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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by John Burroughs (1837–1921)
IN the front of the second order of American authors we must place Henry D. Thoreau. He had many qualities which would seem to entitle him to a place in the first order, with Emerson, Longfellow, Bryant, Whitman; but he lacked at least one thing which these men possessed—he lacked breadth: his sympathies were narrow; he did not touch his fellows at many points. It has been complained that Emerson was narrow too; but Emerson looked over a much wider field than Thoreau, had many more interests, was more affirmative, and in every way was a larger, more helpful spiritual force. In his life, Thoreau isolated himself from his fellows as much as possible; he was very scornful of ordinary human ends and ambitions, and seemed to set slight value upon the ordinary human affections.  1
  Thoreau was born in Concord, Massachusetts, July 12th, 1817, and died there in May 1862, of consumption; having seen forty-five years of life, and probably spent more of it in the open air than any other American man of letters. The business of his life was walking,—or sauntering, as he preferred to call it,—and he aimed to spend half of each day the year round in field or wood. He was a new kind of sportsman, who carried a journal instead of a gun or trap, and who brought home only such game as falls to the eye of the poet and seer.  2
  Thoreau was of French extraction on his father’s side, and English on his mother’s. His intellectual traits were evidently from the former source, his moral traits from the latter. That love of the wild and savage, that crispness and terseness of expression, that playful exaggeration, and that radical revolutionary cry, were French; while his English blood showed itself more in his love of the homely, the austere, and his want of sociability.  3
  His grandfather, John Thoreau, was born in the isle of Guernsey, was a merchant in Boston; and died in Concord of consumption, in 1801. His father, also named John, after an unsuccessful mercantile career became a lead-pencil maker in Concord in 1823; and from that date to the time of his death in 1859, says Henry’s biographer, “led a plodding, unambitious, and respectable life.” Henry Thoreau was the third of four children,—John, Helen, Henry, and Sophia,—all persons of character and mark. “To meet one of the Thoreaus,” says Mr. Sanborn, “was not the same as to encounter any other person who might cross your path. Life to them was something more than a parade of pretension, a conflict of ambitions, or an incessant scramble for the common objects of life.” John and Helen were both teachers, and died comparatively young. John is described as a sunny soul, always serene and loving, and as possessed of a generous flowing spirit; Henry was deeply attached to him, and his death in 1842 was an irreparable loss. He said seven years later that “a man can attend but one funeral in his life,—can behold but one corpse.” To him this was the corpse and the funeral of his brother John.  4
  Henry and his brother assisted their father in pencil-making; the former attaining great skill in the art. Emerson in his sketch of him says that he at last succeeded in making as good a pencil as the best English ones.  5
  The way to fortune seemed open to him. But he said he should never make another pencil. “Why should I? I would not do again what I have done once.” This saying pleased Emerson: it has an Emersonian ring. But Thoreau did not live up to it. Mr. Sanborn says, “He went on many years, at intervals working at his father’s business.”  6
  Thoreau entered Harvard College in 1833, and graduated in due course, but without any special distinction. In his Senior year his biographer says, “He lost rank with his instructors by his indifference to the ordinary college motives for study.” The real Thoreau was already cropping out: the ambition of most mortals was not his ambition; there was something contrary and scornful in him from the first. His noble sister Helen earned part of the money that paid his way at college.  7
  In 1838 he went to Maine in quest of employment as teacher, carrying recommendations from Mr. Emerson, Dr. Ripley, and from the president of Harvard College; but his journey was not successful. Later in the same year he seems to have been employed as teacher in Concord Academy. About this time he first appeared as a lecturer in the lyceum of his native village; and he continued to lecture as he received calls from various New England towns, till near the close of his life. But it is doubtful if he was in any sense a popular lecturer. He puzzled the people. I have been told, by a man who when a boy heard him read a lecture in some Massachusetts town, that the audience did not know what to make of him. They hardly knew whether to take him seriously or not. His paradoxes, his strange and extreme gospel of nature, and evidently his indifference as to whether he pleased them or not, were not in the style of the usual lyceum lecturer.  8
