Thoreau is suggestive of those antibodies which modern science makes so much of. He tends to fortify us against the dry rot of business, the seductions of social pleasures, the pride of wealth and position. He is antitoxic; he is a literary germicide of peculiar power. He is too religious to go to church, too patriotic to pay his taxes, too fervent a humanist to interest himself in the social welfare of his neighborhood.
Thoreau called himself a mystic, and a transcendentalist, and a natural philosopher to boot. But the least of these was the natural philosopher. He did not have the philosophic mind, nor the scientific mind; he did not inquire into the reason of things, nor the meaning of things; in fact, had no disinterested interest in the universe apart from himself. He was too personal and illogical for a philosopher. The scientific interpretation of things did not interest him at all. He was interested in things only so far as they related to Henry Thoreau. He interpreted Nature entirely in the light of his own idiosyncrasies.
Science goes its own way in spite of our likes and dislikes, but Thoreau's likes and dislikes determined everything for him. He was stoical, but not philosophical. His intellect had no free play outside his individual predilection. Truth as philosophers use the term, was not his quest but truth made in Concord.
Thoreau writes that when he was once asked by the Association for the Advancement of Science what branch of science he was especially interested in, he did not reply because he did not want to make himself the laughing-stock of the scientific community, which did not believe in a science which deals with the higher law—his higher law, which bears the stamp of Henry Thoreau.
He was an individualist of the most pronounced type. The penalty of this type of mind is narrowness; the advantage is the personal flavor imparted to the written page. Thoreau's books contain plenty of the pepper and salt of character and contrariness; even their savor of whim and prejudice adds to their literary tang. When his individualism becomes aggressive egotism, as often happens, it is irritating; but when it gives only that pungent and personal flavor which pervades much of "Walden," it is very welcome.
Thoreau's critics justly aver that he severely arraigns his countrymen because they are not all Thoreaus—that they do not desert their farms and desks and shops and take to the woods. What unmeasured contempt he pours out upon the lives and ambitions of most of them! Need a nature-lover, it is urged, necessarily be a man-hater? Is not man a part of nature?—averaging up quite as good as the total scheme of things out of which he came? Cannot his vices and shortcomings be matched by a thousand cruel and abortive things in the fields and the woods? The fountain cannot rise above its source, and man is as good as is the nature out of which he came, and of which he is a part. Most of Thoreau's harsh judgments upon his neighbors and countrymen are only his extreme individualism gone to seed.
An extremist he always was. Extreme views commended themselves to him because they were extreme. His aim in writing was usually "to make an extreme statement." He left the middle ground to the school committees and trustees. He had in him the stuff of which martyrs and heroes are made. In John Brown he recognized a kindred soul. But his literary bent led him to take his own revolutionary impulses out in words. The closest he came to imitation of the hero of Harper's Ferry and to defying the Government was on one occasion when he refused to pay his poll-tax and thus got himself locked in jail overnight. It all seems a petty and ignoble ending of his fierce denunciation of politics and government, but it no doubt helped to satisfy his imagination, which so tyrannized over him throughout life. He could endure offenses against his heart and conscience and reason easier than against his imagination.
He presents that curious phenomenon of a man who is an extreme product of culture and civilization, and yet who so hungers and thirsts for the wild and the primitive that he is unfair to the forces and conditions out of which he came, and by which he is at all times nourished and upheld. He made his excursions into the Maine wilderness and lived in his hut by Walden Pond as a scholar and philosopher, and not at all in the spirit of the lumbermen and sportsmen whose wildness he so much admired. It was from his vantage-ground of culture and of Concord transcendentalism that he appraised all these types. It was from a community built up and sustained by the common industries and the love of gain that he decried all these things. It was from a town and a civilization that owed much to the pine tree that he launched his diatribe against the lumbermen in the Maine woods: "The pine is no more lumber than man is; and to be made into boards and houses no more its true and highest use than the truest use of man is to be cut down and made into manure." Not a happy comparison, but no matter. If the pine tree had not been cut down and made into lumber, it is quite certain that Thoreau would never have got to the Maine woods to utter this protest, just as it is equally certain that had he not been a member of a thrifty and industrious community, and kept his hold upon it, he could not have made his Walden experiment of toying and coquetting with the wild and the non-industrial. His occupations as land-surveyor, lyceum lecturer, and magazine writer attest how much he owed to the civilization he was so fond of decrying. This is Thoreau's weakness—the half-truths in which he plumes himself, as if they were the whole law and gospel. His Walden bean-field was only a pretty piece of play-acting; he cared more for the ringing of his hoe upon the stones than for the beans. Had his living really depended upon the product, the sound would not have pleased him so, and the botany of the weeds he hoed under would not have so interested him.
