The Cambridge History of American Literature/Book II/Chapter X

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The Cambridge History of American Literature  (1918)  by Archibald McKellar MacMechan
Book II, Chapter X: Thoreau

§ 1. The Village Rebel.[edit]

THE life of a village community is not seldom enriched by the inclusion of a rebel, an original who refuses obstinately to conform to type, and succeeds in following out his idea, in contrast to the humdrum routine of his fellows. When the community happens to be Concord, the picturesque and historic village where the Revolution began, the Weimar of American literature, and when the rebel happens to be an American faun, the conjunction must result in no ordinary enrichment. There on 12 July, 1817, just after the second war with Britain, David Henry Thoreau was born to a small farmer and artisan who kept a shop and painted signs. The French-looking surname came by way of the Channel Islands, for the author’s grandfather was born in Jersey, and, in spite of his British origin, had served as a sailor in a Continental privateer. Thoreau passed his life in the village of his birth, and now his name is indissolubly associated with it.

§ 2. Thoreau’s Youth and Education.[edit]

For a generation which plumes itself upon its “breadth,” no slight effort is needed to picture the life of a typical New England village before the Transcendental movement had broken up the hard old Puritanic crust. It was a rigid and limited life made up of work, thrift, duty, and meetings. Caricatured and ridiculed though it be, that old stern life moulded men and women of the toughest moral and intellectual fibre. Puritanism was an intellectual creed, and led directly to the cultivation of the intellect. The minister and the schoolmaster were twin ruling powers. None questioned the value of education; it was almost a fetish. So as a child in a Puritan community, Henry Thoreau followed the regular routine of the common school until he was ripe for the university.

§ 3. His Reading.[edit]

Thoreau became a man of letters, but he was also a wild man, a faun; he became Emerson’s man, and—although it is rather difficult to fit into the picture—he was a Harvard man. He went up at sixteen and took his degree at twenty. His portrait at this time shows a smooth, grave face dominated by a Roman nose and overhung by a bush of fine brown hair. What benefit he derived from his college years is a matter both of record and of inference. “What I was learning in college was chiefly, I think, to express myself,” he writes five years after leaving Harvard. Perhaps the most significant memorial of his college career is the Latin letter he wrote to his sister Helen, in 1840. It gave him pleasure to use the language of Virgil and Cicero, for one of the many paradoxes in Thoreau’s life was the union of true American contempt for tradition with an unaffected love of the classics. After a diatribe against the narrow religiosity of New England, he draws breath to praise “the Ionian father of the rest,” with the enthusiasm of Keats.

There are few books which deserve to be remembered in our wisest hours, but the Iliad is brightest in the serenest days, and embodies still all the sunlight that fell in Asia Minor. No modern joy or ecstasy of ours can lower its height, or dim its lustre, but there it lies in the east of literature, as it were the earliest and latest production of the mind.

From the wildwood simplicity of Walden, he startles the reader with deliverances which might have come from the Bodleian.

Those who have not learned to read the ancient classics in the language in which they were written must have a very imperfect knowledge of the history of the human race…. Homer has never been printed in English, nor Æschylus, nor Virgil even,—works as refined, as solidly done, as beautiful almost as the morning itself; for later writers, say what we will of their genius, have rarely if ever equalled the elaborate beauty and finish and the lifelong and heroic literary labours of the ancients.

Thoreau translated the Prometheus Vinctus and tried his hand at Pindar. His pages are sown with classical allusions and quotations. The sunset at Cape Cod brings a line of Homer into his memory “with a rush,” as the shining torch of the sun falls into the ocean. He has words of just appreciation for Anacreon. His odes

charm us by their serenity and freedom from exaggeration and passion, and by a certain flower-like beauty, which does not propose itself, but must be approached and studied like a natural object.

Such genuine admiration for Greek genius is rare at any time, and certainly not many American hands could have been busy translating Æschylus, Pindar, and Anacreon in the hurried forties and fifties of the nineteenth century. This large and solid academic basis for Thoreau’s culture is not generally observed. His devotion to the Greeks rings truer than his various utterances on Indian literature and philosophy. Besides, he was well seen in the English classics from Chaucer downwards. A few pages of A Week yield quotations from Emerson, Ovid, Quarles, Channing, Relations des Jesuits, Gower, Lydgate, Virgil, Tennyson, Percy’s Reliques, Byron, Milton, Shakespeare, Spenser, Simonides. As Lowell remarks, “His literature was extensive and recondite.” The truth is, Thoreau was a man of letters, whose great ambition was to study and to write books.

During and after his college career, Thoreau taught school, like the hero of Elsie Venner. He is quite frank about this episode. “As I did not teach for the good of my fellow-men, but simply for a livelihood, this was a failure.” Brief as was his apprenticeship to the schoolmaster trade, one might possibly conjecture that it left some mark upon him. The many citations of recondite literature do not escape the suspicion of parade and pedantry. There is a certain gusto with which he inserts the botanical name of a plant after the picturesque vernacular, and distinguishes between Rana palustris and Rana pipiens. In general, the tone he adopts towards the world is that of the pedagogue dealing habitually with inferior minds.

