The Maine Woods: Reviews

Thoreau Reader: Home - Maine Woods

The Continental Monthly, July 1864

THE MAINE WOODS. By HENRY D. THOREAU, Author of ‘A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers,’ ‘Walden,’ ‘Excursions,’ etc. Boston: Ticknor & Fields. For sale by D. Appleton & Co., New York.

[1]    THE first of the papers contained in this book was published in ‘The Union Magazine;’ the second, ‘Chesuncook,’ came out in the ‘Atlantic Monthly,’ in 1858; the last is now for the first time printed. The contents of the volume are as follows: Ktaadn, Chesuncook, The Allegash and East Branch; in the Appendix we have Trees, Flowers, and Shrubs, List of Plants, List of Birds, Quadrupeds, Outfit for an Excursion, and a List of Indian Words. Henry D. Thoreau was an enthusiastic lover of nature, but no blind adorer of her loveliness. He knew her in all her moods, was familiar with all her caprices. He was a man of strong brain, and of accurate knowledge in such fields as it pleased him to study. The woods have never before had such an accurate biographer, such a true painter. He saw them with the eye of the poet as well as that of the naturalist. Scholarship and imagination roam with him in the primeval forests. After the most accurate and detailed description of a moose which had been killed by his Indian guide, this anti-sentimentalist, but true forest lover says: ‘Here, just at the head of the murmuring rapids, Joe now proceeded to skin the moose with a pocket knife, while I looked on; and a tragical business it was — to see that still warm and palpitating body pierced with a knife, to see the warm milk stream from the rent udder, and the ghastly naked red carcass appearing from within its seemly robe, which was made to hide it.’ There is no joy of the hunter here! The words are as ‘tragical’ and tender as were those of the melancholy Jaques. That ‘warm milk and rent udder’ seems to make the stately creature half human. He proceeds:

[2]    "But on more accounts than one, I had had enough of moose hunting. I had not come to the woods for this purpose, nor had I foreseen it, though I had been willing to learn how the Indian manśuvred; but one moose killed was as good, if not as bad, as a dozen. The afternoon’s tragedy and my share in it, as it affected the innocence, destroyed the pleasure of my adventure. This hunting of the moose merely for the satisfaction of killing him — not even for the sake of his hide — without making any extraordinary exertion or running any risk yourself is too much like going out by night to some woodside pasture and shooting your neighbor’s horses. These are God’s own horses, poor timid creatures, that will run fast enough as soon as they smell you, though they are nine feet high (often eleven, with the antlers). . . . You strip off its hide, because that is the common trophy, and moreover you have heard it may be sold for mocassons — cut a steak from its body, and leave the huge carcass ‘to smell to heaven’ for you. It is no better, at least, than to assist at a slaughter house. This afternoon’s experience suggested to me how base or coarse are the motives which commonly carry men into the wilderness. The explorers and lumberers generally are hirelings, paid so much a day for their labor, and as such they have no more love for wild nature than wood sawyers have for forests. Other white men and Indians who come here are for the most part hunters, whose object is to slay as many moose and other wild animals as possible. But pray, could not one spend some weeks or years in the solitude of this vast wilderness with other employments than these — employments perfectly sweet, innocent, and ennobling? For one that comes with a pencil to sketch or sing, a thousand come with an axe or rifle. What a coarse and imperfect use Indians and hunters make of nature! No wonder that their race is so soon exterminated. I already, and for weeks afterward, felt my nature the coarser for this part of my woodland experience, and was reminded that our life should be lived as tenderly and daintily as one would pluck a flower."

[3]    Again:

[4]    "As I sat before the fire on my fir-twig seat, without walls above or around me, I remembered how far on every hand that wilderness stretched, before you came to cleared or cultivated fields, and wondered if any bear or moose was watching the light of my fire; for nature looked sternly upon me on account of the murder of the moose.

