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[Illustration: Portrait of Thoreau]


I. WALDEN. 1 vol. 16mo. Price $1.25.










HENRY DAVID THOREAU was the last male descendant of a French ancestor who
came to this country from the Isle of Guernsey. His character exhibited
occasional traits drawn from this blood in singular combination with a
very strong Saxon genius.

He was born in Concord, Massachusetts, on the 12th of July, 1817. He was
graduated at Harvard College in 1837, but without any literary
distinction. An iconoclast in literature, he seldom thanked colleges for
their service to him, holding them in small esteem, whilst yet his debt to
them was important. After leaving the University, he joined his brother in
teaching a private school, which he soon renounced. His father was a
manufacturer of lead-pencils, and Henry applied himself for a time to this
craft, believing he could make a better pencil than was then in use. After
completing his experiments, he exhibited his work to chemists and artists
in Boston, and having obtained their certificates to its excellence and to
its equality with the best London manufacture, he returned home contented.
His friends congratulated him that he had now opened his way to fortune.
But he replied, that he should never make another pencil. “Why should I?
I would not do again what I have done once.” He resumed his endless walks
and miscellaneous studies, making every day some new acquaintance with
Nature, though as yet never speaking of zoölogy or botany, since, though
very studious of natural facts, he was incurious of technical and textual

At this time, a strong, healthy youth, fresh from college, whilst all his
companions were choosing their profession, or eager to begin some
lucrative employment, it was inevitable that his thoughts should be
exercised on the same question, and it required rare decision to refuse
all the accustomed paths, and keep his solitary freedom at the cost of
disappointing the natural expectations of his family and friends: all the
more difficult that he had a perfect probity, was exact in securing his
own independence, and in holding every man to the like duty. But Thoreau
never faltered. He was a born protestant. He declined to give up his large
ambition of knowledge and action for any narrow craft or profession,
aiming at a much more comprehensive calling, the art of living well.
If he slighted and defied the opinions of others, it was only that he was
more intent to reconcile his practice with his own belief. Never idle or
self-indulgent, he preferred, when he wanted money, earning it by some
piece of manual labor agreeable to him, as building a boat or a fence,
planting, grafting, surveying, or other short work, to any long
engagements. With his hardy habits and few wants, his skill in wood-craft,
and his powerful arithmetic, he was very competent to live in any part of
the world. It would cost him less time to supply his wants than another.
He was therefore secure of his leisure.

A natural skill for mensuration, growing out of his mathematical
knowledge, and his habit of ascertaining the measures and distances of
objects which interested him, the size of trees, the depth and extent of
ponds and rivers, the height of mountains, and the air-line distance of
his favorite summits,—this, and his intimate knowledge of the territory
about Concord, made him drift into the profession of land-surveyor. It had
the advantage for him that it led him continually into new and secluded
grounds, and helped his studies of Nature. His accuracy and skill in this
work were readily appreciated, and he found all the employment he wanted.

He could easily solve the problems of the surveyor, but he was daily beset
with graver questions, which he manfully confronted. He interrogated every
custom, and wished to settle all his practice on an ideal foundation. He
was a protestant à l’outrance, and few lives contain so many
renunciations. He was bred to no profession; he never married; he lived
alone; he never went to church; he never voted; he refused to pay a tax to
the State: he ate no flesh, he drank no wine, he never knew the use of
tobacco; and, though a naturalist, he used neither trap nor gun. He chose,
wisely, no doubt, for himself, to be the bachelor of thought and Nature.
He had no talent for wealth, and knew how to be poor without the least
hint of squalor or inelegance. Perhaps he fell into his way of living
without forecasting it much, but approved it with later wisdom.

“I am often reminded,” he wrote in his journal, “that, if I had bestowed
on me the wealth of Croesus, my aims must be still the same, and my means
essentially the same.” He had no temptations to fight against,—no
appetites, no passions, no taste for elegant trifles. A fine house, dress,
the manners and talk of highly cultivated people were all thrown away on
him. He much preferred a good Indian, and considered these refinements as
impediments to conversation, wishing to meet his companion on the simplest
terms. He declined invitations to dinner-parties, because there each was
in every one’s way, and he could not meet the individuals to any purpose.
“They make their pride,” he said, “in making their dinner cost much; I
make my pride in making my dinner cost little.” When asked at table what
dish he preferred, he answered, “The nearest.” He did not like the taste
of wine, and never had a vice in his life. He said,—”I have a faint
recollection of pleasure derived from smoking dried lily-stems, before I
was a man. I had commonly a supply of these. I have never smoked anything
more noxious.”

