Henry D. Thoreau - Part 1

by John Burroughs

The Century, July 1882

Thoreau Reader: Home - Three Thoreaus - Burroughs Part 2

"John Burroughs was the most important practitioner after Thoreau himself of that especially American literary genre, the nature essay, and by the turn of the century he had become a virtual cultural institution in his own right: the Grand Old Man of Nature ..." - American Memory

[1]    In Walden Thoreau enumerates, in a serio-humorous vein, his various unpaid occupations, such as inspector of storms, surveyor of forest-paths and all across-lot routes, shepherd and herder to the wild stock of the town, etc., etc. Among the rest he says  "For a long time I was reporter to a journal of no very wide circulation, whose editor has never yet seen fit to print the bulk of my contributions, and, as is too common with writers, I got only my labor for my pains. However, in this case my pains were their own reward." The journal to which Thoreau so playfully alludes, consisting of many manuscript volumes, is now the property of Mr. H.G.0. Blake, an old friend and correspondent of his, and his rejected contributions to it, after a delay of nearly twenty years, are being put into print. "Early Spring in Massachusetts," lately published by Houghton, Muffin & Co., is made up of excerpts from this journal. A few of the passages have been in print before; I notice one in the Week, one or more in his discourse on "Walking, or the Wild," and one in the essay called  "Life without Principle."

[2]    Thoreau published but two volumes in his  life-time, — A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers — which, by the way, is mainly a record of other and much longer voyages upon other and less tangible rivers than those named in the title — and Walden, or Life in the Woods. The other six volumes of his works, including Mr. Blake’s, have been collected and published since his death.

[3]    It is to be hoped that, in time, we shall have the rest of his journal in print — at least a series of year-books from it, one volume for each of the four seasons. His journal was  probably written with an eye to its future publication. It does not consist of mere scraps, hasty memoranda, and jottings-down, like Hawthorne’s note-book, and like the blotter most literary men keep, but of finished work — blocks carefully quarried, and trimmed, and faced, at least with a plumb spot upon each, to be used or rejected in the construction of future works. When he wrote a book, or a lecture, or an essay, he probably went to his journal for the greater share of the material. The amount of this manuscript matter he left behind him at his death was, perhaps, equal to all the matter he had printed, and, though it had doubtless been sorted over more or less, yet a large per cent of it seems to be quite as good as any of his work and quite as characteristic. He revised, and corrected, and supplemented his record from day to day and from year to year, till it reflects truly his life and mind. Every scrap he ever wrote carries his flavor and quality unmistakably, as much as a leaf or twig of a sassafras-tree carries its quality and flavor. He was a man so thoroughly devoted to principle and to his own aims in life that he seems never to have allowed himself one indifferent or careless moment. He was always making the highest demands upon himself and upon others.

[4]    In his private letters his bow is strung just as taut as in his printed works, and he uses arrows from the same quiver, and sends them just as high and far as he can. In his journal it is the same.

[5]    Thoreau’s fame has steadily increased since his death, in 1862, as it was bound to do. It was little more than in the bud at that time, and its full leaf and flowering are not yet, perhaps not in many years yet. He improves with age; in fact, requires age to take off a little of his asperity and fully ripen him. The generation he lectured so sharply will not give the same heed to his words as will the next and the next. The first effect of the reading of his books, upon many minds, is irritation and disapproval; the perception of their beauty and wisdom comes later. He makes short work of our prejudices; he likes the wind in his teeth, and to put it in the teeth of his reader. He was a man devoid of compassion, devoid of sympathy, devoid of generosity, devoid of patriotism, as these words are usually understood, yet his life showed a devotion to principle such as one life in millions does not show; and matching this there runs through his works a vein of the purest and rarest poetry and the finest wisdom. For both these reasons time will enhance rather than lessen the value of his contributions. The world likes a good hater and refuser almost as well as it likes a good lover and acceptor, only it likes him farther off.

