NEW  ENGLANDER
AND
YALE  REVIEW.

1891.

VOLUME XIX, NEW SERIES.
VOLUME LV, COMPLETE SERIES.


NEW HAVEN:
WILLIAM  L. KINGSLEY, PROPRIETOR.
ARTICLE  V.  —  TEN VOLUMES OF THOREAU

By JOSHUA W. CALDWELL, Knoxville, Tenn.


Thoreau Reader:  Home
POSTHUMOUS success is an excellent thing in its way, but it is natural to wish for earlier returns from our investments. Thoreau was not exempt from this common weakness. Early in his career he printed a book, but the public declined to concur in his belief that it was worth printing, and he endured the mental and physical discomfort of carrying a large part of the edition up to the garret on his back. His correspondence with Horace Greeley proves that for many years the great editor was peddling manuscripts from Concord among the impecunious proprietors of such ephemeral and forgotten publications as “Putnam’s” and “Graham’s” Magazines.
[2]       Perhaps no man, in America at least, lived as cheaply as Thoreau. Six or seven weeks of manual labor furnished him a year's support. He was a copious writer, but was compelled to resort to manual labor for the means of existence. A few men, and perhaps one woman, being of the higher order and sympathetic, bought his first book, and read it and praised it, but the great mass, or rather the small mass of American readers, was obstinately blind to its merits.

[3]       As I turn this morning to my bookshelves, I count eight handsome volumes inscribed with the name of “Thoreau,” and the circular of a great publisher informs me that I may, if so minded, purchase two more. Ten volumes published and widely circulated, a rich source of income to the publisher! In his lifetime, the author could not sell his best thought and his best writing. Now his very note-books, the undigested chance jottings in his diary, are quickly sold, and it may be, occasionally read.

[4]       Is it what we vulgarly call a “fad,” this revival of Thoreau, or has it a substantial cause? Is it a caprice, or a manifestation of deliberate and sound judgment? It is no new thing in literature for meritorious writers to fail in their own generation, and become the favorites and heroes of later times. Shakspeare waited two hundred years for full recognition, but now for a century he has held the undisputed first place, and the literature of Shakspeare rivals in quantity and surpasses in
quality, the prose literature of England in Shakspeare’s time.

[5]      Does Thoreau fall within the category indicated? Was it the fault of the public and not of the author that Walden, and the Week fell so fiat, and that the charming sketches in Excursions commanded only starvation prices?

[6]      Has Thoreau reappeared as a comet in the literary firmament, or has it been discovered that he is one of the fixed stars? Is there reason for believing that he can maintain in our literature, the conspicuous position, to which, in the last fifteen years, he has been assigned by the strenuous kindness of friends and the well conducted advertising of his publishers?

[7]       Were his asceticism and solitariness mere eccentricities and affectations, or were they the marks of a genius, so high or so fine that it could find no fit consort? Did they indicate a superior endowment, or upon the contrary, an inferior quality of mind, a certain unsoundness, giving rise to distorted opinions of life and duty?

[8]       Is his literary work of real excellence? Will it endure the tests of time and increasing culture? Is it sufficient support for a claim to immortality? Is it in form or substance the work of a master?

[9]       First as to the man. He was of Gallic blood, filtered through the Channel Islands. In blood as well as in intellect, he was of kin to Rousseau, Victor Hugo and Chateaubriand, the sentimentalists. In his way, he was as wildly sentimental, as Rousseau, and apparently as ready as the red republicans of France to upset the existing order. He found almost as much to condemn in sedate and democratic Concord, where philosophy was ere long to find her western abode, as the revolutionists saw in Paris or Versailles.

[10]       He was educated at Harvard, where he was in no way distinguished, and began life by teaching and making pencils. In the latter vocation he found his first opportunity to gratify his passion for eccentricity. Having made a useful invention, he refused to apply for a patent for it, because it would not benefit him to do again what he had already done. The same reasoning might have induced him to refuse copyright for his books, but I have not found that he did so. At all events, it seems that it would have been better to take the patent and its proceeds than to borrow, as he afterwards did. He was a skilled mechanic, and was also abundantly qualified to earn his living as a surveyor. He did not marry, nor try to marry, would not vote, nor pay his taxes, nor go to church. He was, in an amusing way, a secessionist and a nullifier.

[11]       James Parton has written an elaborate and laborious argument attempting to prove that the doctrines of Mr. Calhoun, in their ultimate analysis, would put it in the power of each individual citizen to nullify or veto the acts of Congress. It is not an important fact, but it is diverting to find our Diogenes of the Walden Woods asserting this very theory!