§ 4. Emerson.[edit]

After his college days comes an episode which his biographers seem inclined to slur over, perhaps from a false sense of the dignity of biography, and that is the two years, from 25 April, 1841, to May, 1843, which Thoreau spent under Emerson’s roof. By the time Thoreau left Harvard, Emerson had become a power in the spiritual life of America. His brief career as a Unitarian minister was already far behind him; he had made his pilgrimage to Europe; he had penetrated the wilds of Scotland to Craigenputtock because one Thomas Carlyle, another unrecognized genius, lived there. He had given in Boston those lectures on Great Men and The Philosophy of History which foreshadow the great address commonly called the declaration of independence for American literature.[1] He had brought out his Scottish friend’s odd book, Sartor Resartus, a publication which accelerated the Transcendental movement. Emerson discovered the youth Thoreau as a true poet, and communicated the discovery in a letter to Carlyle. Thoreau became a member of Emerson’s household, apparently as general “help,” a relationship which all Americans will understand but which will be the despair of Europeans.

The most practical and handy person in all matters of every day life, a good mechanic and gardener, methodical in his habits, observant and kindly in the domestic world,

is the character Emerson gives him. There must have been a cash nexus, but the essence of the relationship was the tie uniting master and pupil, sage and disciple. This long and close association with the great literary force of that time had no slight effect in moulding Thoreau’s character and determining his bent.

His biographer, who knew him personally, says that he imitated Emerson’s tones and manners so that it was annoying to listen to him.

The imitation of Emerson in Thoreau’s writing is equally apparent. Lowell saw and condemned it in his criticism of A Week. In prose there is the sentence which reads like an oracle. It may be the profoundest wisdom, or it may be the merest matter of moonshine. When Thoreau writes “Ancient history has an air of antiquity,” or, “Give me a sentence which no intelligence can understand,” the critic can only fall back on the Gilbertian comment upon the young man who “expresses himself in terms too deep for me.” The imitation of Emerson’s poetry is even more marked and results in what Lowell calls Thoreau’s “worsification.” He had no candid friend to tell him what Dryden told “Cousin Swift.” There was, on the other hand, no little benefit in mere contact with such a personality as Emerson, much more in continual and close intercourse with him. The stimulus to thought must have been most potent, and Emerson’s influence could not but stiffen Thoreau in his natural independence and confirm him in his design of living his own life.

§ 5. Rebellions: Church; State; Society.[edit]

The village rebel who will not conform rebels first against the local religion. It is the obvious thing to rebel against. What Thoreau dissented from was New England Puritanism, as is plainly shown in “Sunday” of A Week. The atmosphere of that lost religion hangs about the letter of his roommate at Harvard, who became a minister in due course. One thinks of the letters young Mr. Tennyson of Trinity was exchanging with other Cambridge “Apostles” about the same time. The salutation is “Friend Thoreau,” which seems to have been the accepted convention at the time. Perhaps the most significant sentence in it runs:

I hear that you are comfortably located in your native town, as the guardian of its children, in the immediate vicinity, I suppose, of one of our most distinguished apostles of the future, R. W. Emerson, and situated under the ministry of our old friend Reverend Barzillai Frost, to whom please make my remembrances.

It does not appear that Thoreau after reaching manhood was ever “situated under the ministry” of the Reverend Barzillai Frost. In “Civil Disobedience,” he writes:

Some years ago, the State met me on behalf of the Church and commanded me to pay a certain sum toward the support of a clergyman, whose preaching my father attended, but never I myself. “Pay” it said, “or be locked up in jail.” I declined to pay. But unfortunately, another man saw fit to pay it.

The recusant even rendered the authorities a reason in writing for his recusancy.

Know all men by these presents that I Henry Thoreau do not wish to be regarded as a member of any incorporated society which I have not joined.

Opposition to the State followed naturally on opposition to the Church. To his honour, Thoreau took a stand against slavery when it was anything but popular to do so, even in the State of Massachusetts. In all his words on this theme there is a fire not to be found elsewhere. What roused him was the spectacle of fugitive slaves escaping to the free North, and, through the action of Northern courts, dragged back into slavery. The State was clearly in the wrong; Thoreau, in his own phrase, “declared war on the State,” by refusing to pay his poll-tax. He believed that such passive resistance by a number of taxpayers would bring about the abolition of slavery. He was therefore quite consistent with himself when he stood forth from the crowd as the champion of John Brown in his history-making raid on Harper’s Ferry. Public opinion, North and South, condemned the raid as the outrage of a fanatic attempting to kindle a servile war. Thoreau was of the remnant who saw its true bearing.

It was in the first year of his Walden hermitage that Thoreau was arrested and lodged in jail for refusing to pay his poll-tax. He tells how he was going to the cobbler’s, with a shoe to be mended, when the Law laid hold of him, how he spent the evening very pleasantly with the other inmates of the lock-up, how he was released next morning, and immediately started off with a berry-picking party. This “grand refusal” struck the imagination of Stevenson, who considers it the most significant act of Thoreau, and more important than his retreat in Walden. A parallel might be found in Stevenson’s account of his brief incarceration in a French prison in the epilogue to An Inland Voyage. Again, some friend paid Thoreau’s poll-tax for him, but he never wavered in his reasoned policy of passive resistance to an unjust, slavery-supporting State. At the same time, he never refused to pay the highway tax, because, “I am as desirous of being a good neighbour as I am of being a bad subject.” “I simply wish,” he continues, “to refuse allegiance to the State, to withdraw and stand aloof from it effectually.”