[6]    In writing of Thoreau, I am not conscious of having any criticism to make of him. I would fain accept him just as he was, and make the most of him, defining and discriminating him as I would a flower or a bird or any other product of nature — perhaps exaggerating some features the better to bring them out. I suppose there were greater men among his contemporaries, but I doubt if there were any more genuine and sincere, or more devoted to ideal ends. If he was not this, that, or the other great man, he was Thoreau, and he fills his own niche well, and has left a positive and distinct impression upon the literature of his country. He did his work thoroughly; he touched bottom; he made the most of his life. He was, perhaps, a little too near his friend and master, Emerson, and brought too directly under his influence. If he had lived farther from him, he would have felt his attraction less. But he was just as positive a fact as Emerson. The contour of his moral nature was just as firm and resisting. He was no more a soft-shelled egg, to be dented by every straw in the nest, than was his distinguished neighbor.

[7]   An English reviewer has summed up his estimate of Thoreau by calling him a "skulker," which is the pith of Dr. Johnson’s smart epigram about Cowley, a man in whom Thoreau is distinctly foreshadowed: "If his activity was virtue, his retreat was cowardice." Thoreau was a skulker if it appears that he ran away from a noble part to perform an ignoble, or one less noble. The world has a right to the best there is in a man, both in word and deed: from the scholar, knowledge; from the soldier, courage; from the statesman, wisdom; from the farmer, good husbandry, etc.; and from all, virtue; but has it a right to say arbitrarily who shall be soldiers and who poets? Is there no virtue but virtue? no religion but in the creeds? no salt but what is crystallized? Who shall presume to say the world did not get the best there was in Thoreau — high and much needed service from him — albeit there appear in the account more kicks than compliments. Would you have had him stick to his lead-pencils, or to school-teaching, and let Walden Pond and the rest go? We should have lost some of the raciest and most antiseptic books in English literature, and an example of devotion to principle that provokes and stimulates like a winter morning. I am not aware that Thoreau shirked any responsibility or dodged any duty proper to him, and he could look the world as square in the face as any man that ever lived.

[8]    The people of his native town remember at least one notable occasion on which Thoreau did not skulk, nor sulk either. I refer to the 30th of October, 1859, when he made his plea for Captain John Brown, while the hero was on trial in Virginia. He was about the only Northern man who was not a skulker, or who did not hide behind some pretext or other. It was proposed to stop Thoreau’s mouth, persuade him to keep still and lie low, but he was not to be stopped. He thought there were enough lying low — the ranks were all full there, the ground was covered; and in an address delivered in Concord he glorified the old hero in words that, at this day and in the light of subsequent events, it thrills the blood to read. This instant and unequivocal indorsement of Brown by Thoreau, in the face of the most overwhelming public opinion even among anti-slavery men, throws a flood of light upon him. It is the most significant act of his life. It clinches him; it makes the colors fast. We know he means what he says after that. It is of the same metal and has the same ring as Brown’s act itself. It shows what thoughts he had fed his soul on, what school he had schooled himself in, what his devotion to the ideal meant. His hatred of slavery and injustice, and of the government that tolerated them, was pure, and it went clean through; it stopped at nothing. Iniquitous laws must be defied, and there is no previous question. "The fact that the politician falls," he says, referring to the repeal of the Fugitive Slave law, "is merely that there is less honor among thieves than was supposed, and not the fact that they are thieves." For the most part, Thoreau’s political tracts and addresses seem a little petulant and willful, and fall just short of enlisting one’s sympathies, and his   himself to be put in jail rather than pay a paltry tax, savors a little bit of the grotesque and the melodramatic. But his plea for John Brown when the whole country was disowning him, abolitionists and all, fully satisfies one’s sense of the fitness of things. It does not overshoot the mark. The mark was high, and the attitude of the speaker was high and scornful, and uncompromising in the extreme. It was just the occasion required to show Thoreau’s metal. "If this man’s acts and words do not create a revival, it will be the severest possible satire on the acts and words that do. It is the best news that America has ever heard." "Think of him — of his rare qualities — such a man as it takes ages to make, and ages to understand; no mock hero, nor the representative of any party. A man such as the sun may not rise upon again in this benighted land. To whose making went the costliest material, the finest adamant; sent to be the redeemer of those in captivity; and the only use to which you can put him  is to hang him at the end of a rope!"  "Do yourselves the honor to recognize him; he needs none of your respect." It was just such radical qualities as John Brown exhibited, or their analogue and counterpart in other fields, that Thoreau coveted and pursued through life; in man, devotion to the severest ideal, friendship founded upon antagonism, or hate, as he preferred to call it; in nature the untamed and untamable, even verging on the savage and pitiless; in literature the heroic — "books, not which afford us a cowering enjoyment, but in which each thought is of unusual daring; such as an idle man cannot read, and a timid one would not be entertained by." Indeed, Thoreau was Brown’s spiritual brother, the last and finer flowering of the same plant — the seed flowering; he was just as much of a zealot, was just as gritty and unflinching in his way; a man whose brow was set, whose mind was made up, and leading just as forlorn a hope, and as little quailed by the odds.