He chose to be rich by making his wants few, and supplying them himself.
In his travels, he used the railroad only to get over so much country as
was unimportant to the present purpose, walking hundreds of miles,
avoiding taverns, buying a lodging in farmers’ and fishermen’s houses, as
cheaper, and more agreeable to him, and because there he could better find
the men and the information he wanted.

There was somewhat military in his nature not to be subdued, always manly
and able, but rarely tender, as if he did not feel himself except in
opposition. He wanted a fallacy to expose, a blunder to pillory, I may say
required a little sense of victory, a roll of the drum, to call his powers
into full exercise. It cost him nothing to say No; indeed, he found it
much easier than to say Yes. It seemed as if his first instinct on hearing
a proposition was to controvert it, so impatient was he of the limitations
of our daily thought. This habit, of course, is a little chilling to the
social affections; and though the companion would in the end acquit him of
any malice or untruth, yet it mars conversation. Hence, no equal companion
stood in affectionate relations with one so pure and guileless. “I love
Henry,” said one of his friends, “but I cannot like him; and as for taking
his arm, I should as soon think of taking the arm of an elm-tree.”

Yet, hermit and stoic as he was, he was really fond of sympathy, and threw
himself heartily and childlike into the company of young people whom he
loved, and whom he delighted to entertain, as he only could, with the
varied and endless anecdotes of his experiences by field and river. And he
was always ready to lead a huckleberry party or a search for chestnuts or
grapes. Talking, one day, of a public discourse, Henry remarked, that
whatever succeeded with the audience was bad. I said, “Who would not like
to write something which all can read, like ‘Robinson Crusoe’? and who
does not see with regret that his page is not solid with a right
materialistic treatment, which delights everybody?” Henry objected, of
course, and vaunted the better lectures which reached only a few persons.
But, at supper, a young girl, understanding that he was to lecture at the
Lyceum, sharply asked him, “whether his lecture would be a nice,
interesting story, such as she wished to hear, or whether it was one of
those old philosophical things that she did not care about.” Henry turned
to her, and bethought himself, and, I saw, was trying to believe that he
had matter that might fit her and her brother, who were to sit up and go
to the lecture, if it was a good one for them.

He was a speaker and actor of the truth,—born such,—and was ever running
into dramatic situations from this cause. In any circumstance, it
interested all bystanders to know what part Henry would take, and what he
would say; and he did not disappoint expectation, but used an original
judgment on each emergency. In 1845 he built himself a small framed house
on the shores of Walden Pond, and lived there two years alone, a life of
labor and study. This action was quite native and fit for him. No one who
knew him would tax him with affectation. He was more unlike his neighbors
in his thought than in his action. As soon as he had exhausted the
advantages of that solitude, he abandoned it. In 1847, not approving some
uses to which the public expenditure was applied, he refused to pay his
town tax, and was put in jail. A friend paid the tax for him, and he was
released. The like annoyance was threatened the next year. But, as his
friends paid the tax, notwithstanding his protest, I believe he ceased to
resist. No opposition or ridicule had any weight with him. He coldly and
fully stated his opinion without affecting to believe that it was the
opinion of the company. It was of no consequence, if every one present
held the opposite opinion. On one occasion he went to the University
Library to procure some books. The librarian refused to lend them. Mr.
Thoreau repaired to the President, who stated to him the rules and usages,
which permitted the loan of books to resident graduates, to clergymen who
were alumni, and to some others resident within a circle of ten miles’
radius from the College. Mr. Thoreau explained to the President that the
railroad had destroyed the old scale of distances,—that the library was
useless, yes, and President and College useless, on the terms of his
rules,—that the one benefit he owed to the College was its library,—
that, at this moment, not only his want of books was imperative, but he
wanted a large number of books, and assured him that he, Thoreau, and not
the librarian, was the proper custodian of these. In short, the President
found the petitioner so formidable, and the rules getting to look so
ridiculous, that he ended by giving him a privilege which in his hands
proved unlimited thereafter.

