Henry David Thoreau

by Edwin Watts Chubb

During his lifetime Thoreau published but two books,—Walden, and the Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers,—and these had but limited sale while the author was living. Over seven hundred copies of the Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers were returned, to Thoreau by his publisher. Thoreau must have had a helpful sense of humor, for after lugging the burden upstairs he complacently remarks,—"I have now a library of nearly nine hundred volumes, over seven hundred of which I wrote myself." In recent times a costly edition of all Thoreau's writings has been published. He is one of the rare spirits whose fame increases with the years. But of all his voluminous writings Walden, so it seems to me, is the most readable, the freshest, the most stimulating. Higginson says that it is, perhaps, the only book yet written in America that can bear an annual reading.

Walden is a record of Thoreau's sojourn for about two years in the woods by Walden Pond. He went about two miles from his mother's door, built a little house or hut, and there lived, reading his favorite books, philosophizing, studying nature, and to a great extent avoiding society. Some people have condemned him as selfish, others have defended him. His best defense is his work. If anything so fresh and readable as Walden be the result, we might be willing to deny ourselves the society of some of our urban friends, without charging them with selfishness. Thoreau is sometimes called a "wild man"; in a sense, he is untamed. He himself confessed,—"There is in my nature, methinks, a singular yearning toward all wildness." Yet he was a true lover of men. He hated slavery and went to jail rather than pay his taxes, because he disbelieved in supporting a government that upheld slavery. When his friend, the philosophic Emerson, peered into the prison cell and said,—"Henry, why are you here?" the quick retort was,—"Why are you not here?"

It must be remembered that Thoreau lived in a time of social experiment. Hawthorne had thrown in his lot for a brief time with the Brook Farm idealists. Why should not Thoreau make an experiment of his own? Why not live the simple life before Wagner wrote about it? He was tired of the conventionalities of society, of the incessant interruptions to steady thought. Society is naught but a conspiracy to compel imitation. "The head monkey of Paris puts on a traveler's cap, and all the monkeys in America do the same." So Thoreau moves out into the woods by the side of Walden Pond. Before he can live there he must build his house:

"Near the end of March, 1845, I borrowed an axe and went down to the woods by Walden Pond, nearest to where I intended to build my house, and began to cut down some tall arrowy pines, still in their youth, for timber. It is difficult to begin without borrowing, but perhaps it is the most generous course thus to permit your fellow-men to have an interest in your enterprise. The owner of the axe as he released his hold on it, said that it was the apple of his eye; but I returned it sharper than I received it."

His house, when finished, was ten feet wide and fifteen long. The exact cost was twenty-eight dollars, twelve and one-half cents. In Walden he gives an itemized account of the cost. And then he adds, with a twinkle of his eye, I think,—"I intend to build me a house which will surpass any on the main street in Concord in grandeur and luxury, as soon as it pleases me as much and will cost me no more than my present one."

Thoreau also finds some satisfaction that his house cost him less than the year's rent of a college room at Harvard; for there the mere rent of a student's room, "which is only a little larger than my own, is thirty dollars each year, though the corporation had the advantage of building thirty-two side by side and under one roof."

In this book he gives a very interesting account of what his food cost him during the eight months from July 4 to March 1. Here is his list:

Rice $1.73-½
Molasses   1.73
Rye meal   1.04-¾
Indian meal     .99-¾
Pork     .22
Flour     .88
Sugar     .80
Lard     .65
Apples     .25
Dried apple     .22
Sweet potatoes     .10
One pumpkin     .06
One watermelon     .02
Salt     .03

"Yes," says he, "I did eat $8.74, all told; but I should not thus unblushingly publish my guilt, if I did not know that most of my readers were equally guilty with myself, and that their deeds would look no better in print." In this connection one may call to mind a reported saying of Mrs. Emerson's to the effect that Henry never got very far away from the sound of the dinner horn. It is not hard to imagine that the hospitable Emerson often invited the kindred-spirited Thoreau into his house for a warm and abundant dinner. Another writer recently has advanced also this thought: Thoreau was not so much of a selfish hermit as it might appear. He went into the woods to make his house or hut a station on the underground railroad. If this be true, a new and different light is thrown upon Thoreau's conduct.

Thoreau was a great lover of nature and the things of nature loved him. Dr. Channing gives us this glimpse of the man:

"Thoreau named all the birds without a gun, a weapon he never used in mature years. He neither killed nor imprisoned any animal, unless driven by acute needs. He brought home a flying squirrel, to study its mode of flight, but quickly carried it back to the wood. He possessed true instincts of topography, and could conceal choice things in the bush and find them again.... If Thoreau needed a box in his walk, he would strip a piece of birch bark off the tree, fold it, when cut straightly, together, and put his tender lichen or brittle creature therein."

Emerson supplements this picture with the following account of a visit he once made to Walden:

"The naturalist waded into the pool for the water plants, and his strong legs were no insignificant part of his armor. On this day he looked for the menyanthes and detected it across the wide pool; and, on examination of the floret, declared that it had been in flower five days. He drew out of his breast-pocket a diary, and read the names of all the plants that should bloom that day, whereof he kept account as a banker does when his notes are due.... He could pace rods more accurately than another man could measure them with rod and chain. He could find his way in the woods at night better by his feet than by his eyes. He knew every track in the snow and on the ground, and what creature had taken the path in the snow before him."

Thoreau could write the most beautiful descriptions when he was so inclined. Here is an exquisite description of a snowstorm.

"Did you ever admire the steady, silent, windless fall of the snow, in some lead-colored sky, silent save the little ticking of the flakes as they touched the twigs? It is chased silver, molded over the pines and oak leaves. Soft shades hang like curtains along the closely-draped wood-paths. Frozen apples become little cider-vats. The old crooked apple-trees, frozen stiff in the pale, shivering sunlight, that appears to be dying of consumption, gleam forth like the heroes of one of Dante's cold hells; we would mind any change in the mercury of the dream. The snow crunches under the feet; the chopper's axe rings funereally through the tragic air. At early morn the frost on button-bushes and willows was silvery and every stem and minutest twig and filamentary weed came up a silver thing, while the cottage smoke rose salmon-colored into that oblique day. At the base of ditches were shooting crystals, like the blades of an ivory-handled penknife, the rosettes and favors fretted of silver on the flat ice. The little cascades in the brook were ornamented with transparent shields, and long candelabrums and spermaceti-colored fools'-caps and plated jellies and white globes, with the black water whirling along transparently underneath. The sun comes out, and all at a glance, rubies, sapphires, diamonds, and emeralds start into intense life on the angles of the snow crystals."