[12]       In his essay on “Civil Disobedience,” he says: “Some are petitioning the State to dissolve the Union, to disregard the requisition of the President. Why do they not dissolve it themselves? — the union between themselves and the State — and refuse to pay their quota into the treasury? Do not they stand in the same relation to the State, that the State does to the Union?”

[13]       In the same essay, he advises the abolitionists of Massachusetts to withdraw their support both in person and in property from the State government.

[14]       Some of his utterances go beyond secession and nullification. He declares that the same objections which apply to standing armies may be brought against standing governments, and it would not be difficult to convict him of a degree of sympathy with some of the extravagancies of the anarchists of our own time.

[15]       He was also a free trader. This is obviously a necessary part of his belief. It was his theory that every man should be free to do as he pleased, surrendering nothing of his rights, as he conceived them, to the government. He refused to pay his poll-tax, and went to jail. A friend paid it for him, and he accepted the benefit but without gratitude, or repayment.

[16]       It is not easy to understand why, after stickling upon a point of conscience to the extent of submitting to imprisonment, he should have accepted the benefit of another’s payment of the iniquitous demand of the State. His logic carried to its necessary conclusion, required him to remain in jail, until the State confessed itself in error and released him. If the payment of the tax was wrong, he had no right to accept benefit from it when made by another. It was at best, a poor compromise. In this, as in other of his paradoxical performances, a certain limitation is discoverable. He stops short of the conclusion. As the vulgar saying goes, there is “more bark than bite.”

[17]       Mr. Lowell comments upon the fact that when he had abjured civilization and determined to have no other companions than the blue-jays and muskrats of Walden Pond, his first act was to borrow Bronson Alcott’s axe, a civilized implement from a civilized man, to build a civilized abode. There is certainly a degree of inconsistency in seeking primeval solitude, and simplicity, with a sharp Yankee axe on one shoulder and the Bhagavad Gita under the other arm. Why did he not discard his factory-made dress, clothe himself in skins, if at all, make his own axe of stone, build a wigwam like his ideal, the red man, or burrow like his ancestors of the stone age, and his neighbors the muskrats. Mr. Lowell, whose sketch of Thoreau is very happily written, notes that civilization was very near to Walden, and that Thoreau could easily fall back upon it in an emergency.

[18]       Thoreau was in the habit of declaring a preference for the society of naked Indians, and wild beasts, and he did go away and live for a while in a snug shanty by Walden Pond, engaged in such aboriginal pursuits as writing books, and the study of Hindu Metaphysics. In a few years, however, he was again living in town, accepting all the disadvantages of civilization, though still inveighing against them. He was writing books, and printing them, sending Greeley manuscript after manuscript, borrowing seventy-five dollars from him, and repaying it with the most scrupulous exactitude.

[19]       Why should this defiantly eccentric person, who declares that he would not go around the corner to see the world blow up, care to write books, to be read by the “vulgar crowd,” of men and women as he called them? Perhaps it was from sheer love of lecturing. He did not believe in missionaries, his shibboleth was “every man to his own affair.” He was not writing in order to do good to others. What happened to others could in no wise affect or interest one so thoroughly apart from the rest of mankind. Yet we have from his pen ten fat duodecimos, with a mass of note-books remaining whose contents have not yet been exploited. In due time, no doubt, we shall have more volumes, preceded by loud trumpetings of praise.

[20]       Apropos of his intense and defiant individualism, it is strange that his biographers and critics have paid so little attention to his profession and practice of Buddhism. There is very good ground for believing that the Walden episode was not more a result of temperament, or of a desire to be conspicuous by being odd, or of a disinterested purpose to set the world a good example, than an attempt to put into practice somewhat of the Hindu philosophy to which he was intensely devoted. Whether this is attributing too much, or too direct an influence to his Oriental studies or not, it is possible to trace a vein of Buddhism all through his life and writings. In the Walden retirement it crops out strongly.

[21]      In the Week, he writes: “The reading which I like best is the scriptures of the several nations, though it happens I am better acquainted with those of the Hindus, the Chinese, and the Persians, than of the Hebrews, which I have come to last.” Again he says: “I know that some will have hard thoughts of me, when they hear their Christ named beside my Buddha, yet I am sure I am willing they should love their Christ more than my Buddha, for love is the main thing, and I like him too.”

[22]       Referring to his diet at Walden, he declares that he thought it fit that he should live mainly on rice, because he loved so well the philosophy of India.

