Thoreau The Pioneer Writer About Nature

( Originally Published 1916 )


It is only within the last decade that the full stature of Henry D. Thoreau has been appreciated or his services as an original thinker have been valued. How-ells says of his Walden: "I do not believe Tolstoi himself has more clearly shown the hollowness, the hopelessness, the unworthiness of the life of the world than Thoreau did in that book." Only a little over sixty years ago nature study was unknown in America, and to Thoreau belongs the distinction of being the pioneer of this literature of life in the open air. But he was far more than a remarkable student and observer of nature; he was an original thinker who foretold many of the problems of our day, especially those which have arisen from the congestion of thousands of the poor in all large American cities. Above all, he was a philosopher who carried the doctrine of individuality to its extreme limit and who believed that a great part of the work done in this world is wasted because its results are spent on food, drink and raiment that are not necessary to one's comfort or happiness.

Not even in the books of John Muir or John Burroughs will one find such pure enjoyment of mountain scenery, or such awe and reverence for the spirit of nature as may be found in Thoreau's records of mountain climbing or of his days spent in the woods, far from the haunts of men. Many have imitated Thoreau in his search for what is now called the "simple life," but no one has equaled him in his capacity for absorbing the spirit of wild nature or his contentment with solitary life in the woods. Companionship means so much to the great majority of people that they cannot understand a man whose nature made no demand for any associate in his tramps or any sharer in his rapture over a glorious view from a mountain summit.

Thoreau was a natural hermit, but he was eminently companionable when any-one invaded his haunts. His nature simply ignored the usual fondness for friends or associates. He was the pioneer in a new style of writing about nature, but though others have caught much of his skill in making the woods and the mountains real to their readers, they could not secure that subtle element of personality which colors all of Thoreau's work and makes it unique.

Many lovers of nature impress one as profoundly affected by noble scenery, but still one fancies that these excursions into the wild life are simply vacations from prosaic pursuits in the big cities. Not so with Thoreau. When he writes about walking, or about autumnal tints, or about birds, the reader knows at once that his conclusions are the result of much experience. In a word, his mind was saturated with many impressions, and his chief labor seems to have been to select such as would prove the most striking.

For months Thoreau studied all the birds and small animals that frequented the woods in which he built his cabin on the shore of Walden pond. When he made notes on these wild creatures they represented many observations, not the impressions of a pedestrian who passed through this part of Massachusetts on a walking trip. The same sureness of fact, the same reserve of knowledge, is seen in everything that he wrote. Throughout all his essays one has this sense of being admitted to share in only a few of the pleasures of this scholarly recluse, whose eyes were as keen as those of the professional hunter, but who had none of the hunter's lust for killing the wild creatures of the woods.

As Thoreau had unusual gifts as a writer, he was able to make the reader see what impressed him. Much of this work was in the form of elaborate notes and journals left behind him, for Thoréau was one of those unhappy authors who gained no reputation during his lifetime. His brilliant work fell flat because the public of his time was far more interested in such sentimental rhapsodies as Chateaubriand poured forth in Atala or Rousseau in his morbid confessions than in the real impression's of a genuine student of nature. Four years after the issue of 4 Week on the Concord and Merrimac Rivers Thoreau records with grim humor the fact that he bought 703 copies out of an edition of i000 and stacked them up in his chamber in a pile half as high as his head. "This," he says, "is authorship; these are the work of my brain." Yet no sooner was he dead than all the work which he left behind him, including a half-dozen volumes of journals, was printed and found thousands of readers. Although most of his writing was done in the forties of the last century, it is as readable today as when it was first written.

The closest friend of Thoreau was Emerson, although the Sage of Concord was perhaps his sharpest critic, and it was Emerson who furnished the biographical sketch which prefaced the first complete edition of Thoreau's works. Thoreau, of mixed Saxon and French blood, was born in Concord in 1817, and was graduated from Harvard in his twentieth year. His father was a manufacturer of lead pencils, but the son showed no inclination to enter upon any commercial pursuit.

After six years devoted to teaching, Thoreau decided to live in the woods and do only so much work as would suffice to maintain him in comfort. He built a cabin on Walden pond, near Concord, and for two years led the simple life. His ,wants were so few that he was able to live well for two years on less money than one in a city would spend in a month. His time he devoted to study and reading and to patient observation of the birds and animals about his house. Yet his life in this cabin was never squalid.

It is evident that Thoreau often irritated Emerson by his passion for controversy. Thoreau accepted nothing for granted, and he seemed to have a mania for protesting against all that others accepted. One of his fads was the unwholesome life of the city; another was the small value of a college education. He had no genius for friendship. In fact, one of his friends summed up his unsocial nature in this way: "I love Henry, but I cannot like him; and as for taking his arm, I should as soon think of taking the arm of an elm tree.''

In Walden will be found the best revelation of Thoreau's personality. The man was absolutely independent. As Emerson said, he had no passions, no desires, no ambitions; he was sufficient unto himself; he never felt the need of companionship. Every day saw him take four or five hours of good, wholesome exercise in the open air. Then he returned to his books or his writing with the same zest that a city man returns to work after social pleasures or the theatre. His hunger was satisfied with the simplest food, which he prepared himself. He devoted much time to the patient study of all the wild creatures that frequented the woods in which he had built his house.. He sets down minutely the cost of his living and finds that for six months he had actually lived for a sum which would not have sustained him one week in any big city.

Walden is Thoreau's best work, but there is much readable matter in The Maine Woods, Cape Cod and Excursions. Thoreau was a natural writer, with a genius for style and with that devotion to detail which makes his journals such good reading. Here is an extract from his essay on Walking:

Where is the literature which gives expression to Nature? He would be a poet who could impress the winds and streams into his service, to speak for him; who transplanted words to his pages with earth adhering to their roots; whose words were so true and fresh and natural that they would appear to expand like the buds at the approach of spring, though they lay half smothered between two musty leaves in a library. * * * I do not know any poetry to quote which adequately expresses this yearning for the Wild. Approached from this side, the best poetry is tame.

Thoreau wrote some poetry, but it bears a striking resemblance to Emerson's verse, and it has not appealed to the public. Among his notes of journeys and observations Thoreau was fond of interpolating his views on transcendental philosophy. He was a New England pagan, with absolutely no reverence for religious authority and with apparently little interest in any religious doctrine. This mental attitude irritated Emerson, who could not conceive of any human being without a strong curiosity about the purpose of the universe and a great hunger to know something of the future life.

Thoreau's fame is sure because he wrote only of the things that he loved, and his style is far finer and richer than the style of most of his famous contemporaries. Men like Alcott looked upon Thoreau as deficient in the essential qualities of a great writer, but the years have brought their revenges, and today Thoreau is read by thousands who know the leader of Transcendentalism only as a name.

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