  There is a tradition that while teaching, he and his brother John both fell in love with the same girl, and that Henry heroically gave way to John. It doubtless cost him less effort than the same act would have cost his more human brother.  9
  It seems to have been about this time that he began his daily walks and studies of nature. In August 1839 he made his voyage down the Concord and Merrimac Rivers, in company with his brother; out of which experience grew his first book, or rather which he made the occasion of his first book,—‘A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers,’—published ten years later. The book was not a success commercially, and the author carried home the seven hundred unsold copies on his back; boasting that he now had a very respectable library, all of his own writing. The title of the book is misleading: it is an account of a voyage on far other and larger rivers than the Concord and Merrimac,—the great world currents of philosophy, religion, and literature. The voyage but furnishes the thread with which he ties together his speculations and opinions upon these subjects. It is not, in my opinion, his most valuable or readable book, though it contains some of his best prose and poetry. It offends one’s sense of fitness and unity. It is a huge digression. We are promised a narrative of travel and adventure, spiced with observation of nature; and we get a bundle of essays, some of them crude and loosely put together. To some young men I have known, the book proved a great boon; but I imagine that most readers of to-day find the temptation to skip the long ethical and literary discussions, and be off down-stream with the voyagers, a very strong one. When one goes a-fishing or a-boating, he is not in the frame of mind to pause by the way to listen to a lecture, however fine.  10
  In 1845 Thoreau put his philosophy of life to the test by building a hut in the woods on the shore of Walden Pond, a mile or more from Concord village, and spending over two years there. Out of this experiment grew his best-known and most valuable book,—‘Walden, or Life in the Woods.’ The book is a record of his life in that sylvan solitude, and abounds in felicitous descriptions of the seasons and the scenery, and fresh and penetrating observations upon the wild life about him.  11
  He went to the woods for study and contemplation, and to indulge his taste for the wild and the solitary, as well as to make an experiment in the art of simple living. He proved to his own satisfaction that most of us waste our time on superfluities, and that a man can live on less than $100 per year and have two-thirds of his time to himself. He cultivated beans, gathered wild berries, did a little fishing, and I suspect, went home pretty often for a “square meal.” In theory he seems to have been a vegetarian; but it is told of him that when he had a day of surveying on hand, he was wont to fortify himself with pork as well as beans. At Walden he seems to have written much of the ‘Week,’ his essay on Carlyle, and others of his papers. Alcott and Emerson were his visitors; and besides these, he reports that he had a good deal of company in the morning when nobody called. He was a born lover of solitude. He says he “never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude.” “I am no more lonely than the loon in the pond that laughs so loud, or than Walden Pond itself. What company has that lonely lake, I pray? And yet it has not the blue devils, but the blue angels in it, in the azure tint of its waters.”  12
  Thoreau whistled a good deal, and at times very prettily, as in this quotation, to help keep his courage up. Indeed the whole volume is a cheery exultant whistle, at times with a bantering defiant tone in it. It is, on the whole, the most delicious piece of brag in our literature. Who ever got so much out of a bean-field as Thoreau! He makes one want to go forthwith and plant a field with beans, and hoe them barefoot. He makes us feel that the occupation yields a “classic result.”
          “When my hoe tinkled against the stones, that music echoed to the woods and the sky, and was an accompaniment to my labor which yielded an instant and immeasurable crop. It was no longer beans that I hoed, nor I that hoed beans; and I remembered with as much pity as pride, if I remembered at all, my acquaintances who had gone to the city to attend the oratorios….
  “On gala days the town fires its great guns, which echo like popguns to these woods, and some waifs of martial music occasionally penetrate thus far. To me, away there in my bean-field at the other end of the town, the big guns sounded as if a puff-ball had burst; and when there was a military turnout of which I was ignorant, I have sometimes had a vague sense all the day of some sort of itching and disease in the horizon, as if some eruption would break out there soon, either scarlatina or canker-rash,—until at length some more favorable puff of wind, making haste over the fields and up the Wayland road, brought me information of the ‘trainers.’”
