parsed and spelt out and punctuated, at last. The few who can talk like a book, they only get reported commonly. But this writer reports a new ‘Leering’”.

“One wonders how so much, after all, was expressed in the old way, so much here depends upon the emphasis, tone, pronunciation, style and spirit of the reading. No writer uses so profusely all the aids to intelligibility which the printer’s art affords.

You wonder how others had contrived to write so many pages without emphatic or italicized words, they are so expressive, so natural, so indispensable here, as if none had ever used the demonstrative pronouns demonstratively before.

In another’s sentences the thought, though it may be immortal, is as it were embalmed and does not strike you, but here it is so freshly living; even the body of it not having passed through the ordeal of death, that it stirs in the very extremities and the smallest particles and pronouns are all alive with it.

It is not simple dictionary it, yours or mine, but IT. The words did not come at the command of grammar, but of a tyrannous, inexorable meaning; not like standing soldiers, by vote of Parliament, but any able-bodied countryman pressed into the service, for ‘Sire, it is not a revolt, it is a revolution”.

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