[23]       Horace Greeley, writing to Thoreau, refers to “your genial pantheism.” This pantheism, with great certainty, was a result of his study of “Hindu Scriptures.” The Brahmin, with his belief in emanation and absorption, as the origin and end of all things, and his doctrine of metempsychosis is not more scrupulous in his regard for all forms of animated existence than was Thoreau. Says Emerson: “Though a naturalist, he used neither trap nor gun.” Once he killed and ate a woodchuck, but repented it long and sorely.

[24]       Buddhism is a philosophy of selfishness. Each man must see to his own salvation, regardless of the fortune of others. To the Buddhist self-culture embraces all the duties of life. Not the Christian self-culture, which is a means to unselfish ends, but a selfish culture, which is, itself, the only end worth seeking. In this way he hopes to attain Nirvana, which every man must reach if, at all, by his own efforts, having no regard for others, as they must have none for him. It is not important to determine whether Thoreau believed in Nirvana or not. In many other respects his Buddhism is plainly visible. The Buddhist, seeking to attain serenity by modification of his inner nature, wrought by his own unaided efforts, is commanded to forsake parents, wife, children, friends, country, and live by himself and for himself alone. Hear now our Walden Buddhist say: “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.”

[25]       Siddhartha declared that the life of a recluse was most favorable to serenity. He encouraged asceticism and condemned marriage. A lonely life in the forest, he said, was best adapted to that self-conquest which comprised every duty of life. Is it to be doubted that Thoreau, seated in his lonely hut in the forest by Walden Pond, eating his scanty rations of rice, apart from family and friends, refusing obedience to the law, virtually abjuring his country, not willing to “go round the corner to see the world blow up,” nor to surrender his selfish purposes to “save the universe from annihilation,” was practising or believed that he was practising the teachings of his Buddha?

[26]       In a general way his eccentricities of opinion and conduct were parts of the New England reformation. We are not surprised by anything said or done in this extraordinary period, when a man as large-minded as Ripley undertook, in serious mood, the conduct of Brook Farm, and when, for a time, the calm, strong genius of Hawthorne yielded to the vagaries of Fourier. But the qualities of the men clearly appear in their conduct. Hawthorne speedily shook off his illusions and became the trenchant, almost unkind satirist of the movement in which lie had for the moment joined. Emerson, who had given Thoreau his impulse to the study of oriental literature and philosophy, and had been, in many other things, his inspirer and teacher, never lost his balance. He neither joined any impracticable community, nor refused to associate with his fellow men. As much a humanist and philanthropist as Ripley, as much an orientalist as Thoreau, his well-balanced mind perceived the necessity of making the most of life as it was. It was plain to him that he could do no good by living in the woods, and accomplish no good purpose by aiding Miss Fuller to milk her cows.

[27]       With all its mistakes and extravagances, transcendentalism was productive of many excellent results. Of all its good qualities and products, Emerson was the embodiment. Of its vagaries, Thoreau affords an excellent illustration. Emerson was sound; Thoreau was not.

[28]       It is said of Victor Hugo that he esteemed himself so highly that he regarded whatever pertained to him as of importance and interest to all mankind, and wrote odes to commemorate his headaches and toothaches. This form of egotism is essentially Gallic. Montaigne wrote four charming volumes of gossip about himself. Rousseau, who believed that he had been cast in a peculiar mould, which had been at once destroyed, has handed down to posterity, a carefully revised catalogue of his opinions, and of the occurrences of his career, embracing in the latter department some of the most repulsive things that have ever been printed. Dumas followed his example. France is preëminently the land of private memoirs. People of other nations write memoirs only when they have matters of public importance or interest to relate. No one but a Frenchman thinks his toothache or his indigestion a subject of universal interest. No one but a Frenchman photographs himself naked for the edification of the rest of the world.

[29]       Intellectually, Thoreau was closely related to these memoir writers. He has left us, however, nothing unclean. He was a chaste, clean man and writer, but he has written three thousand duodecimo pages of egotism. The world of his books revolves about himself as a sun. Whatever he did, said, or thought, must be put down in ink. Wherever he went the public must follow, and if he stopped by the way the public must stop too, and hear what he had to say while he ate his lunch. If his shoe became untied in his walk, the operation of repairing the accident was of sufficient importance to merit an accurate description, supplemented by the reflections suggested by the occurrence. He traveled in the Maine woods, inviting American readers to attend him, and with infinitely wearisome minuteness, compelled their attention to all the stumps he sat upon and all the stones he chipped. These things were important because they had been related to him. His Week on the Concord and Merrimack is, perhaps, the least interesting, of narratives, so far as incident is concerned. It is strongly and, in the main, gracefully written, and contains a vast deal of philosophizing upon subjects, ranging from the most commonplace to the most transcendental; very few of them perceptibly related in the remotest degree to the subject of the book. These reflections, being his own, could not, of course, be omitted. His eyes were never off himself.