[9]    In the great army of Mammon, the great army of the fashionable, the complacent and church-going, Thoreau was a skulker, even a deserter, if you please — yea, a traitor fighting on the other side.

[10]    Emerson regrets the loss to the world of his rare powers of action, and thinks that, instead of being the captain of a huckleberry-party, he might have engineered for all America. But Thoreau, doubtless, knew himself better when he said, with his usual strength of metaphor, that he was as unfit for the coarse uses of this world as gossamer for ship-timber. A man who believes that "life should be lived as tenderly and daintily as one would pluck a flower," and actually and seriously aims to live his life so, is not a man to engineer for all America. If you want a Columbiad you must have tons and tons of gross metal, and if you want an engineer for all America, leader and wielder of vast masses of men, you must have a certain breadth and coarseness of fiber in your hero; but if you want a trenchant blade like Thoreau, you must leave the pot-metal out and look for something bluer and finer.

[11]    Thoreau makes a frank confession upon this very point in his journal, written when he was but twenty-five. "I must confess I have felt mean enough when asked how I was to act on society, what errand I had to mankind. Undoubtedly I did not feel mean without a reason, and yet my loitering is not without a defense. I would fain communicate the wealth of my life to men, would really give them what is most precious in my gift. I would secrete pearls with the shell-fish, and lay up honey with the bees for them. I will sift the sunbeams for the public good. I know no riches I would keep back." And his subsequent life made good these words. He gave the world the strongest and bravest there was in him, the pearls of his life, — not a fat oyster, not a reputation unctuous with benevolence and easy good-will, but a character crisp and pearl-like, full of hard, severe words, and stimulating taunts and demands. Thoreau was an extreme product, an extreme type of mind and character, and was naturally more or less isolated from his surroundings. He planted himself far beyond the coast-line that bounds most lives, and seems insular and solitary, but he believed he had the granite floor of principle beneath him, and without the customary intervening clay or quicksands.

[12]    Of a profile we say the outlines are strong, or they are weak and broken. The outlines of Thoreau’s moral nature are strong and noble, but the direct face-to-face expression of his character is not always pleasing, not always human. He appears best in profile, when looking away from you and not toward you — when looking at Nature and not at man. He combined a remarkable strength of will with a nature singularly sensitive and delicate — the most fair and fragile of wood-flowers on an iron stem. With more freedom and flexibility of character, greater capacity for self-surrender and self-abandonment, he would have been a great poet. But his principal aim in life was moral and intellectual, rather than artistic. He was an ascetic before he was a poet, and he cuts the deepest in the direction of character and conduct. He had no caution or prudence in the ordinary sense, no worldly temporizing qualities of any kind, was impatient of the dross and alloy of life — would have it pure flame, pure purpose and aspiration; and, so far as he could make it, his life was so. He was, by nature, of the Opposition; he had a constitutional No in him that could not be tortured into Yes. He was of the stuff that saints and martyrs and devotees, or, if you please, fanatics are made of and, no doubt, in an earlier age, would have faced the rack or the stake with perfect composure. Such a man was bound to make an impression by contrast, if not by comparison, with the men of his country and time. He is, for the most part, a figure going the other way from that of the eager, money-getting, ambitious crowd, and he questions and admonishes and ridicules the  passers-by sharply. We all see him and remember him, and feel his shafts. Especially was his attitude upon all social and political questions scornful and exasperating. His devotion to principle, to the ideal, was absolute; it was like that of the Hindu to his idol. If it devoured him or crushed him — what business was that of his? There was no conceivable failure in adherence to principle.