No truer American existed than Thoreau. His preference of his country and
condition was genuine, and his aversation from English and European
manners and tastes almost reached contempt. He listened impatiently to
news or bon mots gleaned from London circles; and though he tried to be
civil, these anecdotes fatigued him. The men were all imitating each
other, and on a small mould. Why can they not live as far apart as
possible, and each be a man by himself? What he sought was the most
energetic nature; and he wished to go to Oregon, not to London. “In every
part of Great Britain,” he wrote in his diary, “are discovered traces of
the Romans, their funereal urns, their camps, their roads, their
dwellings. But New England, at least, is not based on any Roman ruins. We
have not to lay the foundations of our houses on the ashes of a former

But, idealist as he was, standing for abolition of slavery, abolition of
tariffs, almost for abolition of government, it is needless to say he
found himself not only unrepresented in actual politics, but almost
equally opposed to every class of reformers. Yet he paid the tribute of
his uniform respect to the Anti-Slavery Party. One man, whose personal
acquaintance he had formed, he honored with exceptional regard. Before the
first friendly word had been spoken for Captain John Brown, after the
arrest, he sent notices to most houses in Concord, that he would speak in
a public hall on the condition and character of John Brown, on Sunday
evening, and invited all people to come. The Republican Committee, the
Abolitionist Committee, sent him word that it was premature and not
advisable. He replied,—”I did not send to you for advice, but to announce
that I am to speak.” The hall was filled at an early hour by people of all
parties, and his earnest eulogy of the hero was heard by all respectfully,
by many with a sympathy that surprised themselves.

It was said of Plotinus that he was ashamed of his body, and ’tis very
likely he had good reason for it,—that his body was a bad servant, and he
had not skill in dealing with the material world, as happens often to men
of abstract intellect. But Mr. Thoreau was equipped with a most adapted
and serviceable body. He was of short stature, firmly built, of light
complexion, with strong, serious blue eyes, and a grave aspect,—his face
covered in the late years with a becoming beard. His senses were acute,
his frame well-knit and hardy, his hands strong and skilful in the use of
tools. And there was a wonderful fitness of body and mind. He could pace
sixteen rods more accurately than another man could measure them with rod
and chain. He could find his path in the woods at night, he said, better
by his feet than his eyes. He could estimate the measure of a tree very
well by his eyes; he could estimate the weight of a calf or a pig, like a
dealer. From a box containing a bushel or more of loose pencils, he could
take up with his hands fast enough just a dozen pencils at every grasp. He
was a good swimmer, runner, skater, boatman, and would probably outwalk
most countrymen in a day’s journey. And the relation of body to mind was
still finer than we have indicated. He said he wanted every stride his
legs made. The length of his walk uniformly made the length of his
writing. If shut up in the house, he did not write at all.

He had a strong common sense, like that which Rose Flammock, the weaver’s
daughter, in Scott’s romance, commends in her father, as resembling a
yardstick, which, whilst it measures dowlas and diaper, can equally well
measure tapestry and cloth of gold. He had always a new resource. When I
was planting forest-trees, and had procured half a peck of acorns, he said
that only a small portion of them would be sound, and proceeded to examine
them, and select the sound ones. But finding this took time, he said, “I
think, if you put them all into water, the good ones will sink;” which
experiment we tried with success. He could plan a garden, or a house, or a
barn; would have been competent to lead a “Pacific Exploring Expedition”;
could give judicious counsel in the gravest private or public affairs.

He lived for the day, not cumbered and mortified by his memory. If he
brought you yesterday a new proposition, he would bring you to-day another
not less revolutionary. A very industrious man, and setting, like all
highly organized men, a high value on his time, he seemed the only man of
leisure in town, always ready for any excursion that promised well, or for
conversation prolonged into late hours. His trenchant sense was never
stopped by his rules of daily prudence, but was always up to the new
occasion. He liked and used the simplest food, yet, when some one urged a
vegetable diet, Thoreau thought all diets a very small matter, saying that
“the man who shoots the buffalo lives better than the man who boards at
the Graham House.” He said,—”You can sleep near the railroad, and never
be disturbed: Nature knows very well what sounds are worth attending to,
and has made up her mind not to hear the railroad-whistle. But things
respect the devout mind, and a mental ecstasy was never interrupted.” He
noted, what repeatedly befell him, that, after receiving from a distance a
rare plant, he would presently find the same in his own haunts. And those
pieces of luck which happen only to good players happened to him. One day,
walking with a stranger, who inquired where Indian arrow-heads could he
found, he replied, “Everywhere,” and, stooping forward, picked one on the
instant from the ground. At Mount Washington, in Tuckerman’s Ravine,
Thoreau had a bad fall, and sprained his foot. As he was in the act of
getting up from his fall, he saw for the first time the leaves of the
Arnica mollis.

