Ellery Channing Remembers Thoreau

From Channing's Thoreau, the Poet-Naturalist, in 1873

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      Henry retained a peculiar pronunciation of the letter r, with a decided French accent. He says, "September is the first month with a burr in it;" and his speech always had an emphasis, a burr in it."


      Once when a follower was done up with a headache and incapable of motion, hoping his associate would comfort him and perhaps afford him a sip of tea, he said, "There are people who are sick in that way every morning, and go about their affairs," and then marched off about his.


      He also had the firmness of the Indian, and could repress his pathos; as when he carried (about the age of ten) his pet chickens to an innkeeper for sale in a basket, who thereupon told him "to stop," and for convenience’ sake took them out one by one and wrung their several pretty necks before the poor boy’s eyes, who did not budge. He had such a seriousness at the same age that he was called "judge."


      A pleasing trait of his warm feeling is remembered, when he asked his mother, before leaving college, what profession to choose, and she replied pleasantly, "You can buckle on your knapsack, and roam abroad to seek your fortune." The tears came in his eyes and rolled down his cheeks, when his sister Helen, who was standing by, tenderly put her arm around him and kissed him, saying, "No, Henry, you shall not go: you shall stay at home and live with us."


      Being complained of for taking a knife belonging to another boy, Henry said, "I did not take it," — and was believed. In a few days the culprit was found, and Henry then said, "I knew all the time who it was, and the day it was taken I went to Newton with father." "Well, then," of course, was the question, "why did you not say so at the time?" "I did not take it," was his reply.


      A school-fellow complained of him because he would not make him a bow and arrow, his skill at whittling being superior. It seems he refused, but it came out after that he had no knife.


      An early anecdote remains of his being told at three years that he must die, as well as the men in the catechism. He said he did not want to die, but was reconciled; yet, coming in from coasting, he said he "did not want to die and go to heaven, because he could not carry his sled with him; for the boys said, as it was not shod with iron, it was not worth a cent."


      Another school experience was the town school in Concord, which he took after leaving college, announcing that he should not flog, but would talk morals as a punishment instead. A fortnight sped glibly along, when a knowing deacon, one of the School Committee, walked in and told Mr. Thoreau that he must flog and use the ferule, or the school would spoil. So he did, by feruling six of his pupils after school, one of whom was the maid-servant in his own house. But it did not suit well with his conscience, and he reported to the committee that he should no longer keep their school, as they interfered with his arrangements; and they could keep it.


      In height, he was about the average; in his build, spare, with limbs that were rather longer than usual, or of which he made a longer use. His face, once seen, could not be forgotten. The features were quite marked: the nose aquiline or very Roman, like one of the portraits of Caesar (more like a beak, as was said); large, overhanging brows above the deepest set blue eyes that could be seen, in certain lights, and in others gray, — eyes expressive of all shades of feeling, but never weak or near-sighted; the forehead not unusually broad or high, full of concentrated energy and purpose; the mouth with prominent lips, pursed up with meaning and thought when silent, and giving out when open a stream of the most varied and unusual and instructive sayings. His hair was a dark brown, exceedingly abundant, fine and soft; and for several years he wore a comely beard. His whole figure had an active earnestness, as if he had no moment to waste. The clenched hand betokened purpose. In walking, he made a short cut if he could, and when sitting in the shade or by the wall-side seemed merely the clearer to look forward into the next piece of activity. Even in the boat he had a wary, transitory air, his eyes on the outlook, — perhaps there might be ducks, or the Blondin turtle, or an otter, or sparrow.


      Once walking in old Dunstable, he much desired the town history by C. J. Fox; and, knocking as usual at the best house, went in and asked a young lady who made her appearance whether she had the book in question: she had, — it was produced. After consulting it somewhat, Thoreau in his sincere way inquired very modestly whether she "would not sell it to him." I think the plan surprised her, and have heard that she smiled; but he produced his wallet, gave her the pistareen, and went his way rejoicing with the book.


      If he needed a box on his walk, he would strip a piece of birch-bark off the tree, fold it when cut straightly together, and put his tender lichen or brittle creature therein. In those irritable thunderclaps which come, he says, "with tender, graceful violence," he sometimes erected a transistory house by means of his pocketknife, rapidly paring away the white-pine and oak, taking the lower limbs of a large tree and pitching on the cut brush for a roof. Here he sat, pleased with the minute drops from off the eaves, not questioning the love of electricity for trees. If out on the river, haul up your boat, turn it upside-down, and yourself under it. Once he was thus doubled up, when Jove let drop a pattern thunderbolt in the river in front of his boat, while he whistled a lively air as accompaniment. This is noted, as he was much distressed by storms when young, and used to go whining to his father’s room, and say, "I don’t feel well," and then take shelter in the paternal arms, when his health improved.


      When Thoreau laughed, like Shelley, the operation was sufficient to split a pitcher.


      As an honorary member, Thoreau appertained to the Boston Society of Natural History, adding to its reports, besides comparing notes with the care-takers or curators of the mise en scène. To this body he left his collections of plants, Indian tools, and the like. His latest traffic with it refers to the number of bars or fins upon a pike, which had more or less than was decent. He sat upon his eggs with theirs. His city visit was to their books, and there he made his call, not upon the swift ladies of Spruce Street, and more than once he entered by the window before the janitor had digested his omelet.


      When asked whether he knew a young miss, celebrated for her beauty, he inquired, "Is she the one with the goggles?"


      As long [sic] he could possibly sit up, he insisted on his chair at the family-table, and said, "It would not be social to take my meals alone." And on hearing an organ in the streets, playing some old tune of his childhood he should never hear again, the tears fell from his eyes, and he said, "Give him some money! give him some money!"


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