His next step was a more remote withdrawal, an attempt to stand aloof from his kind. It was an attempt to live by himself and to himself, in fact, to turn modern hermit. Apparently the idea had long been germinating in his mind. On that far-off Harvard commencement of 1837, he took part in a “conference,” an obsolete academic exercise resembling a medieval “disputation.” He took one side of an argument and a fellow-student, afterwards a judge, maintained the opposite. The subject debated was “The Commercial Spirit.” In his set speech, the grave, shock-headed graduate from Concord suggested that

the order of things should be somewhat reversed; the seventh should be man’s day of toil, wherein to earn his living by the sweat of his brow; and the other six his Sabbath of the affections and the soul—in which to range this widespread garden, and drink in the soft influences and sublime revelations of Nature.

The young collegian’s division of time may have provoked a smile, but the day was to come when he was to make the actual experiment. Thoreau had turned against the Church, he had turned against the State, and now he turned against organized society. He perceived that man was bound to the wheel of circumstance, he was the passive, unquestioning slave of a vain and sordid routine. One man at least would wrench himself free from the mill at which he saw his fellows ceaselessly toiling. He would carry out his boyhood’s dream, and, by reorganization of his life, obtain freedom for the things that matter. By making life more simple, he would cheat circumstance and really begin to live.

I dream of looking abroad summer and winter, with free gaze from some mountainside, while my eyes revolve in an Egyptian slime of health—I to be nature looking into nature with such easy sympathy as the blue-eyed grass in the meadow looks in the face of the sky. From such recess, I would put forth sublime thoughts daily, as the plant puts forth leaves.

It only remained to choose his “recess.”

§ 6. The Experiment at Walden Pond.[edit]

Apparently the suggestion as to the particular recess came from his friend, Channing, who writes,

I see nothing for you in this earth but that field which I once christened “Briars”; go out upon that, build yourself a hut, and there begin the grand process of devouring yourself alive.

Thoreau was a natural ascetic. He ate little flesh meat, but subsisted almost entirely on vegetable food; he drank nothing but water; he never married. He refers in a letter to a nameless lady who wished to marry him, and he calls the inverted courtship “tragic.” In the Age of Faith he would have fled to the wilderness for the same reason that he built his hut by Walden pond, in order to save his soul. Salvation for him meant escape from endless labour for the acquisition of useless things. By another paradox of his career, he freed himself from New England thrift by being still more thrifty. By denying himself and faring more scantily than his neighbours, he secured leisure for pursuits they could not comprehend. Thoreau is a prophet of the simple life, perhaps the first in America. He uses the very term.

I do believe in simplicity. When the mathematician would solve a difficult problem, he first frees the equation from all encumbrances, and reduces it to its simplest terms. So simplify the problem of life, distinguish the necessary and the real.

He was preaching to his friend Blake what he had already practised. He had felled the pines with his borrowed axe, and dug his cellar, and built his

tight shingled and plastered house, ten feet wide by fifteen long, and eight feet posts, with a garret and a closet, a large window on each side, two trap-doors, one door at the end, and a brick fireplace opposite.

It was a little smaller than the room he occupied at Harvard. The materials cost less than twenty-nine dollars; and by cultivating beans and other vegetables he was able to support himself at an annual expense of a little more than eight dollars. This was removing the encumbrances from the equation, with a vengeance, but Thoreau could make a “dinner” of berries. The experiment lasted from March, 1845, until September, 1847, and then having satisfied himself that the thing could be done, he gave it up.

§ 7. A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers.[edit]

Two years later, Thoreau published his first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. The actual voyage was performed by the two brothers Henry and John in the late summer of 1839 in a boat of their own making, “painted green below with a border of blue, with reference to the two elements in which it was to spend its existence.” During his Walden retirement, Thoreau worked over the original record of his pleasant outing, expanding it greatly by the inclusion of very various material, and had it published at his own risk by Monroe in 1849. It was the year of the Argonauts, of the gold-rush to California, and such literary treasure as the odd book contained was not much regarded. Though favourably reviewed by Ripley and by Lowell, it did not please the public, and over seven hundred copies out of an impression of one thousand were thrown back on the author’s hands. It is another of the paradoxes of Thoreau’s career that since his death, this failure has been edited with almost benedictine care.

Lowell’s praise of A Week can hardly be termed excessive. After dwelling on its weak points, its lack of unity, its imitation of Emerson, its dolorous verse, he continues,

the prose work is done conscientiously and neatly. The style is compact and the language has an antique purity like wine grown colourless with age.

The truth is that Thoreau with all his genuine appreciation of the classics never learned their lessons of proportion, restraint, “nothing too much.” Nor was the example of his master Emerson likely to correct his own tendency to formlessness. The principle of selection is absent. The week’s excursion is only an excuse for including Emersonian essays on friendship and chastity, or dissertations on the Laws of Menu, or translations of Anacreon, till the reader asks resentfully what they are doing in this dory-modelled galère, painted green below with a border of blue, on the Merrimack and Concord, lucid streams. If he had possessed the artistic instinct of Stevenson, or had undergone Stevenson’s rigid self-imposed discipline in the writer’s craft, he might have made A Week as complete a little masterpiece as An Inland Voyage. A Week fails on account of its scattering aim. It is neither a record of a week’s excursion, nor a book of essays, but a jumble of the two. Thoreau’s American contempt for tradition accounts for the artistic failure.