[13]    Thoreau was, probably, the wildest civilized man this country has produced, adding to the shyness of the hermit and woodsman the wildness of the poet, and to the wildness of the poet the greater ferity and elusiveness of the mystic. An extreme product of civilization and of modern culture, he was yet as untouched by the worldly and commercial spirit of his age and country as any red man that ever haunted the shores of his native stream. He put the whole of Nature between himself and his fellows. A man of the strongest local attachments — not the least nomadic, seldom wandering beyond his native township, yet his spirit was as restless and as impatient of restraint as any nomad or Tartar that ever lived. He cultivated an extreme wildness, not only in his pursuits and tastes, but in his hopes and imaginings. He says to his friend, "Hold fast your most indefinite waking dream." Emerson says his life was an attempt to pluck the Swiss edelweiss from the all but inaccessible cliffs. The higher and the wilder, the more the fascination for him. Indeed, the loon, the moose, the beaver were but faint types and symbols of the wildness he coveted and would have re-appear in  his life and books; — not the cosmical, the universal — he was not great enough for that — but simply the wild as distinguished from the domestic and the familiar, the remote and the surprising as contrasted with the hackneyed and the commonplace, arrow-heads as distinguished from whet-stones or jack-knives.

[14]    Thoreau was French on one side and Puritan on the other. It was the wild, untamable French core in him — a dash of the gray wolf that stalks through his ancestral folk-lore, as in Audubon and the Canadian voyageurs — that made him turn with such zest and such genius to aboriginal nature; and it was the Puritan element in him — strong, grim, uncompromising, almost heartless — that held him to such high, austere, moral and ideal ends. His genius was Saxon in its homeliness and sincerity, in its directness and scorn of rhetoric, but that wild revolutionary cry of his, and that sort of restrained ferocity and hirsuteness, are more French. He said in one of his letters, when he was but twenty-four: "I grow savager and savager every day, as if fed on raw meat, and my tameness is only the repose of untamableness." But his savageness took a mild form. He could not even eat meat; it was unclean and offended his imagination, and when he went to Maine he felt for weeks that his nature had been made the coarser because he had witnessed the killing of a moose. His boasted savageness, the gray wolf in him, only gave a more decided grit or grain to his mental and moral nature, — made him shut his teeth the more firmly, sometimes even with an audible snap and growl, upon the poor lambs and ewes and superannuated wethers of the social, religious, political folds.

[15]    In his moral and intellectual growth and experience, Thoreau seems to have reacted strongly from a marked tendency to invalidism in his own body. He would be well in spirit at all hazards. What was this never-ending search of his for the wild but a search  for health, for something tonic and antiseptic in nature? Health, health, give me health, is his cry. He went forth into nature as the boys go to the fields and woods in spring after wintergreens, black-birch, crinkle-root, and sweet-flag; he had an unappeasable hunger for the pungent, the aromatic, the bitter-sweet, for the very rind and salt of the globe. He fairly gnaws the ground and the trees in his walk, so craving is his appetite for the wild. He went to Walden to study, but it was as a deer goes to a deer-lick; the brine he was after did abound there. Any trait of wildness and freedom suddenly breaking out in any of the domestic animals, as when your cow leaped your fence like a deer and ate up your corn, or your horse forgot that he was not a mustang on the plains, and took the bit in his mouth, and left your buggy and family behind high and dry, etc., was eagerly snapped up by him. Ah, you have not tamed them, you have not broken them yet! He makes a most charming entry in his journal about a little boy he one day saw in the street, with a home-made cap on his head made of a woodchuck’s skin. He seized upon it as a horse with the crib-bite seizes upon a post. It tasted good to him.

