Three Thoreaus

Ralph Waldo Emerson - Robert Louis Stevenson - John Burroughs

Three different views of Thoreau, from well known 
authors of the 1800's, each connected to the others...

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Thoreau

Ralph Waldo Emerson's Eulogy, Atlantic Monthly, August 1862

Emerson was a major influence and mentor for Thoreau; it was Emerson who loaned Henry a pondside property for the two year experiment that resulted in Walden. But as Thoreau grew, Emerson appears not to have appreciated what was happening. He writes, "I cannot help counting it a fault in him that he had no ambition." ó apparently missing completely the originality and enormity of Thoreau's ambitions. 

Emerson & Thoreau - brief analysis of a complicated relationship - by Amy Belding Brown 

Emerson's Thoreau in two parts:  One - Two


Henry David Thoreau:
His Character and Opinions

By Robert Louis Stevenson, Cornhill Magazine, June 1880

Stevenson was a Scottish writer whose best known works are Treasure Island and The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. He has at least two parallels with Thoreau: his first book was about traveling on inland waterways, and he died of tuberculosis at age 44. 

Stevenson was working with misleading information, including Emerson's Thoreau, which paints an overly stern picture of Henry, with few traces of warmth, humor, or passion. Stevenson's adventurous personality seems to have conflicted with Emerson's dour Thoreau. He calls Henry a prig and a skulker! 

Stevenson's Thoreau in two parts:  One - Two

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Henry D. Thoreau

by John Burroughs, The Century, July 1882

Henry James called Burroughs "a more humorous, more available and more sociable Thoreau." Both Thoreau and Burroughs helped to create and define American nature writing. Thoreau did it earlier, but Burroughs sold well over a million books, hung out with people like John Muir, Henry Ford, and Theodore Roosevelt, and was an American icon in his own time. 

Burroughs admires Thoreau more as a writer and a person than a naturalist. He refers to Stevenson as "An English reviewer" (who actually was Scottish), and specifically refutes the "skulker" charge in Stevenson's essay. Perhaps in response to Stevenson's complaint that Henry was somehow less than heroic, he writes, "If he was not this, that, or the other great man, he was Thoreau, and he fills his own niche well." 

Image of original first page - from Cornell University's Making of America

Burroughs' Thoreau in two parts:  One - Two

More: Additional comments on Thoreau from Burroughs

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1883 Letter: "Pity and Humor"

In 1883 Stevenson's essay was reprinted in Littells' Living Age of Boston, and he seems to have mellowed by then. In a note added for the reprint he wrote, "I have learned that Thoreauís diaries remain complete in manuscript. They cannot fail to be of interest to all who love nature, literature, or virtue." 

Immediately after the Stevenson essay in Living Age was a reprinted letter from the English Spectator, titled "Thoreau's Pity and Humor," by Alex A. Japp, which cites specific instances of pity and humor, in direct rebutal of Stevenson. Of particular interest is the description of Henry caring for a fugitive slave at the Thoreau family home in Concord. To some extent, the Stevenson essay may have enhanced Thoreau's reputation, because it encouraged others to come to his defense. 

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