Where Thoreau is not the transcendental essayist, but the first-hand observer of nature, he is delightful. When discoursing on such a theme as the common sunfish, the reader wishes he would never end.

The breams are so careful of their charge that you may stand close by in the water and examine them at your leisure. I have stood over them half an hour at a time, and stroked them familiarly without frightening them, suffering them to nibble my fingers harmlessly, and seen them erect their dorsal fins in anger when my hand approached their ova, and have even gently taken them out of the water with my hand…. As you stand thus stooping over the bream in its nest, the edges of the dorsal and caudal fins have a singular dusty golden reflection, and its eyes, which stand out from its head, are transparent and colourless. Seen in its native element, it is a very beautiful and compact fish, perfect in all its parts, and looks like a brilliant coin fresh from the mint.

If the whole book had been of this texture, it would be a classic. Another element in the book which Thoreau valued slightly—those incidental glimpses of a vanished America—will be prized by later generations. His accounts of the mountain people he discovered, of the girl combing her black hair, of his surly host, Rice, and his strange inn, of the old farmer praying in the dim morning pasture, of the canal boatmen, of the lockmen’s house, and the small-voiced but sincere hospitality of the Yankee housewife offering the obsolete refreshment of “molasses and ginger,” read like pages Irving forgot to put into The Sketch Book. These things are seen with the naturalist’s clear grave eyes and recorded in plain words with no attempt at oracular profundity. For the sake of more such true pictures of reality, how gladly would the modern reader forego the disquisitions on Persius and Ossian.

§ 8. Canada.[edit]

The next year, 1850, Thoreau and his friend Channing made a brief raid across the border into Quebec, though the record of his experience was not published until 1866, with the title A Yankee in Canada. Stevenson found the book dull. Still, it has an interest of its own for the light it sheds on Thoreau’s peculiar temperament, and particularly on his robust Americanism, a sentiment based on traditional dislike of Britain and on contempt for monarchy as an effete institution. Patriotism is a curious passion. It does not seem possible to love one’s own country except by hating some other country. Emerson defines Thoreau almost in these terms:

No truer American existed than Thoreau. His preference of his country and condition was genuine, and his aversation from English and European manners and tastes almost reached contempt.

With no great love for the institutions of his own land, he showed his instinctive preference for them during his one brief sojourn under an alien flag. His attitude throughout is one of consistent patronage to all he sees and hears. The red-coats in the citadel at Quebec have the manhood drilled out of them. Britain, he believes, is “red in the knuckles” with holding on to the Canadas, and must soon relax her grasp. Towards the great mystery of historical Christianity, he is equally contemptuous. The devout worshippers in the Cathedral at Montreal, absorbed in prayer and regardless of gazing strangers, suggest the parallel of his fellow Yankees going to meeting on a week-day, after the cattle-fair. The Sisters of Charity whom he saw in the street looked as if they had cried their eyes out, “insulating the daylight with their presence.” That the soldier and the religious had something valuable to which he was a stranger, never occurred to him. In other words, he was blind to the romance of war and the poetry of faith. Even the natural courtesy of the habitants seems to him mere servility. For the American of Thoreau’s generation, history began with the musketry of the embattled farmers at Concord bridge. Before that day, there was only a dark welter of wicked kings and mad tories. These limitations prevented him from realizing, as Parkman did, the epic struggle which ended on the Plains of Abraham. He indeed transcribes the inscription on the monument to Wolfe and Montcalm, but the splendour and pathos of their fate leave him unmoved. Still, this rigid and narrow provincialism gives salt to his books and explains his revolt against convention. It was his Americanism which drove Thoreau to realize himself in his own way.

§ 9. Walden.[edit]

In 1854, Thoreau published the book by which he will always be best known, Walden, or Life in the Woods. It is by far the deepest, richest, and most closely jointed of his books. It shows Thoreau at his best, and contains all that he had to say to the world. In fact, he is a man of one book, and that book is Walden. In plan, it is open to the same objection as A Week, and might almost plead guilty to the charge of obtaining a hearing under false pretences. “Life in the woods” suggests the atmosphere of As You Like It and the Robin Hood ballads, but not moralizings on economy and the duty of being yourself. The reader who takes up the book with the idea that he is going to enjoy another Robinson Crusoe will not be pleased to find that every now and then he will have to listen to a lay sermon, or a lyceum lecture.

Still it is the adventurous, Robinson Crusoe part that is imperishable. How a man resolved to live in a new way, how he borrowed an axe and began felling pines on the ground that sloped southward to a wonderful pond, how he trimmed his rafters, dug his cellar, bought an Irish labourer’s shanty, transported the materials to a new site and raised the frame, appeal to the open-air instinct of every man. Even how he maintained the fire on the hearth, and grubbed out the fat pine roots to feed it, are matters of absorbing interest. His struggle with the weeds and poor soil of the two-acre patch on which he raised his beans and potatoes, every item of his various accounts, his food, his daily routine, his house-cleaning, have the fascination of a narrative by Defoe. The reader follows the solitary in his swim across the lake, or through the wood to the village, or about the hut, or along the rows of beans, with a zest he can hardly explain to himself. The reason is that Henry Thoreau in Walden wood is the same as the mariner of York on the Island of Desolation; he represents once more the struggle of primitive man to obtain food and shelter, in fact the epic of civilization. The interest of the theme is perennial.