His robust common sense, armed with stout hands, keen perceptions, and
strong will, cannot yet account for the superiority which shone in his
simple and hidden life. I must add the cardinal fact, that there was an
excellent wisdom in him, proper to a rare class of men, which showed him
the material world as a means and symbol. This discovery, which sometimes
yields to poets a certain casual and interrupted light, serving for the
ornament of their writing, was in him an unsleeping insight; and whatever
faults or obstructions of temperament might cloud it, he was not
disobedient to the heavenly vision. In his youth, he said, one day, “The
other world is all my art: my pencils will draw no other; my jack-knife
will cut nothing else; I do not use it as a means.” This was the muse and
genius that ruled his opinions, conversation, studies, work, and course of
life. This made him a searching judge of men. At first glance he measured
his companion, and, though insensible to some fine traits of culture,
could very well report his weight and calibre. And this made the
impression of genius which his conversation often gave.

He understood the matter in hand at a glance, and saw the limitations
and poverty of those he talked with, so that nothing seemed concealed
from such terrible eyes. I have repeatedly known young men of sensibility
converted in a moment to the belief that this was the man they were in
search of, the man of men, who could tell them all they should do.
His own dealing with them was never affectionate, but superior,
didactic,—scorning their petty ways,—very slowly conceding, or not
conceding at all, the promise of his society at their houses, or even at
his own. “Would he not walk with them?” “He did not know. There was
nothing so important to him as his walk; he had no walks to throw away on
company.” Visits were offered him from respectful parties, but he declined
them. Admiring friends offered to carry him at their own cost to the
Yellow-Stone River,—to the West Indies,—to South America. But though
nothing could be more grave or considered than his refusals, they remind
one in quite new relations of that fop Brummel’s reply to the gentleman
who offered him his carriage in a shower, “But where will you ride,
then?”—and what accusing silences, and what searching and irresistible
speeches, battering down all defences, his companions can remember!

Mr. Thoreau dedicated his genius with such entire love to the fields,
hills, and waters of his native town, that he made them known and
interesting to all reading Americans, and to people over the sea.
The river on whose banks he was born and died he knew from its springs to
its confluence with the Merrimack. He had made summer and winter
observations on it for many years, and at every hour of the day and the
night. The result of the recent survey of the Water Commissioners
appointed by the State of Massachusetts he had reached by his private
experiments, several years earlier. Every fact which occurs in the bed,
on the banks, or in the air over it; the fishes, and their spawning and
nests, their manners, their food; the shad-flies which fill the air on a
certain evening once a year, and which are snapped at by the fishes so
ravenously that many of these die of repletion; the conical heaps of small
stones on the river-shallows, one of which heaps will sometimes overfill a
cart,—these heaps the huge nests of small fishes; the birds which
frequent the stream, heron, duck, sheldrake, loon, osprey; the snake,
musk-rat, otter, woodchuck, and fox, on the banks; the turtle, frog, hyla,
and cricket, which make the banks vocal,—were all known to him, and, as
it were, townsmen and fellow-creatures; so that he felt an absurdity or
violence in any narrative of one of these by itself apart, and still more
of its dimensions on an inch-rule, or in the exhibition of its skeleton,
or the specimen of a squirrel or a bird in brandy. He liked to speak of
the manners of the river, as itself a lawful creature, yet with exactness,
and always to an observed fact. As he knew the river, so the ponds in this

One of the weapons he used, more important than microscope or
alcohol-receiver to other investigators, was a whim which grew on him by
indulgence, yet appeared in gravest statement, namely, of extolling his
own town and neighborhood as the most favored centre for natural
observation. He remarked that the Flora of Massachusetts embraced almost
all the important plants of America,—most of the oaks, most of the
willows, the best pines, the ash, the maple, the beech, the nuts. He
returned Kane’s “Arctic Voyage” to a friend of whom he had borrowed it,
with the remark, that “most of the phenomena noted might be observed in
Concord.” He seemed a little envious of the Pole, for the coincident
sunrise and sunset, or five minutes’ day after six months: a splendid
fact, which Annursnuc had never afforded him. He found red snow in one of
his walks, and told me that he expected to find yet the Victoria regia
in Concord. He was the attorney of the indigenous plants, and owned to a
preference of the weeds to the imported plants, as of the Indian to the
civilized man,—and noticed, with pleasure, that the willow bean-poles of
his neighbor had grown more than his beans. “See these weeds,” he said,
“which have been hoed at by a million farmers all spring and summer, and
yet have prevailed, and just now come out triumphant over all lanes,
pastures, fields, and gardens, such is their vigor. We have insulted them
with low names, too,—as Pigweed, Wormwood, Chickweed, Shad-Blossom.” He
says, “They have brave names, too,—Ambrosia, Stellaria, Amelanchia,
Amaranth, etc.”