"The great gray-tipped hairs were all preserved, and stood out above the brown ones, only a little more loosely than in life. It was as if he had put his head into the belly of a woodchuck, having cut off his tail and legs, and substituted a visor for the head. The little fellow wore it innocently enough, not knowing what he had on forsooth, going about his small business pit-a-pat, and his black eyes sparkled beneath it when I remarked on its warmth, even as the woodchuck’s might have done. Such should be the history of every piece of clothing that we wear."
[16]    He says how rarely are we encouraged by the sight of simple actions in the street, but when one day he saw an Irishman wheeling home from far a large, damp, and rotten pine-log for fuel, he felt encouraged. That looked like fuel; it warmed him to think of it. The piles of solid oak-wood which he saw in other yards did not interest him at all in comparison. It savored of the wild, and though water-soaked, his fancy kindled at the sight.

[17]    He loved wild men, not tame ones. Any half-wild Irishman, or fisherman, or hunter in his neighborhood he was sure to get a taste of sooner or later. He seems to have had a hankering for the Indian all his life; could eat him raw, one would think. In fact, he did try him when he went to Maine, and succeeded in extracting more nutriment out of  him than any other man has done. He found  him rather tough diet, and was, probably, a little disappointed in him, but he got something out of him akin to that which the red squirrel gets out of a pine-cone. In his books he casts many a longing and envious glance upon the Indian. Some old Concord sachem seems to have looked into his fount of life and left his image there. His annual spring search for arrow-heads was the visible outcropping of this aboriginal trace. How he prized these relics! One is surprised to see how much he gets out of them. They become arrow-root instead of arrow-stones. "They are sown, like a grain that is slow to germinate, broadcast over the earth. As the dragon’s teeth bore a crop of soldiers, so these bear a crop of philosophers and poets, and the same seed is just as good to plant again. It is a stone-fruit. Each one yields me a thought. I come nearer to the maker of it than if I found his bones." "When I see these signs I know that the subtle spirits that made them are not far off into whatever form transmuted." (Journal, pages 257-58.) Our poetry, he said, was white man’s poetry, and he longed to hear what the Indian muse had to say. I think he liked the Indian’s paint and feathers. Certainly he did his skins, and the claws and hooked beaks with which he adorned himself. He puts a threatening claw or beak into his paragraphs whenever he can, and feathers his shafts with the nicest art.

[18]    So wild a man and such a lover of the wild, and yet it does not appear that he ever sowed any wild oats. Though he somewhere exclaims impatiently: "What demon possesses me that I behave so well?" he took it all out in transcendentalism and arrow-heads. His only escapades were eloping with a mountain or coquetting with Walden Pond! His weakness was that he had no weakness — it was only unkindness. He had a deeper center-board than most men, and he carried less sail. The passions and emotions and ambitions of his fellows, which are sails that so often need to be close-reefed and double-reefed, he was quite free from. Thoreau’s isolation, his avoidance of the world, was in self-defense, no doubt. His genius would not bear the contact of rough hands any more than would butterflies’ wings. He says, in Walden: "The finest qualities of our nature, like the bloom on fruits, can be preserved only by the most delicate handling." This bloom, this natural innocence, Thoreau was very jealous of and sought to keep unimpaired, and, perhaps, succeeded as few men ever have. He says you cannot even know evil without being a particeps criminis. He did not so much regret the condition of things in this country (in1861) as that he had ever heard of it.

