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Henry D. Thoreau
by [?]

Harvard supplied him the alternating current; he influenced the people in his environment, and he was influenced by his environment.

But without Harvard there would have been no Thoreau. Having earned his diploma, he had the privilege of declining it; and having gone to college, it was his right to affirm the emptiness of the classics. Only the man with a goodly bank-balance can wear rags with impunity.

* * * * *

John Thoreau made his lead-pencils and peddled them out, and we hear of his saying, “Pencils, I fear, are going out of fashion–people are buying nothing but these miserable new-fangled steel pens.” When called upon to surrender, Paul Jones replied, “We haven’t yet begun to fight.” The truth was, the people had not really begun to use pencils. Pencils weren’t going out of fashion, but John Thoreau was. The poor man moved here and there, evicted by rapacious landlords and taken in by his relatives, who didn’t care whether he was a stranger or not. If he owed them ten dollars, they took fifty dollars’ worth of pencils and called it square.

Then they undersold John one-half, and he said times were scarce.

This, it need not be explained, was in Massachusetts.

A hundred years ago, these men who whittled useful things out of wood during the long winter days were everywhere in New England. The sons of these men invented machines to make the same things, and thus were started the New England manufactories. It was brains against hands, cleverness against skill, initiative against plodding industry. And the man who can tell of the sorrow and suffering of all those industrious sparrows that were caught and wound around flying shuttles, or stamped beneath the swift presses of invention, hadn’t yet been born. God doesn’t seem to care for sparrows–three-fourths of all that are hatched die in the nest or fall fluttering to the ground and perish, Grant Allen says.

Comparatively few persons can adjust themselves happily to new conditions: the rest are pushed and broken and bent–and die.

When Dixon and Faber invented machines that could be fed automatically, and turn out more pencils in a day than John Thoreau could in a year, John was out of the game.

John had brought up his children to work, and Henry became an expert pencil-maker. Henry, we say, should have found employment with Faber and Company, as foreman, or else evaded their patents and made a pencil-machine of his own. Instead, however, he settled down and made pencils just like his father used to make, and in the same way. He peddled out a few to his friends, but his business instinct was shown in that he himself tells how one year he made a thousand dollars’ worth of pencils, but was obliged to sacrifice them all to cancel a debt of one hundred dollars.

And yet there are people who declare that genius is not transmissible.

John Thoreau failed at pencil-making, but Henry Thoreau failed because he played the flute morning, noon and night, and went singing the immunity of Pan. He fished, and tramped the woods and fields, looking, listening, dreaming and thinking.

At Keswick, where the water comes down at Lodore, there is a pencil-factory that has been there since the days of William the Conqueror. The wife of Coleridge used to work there and get money that supported her philosopher-husband and their children. Southey lived near, and became Poet Laureate of England through the right exercise of Keswick pencils; Wordsworth lived only a few miles away, and once he brought over Charles and Mary Lamb, and bought pencils for both, with their names stamped on them. The good old man who now keeps the pencil-factory explained these things to me, and also explained the direct relationship of good lead-pencils to literature, but I do not remember what it was.