[30]       As a writer, he was a persistent and chronic scold. Except thinking and writing about himself, he enjoyed nothing so much as lecturing others, treating them the while as if they were residents of the transcendental world, instead of citizens of an excessively practical Republic on the earth.

[31]       He was opposed to government. Commerce was an evil; the best merchant was the one who lost most money. He would not go into trade for fear he might make money. Commerce with England was tolerable only because it had brought Carlyle’s thoughts to America. He admired John Brown, Chakia Mouni, Carlyle, and himself. Perhaps there were others whom I cannot now recall. He conceded good qualities to Webster, but blamed him because, having been chosen Senator from Massachusetts, he did not shape his course as if he were a senator from Utopia. Lowell refers to the fact that he complained that there was no one in Concord with whom he could discuss Hindu philosophy, when he was much of the time living in the family of Emerson, his master, who had introduced him to the study of it. Emerson expressed the highest admiration for his perceptive faculty. Lowell says he acted as if others had no such faculty, and was continually discoursing about the most common phenomena, as if he were the only one who had ever seen the sun rise or set.

[32]       It would not be fair to stop here in our analysis. It is hardly to be disputed that the peculiarities which have been referred to were many of them cultivated. They were artificial; conscious eccentricities. French blood craves effect. It must have attention. Frenchmen do not make good Buddhists or stoics. The doctrines of Epictetus have never taken deep root in France.

[33]       Thoreau wished to be, and to be considered, a stoic, and a Buddhist, superior to misfortune, suffering, affection, all the feelings and passions that move other men. He cultivated the quality of stoicism assiduously, but without success. He could not change his nature.

[34]       When he had been paid out of jail by the friend whom he did not thank, he went to the cobbler and got his shoe, which he had left to be mended, and then joined a huckleberry party. In such expeditions he was a frequent and favorite leader.  He was beloved of all children. In short, lie was naturally a man of kindly, sympathetic disposition, and with all his orientalism and individualism in theory, he could not divest himself of a strong social instinct and a fine social capacity. Using the current phrase, he was “good company,” and he liked company. Emerson says that he abandoned his solitude at Walden because he had exhausted its advantages. This is
no doubt a part of the truth, but it is also clear that he had become tired of it. lit will not do to say that he intended in the beginning to remain only temporarily. He was putting into practice his theory of life. In a sense, he was placing himself on exhibition as an example of “low living and high thinking.” To show that one could live as he advocated, for something over two years, did not prove his case.

[35]       The Walden solitude and the Brook Farm Society alike failed. Thoreau, it is said, had the double purpose of teaching right living and learning the trade of authorship at Walden. In the first, if this was his purpose, he signally failed. He made himself conspicuous, but attracted neither following nor approval. Soon after he abandoned his hut, the performance having ended, it was put upon wheels by a neighboring farmer, and hauled oil to be used as a corn-crib, in which capacity it is said to have done duty for many years.

[36]       If Walden was a good place for writing books, why did not he stay there? He says he had as good a reason for coming away as he had for going there. No doubt he had a much better one. He had been trying a foolish experiment, and had discovered his folly. To say that he was compelled to go there in order to practice writing is absurd. Emerson and Hawthorne had no difficulty in learning the trade, or in carrying it on in Concord.

[37]       It was impossible for Thoreau to live without society. Being by nature both a writer and a talker, having a well-stored mind, his comfort and happiness depended upon having an outlet for his thought, an audience for his speech, a public to read his writings. He had something to say, and could not tell it to the loons, something to write and to print, and the muskrats could not read it. He loved music, and the squirrels and the blue-jays did not furnish good quality. He loved children and his friends, and the mutual attraction was so strong that after a while he shut up his shanty, tacitly confessing his mistake and returned to the world, from which he had never departed more than three miles, and ever afterward endured with serenity the multitude of social evils.

[38]       Even now the world looks upon him in the light of his Walden escapade as a hermit, an ascetic, and a cynic. Undoubtedly his life was austere and abstemious, but in other respects this conception is erroneous.

[39]       Upon this genial, kindly, and social nature were imperfectly grafted certain peculiarities, the results of his studies in oriental philosophy, and of the intense and often misguided intellectual and moral activity of the time in which he lived. Like most grafted fruit, the product was inferior.