Thoreau's half-truths titillate and amuse the mind. We do not nod over his page. We enjoy his art while experiencing an undercurrent of protest against his unfairness. We could have wished him to have shown himself in his writings as somewhat sweeter and more tolerant toward the rest of the world, broader in outlook, and more just and charitable in disposition—more like his great prototype, Emerson, who could do full justice to the wild and the spontaneous without doing an injustice to their opposites; who could see the beauty of the pine tree, yet sing the praises of the pine-tree State House; who could arraign the Government, yet pay his taxes; who could cherish Thoreau, and yet see all his limitations. Emerson affirmed more than he denied, and his charity was as broad as his judgment. He set Thoreau a good example in bragging, but he bragged to a better purpose. He exalted the present moment, the universal fact, the omnipotence of the moral law, the sacredness of private judgment; he pitted the man of to-day against all the saints and heroes of history; and, although he decried traveling, he was yet considerable of a traveler, and never tried to persuade himself that Concord was an epitome of the world. Emerson comes much nearer being a national figure than does Thoreau, and yet Thoreau, by reason of his very narrowness and perversity, and by his intense local character, united to the penetrating character of his genius, has made an enduring impression upon our literature.
Thoreau's life was a search for the wild. He was the great disciple of the Gospel of Walking. He elevated walking into a religious exercise. One of his most significant and entertaining chapters is on "Walking." No other writer that I recall has set forth the Gospel of Walking so eloquently and so stimulatingly. Thoreau's religion and his philosophy are all in this chapter. It is his most mature, his most complete and comprehensive statement. He says:
I have met with but one or two persons in the course of my life who understood the art of Walking, that is, of taking walks—who had a genius, so to speak, for sauntering, which word is beautifully derived "from idle people who roved about the country, in the Middle Ages, and asked charity, under pretence of going a la Sainte Terre," to the Holy Land, till the children exclaimed, "There goes a Sainte-Terrer,"—a Saunterer, a Holy-Lander. They who never go to the Holy Land in their walks, as they pretend, are indeed mere idlers and vagabonds; but they who do go there are saunterers in the good sense, such as I mean.... For every walk is a sort of crusade, preached by some Peter the Hermit in us, to go forth and reconquer this Holy Land from the hands of the Infidels.
Thoreau was the first man in this country, or in any other, so far as I know, who made a religion of walking—the first to announce a Gospel of the Wild. That he went forth into wild nature in much the same spirit that the old hermits went into the desert, and was as devout in his way as they were in theirs, is revealed by numerous passages in his Journal. He would make his life a sacrament; he discarded the old religious terms and ideas, and struck out new ones of his own:
What more glorious condition of being can we imagine than from impure to become pure? May I not forget that I am impure and vicious! May I not cease to love purity! May I go to my slumbers as expecting to arise to a new and more perfect day! May I so live and refine my life as fitting myself for a society ever higher than I actually enjoy!
To watch for and describe all the divine features which I detect in nature! My profession is to be always on the alert to find God in nature, to know his lurking-place, to attend all the oratorios, the operas, in nature.
Ah! I would walk, I would sit, and sleep, with natural piety. What if I could pray aloud or to myself as I went along the brooksides a cheerful prayer like the birds? For joy I could embrace the earth. I shall delight to be buried in it.
I do not deserve anything. I am unworthy the least regard, and yet I am made to rejoice. I am impure and worthless, and yet the world is gilded for my delight and holidays are prepared for me, and my path is strewn with flowers. But I cannot thank the Giver; I cannot even whisper my thanks to the human friends I have.
In the essay on "Walking," Thoreau says that the art of walking "comes only by the grace of God. It requires a direct dispensation from Heaven to become a walker. You must be born into the family of the Walkers." "I think that I cannot preserve my health and spirits, unless I spend four hours a day at least,—it is commonly more than that,—sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields, absolutely free from all worldly engagements."
Thoreau made good his boast. He was a new kind of walker, a Holy-Lander. His walks yielded him mainly spiritual and ideal results. The fourteen published volumes of his Journal are mainly a record of his mental reactions to the passing seasons and to the landscape he sauntered through. There is a modicum of natural history, but mostly he reaps the intangible harvest of the poet, the saunterer, the mystic, the super-sportsman.
With his usual love of paradox Thoreau says that the fastest way to travel is to go afoot, because, one may add, the walker is constantly arriving at his destination; all places are alike to him, his harvest grows all along the road and beside every path, in every field and wood and on every hilltop.