[5]    "Strange that so few ever come to the woods to see how the pine lives and grows and spires, lifting its ever-green arms to the light — to see its perfect success; but most are content to behold it in the shape of many broad boards brought to market, and deem that its true success. But the pine is no more lumber than man is, and to be made into boards and houses is no more its true and highest use, than the truest use of a man is to be cut down and made into manure. There is a higher law affecting our relation to pines as well as to men. A pine cut down, a dead pine, is no more a pine than a dead human carcass is a man. Can he who has discovered only some of the values of whalebone and whale oil be said to have discovered the true use of the whale? Can he who slays the elephant for his ivory be said to have ‘seen the elephant’? These are petty and accidental uses; just as if a stronger race were to kill us in order to make buttons and flageolets of our bones; for everything may serve  a lower as well as a higher use. Every creature is better alive than dead, men and moose and pine trees, and he who understands it aright will rather preserve its life than destroy it."

[6]    "Is it the lumberman, then, who is the friend and lover of the pine, stands nearest to it, and understands its nature best? Is it the tanner who has barked it, or he who has boxed it for turpentine, whom posterity will fable to have changed into a pine at last? No! no! it is the poet; he it is who makes the truest use of the pine — who does not fondle it with an axe, nor tickle it with a saw, nor stroke it with a plane — who knows whether its heart is false without cutting into it — who has not bought the stumpage of the town on which its stands. All the pines shudder and heave a sigh when that man steps on the forest floor. No, it is the poet, who loves them as his own shadow in the air, and lets them stand. I have been into the lumber yard, the carpenter’s shop, the tannery, the lamp-black factory, and the turpentine clearing; but when at length I saw the tops of the pines waving and reflecting the light at a distance over all the rest of the forest, I realized that the former were not the highest use of the pine. It is not their bones or hide or tallow that I love most. It is the living spirit of the tree, not its spirit of turpentine, with which I sympathize, and which heals my cuts. It is as immortal as I am and perchance, may go to as high a heaven, there to tower above me still."

[7]    Reader, was not this man a nature lover, a nature limner, worthy to take his place among our Giffords, Whittredges, McEntees, Biersradts, and Beards? Truly original, natural, and American, who among our descriptive writers can surpass H. D. Thoreau?

The Atlantic Monthly, September 1864
[8]    THE steadily growing fame of Thoreau has this characteristic, that it is, like his culture, a purely American product, and is no pale reflection of the cheap glories of an English reprint. Whether he would have gained or lost by a more cosmopolitan training or criticism is not the question now; but certain it is that neither of these things went to the making of his fame. Classical and Oriental reading he had; but beyond these he cared for nothing which the men and meadows of Concord could not give, and for this voluntary abnegation, half whimsical, half sublime, the world repaid him with life-long obscurity, and will yet repay him with permanent renown.

[9]    His choice of subjects, too, involves the same double recompense; for no books are less dazzling or more immortal than those whose theme is external Nature. Nothing else wears so well. History becomes so rapidly overlaid with details, and its aspects change so fast, that the most elaborate work soon grows obsolete; while a thoroughly sincere and careful book on Nature cannot he superseded, and lives forever. Its basis is real and permanent. There will always be birds and flowers, nights and mornings. The infinite fascinations of mountains and of forests will outlast this war, and the next, and the race that makes the war. The same solidity of material which has guarantied permanence to the fame of Izaak Walton and White of Selborne will as surely secure that of Thoreau, who excels each of these writers upon his own ground, while superadding a wider culture, a loftier thought, and a fine, though fantastic, literary skill. All men may not love Nature, but all men ultimately love her lovers. And of those lovers, past or present, Thoreau is the most profound in his devotion, and the most richly repaid.

[10]    Against these great merits are to be set, no doubt, some formidable literary defects: an occasional mistiness of expression, like the summit of Katahdin, as he himself describes it, — one vast fog, with here and there a rock protruding; also, an occasional sandy barrenness, like his beloved Cape Cod. In truth, he never quite completed the transition from the observer to the artist. With the power of constructing sentences as perfectly graceful as a hemlock-bough, he yet displays the most wayward aptitude for literary caterpillars’-nests and all manner of disfigurements. The same want of artistic habit appears also in his willful disregard of all rules of proportion. He depicts an Indian, for instance, with such minute observation and admirable verbal skill that one feels as if neither Catlin nor Schoolcraft ever saw the actual creature; but though the table-talk of the aboriginal may seem for a time more suggestive than that of Coleridge or Macaulay, yet there is a point beyond which his, like theirs, becomes a bore.