[40]       Looking beyond his eccentricities, we shall find much to approve and to admire. His idealism is of the loftiest kind. The morality of his books is in every respect and in the highest degree admirable. The fact that we cannot now put his moral precepts into practice does not prove them unsound in principle. We shall probably not be able to utilize them until the millenium, but this would be a sorry world indeed, if none of us believed in or hoped for a better state of affairs than now exists, nor ventnred to protest against present evils and demand their removal.

[41]       Our slavery to money and trade, our dishonesty in business, our constant creation of artificial wants and waste of time in gratifying them, our worship of the material and neglect of the intellectual, the spiritual, the really excellent, these and all the shortcomings and evils of society, were incessantly and trenchantly denounced. His leanings were all to the right. The intensity of his nature carried him to extremes, so that he was in no sense a practical reformer, but rather a prophet foretelling a better state. A sentimentalist seeing things as they ought to be, not as they are. Perhaps this statement should be qualifled, becanse when John Brown had been arrested Thoreau hastened to the Concord Lyceum to sound his praise. The managers objected, saying the time was not ripe, but our idealist had no such word as policy or expediency in his vocabulary. He had something to say, and intended to say it, and did say it. It made no difference to him whether affairs were ready or not. In this and in other ways he efficiently aided in the anti-slavery agitation. In the light of subsequent events his folly was better than the wisdom of the party managers.

[42]       He was an ardent lover of nature, and the greater part of his time was devoted to  communion with her visible forms. He knew almost to the hour when every flowering thing in Concord township would bloom. He was on intimate terms with the natives of forest and stream. He wonld stand immovable for hours among the trees, and the squirrels and birds would come about him as if he were a part of the forest growth. In the same way he would stand in the shallows of the river until the fish would become accustomed to his presence and permit him to take them in his hands.

[43]       He appears, however, to have been content to observe phenomena and to catalogue facts, so that, while he has left a valuable and interesting record of observations, he cannot be said to have contributed anything of special importance to science.

[44]       In what estimation shall we hold such a man? Is not the general impression one of weakness rather than of strength? Like Hamlet he found the “time out of joint.” His efforts to set it right came to naught. He failed at Walden, and the faults of society, which he hated and denonnced, grew every day greater before his eyes. Not only did he fail so far as others were concerned, but he mnst also have been conscions of his own errors of judgment, and infirmity of will. His perception was faulty, and his efforts misdirected. Emerson the most ideal of transcendentalists, had a firm hold upon the real world, as well as the ideal world, and no American thinker or writer has so powerfully as he, influenced his countrymen. It was in this respect, that Thoreau was fatally lacking. He was wholly impracticable, and this necessarily implied mental limitation and inferiority. While Emerson made a visible and lasting impress, Thoreau made none. The exaggeration, the paradox, the utter disregard of actual conditions which distinguished his utterances and his conduct, made it impossible for him to guide or control men. He was continually discounting himself. In very truth he had no capacity for leadership. He could not lead himself.

[45]       While he lived he exerted no influence upon others. In his conduct there was nothing notable, inspiring, or heroic. In his books there is no body of doctrine, neither coherency, nor system. His personality is unique, eccentric, nothing more. Notwithstanding his exceptionally high qualities, intellectual and moral, it is not possible to pronounce him a great or even a strong man.

[46]       If he has any claim to eminence, it must rest upon his literary achievements.

[47]       It is true of him, as of other writers, that his character is manifest in his books. The first thing to be noted of these is that the basis of all of them, is nature. Their names clearly indicate this Excursions, Summer, Walden, Cape Cod, “Early Spring in Massachusetts,” The Maine Woods.  When we get beyond the titles, we discover, however, that they treat not only of nature, but of every other thing which it has entered into the mind of man to conceive. One seeing for the first time, the title, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers would naturally expect an account of a boating, fishing, and exploring trip. As a matter of fact, while the book does contain something of this kind, it includes a great deal more, that has no more necessary connection with the Concord or the Merrimack, than with the man in the moon, or with Sanscrit roots.

[48]       It is in this book that the author discourses most persistently upon Hindu and other philosophies. If you wish to know his opinions on friendship, love, poetry, literature, architecture, and most other subjects, they are to be found here. All this begets disappointment, and exasperation. If one wishes to learn Buddhism, or architecture, he naturally prefers books that professedly treat of them. It is hardly fair to tempt the lover of nature with such a title, to lure him off to the Concord or the Merrimack, and then inflict upon him, interminable discourses upon dry and totally irrelevant topics, relieved here and there with verse which is indisputably bad. This objection will apply with almost equal force to Walden, and in less degree to all his narrative works. There is something in Walden, about Walden, but very much more about other things. This discursiveness, scrappiness, detracts very materially from both the interest and the value of the books. Thorean is never so entertaining as when relating with a stimulating enthusiasm, the natural history of his native woods, and fields, and waters. We value him most as a chronicler of these. We lack confidence in the extent and exactness of his knowledge and the soundness of his judgment in the matters of which he has so much to say, so inopportunely.