All of Thoreau's books belong to the literature of Walking, and are as true in spirit in Paris or London as in Concord. His natural history, for which he had a passion, is the natural history of the walker, not always accurate, as I have pointed out, but always graphic and interesting.
Wordsworth was about the first poet-walker—a man of letters who made a business of walking, and whose study was really the open air. But he was not a Holy-Lander in the Thoreau sense. He did not walk to get away from people as Thoreau did, but to see a greater variety of them, and to gather suggestions for his poems. Not so much the wild as the human and the morally significant were the objects of Wordsworth's quest. He haunted waterfalls and fells and rocky heights and lonely tarns, but he was not averse to footpaths and highways, and the rustic, half-domesticated nature of rural England. He was a nature-lover; he even calls himself a nature-worshiper; and he appears to have walked as many, or more, hours each day, in all seasons, as did Thoreau; but he was hunting for no lost paradise of the wild; nor waging a war against the arts and customs of civilization. Man and life were at the bottom of his interest in Nature.
Wordsworth never knew the wild as we know it in this country—the pitilessly savage and rebellious; and, on the other hand, he never knew the wonderfully delicate and furtive and elusive nature that we know; but he knew the sylvan, the pastoral, the rustic-human, as we cannot know them. British birds have nothing plaintive in their songs; and British woods and fells but little that is disorderly and cruel in their expression, or violent in their contrasts.
Wordsworth gathered his finest poetic harvest from common nature and common humanity about him—the wayside birds and flowers and waterfalls, and the wayside people. Though he called himself a worshiper of Nature, it was Nature in her half-human moods that he adored—Nature that knows no extremes, and that has long been under the influence of man—a soft, humid, fertile, docile Nature, that suggests a domesticity as old and as permanent as that of cattle and sheep. His poetry reflects these features, reflects the high moral and historic significance of the European landscape, while the poetry of Emerson, and of Thoreau, is born of the wildness and elusiveness of our more capricious and unkempt Nature.
The walker has no axe to grind; he sniffs the air for new adventure; he loiters in old scenes, he gleans in old fields. He only seeks intimacy with Nature to surprise her preoccupied with her own affairs. He seeks her in the woods, the swamps, on the hills, along the streams, by night and by day, in season and out of season. He skims the fields and hillsides as the swallow skims the air, and what he gets is intangible to most persons. He sees much with his eyes, but he sees more with his heart and imagination. He bathes in Nature as in a sea. He is alert for the beauty that waves in the trees, that ripples in the grass and grain, that flows in the streams, that drifts in the clouds, that sparkles in the dew and rain. The hammer of the geologist, the notebook of the naturalist, the box of the herbalist, the net of the entomologist, are not for him. He drives no sharp bargains with Nature, he reads no sermons in stones, no books in running brooks, but he does see good in everything. The book he reads he reads through all his senses—through his eyes, his ears, his nose, and also through his feet and hands—and its pages are open everywhere; the rocks speak of more than geology to him, the birds of more than ornithology, the flowers of more than botany, the stars of more than astronomy, the wild creatures of more than zooelogy.
The average walker is out for exercise and the exhilarations of the road, he reaps health and strength; but Thoreau evidently impaired his health by his needless exposure and inadequate food. He was a Holy-Lander who falls and dies in the Holy Land. He ridiculed walking for exercise—taking a walk as the sick take medicine; the walk itself was to be the "enterprise and adventure of the day." And "you must walk like a camel, which is said to be the only beast which ruminates while walking."
Thoreau's friends and neighbors seem to have persuaded themselves that his natural-history lore was infallible, and, moreover, that he possessed some mysterious power over the wild creatures about him that other men did not possess. I recall how Emerson fairly bristled up when on one occasion while in conversation with him I told him I thought Thoreau in his trips to the Maine woods had confounded the hermit thrush with the wood thrush, as the latter was rarely or never found in Maine. As for Thoreau's influence over the wild creatures, Emerson voiced this superstition when he said, "Snakes coiled round his leg, the fishes swam into his hand, and he took them from the water; he pulled the woodchuck out of its hole by the tail, and took the foxes under his protection from the hunters." Of course Thoreau could do nothing with the wild creatures that you or I could not do under the same conditions. A snake will coil around any man's leg if he steps on its tail, but it will not be an embrace of affection; and a fish will swim into his hands under the same conditions that it will into Thoreau's. As for pulling a woodchuck out of its hole by the tail, the only trouble is to get hold of the tail. The 'chuck is pretty careful to keep his tail behind him, but many a farm boy, aided by his dog, has pulled one out of the stone wall by the tail, much against the 'chuck's will. If Thoreau's friends were to claim that he could carry Mephitis mephitica by the tail with impunity, I can say I have done the same thing, and had my photograph taken in the act. The skunk is no respecter of persons, and here again the trouble is to get hold of the tail at the right moment—and, I may add, to let go of it at the right moment.