I think his fancy for referring everything to the meridian of Concord did
not grow out of any ignorance or depreciation of other longitudes or
latitudes, but was rather a playful expression of his conviction of the
indifferency of all places, and that the best place for each is where he
stands. He expressed it once in this wise:—”I think nothing is to be
hoped from you, if this bit of mould under your feet is not sweeter to you
to eat than any other in this world, or in any world.”

The other weapon with which he conquered all obstacles in science was
patience. He knew how to sit immovable, a part of the rock he rested on,
until the bird, the reptile, the fish, which had retired from him,
should come back, and resume its habits, nay, moved by curiosity, should
come to him and watch him.

It was a pleasure and a privilege to walk with him. He knew the country
like a fox or a bird, and passed through it as freely by paths of his own.
He knew every track in the snow or on the ground, and what creature had
taken this path before him. One must submit abjectly to such a guide, and
the reward was great. Under his arm he carried an old music-book to press
plants; in his pocket, his diary and pencil, a spy-glass for birds,
microscope, jack-knife, and twine. He wore straw hat, stout shoes, strong
gray trousers, to brave shrub-oaks and smilax, and to climb a tree for a
hawk’s or a squirrel’s nest. He waded into the pool for the water-plants,
and his strong legs were no insignificant part of his armor. On the day
I speak of he looked for the Menyanthes, detected it across the wide pool,
and, on examination of the florets, decided that it had been in flower
five days. He drew out of his breast-pocket his diary, and read the names
of all the plants that should bloom on this day, whereof he kept account
as a banker when his notes fall due. The Cypripedium not due till
to-morrow. He thought, that, if waked up from a trance, in this swamp,
he could tell by the plants what time of the year it was within two days.
The redstart was flying about, and presently the fine grosbeaks, whose
brilliant scarlet makes the rash gazer wipe his eye, and whose fine clear
note Thoreau compared to that of a tanager which has got rid of its
hoarseness. Presently he heard a note which he called that of the
night-warbler, a bird he had never identified, had been in search of
twelve years, which always, when he saw it, was in the act of diving down
into a tree or bush, and which it was vain to seek; the only bird that
sings indifferently by night and by day. I told him he must beware of
finding and booking it, lest life should have nothing more to show him.
He said, “What you seek in vain for, half your life, one day you come full
upon all the family at dinner. You seek it like a dream, and as soon as
you find it you become its prey.”

His interest in the flower or the bird lay very deep in his mind, was
connected with Nature,—and the meaning of Nature was never attempted to
be defined by him. He would not offer a memoir of his observations to the
Natural History Society. “Why should I? To detach the description from its
connections in my mind would make it no longer true or valuable to me: and
they do not wish what belongs to it.” His power of observation seemed to
indicate additional senses. He saw as with microscope, heard as with
ear-trumpet, and his memory was a photographic register of all he saw and
heard. And yet none knew better than he that it is not the fact that
imports, but the impression or effect of the fact on your mind. Every fact
lay in glory in his mind, a type of the order and beauty of the whole.
His determination on Natural History was organic. He confessed that he
sometimes felt like a hound or a panther, and, if born among Indians,
would have been a fell hunter. But, restrained by his Massachusetts
culture, he played out the game in this mild form of botany and
ichthyology. His intimacy with animals suggested what Thomas Fuller
records of Butler the apiologist, that “either he had told the bees things
or the bees had told him.” Snakes coiled round his leg; the fishes swam
into his hand, and he took them out of the water; he pulled the woodchuck
out of its hole by the tail, and took the foxes under his protection from
the hunters. Our naturalist had perfect magnanimity; he had no secrets: he
would carry you to the heron’s haunt, or even to his most prized botanical
swamp,—possibly knowing that you could never find it again, yet willing
to take his risks.

No college ever offered him a diploma, or a professor’s chair; no academy
made him its corresponding secretary, its discoverer, or even its member.
Whether these learned bodies feared the satire of his presence. Yet so
much knowledge of Nature’s secret and genius few others possessed, none in
a more large and religious synthesis. For not a particle of respect had he
to the opinions of any man or body of men, but homage solely to the truth
itself; and as he discovered everywhere among doctors some leaning of
courtesy, it discredited them. He grew to be revered and admired by his
townsmen, who had at first known him only as an oddity. The farmers who
employed him as a surveyor soon discovered his rare accuracy and skill,
his knowledge of their lands, of trees, of birds, of Indian remains, and
the like, which enabled him to tell every farmer more than he knew before
of his own farm; so that he began to feel as if Mr. Thoreau had better
rights in his land than he. They felt, too, the superiority of character
which addressed all men with a native authority.

Indian relics abound in Concord,—arrow-heads, stone chisels, pestles, and

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