Walden is also the memorial of an American faun, of a wild man who lived in the woods, who carried an umbrella like Robinson Crusoe, to weatherfend his head, and used a microscope to study insects with. About the same time, just after leaving Harvard, Thoreau found his first arrowhead and began his first journal, and the two streams of tendency ran side by side in his nature till the end. Intercourse with nature was even more necessary to Thoreau than intercourse with books. Intercourse with human beings he thought he did not need, but he was always tramping off to the village for a chat. He was not a real solitary, for visitors were always coming to view the progress of the odd experiment in living. Still Thoreau differed widely from the ordinary gregarious man in that he could manage to be alone for long periods with the woods and the sky. A friend called him a poet-naturalist; but the description is not exact. He hardly views nature as a poet, and he is surpassed by not a few observers of nature, who have had the stimulus of Darwin. The merely pictorial in nature does not much interest him, probably because he had seen no pictures. To Thoreau nature is no divinity as she is to Wordsworth; she is simply the pleasantest of companions, or rather the pleasantest environment for a natural man. In a house, in a town, he is like a creature caged. It is characteristic that after swimming across the lake, he would sit in his doorway all morning, “in a wise passiveness,” as Wordsworth would term it. So wild creatures live in the wild, when not hunger-driven. The wild things found him to be of their own kind; a mouse made friends with him, a hen partridge led her brood about his hut, he could take a fish out of the water in his hand. Thoreau is perhaps the first to suggest the pleasure of hunting animals without a gun, of learning about them without any desire to kill. He was not influenced by Darwin, or such a conception as the struggle for existence. Nature to him was not red in tooth and claw with ravin; it was a gentle, friendly, peaceful alternative to the mean greed and futile toil of man. The atmosphere of Walden is always serene and free from cloud or storm. Rain and winter come in their season; but they never seem to touch him; the rain does not wet, and the winter does not chill. There may be a thousand nooks in New England more beautiful than Walden, but they remain unknown, while the pine-clad slope which this strange being discovered and haunted for two years is charted as a permanent addition to the world-wide map of Romance.

§ 10. Style.[edit]

Thoreau has two styles, the oracular and the simple; and in Walden the simple prevails. Like the water of the pond, it is clear, colourless and wholesome. Thoreau is a careful writer, with an instinct for the right word which was developed and strengthened by a lifelong devotion to the best books. His love of the classics must have tended to purify his style and increase its natural dignity. Walden is generally free from oracular phrases and grotesque locutions like “eyes revolve in an Egyptian slime of health.” It must always retain the deep unfailing value of all autobiography, personal memoirs, “confessions.” The record of a life will never fail of an audience. When a man declares, “Thus I did, thus I thought, thus I felt,” other men are always eager to attend his tale.

The Walden experiment was not unlike the other Transcendental experiment of Brook Farm. Both were declarations of independence; both were attempts to place life on a new basis; both broke down. The Greek dog-sage in his tub, the English Quaker in his suit of leather, the Yankee land-surveyor in his wooden hut are three object lessons to the world of the ancient truth that “a man’s life consisteth not in the abundance of the things that he possesseth.” The Walden experiment is open to all the criticism of Lowell: “it presupposed all the complicated civilization which it theoretically abjured.” Even for Thoreau it was not a success. In the first year, his Homer lay open on the table, but he was so busy that he could only read it by snatches; in the second year, he was forced to set up a prosaic stove in the place of the romantic fire-place. Thoreau’s ideal of a world of book men, or contemplatives, is a dream. Still, the experience of the ascetic always shames the grossness of the worldly wiseman. If a man can live for a year for eight dollars, we certainly spend too much on things we could do without. Thoreau’s experiment will always have its appeal to hot, ambitious spirits on their first awakening to the intricacy of life. The hero of Locksley Hall longs to escape from civilization to summer isles of Eden. At least one American man of letters has followed Thoreau’s example by going into retreat.

After living in his hut for two years, Thoreau supported himself for three more by cultivating his garden, like Candide. Thus he obtained the freedoms he desired, the leisure to think, and to read, and to write, and to be himself. Then he went back to his land-surveying, his communing with the spirits of the wild, and the compilation of his voluminous journals. From the latter, several volumes have been quarried for the definitive edition of his works. They must always be of more interest to the admirer of Thoreau and the student of literature than to the general reader.

Then came the break-down of his health. It was the irony of fate that the man who lived according to nature, who obeyed the dictates of spare temperance, who never seemed to tire, should die of tuberculosis, the scourge of civilized life. His latest portrait, a daguerreotype taken in New Bedford, seven months before his death, shows a hairy, innocent, pathetic face; the eyes have the mute appeal of the consumptive. In 1861, the stricken man made a trip to the West, in the vain hope of restoration to health by change of air. He died in his birthplace, Concord, on 2 May, 1862, in the second year of the Civil War. He has been blamed for expressing his sense of detachment from that terrible conflict, but if, like Mercutio, he cries, “A plague on both your houses!” it must be remembered that, like Mercutio, he was a dying man. His last letter, dictated to his sister, concludes, “I am enjoying existence as much as ever, and regret nothing.”

§ 11. Thoreau’s Significance.[edit]

Emerson has written an appreciation of Thoreau with intimate knowledge and tender humanity. To that estimate, little can be added, or taken away. Lowell and Stevenson have appraised his character and his work, none too gently. Of himself he said, “I am a mystic, a Transcendentalist, and a natural philosopher.”


