Two Contemporary Reviews
of Henry Thoreau's Cape Cod

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The Atlantic Monthly,
March 1865
CAPE COD is photographed at last, for Thoreau has been there. Day by day, with his stout pedestrian shoes, he plodded along that level beach, — the eternal ocean on one side, and human existence reduced to its simplest elements on the other, — and he pitilessly weighing each. His mental processes never impress one with opulence and luxuriance, but rather with a certain sublime tenacity, which extracts nutriment from the most barren soil. He is therefore admirably matched against Cape Cod; and though his books on softer aspects of Nature may have a mellower charm, there is none in which the very absence of mellowness can so well pass for an added merit.

[2]    No doubt there are passages which err upon the side of bareness. Cape Cod itself certainly errs that way, and so often does our author; and when they are combined, the result of desiccation is sometimes astounding. But so much the truer the picture. If Vedder’s “Lair of the Sea-Serpent" had the rank verdure of the “Heart of the Andes,” the kraken would still be as unimpressive on canvas as in the newspapers. No one ever dared to exhibit Cape Cod “long, and lank, and brown" enough before, and hence the value of the book. For those who insist on chiorophylle, is there not “Azarian”? If the dear public will tolerate neither the presence of color in a picture, nor its absence, it is hard to suit.

[3]    Yet it is worth remembering, that Thoreau’s one perfect poem, — and one of the most perfect in American literature, —“ My life is like a stroll upon the beach,” must have been suggested by Cape Cod or some kindred locality. And it is not the savage grandeur of the sea alone, but its delicate loveliness and its ever-budding life, which will be found recorded forever in some of these wondrous pages, intermixed with the statistics of fish-flakes and the annals of old men’s diseases.

[4]    But in his stern realism; the author employs what he himself calls “Panurgic” plainness of speech, and deals with the horrors of the sea-shore as composedly as with its pearls. His descriptions of the memorials of shipwrecks, for instance, would be simply repulsive, but that his very dryness has a sort of disinfectant quality, like the air of California, where things the most loathsome may lie around us without making the air impure.

[5]    He shows his wonted formidable accuracy all through these pages, and the critic feels a sense of bewildered exultation in detecting him even in a slip of the pen, — as when in the note on page 228 he gives to the town of Rockport, on Cape Ann, the erroneous name of Rockland. [This was corrected in subsequent editions.]  After this discovery, one may dare to wonder at his finding a novelty in the “Upland Plover,” and naming it among the birds not heard in the interior of the State, when he might be supposed to have observed it, in summer, near Mount Wachusett, where its wail adds so much, by day or night, to the wildness of the scenery. Yet by the triviality of these our criticisms one may measure the astonishing excellence of his books.

[6]    This wondrous eye and hand have passed away, and left no equal and no second. Everything which Thoreau wrote has this peculiar value, that no other observing powers were like his; no one else so laboriously verified and exhausted the facts; and no other mind rose from them, at will, into so subtile an air of meditation, — meditation too daring to be called devout, by church or world, yet too pure and lofty to merit any lower name. Lycidas has died once more, and has not left his peer.

[7]    Cape Cod does not change in its traits, but only in its boundaries, and this book will stand for it, a century hence, as it now does. It is the Cape Odyssey. Near the end, moreover, there is a remarkable chapter on previous explorers, which shows, by its patient thoroughness, and by the fearless way in which the author establishes facts which had eluded Hildreth and Bancroft, that, had he chosen history for his vocation, he could have extracted its marrow as faithfully as that of his more customary themes. Yet the grand ocean - pictures which this book contains remind us that it was the domain of external Nature which was his peculiar province; and this sublime monotone of the surges seems his fitting dirge, now that — to use the fine symbol of one who was his comrade on this very excursion — his bark has “sunk to another sea.”

New Englander and Yale Review, July 1865

MR. THOREAU belongs unmistakably to the school of Mr. Emerson, though he is anything but an imitator of his master. He is the personification of that tendency which, at times, seizes multitudes of boys and not a few cultivated men, to flee society and to take to the woods, that they may converse with the universe, and live according to nature. With him this tendency became a passion. He understood and loved nature as but few men have ever done. Now and then a practised woodsman, or a hawk-eyed Indian, may have had a keener observation than he, but he possessed an unmeasured advantage above them, in that he had thought and studied before he began to use his eyes.

[9]    This book on Cape Cod abounds in that interest which sharp observation, and minute and faithful recording, even of the most trivial objects, never fail to impart. The descriptions are graphic in the extreme. They would almost enable a boy born upon the prairies to see and hear the roar of the ocean. The waste of hardened beach, the flying sloops and schooners ever on the wing, or standing all day in the horizon, the battered and half-covered hulks, the fish flakes of Provincetown, the simple, shrewd, yet earnest dwellers upon the Cape, are all painted to the life.

[10]    But Mr. Thoreau is hard and scornful, as we might expect from a stoney-eyed observer who looks through nature and finds no God. His comments upon everything that  pertains to the faith of Christian men, or the worship of the Supreme, are sarcastic and bitter. The humor and wit scarcely redeem the inhumanity and irreverence combined, which characterize these sallies.

[11]    Now and then, however, this hard and scornful mau relents to a kindlier word. The soul of human sympathy gushes out in a strange tenderness, and when he muses upon the fate of a few score of shipwrecked emigrants, he reaches upward and forward with irrepressible faith to an immortal life, where there is love and worship and peace.

[12]    Thoreau’s collected writings are unique in the history of literature, and will take and hold a peculiar place hereafter, when what is peculiarly American in our writers becomes the subject of critical comment and research.

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