Thoreau's influence over the wild creatures is what every man possesses who is alike gentle in his approach to them. Bradford Torrey succeeded, after a few experiments, in so dispelling the fears of an incubating red-eyed vireo that she would take insect food from his hand, and I have known several persons to become so familiar with the chickadees that they would feed from the hand, and in some instances even take food from between the lips. If you have a chipmunk for a neighbor, you may soon become on such intimate terms with him that he will search your pockets for nuts and sit on your knee and shoulder and eat them. But why keep alive and circulate as truth these animal legends of the prescientific ages?
Thoreau was not a born naturalist, but a born supernaturalist. He was too intent upon the bird behind the bird always to take careful note of the bird itself. He notes the birds, but not too closely. He was at times a little too careless in this respect to be a safe guide to the bird-student. Even the saunterer to the Holy Land ought to know the indigo bunting from the black-throated blue warbler, with its languid, midsummery, "Zee, zee, zee-eu."
Many of his most interesting natural-history notes Thoreau got from his farmer friends—Melvin, Minott, Miles, Hubbard, Wheeler. Their eyes were more single to the life around them than were his; none of them had lost a hound, a turtle-dove, and a bay horse, whose trail they were daily in quest of.
A haunter of swamps and river marshes all his life, he had never yet observed how the night bittern made its booming or pumping sound, but accepted the explanation of one of his neighbors that it was produced by the bird thrusting its bill in water, sucking up as much as it could hold, and then pumping it out again with four or five heaves of the neck, throwing the water two or three feet—in fact, turning itself into a veritable pump! I have stood within a few yards of the bird when it made the sound, and seen the convulsive movement of the neck and body, and the lifting of the head as the sound escaped. The bird seems literally to vomit up its notes, but it does not likewise emit water.
Every farmer and fox-hunter would smile if he read Thoreau's statement, made in his paper on the natural history of Massachusetts, that "when the snow lies light and but five or six inches deep, you may give chase and come up with the fox on foot." Evidently Thoreau had never tried it. With a foot and a half, or two feet of snow on the ground, and traveling on snowshoes, you might force a fox to take to his hole, but you would not come up to him. In four or five feet of soft snow hunters come up with the deer, and ride on their backs for amusement, but I doubt if a red fox ever ventures out in such a depth of snow. In one of his May walks in 1860, Thoreau sees the trail of the musquash in the mud along the river-bottoms, and he is taken by the fancy that, as our roads and city streets often follow the early tracks of the cow, so "rivers in another period follow the trail of the musquash." As if the river was not there before the musquash was!
Again, his mysterious "night warbler," to which he so often alludes, was one of our common everyday birds which most school-children know, namely, the oven-bird, or wood-accentor, yet to Thoreau it was a sort of phantom bird upon which his imagination loved to dwell. Emerson told him he must beware of finding and booking it, lest life should have nothing more to show him. But how such a haunter of woods escaped identifying the bird is a puzzle.
In his walks in the Maine woods Thoreau failed to discriminate the song of the hermit thrush from that of the wood thrush. The melody, no doubt, went to his heart, and that was enough. Though he sauntered through orchards and rested under apple trees, he never observed that the rings of small holes in the bark were usually made by the yellow-bellied woodpecker, instead of by Downy, and that the bird was not searching for grubs or insects, but was feeding upon the milky cambium layer of the inner bark.
But Thoreau's little slips of the kind I have called attention to count as nothing against the rich harvest of natural-history notes with which his work abounds. He could describe bird-songs and animal behavior and give these things their right emphasis in the life of the landscape as no other New England writer has done. His account of the battle of the ants in Walden atones an hundred-fold for the lapses I have mentioned.