  After the Walden episode, Thoreau supported himself by doing various odd jobs for his neighbors, such as whitewashing, gardening, fence-building, land-surveying. He also lectured occasionally, and wrote now and then for the current magazines. Horace Greeley became his friend, and disposed of some of his papers for him to Graham’s Magazine, Putnam’s Magazine, and the Democratic Review. He made three trips to the Maine woods,—in 1846, 1853, and 1857,—where he saw and studied the moose and the Indian. The latter interested him greatly. Emerson said the three men in whom Thoreau felt the deepest interest were John Brown, his Indian guide in Maine, and Walt Whitman. The magazine papers which were the outcome of his trips to the Maine woods were published in book form after his death; and next to ‘Walden’ I think make his most interesting contribution.  14
  In 1850, in company with his friend Ellery Channing, he made a trip to Canada, and reports that he found traveling dirty work, and that “a man needs a pair of overalls for it.” This poetic couple wore very plain clothes, and by way of baggage had a bundle and an umbrella. “We styled ourselves Knights of the Umbrella and the Bundle.” The details of this trip may be found in his ‘A Yankee in Canada,’—also published after his death.  15
  Thoreau was almost as local as a woodchuck. He never went abroad, probably could not have been hired to go. He thought Concord contained about all that was worth seeing. Nature repeats herself everywhere: only you must be wide awake enough to see her. He penetrated the West as far as Minnesota in 1862 for his health, but the trip did not stay the progress of his disease. He made several trips to New York and Brooklyn to see Walt Whitman, whose poems and whose personality made a profound impression upon him. “The greatest democrat the world has ever seen,” was his verdict upon the author of ‘Leaves of Grass.’  16
  One of the most characteristic acts of Thoreau’s life was his public defense of John Brown on October 30th, 1859, when the sentiment of the whole country—abolitionists and all—set so overwhelmingly the other way. Emerson, and other of Thoreau’s friends, tried to dissuade him from any public expression in favor of Brown just then; but he was all on fire with the thought of John Brown’s heroic and righteous act, and he was not to be checked. His speech was calm and restrained; but there was molten metal inside it, and metal of the purest kind. It stirs the blood to read it at this time. Thoreau and Brown were kindred souls—fanatics, if you please, but both made of the stuff of heroes. Brown was the Thoreau of action and of politics, and Thoreau was the Brown of the region of the sentiments and moral and social ideals.  17
  It is Thoreau’s heroic moral fiber that takes us. It is never relaxed; it is always braced for the heights. He was an unusual mixture of the poet, the naturalist, and the moralist: but the moralist dominated. Yet he was not the moralist as we know him in English literature, without salt or savor, but a moralist escaped to the woods, full of a wild tang and aroma. He preaches a kind of goodness that sounds strange to conventional ears,—the goodness of the natural, the simple. “There is no odor so bad as that which arises from goodness tainted.” And goodness is tainted when it takes thought of itself. A man’s
        “goodness must not be a partial and transitory act, but a constant superfluity, which costs him nothing, and of which he is unconscious.” “If I knew for a certainty that a man was coming to my house with the conscious design of doing me good, I should run for my life,—as from that dry and parching wind of the African desert called the Simoon, which fills the mouth and nose and ears and eyes with dust till you are suffocated,—for fear that I should get some of his good done to me, some of its virus mingled with my blood.”
  Thoreau’s virtue is a kind of stimulating contrariness; there is no compliance in him: he always says and does the unexpected thing, but always leaves us braced for better work and better living. “Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity,” he reiterates: “I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million, count half a dozen; and keep your accounts on your thumbnail.”  19
  He was a poet too, through and through, but lacked the perfect metrical gift. In this respect he had the shortcomings of his master, Emerson, who was a poet keyed to the highest pitch of bardic tension, but yet whose numbers would not always flow. Thoreau printed a few poems; one on ‘Smoke’ and one on ‘Sympathy’ have merits of a high order. Thoreau’s naturalism is the salt that gives him his savor. He caught something tonic and pungent from his intercourse with wild nature. Sometimes it is biting and smarting like crinkle-root or calamus-root; at others it is sweet and aromatic like birch or wintergreen: but always it is stimulating and wholesome.  20
  As a naturalist Thoreau’s aim was ulterior to science: he loved the bird, but he loved more the bird behind the bird,—the idea it suggested, the mood of his mind it interpreted. He would fain see a mythology shine through his ornithology. In all his walks and rambles and excursions to mountains and to marsh, he was the idealist and the mystic, and never the devotee of pure science. His pages abound in many delicious natural-history bits, and in keen observation; but when we sternly ask how much he has added to our store of exact knowledge of this nature to which he devoted his lifetime, we cannot point to much that is new or important. He was in quest of an impalpable knowledge,—waiting, as he says in ‘Walden,’ “at evening on the hill-tops for the sky to fall, that I might catch something, though I never caught much; and that, manna-wise, would dissolve again in the sun.”  21
  But he caught more than he here gives himself credit for; and it does not dissolve away in the sun. His fame has increased from year to year. Other names in our literature, much more prominent than his in his own day,—as that of Whipple, Tuckerman, Giles, etc.,—have faded; while his own has grown brighter and brighter, and the meridian is not yet.  22

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