[49]        Now and then, in the Week, he seizes his oars, and sends his boat with vigorous strokes spinning along. You catch the breeze, expand your lungs, with the bracing air, and say to yourself, “this is pleasant, this is what I wished and expected,” but the thought has hardly passed, before the oars again dip idly in the water, the breeze is lost, and the sun pours down, while the boatman forces into your unwilling ears, such lines as these:

“Conscience is instinct bred in the house,
  Feeling and thinking propagate the sin
  By an unnatural breeding in and in.
  I say turn it out of doors
  Into the moors.
  I love a life whose plot is simple,
  And does not thicken with every pimple.”
This, by the way, is classified as poetry, and has something of a metrical form.

[50]        Instead of breaking into poetry, it may be that he will say with earnest though fatiguing irrelevancy: “We can tolerate all philosophies. Atomists, Pnenmatologists, Atheists, Theists, Plato, Aristotle, Leucippus, Democritns, Pythagoras, Zoroaster, and Confucius,” etc. He has invited you to go boating, and this is what he gives you.

[51]       The root of all this is egotism. No doubt, he really believes that all he has to say is of interest and value to others. In many instances, it is neither interesting nor valuable, and this method, or want of method, is fatal to him as a bookmaker. He seems to be, as a writer, almost devoid of the sense of proportion and propriety. Perhaps he wilfully disregards both proportion and propriety. There is a place for everything. The natural history of Massachusetts has no affinity with Leucippus, and certainly there is no perceptible justification for essays on Solon and Chancer in a book of New England travel.  The Week and Walden, might very well be published together with some such title as “The Miscellaneous and Inconsequential Opinions of Henry D. Thoreau upon a Variety of Subjects.”

[52]       The scrappiness of his books indicates a corresponding quality of mind. Believing in personal inspiration it is quite probable that he conceived it to be his duty to set down always the thought which came into his mind, without regard for connection or relevancy, or the convenience or approval of the reader. This hop, skip, and jump method of thinking and writing, renders real enjoyment of his books impossible, to all except kindred transcendental spirits, in whom sympathy is sufficiently developed to cover the multitude of his sins. This peculiarity may be an affectation, in which event, it is beyond pardon, or it may result from incapacity for sustained effort. Probably both hypotheses are correct.

[53]       The two books under consideration were published during his life and are the best known of his longer productions. Walden is the more readable, and has always been the more popular. The name is happily chosen to stimulate curiosity, by reason of its reference to the episode by which Thoreau is most widely known. It is safe to say, however, that very few will read Walden a second time, or go through it even once, without much vexation, mingled with occasional pleasure and unavoidable admiration of its excellent though varying literary quality.

[54]       Who cares to read again a book which contains a little of everything, and not very much of anything? Especially when it is undertaken as a volume of natural history and personal reminiscence and proves to be a volume of everything else?  Readers of natural history will not wade through long drawn chapters of philosophizing to find the facts they seek. Students of philosophy will not care to plant beans and dig roots with Thoreau. There is no class of readers to whom these books will, in their totality, be interesting. Tn the main, they are admirably written, but there are enough books with coherence, and harmony of construction which are better
written.

[55]       Upon these books, Thoreau’s reputation as a prose writer mainly depends, and they are so composite, so discursive, yind so incongruous in substance, that they cannot be popular even among the higher class of readers. To the general public they will be known hereafter, as they have been known heretofore, by name only. To no one have they any substantial value.

[56]       They may possibly retain a certain notoriety as curiosities of literature.

[57]       The Yankee in Canada, The Maine Woods and Cape Cod, are more homogeneous and coherent. As a rule, however, the style is inferior to that of the Week and Walden, and the interest purely local.

[58]       The subject matter is of a kind to interest no one but the inhabitants of the regions to which they relate, and them, not very much. It would require a very exceptional literary excellence, to make such books acceptable to the general reader, or any but the local reader. They contribute nothing to their author’s popularity aud do not commend him to the critics.  Passing from the longer and more pretentious books, to the essays and occasional pieces, we find some attractive material.

[59]       The volume entitled Excursions, contains, perhaps, the best of these. There are few pieces of descriptive writing in the language more beautiful than “A Winter Walk.” I had the good fortune to make acquaintance with it on a winter afternoon, during one of the rare snow-falls of our Southern latitude, and ever since, it has possessed for me, an irresistible charm.