[19]    Yet Thoreau creates as much consternation among the saints as among the sinners. His delicacy and fineness were saved by a kind of cross-grain there was in him — a natural twist and stubbornness of fiber. He was not easily reduced to kindling-wood. His self-indulgences were other men’s crosses. His attitude was always one of resistance and urge. He hated sloth and indolence and compliance as he hated rust. He thought nothing was so much to be feared as fear, and that atheism might, comparatively, be popular with God himself. Beware even the luxury of affection, he says — " There must be some nerve and heroism in our love, as in a winter morning." He tells his correspondent to make his failure tragical by the earnestness and steadfastness of his endeavor, and then it will not differ from success. His saintliness is a rock-crystal. He says in Walden: "Probably I should not consciously and deliberately forsake my particular calling to do the good which society demands of me, to save the universe from annihilation; and I believe that a like but infinitely greater steadfastness elsewhere is all that now preserves it." Is this crystal a diamond? What will it not cut?

[20]    There is no grain of concession or compromise in this man. He asks no odds and he pays no boot. He will have his way, but his way is not down the stream with the current. He loves to warp up it against wind and tide, holding fast by his anchor at night. When he is chagrined or disgusted, it convinces him his health is better — that there is some vitality left. It is not compliments his friends get from him — rather taunts. The caress of the hand may be good, but the sting of its palm is good also. No is more bracing and tonic than Yes. He said: "I love to go through a patch of scrub-oaks in a bee-line — where you tear your clothes and put your eyes out." The spirit of antagonism never sleeps with Thoreau, and the love of paradox is one of his guiding stars. "The longer I have forgotten you, the more I remember you," he says to his correspondent. "My friend is cold and reserved, because his love for me is waxing and not waning," he says in his journal. The difficult and the disagreeable are in the line of his self-indulgence. Even lightning will choose the easiest way out of the house — an open window or door. Thoreau would rather go through the solid wall, or mine out through the cellar.

[21]    When he is sad, his only regret is that he is not sadder. He says if his sadness was only sadder it would make him happier. In writing to his friend, he says it is not sad to him to hear she has sad hours: "I rather rejoice in the richness of your experience." In one of his letters, he charges his correspondent to "improve every opportunity to be melancholy," and accuses himself of being too easily contented with a slight and almost animal happiness. "My happiness is a good deal like that of the woodchucks." He says that "of acute sorrow I suppose that I know comparatively little. My saddest and most genuine sorrows are apt to be but transient regrets." Yet he had not long before lost by death his brother John, with whom he made his voyage on the Concord and Merrimack. Referring to John’s death, he said: "I find these things more strange than sad to me. What right have I to grieve who have not ceased to wonder?" and says in effect, afterward, that any pure grief is its own reward. John, he said, he did not wish ever to see again — not the John that was dead (0 Henry! Henry !), John as he was in the flesh, but the ideal, the nobler John, of whom the real was the imperfect representative. When the son of his friend died, he wasted no human regrets. It seemed very natural and proper that he should die. "Do not the flowers die every autumn?" "His fine organization demanded it [death], and nature gently yielded its request. It would have been strange if he had lived."

[22]    Thoreau was either destitute of pity and love (in the human sense), and of many other traits that are thought to be both human and divine, or else he studiously suppressed them and thought them unworthy of him. He writes and talks a great deal about love and friendship, and often with singular beauty and appreciation, yet he always says to his friend: "Stand off — keep away! Let there be an unfathomable gulf between us — let there be a wholesome hate." Indeed, love and hatred seem, inseparable in his mind, and curiously identical. He writes in his journal that "words should pass between friends as the lightning passes from cloud to cloud." One of his poems begins:

"Let such pure hate still underprop
 Our love, that we may be
 Each other’s conscience,
 And have our sympathy
 Mainly from thence."

"Surely, surely, thou wilt trust me
 When I say thou dost disgust me.
 Oh, I hate thee with a hate
 That would fain annihilate;
 Yet, sometimes, against my will,
 My dear friend, I love thee still.
 It were treason to our love,
 And a sin to God above,
 One iota to abate
 Of a pure, impartial hate."

This is the salt with which he seasons and preserves his love — hatred. In this pickle it will keep. Without it, it would become stale and vulgar. This is characteristic of Thoreau; he must put in something sharp and bitter. You shall not have the nut without its bitter acrid rind or prickly sheath.

