Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature: An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891. Vols. VIVIII: Literature of the Republic, Part III., 18351860
By William Ellery Channing (18181901)
[Thoreau: the Poet-Naturalist. 1873.]
IN height, he was about the average; in his build, spare, with limbs that were rather longer than usual, or of which he made a longer use. His face, once seen, could not be forgotten. The features were quite marked: the nose aquiline or very Roman, like one of the portraits of Cæsar (more like a beak, as was said); large, overhanging brows above the deepest-set blue eyes that could be seen, in certain lights, and in others gray,eyes expressive of all shades of feeling, but never weak or near-sighted; the forehead not unusually broad or high, full of concentrated energy and purpose; the mouth with prominent lips, pursed up with meaning and thought when silent, and giving out when open a stream of the most varied and unusual and instructive sayings. His hair was a dark brown, exceedingly abundant, fine and soft; and for several years he wore a comely beard. His whole figure had an active earnestness, as if he had no moment to waste. The clenched hand betokened purpose. In walking, he made a short cut if he could, and when sitting in the shade or by the wall-side seemed merely the clearer to look forward into the next piece of activity. Even in the boat he had a wary, transitory air, his eyes on the outlook,perhaps there might be ducks, or the Blondin turtle, or an otter, or sparrow.
Thoreau was a plain man in his features and dress, one who could not be mistaken. This kind of plainness is not out of keeping with beauty. He sometimes went as far as homeliness, which again, even if there be a prejudice against it, shines out at times beyond a vulgar sense. Thus, he alludes to those who pass the night on the steamers deck, and see the mountains in moonlight; and he did this himself once on the Hudson at the prow, when, after a hem or two, the passenger who stood next inquired in good faith: Come, now, cant ye lend me a chaw o baccy? He looked like a shipmate .
With these plain ways, no person was usually easier misapplied by the cultivated class than Thoreau. Some of those afflicted about him have started with the falsetto of humming a void estimate on his life, his manners, sentiments, and all that in him was. His two books, Walden and the Week, are so excellent and generally read, that a commendation of their easy, graceful, yet vigorous style and matter is superfluous. Singular traits run through his writing. His sentences will bear study; meanings not detected at the first glance, subtle hints which the writer himself may not have foreseen, appear. It is a good English style, growing out of choice reading and familiarity with the classic writers, with the originality adding a piquant humor and unstudied felicities of diction. He was not in the least degree an imitator of any writer, old or new, and with little of his times or their opinions in his books. Never eager, with a pensive hesitancy he steps about his native fields, singing the praises of music and spring and morning, forgetful of himself. No matter where he might have lived, or in what circumstance, he would have been a writer: he was made for this by all his tendencies of mind and temperament; a writer because a thinker and even a philosopher, a lover of wisdom. No bribe could have drawn him from his native fields, where his ambition wasa very honorable oneto fairly represent himself in his works, accomplishing as perfectly as lay in his power what he conceived his business. More society would have impaired his designs; and a story from a fisher or hunter was better to him than an evening of triviality in shining parlors where he was misunderstood. His eye and ear and hand fitted in with the special task he undertook,certainly as manifest a destiny as any mans ever was . Other gifts were subsidiary to his literary gift. He observed nature; but who would have known or heard of that except through his literary effort? He observed nature, yet not for the sake of nature, but of man; and says, If it is possible to conceive of an event outside to humanity, it is not of the slightest importance, though it were the explosion of the planet.