  1. ^  See Book II, Chap. IX.


Compiled by Author:Mark Van Doren

For a virtually complete bibliography of Thoreau, see A Bibliography of Henry David Thoreau, compiled by Francis H. Allen, Boston and New York, 1908. Two briefer bibliographies are by S. A. Jones, published by the Rowfant Club of Cleveland, 1894, and by John P. Anderson, appended to the Life of Thoreau in the Great Writers series, London, 1896.


Riverside Edition. 11 vols. Boston, 1894 [1893]. (Also a large paper edition.) Manuscript Edition, with manuscript insertions. 20 vols. (Vols. VII–XX contain the Journal, ed. Torrey, Bradford.) Boston, 1906. Also issued in 20 vols. without the manuscript insertions as the Walden Edition the same year. Pocket Edition. 11 vols. (A reprint of the Riverside Edition, without the Journal.) Boston, 1915.


A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. Boston, etc., 1849. Second issue of the same edition, Boston, 1862. New and Revised Edition, Boston, 1868 [1867]. Later eds.: London, 1889, [1895]; New York, 1900.
Walden; or, Life in the Woods. Boston, 1854. Reprinted, 1864. Edinburgh and London, 1884. Camelot Classics, London, 1886. Many editions in England and America. Translated into German by Emmerich, Emma, Munich, 1897, and by Nobbe, Wilhelm, Jena and Leipzig, 1905. [The Bibliophile Society of Boston has published the original manuscripts (2 vols., 1909), containing about 12,000 more words than the regular editions contain.]
Excursions. [Posthumous essays, with Biographical Sketch by Emerson.] Boston, 1863. New York, 1913.
The Maine Woods. Boston, 1864. New York [1906].
Cape Cod. Boston, 1865 [1864]. Boston and New York, 1896, 2 vols. New York [1907].
Letters to Various Persons. Boston, 1865. [Collected and edited by Emerson.]
A Yankee in Canada, with Anti-Slavery and Reform Papers. Boston, 1866.
Early Spring in Massachusetts. [Ed. from the Journal by Blake, H. G. O.] Boston, 1881.
Summer. [Ed. from the Journal by Blake, H. G. O.] Boston and New York, 1884. London, 1884.
Winter. [Ed. from the Journal by Blake, H. G. O.] Boston and New York, 1888 [1887]. Translated into German by Emmerich, Emma, Munich, 1900.
Autumn. [Ed. from the Journal by Blake, H. G. O.] Boston and New York, 1892.
Miscellanies. Boston and New York, 1894 [1893]. Vol. X of the Riverside Edition.
Familiar Letters of Henry David Thoreau. [Ed. Sanborn, F. B.] Boston and New York, 1894. With new letters. Vol. XI of the Riverside Edition.
Poems of Nature. [Collected from Thoreau’s published prose and from his literary remains by Salt, H. S., and Sanborn, F. B.] Boston and New York, 1895. London, 1895.
Some Unpublished Letters of Henry D. and Sophia E. Thoreau. [Ed. Jones, S. A.] Jamaica [New York], 1899 [1898]. [Reprinted in the Manuscript and Walden editions of the Familiar Letters.]
The Service. [Ed. Sanborn, F. B.] Boston, 1902. [An early essay, only partly included in the Manuscript and Walden editions.]
The First and Last Journeys of Thoreau. [Ed. Sanborn, F. B.] Boston, 1905. 2 vols. Bibliophile Society. [Fragments, some of them still unpublished, from the Journal and elsewhere.]
Sir Walter Raleigh. [Ed. Metcalf, H. A.] Boston, 1905. Bibliophile Society. [The essay appears in part in the Week and in the Journal, Vol. 1.]


Thoreau’s Thoughts. [Ed. Blake, H. G. O.] Boston and New York, 1890.
Anti-Slavery and Reform Papers. [Ed. Salt, H. S.] London, 1890.
Essays, and Other Writings. [Ed. Dircks, Will H.] London [1891]. Camelot Classics.
Selections from Thoreau. [Ed. Salt, H. S.] London, 1895. Eversley Series.
There are numerous vols. containing separate essays and parts of longer works.


(1) Resistance to Civil Government. Æsthetic Papers. Boston, 1849.
(2) A Plea for Captain John Brown. Echoes of Harper’s Ferry. Boston, 1860.
(3) Remarks at Concord on the Day of the Execution of John Brown. Ibid.
(4) Pilgrims [poem]. A Masque of Poets. Boston, 1878.
(5) To My Brother [poem]. Sanborn’s Life of Thoreau. Boston, 1882.
(6) The Service: Qualities of the Recruit. Concord Lectures on Philosophy. Cambridge, 1883. [Extracts read by Sanborn, F. B., from his manuscript of the essay. Only these extracts are printed in the collected editions of Thoreau.]
(7) [Poem, Pray, to what earth, with a paragraph of prose.] The Personality of Thoreau. Sanborn, F. B. Boston, 1901.
(8) Our Country [poem written about 1841]. Ibid.
(9) [Letters from Thoreau.] Daniel Ricketson and His Friends. Boston, 1902.
(10) Early Letter of Thoreau, during an Absence from College. Fifth Year Book of the Bibliophile Society. Boston, 1906.
(11) Aphorisms by Henry D. Thoreau. Fragments of Old Unpublished Journals recently discovered among Thoreau’s Papers. Ibid.
(12) Godfrey of Boulogne [poem, not to be found elsewhere]. Unpublished Poems by Bryant and Thoreau. Ed. Sanborn, F. B. Bibliophile Society. Boston, 1907.
(13) [Three unpublished letters.] Thoreau in Vermont in 1856. Vermont Botanical Club, Bulletin No. 3. Burlington, Vermont, April, 1908.


