Appletons' Cyclopædia of American Biography/Thoreau, Henry David

Appletons' Thoreau Henry David.jpg
Appletons' Thoreau Henry David signature.jpg

THOREAU, Henry David, author, b. in Concord, Mass., 12 July, 1817; d. there, 6 May, 1862. His grandfather, John Thoreau, came from St. Helier, a parish in the island of Jersey, about 1773, and moved from Boston to Concord in 1800. Henry, the third of four children, went to school in Boston for a little more than a year, then attended the schools in Concord, fitted for college at a private school, entered Harvard in 1833, and was graduated in 1837, a fair scholar but not eminent. The family being in humble circumstances, the father was assisted in paying his small expenses by the boy's aunts, his elder sister, who was then teaching, the beneficiary fund of the college, and Henry's own exertions at school-keeping. Thoreau afterward led a literary life, writing, lecturing, reading, and meeting his modest physical needs by surveying, pencil-making, engineering, and carpentering. He was never married, and never left Concord except for a lecturing-tour, or a pedestrian excursion. Cities he disliked; civilization he did not believe in. Nature was his passion, and the wilder it was the more he loved it. He was a fine scholar, especially in Greek, translated two of the tragedies of Æschylus, was intimate with the Greek anthology, and knew Pindar, Simonides, and all the great lyric poets. In English poetry he preferred Milton to Shakespeare, and was more familiar with the writers of the 17th century than with modern men. He was no mean poet himself; in fact, he possessed the essential quality of the poet — a soaring imagination. He possessed an eye and an ear for beauty, and had he been gifted with the power of musical expression, would have been distinguished. No complete collection of his pieces has ever been made or could be, but fragments are exquisite. Emerson said that his poem on “Smoke” surpassed any by Simonides. That Thoreau was a man of aspiration, a pure idealist, reverent, spiritual, is plain from his intimacy with Bronson Alcot and Emerson, the latter of whom spoke these words at his funeral: “His soul was made for the noblest society; he had in a short life exhausted the capabilities of this world; wherever there is knowledge, wherever there is virtue, wherever there is beauty, he will find a home.” His religion was that of the transcendentalists. The element of negation in it was large, and in his case conspicuous and acrid. Horace Greeley found fault with his “defiant pantheism,” and an editor struck out the following passage from a contribution: “It [the pine-tree] is as immortal as I am, and, perchance, will go to as high a heaven, there to tower above me still.” His doctrine was that of individualism. Therein he differed from Emerson, who was sympathetic and began at the divine end. Thoreau began with the ground and reasoned up. He saw beauty in ashes, and “never chanced to meet with any man so cheering and elevating and encouraging, so infinitely suggestive, as the stillness and solitude of the Well-meadow field.” He aimed at becoming elemental and spontaneous. He wrote hymns to the night quite in the pagan fashion. His very aptitudes brought him in contact with the earth. His aspect suggested a faun, one who was in the secret of the wilderness. Mr. Sanborn, his friend and biographer, thus describes him: “He is a little under size, with a huge Emersonian nose, bluish-gray eyes, brown hair, and a ruddy weather-beaten face, which reminds one of some shrewd and honest animal's — some retired philosophical woodchuck or magnanimous fox.” Another friend mentions his sloping shoulders, his long arms, his large hands and feet. “I fancy,” he wrote, “the saying that man was created a little lower than the angels should have been a little lower than the animals.” He built a hut on the shore of Walden pond in 1845, and lived there, with occasional absences, about two years and a half. He built on Emerson's land, though he had wished to build elsewhere. The house had no lock to the door, no curtain to the window. It belonged to nature as much as to man, and to all men as much as to any one. When Thoreau left it, it was bought by a Scotch gardener, who carried it off a little way and used it as a cottage. Then a farmer bought it, moved it still farther away, and converted it into a tool-house. A pile of stones marks the site of Thoreau's hut. He went into the woods, not because he wished to avoid his fellow-men, as a misanthrope, but because he wanted to confront Nature, to deal with her at first hand, to lead his own life, to meet primitive conditions; and having done this, he abandoned the enterprise, recommending no one to try it who had not “a pretty good supply of internal sunshine. . . . To live alone comfortably, he must have that self-comfort which rays out of Nature — a portion of it at least.” At Walden he labored, studied, meditated, edited his first book, the “Week,” and gauged his genius. He redeemed and consecrated the spot. The refusal to pay taxes, and his consequent imprisonment, were due to a more specific cause — namely, his dissent from the theory of human government and from the practice of the American state, which supported slavery. He stood simply and plainly on the rights and duty of the individual. The act was heroic as he performed it, and, when read by the light of his philosophy, was consistent. Thoreau was anything but sour, surly, or morose. He could sing, and even dance, on occasion. He was sweet with children; fond of kittens; a sunbeam at home; the best of brothers, gentle, patient, helpful. Those he loved he gave his heart to, and if they were few it was perhaps because his affections were not as expansive as they were deep. But he showed little emotion, having learned, like the Indian, to control his feelings. He cultivated stoicism. He had the pride as well as the conceit of egotism, and while the latter gave most offence to those who did not know him well, the former was the real cause of his conduct. Thoreau had no zeal of authorship, yet he wrote a great deal, and left a mass of manuscripts, mostly in prose, for he produced very few verses after he was thirty years old. The “Dial,” the “Democratic Review,” “Graham's Magazine,” “The Union Magazine,” “Putnam's Magazine,” the “Atlantic Monthly,” the “Tribune,” all contained contributions from him. Every volume of the “Dial” had something; the third volume many articles. The essay on “Resistance to Civil Government” was printed in “Æsthetic Papers.” Only two of the seven volumes of his printed works appeared in his lifetime — “A Week on the Concord and Merrimac Rivers” (Boston, 1849) and “Walden, or Life in the Woods” (1854). The others are “Excursions in Field and Forest,” with a memoir by Ralph Waldo Emerson (1863); “The Maine Woods” (1864); “Cape Cod” (1865); “Letters to Various Persons,” with nine poems (1865); and “A Yankee in Canada,” with anti-slavery and reform papers (1866). His life has been written by William Ellery Channing under the title “The Poet-Naturalist” (1873), and by Franklin B. Sanborn in the “American Men of Letters” series (1882). The former is a rhapsody rather than a biography, and is largely composed of extracts from Thoreau's journals, which had never seen the light before. It also contains a full list of his publications.