[23]    As a man, Thoreau appears to have been what is called a crusty person — a loaf with a hard bake, a good deal of crust, forbidding to tender gums, but sweet to those who had good teeth and unction enough to soften him.

[24]    He was no fair-weather walker. He delighted in storms, and in frost and cold. They were congenial to him. They came home. "Yesterday’s rain," he begins an entry in his journal, "in which I was glad to be drenched," etc. Again he says: "I sometimes feel that I need to sit in a far-away cave through a three weeks’ storm, cold and wet, to give a tone to my system." Another time: "A long, soaking rain, the drops trickling down the stubble, while I lay drenched on a last year’s bed of wild oats, by the side of some bare hill, ruminating." And this in March, too! He says "to get the value of a storm we must be out a long time and travel far in it, so that it may fairly penetrate our skin," etc. He rejoices greatly when, on an expedition to Monadnock, he gets soaked with  rain and is made thoroughly uncomfortable. It tastes good. It made him appreciate a roof and a fire. The mountain gods were especially kind and thoughtful to get up the storm. When they saw himself and friend coming, they said: "There come two of our folks. Let us get ready for them — get up a serious storm that will send a-packing these holiday guests. Let us receive them with true mountain hospitality — kill the fatted cloud," etc. In his journal he says: "If the weather is thick and stormy enough, if there is a good chance to be cold, and wet, and uncomfortable — in other words, to feel weather-beaten, you may consume the afternoon to advantage, thus browsing along the edge of some near wood, which would scarcely detain you at all in fair weather," etc. "There is no better fence to put between you and the village than a storm into which the villagers do not venture forth." This passion for storms and these many drenchings no doubt helped shorten Thoreau’s days.

[25]    This crustiness, this playful and willful perversity of Thoreau, is one source of his charm as a writer. It stands him instead of other qualities — of real unction and heartiness — is, perhaps, these qualities in a more seedy and desiccated state. Hearty, in the fullest sense, he was not, and unctuous he was not, yet it is only by comparison that we miss these qualities from his writings. Perhaps he would say that we should not expect the milk on the outside of the cocoa-nut, but I suspect there is an actual absence of milk here, though there is sweet meat, and a good, hard shell to protect it. Good-nature and conciliation were not among his accomplishments, and yet he puts his reader in a genial and happy frame of mind. He is the occasion of unction and heartiness in others, if he has not them in himself. He says of himself, with great penetration: "My only integral experience is in my vision. I see, perchance, with more integrity than I feel." His sympathies lead you into narrow quarters, but his vision takes you to the hill-tops. As regards humanity and all that goes with it, he was like an inverted cone, and grew broader and broader the farther he got from it. He approached things, or even men, but very little through his humanity or his manliness. How delightful his account of the Canadian wood-chopper in Walden, and yet he sees him afar off, across an impassable gulf! — he is a kind of Homeric or Paphlagonian man to him. Very likely he would not have seen him at all had it not been for the classic models and ideals with which his mind was filled, and which saw for him.

[26]   Yet Thoreau doubtless liked the flavor of strong, racy men. He said he was naturally no hermit, but ready enough to fasten himself, like a blood-sucker for the time, to any full-blooded man that came in his way; and he gave proof of this when he saw and recognized the new poet, Walt Whitman. Here is the greatest democrat the world has seen, he said, and he found him exhilarating and encouraging, while yet he felt somewhat imposed upon by his heartiness and broad generalities. As a writer, Thoreau shows all he is, and more. Nothing is kept back; greater men have had far less power of statement. His thoughts do not merely crop out, but lie upon the surface of his pages. They are fragments; there is no more than you see. It is not the edge or crown of the native rock, but a drift bowlder. He sees clearly, thinks swiftly, and the sharp emphasis and decision of his mind strew his pages with definite and striking images and ideas. His expression is never sod-bound, and you get its full force at once.

Thoreau Reader: Home - Three Thoreaus - Burroughs Part 2