(a) The Dial: (1) Sympathy [poem]. July, 1840. (2) Aulus Persius Flaccus. Ibid. (3) Stanzas, Nature doth have her dawn. Jan., 1841. (4) Sic Vita [poem]. July, 1841. (5) Friendship [poem]. Oct., 1841. (6) Natural History of Massachusetts. July, 1842. (7) Great God, I ask thee for no meaner pelf [poem]. Ibid. (8) The Black Knight [poem]. Oct., 1842. (9) The Inward Morning [poem]. Ibid. (10) Free Love [poem]. Ibid. (11) The Poet’s Delay [poem]. Ibid. (12) Rumors from an Æolian Harp [poem]. Ibid. (13) The Moon [poem]. Ibid. (14) To the Maiden in the East [poem]. Ibid. (15) The Summer Rain [poem]. Ibid. (16) The Laws of Menu [selections]. Jan., 1843. (17) The Prometheus Bound [translation from Æschylus]. Ibid. (18) Anacreon [with translations of II poems]. April, 1843. (19) Ethnical Scriptures: Sayings of Confucius [selections]. Ibid. (20) To a Stray Fowl [poem]. Ibid. (21) Orphics: I, Smoke; II, Haze [poems]. Ibid. (22) Dark Ages. Ibid. (23) Friendship, From Chaucer’s Romaunt of the Rose [selections]. Ibid. (24) Ethnical Scriptures: Chinese Four Books [selections]. Oct., 1843. (25) A Winter Walk. Ibid. (26) Homer. Ossian. Chaucer. Jan., 1844. (27) Pindar [fragmentary translations]. Ibid. (28) The Preaching of Buddha [selections]. Ibid. (29) Ethnical Scriptures: Hermes Trismegistus [selections]. Ibid. (30) Herald of Freedom. April, 1844. (31) Fragments of Pindar [translation]. Ibid.
(b) The Atlantic Monthly: (1) Chesuncook. June, July, Aug., 1858. (2) Walking. June, 1862. (3) Autumnal Tints. Oct., 1862. (4) Wild Apples. Nov., 1862. (5) Life Without Principle. Oct., 1863. (6) Night and Moonlight. Nov., 1863. (7) The Wellfleet Oysterman. Oct., 1864. (8) The Highland Light. Dec., 1864. (9) April Days. April, 1878. (10) May Days. May, 1878. (11) Days in June. June, 1878. (12) Winter Days. Jan., 1885. (13) The Emerson-Thoreau Correspondence [contains letters from Thoreau]. May, June, 1892. (14) Thoreau and His English Friend, Thomas Cholmondeley [contains a letter from Thoreau]. Sanborn, F. B., Dec., 1893. (15) A Bit of Unpublished Correspondence between Henry Thoreau and Isaac Hecker. Sept., 1902. (16) Thoreau’s Journal [extracts]. Jan.-May, 1905. (17) The Editor Who was never an Editor [contains two letters by Thoreau]. Perry, Bliss. Nov., 1907.
(c) Other periodicals: (1) A Walk to Wachusett. Boston Miscellany. Jan., 1843. (2) The Landlord. Democratic Review. Oct., 1843. (3) Paradise (to be) Regained. Ibid. Nov., 1843. (4) Thomas Carlyle and His Works. Graham’s Magazine. Mar., April, 1847. (5) Wendell Phillips before the Concord Lyceum. The Liberator. 28 Mar., 1845. (6) Slavery in Massachusetts. Ibid. 21 July, 1854. (7) The Last Days of John Brown. Ibid. 27 July, 1860. (8) Ktaadn and the Maine Woods. Union Magazine. July, Aug., Sept., Oct., Nov., 1848. (9) Excursion to Canada. Putnam’s Monthly Magazine. Jan., Feb., Mar., 1853. (10) Cape Cod. Ibid. June, July, Aug., 1855. (11) The Succession of Forest Trees. New York Tribune. 6 Oct., 1860. [For other forms and appearances of this essay, see Allen’s Bibliography, p. 75]. (12) Inspiration [poem]. The Commonwealth [Boston]. 19 June, 1863. (13) The Funeral Bell [poem]. Ibid. 3 July, 1863. (14) Travelling [poem]. Ibid. 24 July, 1863. (15) Greece [poem]. Ibid. (16) The Departure [poem]. Ibid. 28 Aug., 1863. (17) The Fall of the Leaf [poem]. Ibid. 9 Oct., 1863. (18) Independence [poem.] Ibid. 30 Oct., 1863. (19) The Soul’s Season. Ibid. 6 Nov., 1863. (20) Days and Nights in Concord. Ed. Channing, W. E. Scribner’s Monthly. Sept., 1878. (21) [A letter of Thoreau’s to Emerson, unpublished elsewhere.] Thoreau’s Poems of Nature. Sanborn, F. B. Ibid. Mar., 1895. (22) Thoreau’s Unpublished Poetry [six short poems]. Sanborn, F. B. The Critic. 26 Mar., 1881.