[11]    In addition to these drawbacks, one finds in Thoreau an unnecessary defiance of tone, and a very resolute non-appreciation of many things which a larger mental digestion can assimilate without discomfort. In his dealings with Nature he is sweet, genial, patient, wise. In his dealings with men he exasperates himself over the least divergence from the desired type. Before any over-tendency to the amenities and luxuries of civilization, in particular, he becomes unreasonable and relentless. Hence there appears something hard and ungenial in his views of life, utterly out of keeping with the delicate tenderness which he shows in the woods. The housekeeping of bees and birds he finds noble and beautiful, but for the home and cradle of the humblest human pair he can scarcely be said to have even toleration; a farmer’s barn he considers a cumbrous and pitiable appendage, and he lectures the Irishwomen in their shanties for their undue share of  the elegancies of life. With infinite faith in the tendencies of mineral and vegetable nature, in human nature he shows no practical trust, and must even be severe upon the babies in the Maine log-huts for playing with wooden dolls instead of pine-cones. It is, indeed, noticeable that he seems to love every other living animal more unreservedly than the horse, — as if this poor sophisticated creature, though still a quadruped and a brother, had been so vitiated by undue intimacy with man as to have become little better than if he wore broadcloth and voted.

[12]    Yet there was not in Thoreau one trait of the misanthrope; his solitary life at Walden was not chosen because he loved man less, but because he loved Nature more; and any young poet or naturalist might envy the opportunities it gave him. But his intellectual habits showed always a tendency to exaggeration, and he spent much mental force in fighting shadows. Church and State, war and politics, — a man of solid vigor must find room in his philosophy to tolerate these matters for a time, even if be cannot cordially embrace them. But Thoreau, a celibate, and at times a hermit, brought the Protestant extreme to match the Roman Catholic, and though he did not personally ignore one duty of domestic life, he yet held a system which would have excluded wife and child, house and property. His example is noble and useful to all high-minded young people, but only when interpreted by a philosophy less exclusive than his own. In urging his one social panacea, “Simplify, I say, simplify,” he failed to see that all steps in moral or material organization are really efforts after the same process he recommends. The sewing-machine is a more complex affair than the needle, but it simplifies every woman’s life, and helps her to that same comparative freedom from care which Thoreau would seek only by reverting to the Indian blanket.

[13]    But many-sided men do not move in battalions, and even a one-sided philosopher may be a boon to think of, if he be as noble as Thoreau. His very defects are higher than many men’s virtues, and his most fantastic moralizings will bear reading without doing harm, especially during a Presidential campaign. Of his books, “Walden” will probably be permanently reckoned as the best, as being the most full and deliberate exhibition of the author’s mind, and as extracting the most from the least material. It is also the most uniform in texture, and the most complete in plan, while the “Week” has no unity but that of the chronological epoch it covers, — a week which is probably the most comprehensive on record, ranging from the Bhagvat-Geetha to the “good time coming,’ — and the “Excursions” no unity but that of the covers which comprise them, being, indeed, a compilation of his earliest and latest essays. Which of his four volumes contains his finest writing it would really be hard to say; but in structure the present book comes nearest to “Walden”; it is within its limits a perfect monograph of the Maine woods. All that has been previously written fails to portray so vividly the mysterious life of the lonely forest, — the grandeur of Katahdin or Ktaadn, that hermit-mountain, — and the wild and adventurous navigation of those Northern water-courses whose perils make the boating of the Adirondack region seem safe and tame. The book is also more unexceptionably healthy in its tone than any of its predecessors, and it is pleasant to find the author, on emerging from his explorations, admitting that the confines of civilization afford, after all, the best residence, and that the wilderness is of most value as “a resource and a background.”

[14]    There yet remain for publication Thoreau’s adventures on Cape Cod; his few public addresses on passing events, especially those on the Burns Rescue and the John-Brown affair, which were certainly among the very ablest productions called forth by those exciting occasions; his poems; and his private letters to his friend Blake, of Worcester, and to others, — letters which certainly contain some of his toughest, and perhaps also some of his finest writing. All these deserve, and must one day receive, preservation. He who reads most books reads that which has a merely temporary interest, and will be presently superseded by something better; but Nature has waited many centuries for Thoreau, and we can hardly expect to see, during this generation, another mortal so favored with her confidence.

Thoreau Reader: Home - Maine Woods