[60]       I have read it again, every winter since that time, and always with renewed pleasure. Thoreau says himself that books of natural history make the best winter reading, and I know of nothing more delightful than to read “A Winter Walk” on a snowy day.

[61]       A few of the essays are critical and biographical and are of no special value. Thoreau’s judgments of men and books were as fantastic as his opinions of government and conduct. The sketch of Carlyle is strongly written, but abounds in the most exaggerated transcendentalism. It was composed in the first enthusiasm of early acquaintance, when Carlyle was an ardent idealist not to say mystic. His idealism, and his extravagant vigor or phrase, were very pleasing to Thoreau, and exerted a powerful and lasting influence upon him.

[62]       Ruskin seems not to have suited him so well. Rather a surprising fact, because, intellectually, there is in many respects a striking similarity between the two. Ruskin, however, was, if not an artist, a lover and an historian of art, while Thoreau loved or claimed to love, only nature. The “Seven Lamps of Architecture” he said was made of good stuff, but there was too much about art in it for him and the ilottentots. Probably Ruskin’s later writings would have pleased him more.

[63]       Other of the essays are “Civil Disobedience,” “Slavery in Massachusetts,” “Life without Principle,” and “John Brown”. None of these is in any way remarkable. They are like most of his books written in a vigorous, but uneven, style. This inequality of execution is a principal defect of all his books. Aside from the facts narrated, these essays are repetitions, with more or less modification, of the opinions and theories which we have found in Walden, and the Week.

[64]       There remains to be noticed that part of his prose writing, which is almost literally transcribed from his note-books. The literary value of note-books, is necessarily, inconsiderable. We are accustomed to be served with the finished product, not the raw material, and naturally prefer it. It is hardly possible for the ordinary reader to judge of such books, because it is well nigh impossible for him to read them. They may possess a strong local interest, they may be pleasant to the highly cultivated palates of the transcendental elect, but to the inferior and uninitiated orders of men and women, they are “flat, stale, and unprofitable.” Their publication is a manifestation of an extraordinary hero-worship, or of a determination to work up all the product of a profitable mine, no matter how inferior the remaining material may be. The literature of the world is no richer by their publication. They are parts of a set of books and increase the income of the publishers by their due proportion. The name of the author, having a market value, will sell them along with the others. Buyers, as a rule, will take the whole set. The more in the set, the larger the receipts.

[65]       Thoreau seems to have entertained occasional aspirations to be a poet. Necessarily, because to the transcendentalists, to borrow their own high flying phrase, “Poetry was the only verity, contained the only reality.”

[66]       The Week is dotted all over with metrical outbursts. One of these has been quoted above. It was not selected as the worst, and is not the worst. The others are very much of the same quality. The transcendental poets, with their keener insight and their lofty disregard of mere form, did not confine the muse to the conventional tripping gait, but allowed her to go at will. A distressing unevenness was the frequent result. Dr. Holmes confesses that Emerson’s poetry too often goes on unequal feet, and that he is guilty of extreme arbitrariness in some of his rhymes. For instance, in enforcing a concord of sound between bear and woodpecker and compelling the ultimate and penultimate syllables of the great Napoleon’s name to rhyme with “noon."

[67]       This inequality of construction, and this independent style of rhyming were equally, or more, characteristic of Thoreau. It is said that he had the poet’s soul, but not the poet’s gift of song. The latter is certainly true, the former possibly so, but the world is unreasonable enough to demand the song before it concedes the title of poet.

[68]       It is claimed for Thoreau, that if he had been born in one of “those fervid climates where the poets sing as naturally as the birds,” he would have been a great poet. This may or may not be true. There is no harm in believing it, and nothing unreasonable in not believing it. Poets, even great poets, are not confined to fervid climates. Some of the greatest have come from the cold northlands. In America, the finest crop of them has sprnug from the sterile soil and been nurtured in the “inhospitable climate” of Massachusetts. Emerson, Longfellow, Whittier, Holmes, Lowell and Bryant were all of New England. Fervors of temperature were not necessary in their cases. It is a sufficient answer to say, that Thoreau was not born in a “fervid climate,” and was not a great poet. He was not even a poet of ordinary merit, and the assertion that he was not a poet at all, might be plausibly supported. Arguments to the contrary would not be strongly re-enforced by citation of those portions of his writings which are not in prose form, and which are called poems.

[69]       If Thoreau’s claim to immortality rests upon his prose writings, it cannot be said that his title is clear. A book purporting to deal with a single subject should be a consistent and harmonious whole, and not composed of disconnected parts. Particularly at this time, when the tendency of everything is toward specialization, it is impossible for books of rambling isquisitions to be acceptable or valuable to any class of readers.