Channing, William Ellery. Thoreau, the Poet-Naturalist. With Memorial Verses. Boston, 1873, 1902. [Many highly inaccurate quotations from Thoreau’s Journal.]
Japp, A. H. (H. A. Page, pseud.) Thoreau: His Life and Aims. A Study. London, 1878. Boston, 1877.
Marble, Annie Russell. Thoreau: His Home, Friends, and Books. [1902.]
Salt, Henry S. The Life of Henry David Thoreau. London, 1890. Abridged and included in the Great Writers series, London, 1896.
Sanborn, F. B. Henry D. Thoreau. (American Men of Letters series.) Boston, 1882, 1910. London, 1882.
—— The Personality of Thoreau. Boston, 1901.
—— The Life of Henry David Thoreau… . Boston and New York, 1917.


Alcott, A. Bronson. The Forester. Atlantic Monthly. April, 1862.
Briggs, Charles Frederick. A Yankee Diogenes. Putnam’s Monthly Magazine. Oct., 1854.
Burroughs, John. Thoreau’s Wildness. The Critic. 26 Mar., 1881.
—— Henry D. Thoreau. Century Magazine. July, 1882.
—— Indoor Studies. Boston, 1889. Pp. 1–42.
—— Henry David Thoreau. Chautauquan. June, 1889.
Canby, H. S. The Modern Thoreau. The Dial. 15 July, 1915.
Chambers’s Journal. An American Diogenes. 21 Nov., 1857.
Conway, Moncure D. Thoreau. Fraser’s Magazine. April, 1866.
Curtis, George William. From the Easy Chair. 1892 [1891]. Pp. 62–66.
Ellwanger, G. H. Idyllists of the Countryside. 1895.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Thoreau. Atlantic Monthly. Aug., 1862. Also printed as a Biographical Sketch in Vol. X of the Riverside Edition of Emerson, in Vol. X of the Riverside Edition of Thoreau, and in vol. 1 of the Manuscript and Walden Editions of Thoreau.
Evans, Marian (George Eliot). Review of Walden in The Westminster Review. Jan., 1856. [Never reprinted.]
Federn, Karl. Henry David Thoreau. Essays zur Amerikanischen Literatur. Halle, 1899.
Higginson, T. W. Short Studies of American Authors. Boston, 1880 [1879].
Howells, W. D. My First Visit to New England. Harper’s Monthly. Aug., 1894. Pp. 444, 446–448.
Jones, Samuel Arthur [Editor]. Pertaining to Thoreau. Detroit, 1901. [Very interesting. Contains early or obscure reviews and essays on Thoreau.]
Knortz, Karl. Ein amerikanischer Diogenes. Hamburg, 1899.
Le Gallienne, Richard. Review of Poems of Nature. London Star. 23 Jan., 1896.
Lessing, O. E. Essay on Thoreau. Das literarische Echo. 1912. P. 1544.
Lowell, James Russell. Review of the Week. Massachusetts Quarterly Review. Dec., 1849.
—— A Fable for Critics. 1848.
—— Thoreau. My Study Windows. Boston, 1871.
More, Paul Elmer. A Hermit’s Notes on Thoreau. Atlantic Monthly. June, 1901. Shelburne Essays, First Series. 1904.
—— Thoreau’s Journal. New York Evening Post. 3 and 10 Nov., 1906. Reprinted as Thoreau and German Romanticism. Nation, 8 and 15 Nov., 1906. Shelburne Essays, Fifth Series. 1908.
Muret, Maurice. Un Poète-Naturaliste Américain: Henry David Thoreau. La Revue. 15 Aug. and 1 Sept., 1902.
O’Connor, J. V. Thoreau and New England Transcendentalism. Catholic World. June, 1878.
Payne, W. M. Leading American Essayists. 1910.
Prinzinger, A. Henry D. Thoreau, ein amerikanischer Naturschilderer. Salzburg, 1895.
Salt, Henry S. Literary Sketches. London, 1888.
Saturday Review. An American Rousseau. 3 Dec., 1864.
Schinz, Albert. Esquisse d’une Philosophie des Conventions Sociales. Revue Philosophique de la France et de l’Étranger. June, 1903.
Sharp, William. Thoreau. In Encyclopædia Britannica, 9th and 11th editions.
Snyder, Helena Adell. Thoreau’s Philosophy of Life. With Special Consideration of the Influence of Hindoo Philosophy. Heidelberg [1902].
Stevenson, Robert Louis. Henry David Thoreau: His Character and Opinions. Cornhill Magazine. June, 1880. Familiar Studies of Men and Books. London, 1882.
Torrey, Bradford. Thoreau as a Diarist. Atlantic Monthly, Jan., 1905.
—— Friends on the Shelf. Boston, 1906.
Van Doren, Mark. Henry David Thoreau, a Critical Study. Boston and New York, 1916.
Vincent, Leon H. American Literary Masters. Boston, 1906.
Watts-Dunton, Theodore. Introd. to Walden. World’s Classics. Oxford, [1906].
Woodbury, Charles J. Talks with Ralph Waldo Emerson. London, 1890. Pp. 71, 76–95.

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