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Another Word On Thoreau
by [?]

I

After Emerson, the name of no New England man of letters keeps greener and fresher than that of Thoreau. A severe censor of his countrymen, and with few elements of popularity, yet the quality of his thought, the sincerity of his life, and the nearness and perennial interest of his themes, as well as his rare powers of literary expression, win recruits from each generation of readers. He does not grow stale any more than Walden Pond itself grows stale. He is an obstinate fact there in New England life and literature, and at the end of his first centennial his fame is more alive than ever.

Thoreau was born in Concord, Massachusetts, July, 1817, and passed most of his life of forty-five years in his native town, minding his own business, as he would say, which consisted, for the most part, in spending at least the half of each day in the open air, winter and summer, rain and shine, and in keeping tab upon all the doings of wild nature about him and recording his observations in his Journal.

The two race strains that met in Thoreau, the Scottish and the French, come out strongly in his life and character. To the French he owes his vivacity, his lucidity, his sense of style, and his passion for the wild; for the French, with all their urbanity and love of art, turn to nature very easily. To the Scot he is indebted more for his character than for his intellect. From this source come his contrariness, his combativeness, his grudging acquiescence, and his pronounced mysticism. Thence also comes his genius for solitude. The man who in his cabin in the woods has a good deal of company “especially the mornings when nobody calls,” is French only in the felicity of his expression. But there is much in Thoreau that is neither Gallic nor Scottish, but pure Thoreau.

The most point-blank and authoritative criticism within my knowledge that Thoreau has received at the hands of his countrymen came from the pen of Lowell about 1864, and was included in “My Study Windows.” It has all the professional smartness and scholarly qualities which usually characterize Lowell’s critical essays. Thoreau was vulnerable, both as an observer and as a literary craftsman, and Lowell lets him off pretty easily–too easily–on both counts.

The flaws he found in his nature lore were very inconsiderable: “Till he built his Walden shack he did not know that the hickory grew near Concord. Till he went to Maine he had never seen phosphorescent wood–a phenomenon early familiar to most country boys. At forty he spoke of the seeding [i. e., flowering][3] of the pine as a new discovery, though one should have thought that its gold-dust of blowing pollen might have earlier caught his eye.”

[Footnote 3: See “Walking” in Excursions. He was under thirty-three when he made these observations (June, 1850).]

As regards his literary craftsmanship, Lowell charges him only with having revived the age of concetti while he fancied himself going back to a preclassical nature, basing the charge on such a far-fetched comparison as that in which Thoreau declares his preference for “the dry wit of decayed cranberry-vines and the fresh Attic salt of the moss-beds” over the wit of the Greek sages as it comes to us in the “Banquet” of Xenophon–a kind of perversity of comparison all too frequent with Thoreau.

But though Lowell lets Thoreau off easily on these specific counts, he more than makes up by his sweeping criticism, on more general grounds, of his life and character. Here one feels that he overdoes the matter.

It is not true, in the sense which Lowell implies, that Thoreau’s whole life was a search for the doctor. It was such a search in no other sense than that we are all in search of the doctor when we take a walk, or flee to the mountains or to the seashore, or seek to bring our minds and spirits in contact with “Nature’s primal sanities.” His search for the doctor turns out to be an escape from the conditions that make a doctor necessary. His wonderful activity, those long walks in all weathers, in all seasons, by night as well as by day, drenched by rain and chilled by frost, suggest a reckless kind of health. A doctor might wisely have cautioned him against such exposures. Nor was Thoreau a valetudinarian in his physical, moral, or intellectual fiber.