[70]       In what department of knowledge, or of thought, shall we say that Thoreau was well founded or thorough? What shall we say he did well? He was an alert observer of nature, and possessed the faculty of recording his observations accurately and attractively. If he had been content to confine himself to this work, for which he was so well adapted, the foundations of his fame would have been much more firmly laid; but in his fondness for paradox, his devotion to philosophical and mystical studies and discourse, he was constantly tempted from the road which he should have pursued, and instead of books of natural history and scenery, which might have ranked with the Complete Angler, or the Natural History of Selborne, the best he has left are inharmonious and ill-constructed composites. It is true, as Mr. Lowell says, that some of his sentences are as perfect as anything in our language, but it is eqnally true that his style lacks sustained excellence. As in his thought there is much which is to the purpose, with not a little which is not to the purpose, so as a rule in his writing a high degree of excellence constantly alternates with positive inferiority.

[71]       It will not be claimed by his most ardent admirer that Thoreau’s books are at all calculated for popularity. It would be difficult to conceive themes or methods of treatment less popular, and there is no writer in the language who professedly held popularity in such slight esteem.

[72]       His works are addressed to readers of the higher class, who resort to books with serious purpose, and to them their value must be exceedingly limited, by reason of their incompleteness and want of harmony and connection.

[73]       Upon the whole, there seems to be no reason for concluding that Thoreau can maintain his present prominence among American writers, or that his place in literature, if permanent at all, will be a high one.

[74]       To what, then, shall we attribute the apparent popularity which has attached to his books for the last decade or more? In the first place, we have begun to have a distinctly national literature, in the creation of which Thoreau and his contemporaries and associates, of the transceiidental school, bore an important part. We are naturally interested in the beginnings of this literature, and grateful to those who founded it.

[75]       Unquestionably Thoreau is entitled to high praise for his thorough-going Americanism. He was one of the first American writers to discover that his own country and his own people afforded the materials for a literature. He was one of those of whom Emerson says: they found they were not compelled to go to Italy to find sunsets; the American article was just as good. He was consciously as well as positively American, and in more than one place in his books vigorously denounced the spirit of imitation which characterized American writers of his time, depriving their work of all originality and real value. The transcendental school of writers is entitled to the larger part of the credit which attaches to the emancipation of our literature. Col. Higginson says that “the Dial was the first distinctively American literary enterprise,” and to this brililant but short-lived periodical Thoreau was a constant contributor, without any pecuniary compensation.

[76]       Another cause of this multiplication of his books is the personality of Thoreau, which is the most unique in our literary annals. In his own time he was widely noted for his refusal to pay taxes and his hermit life at Walden, and to the majority, even of his countymen, he is still known only by these episodes. This quaint personality is behind all his books, and is an invaluable aid to the publisher in selling them.

[77]       To these causes we must add the friendliness and the great influence of his editors and biographers. His chief sponsor was Mr. Emerson, and no better fortune could have befallen an American author than an introduction under such auspices. To Emerson the editing of Thoreau’s books was a labor of love, but it was imposssible for him to conceal his apprehension that the public might not be able to perceive the excellence of the material which he was presenting. For instance, he has been to the trouble of going through Thoreau’s works and collecting a large number of disconnected, strong sentences which in his judgment prove that the author possessed the literary faculty. This implies an admission that there is more chaff than wheat. But however diffidently he may have presented the. books to his countrymen, his indorsement was sufficient. Perhaps Mr. Sanborn should be called a second indorser. After these all their friends and followers signed their approval, and so all the weight of New England culture has been sympathetically cast upon the side of Thoreau. Books so handsomely bound and so highly indorsed could not have failed to sell. That such an indorsement is of great value and not to be lightly treated is admitted, but it partakes somewhat of the nature of an accommodation indorsement by personal friends. It has always seemed as if there were a desire upon the part of his New England friends to have the public believe of Thoreau what they themselves wished to believe, namely, that he was a great writer and thinker. The right of dissent from their expressed judgment is not to be denied, and the dissent ought to be judged solely by the facts and the argument.

[78]       As our literature grows in quantity and improves in quality, these books, despite their fitful and uncertain brilliancy, must necessarily recede more and more from the public view.

[79]       We should hold their author in high esteem for his sterling personal worth, his patriotism, and the valuable assistance which he gave to the establishment of a genuinely American literature, but we should not allow our gratitude and affection to blind our eyes to his weaknesses as a man, or his limitations as a thinker and writer.


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