One wonders just what Thoreau means when he says in "Walden," in telling of his visit to "Baker Farm": "Once it chanced that I stood in the very abutment of a rainbow's arch, which filled the lower stratum of the atmosphere, tinging the grass and leaves around, and dazzling me as if I looked through colored crystal." Is it possible, then, to reach the end of the rainbow? Why did he not dig for the pot of gold that is buried there? How he could be aware that he was standing at the foot of one leg of the glowing arch is to me a mystery. When I see a rainbow, it is always immediately in front of me. I am standing exactly between the highest point of the arch and the sun, and the laws of optics ordain that it can be seen in no other way. You can never see a rainbow at an angle. It always faces you squarely. Hence no two persons see exactly the same bow, because no two persons can occupy exactly the same place at the same time. The bow you see is directed to you alone. Move to the right or the left, and it moves as fast as you do. You cannot flank it or reach its end. It is about the most subtle and significant phenomenon that everyday Nature presents to us. Unapproachable as a spirit, like a visitant from another world, yet the creation of the familiar sun and rain!
How Thoreau found himself standing in the bow's abutment will always remain a puzzle to me. Observers standing on high mountains with the sun low in the west have seen the bow as a complete circle. This one can understand.
We can point many a moral and adorn many a tale with Thoreau's shortcomings and failures in his treatment of nature themes. Channing quotes him as saying that sometimes "you must see with the inside of your eye." I think that Thoreau saw, or tried to see, with the inside of his eye too often. He does not always see correctly, and many times he sees more of Thoreau than he does of the nature he assumes to be looking at. Truly it is "needless to travel for wonders," but the wonderful is not one with the fantastic or the far-fetched. Forcible expression, as I have said, was his ruling passion as a writer. Only when he is free from its thrall, which in his best moments he surely is, does he write well. When he can forget Thoreau and remember only nature, we get those delightful descriptions and reflections in "Walden." When he goes to the Maine woods or to Cape Cod or to Canada, he leaves all his fantastic rhetoric behind him and gives us sane and refreshing books. In his walks with Channing one suspects he often let himself go to all lengths, did his best to turn the world inside out, as he did at times in his Journals, for his own edification and that of his wondering disciple.
To see analogies and resemblances everywhere is the gift of genius, but to see a resemblance to volcanoes in the hubs or gnarls on birch or beech trees, or cathedral windows in the dead leaves of the andromeda in January, or a suggestion of Teneriffe in a stone-heap, does not indicate genius. To see the great in the little, or the whole of Nature in any of her parts, is the poet's gift, but to ask, after seeing the andropogon grass, "Are there no purple reflections from the culms of thought in my mind?"—a remark which Channing quotes as very significant—is not to be poetical. Thoreau is full of these impossible and fantastic comparisons, thinking only of striking expressions and not at all about the truth. "The flowing of the sap under the dull rind of the trees" is suggestive, but what suggestion is there in the remark, "May I ever be in as good spirits as a willow"? The mood of the scrub oak was more habitual with him.
Thoreau was in no sense an interpreter of nature; he did not draw out its meanings or seize upon and develop its more significant phases. Seldom does he relate what he sees or thinks to the universal human heart and mind. He has rare power of description, but is very limited in his power to translate the facts and movements of nature into human emotion. His passage on the northern lights, which Channing quotes from the Journals, is a good sample of his failure in this respect:
Now the fire in the north increases wonderfully, not shooting up so much as creeping along, like a fire on the mountains of the north seen afar in the night. The Hyperborean gods are burning brush, and it spread, and all the hoes in heaven couldn't stop it. It spread from west to east over the crescent hill. Like a vast fiery worm it lay across the northern sky, broken into many pieces; and each piece, with rainbow colors skirting it, strove to advance itself toward the east, worm-like, on its own annular muscles. It has spread into their choicest wood-lots. Now it shoots up like a single solitary watch-fire or burning bush, or where it ran up a pine tree like powder, and still it continues to gleam here and there like a fat stump in the burning, and is reflected in the water. And now I see the gods by great exertions have got it under, and the stars have come out without fear, in peace.
I get no impression of the mysterious almost supernatural character of the aurora from such a description in terms of a burning wood-lot or a hay-stack; it is no more like a conflagration than an apparition is like solid flesh and blood. Its wonderful, I almost said its spiritual, beauty, its sudden vanishings and returnings, its spectral, evanescent character—why, it startles and awes one as if it were the draperies around the throne of the Eternal. And then his mixed metaphor—the Hyperborean gods turned farmers and busy at burning brush, then a fiery worm, and then the burning wood-lots! But this is Thoreau—inspired with the heavenly elixir one moment, and drunk with the brew in his own cellar the next.
Thoreau's faults as a writer are as obvious as his merits. Emerson hit upon one of them when he said, "The trick of his rhetoric is soon learned; it consists in substituting for the obvious word and thought, its diametrical antagonist." He praises wild mountains and winter forests for their domestic air, snow and ice for their warmth, and so on. (Yet Emerson in one of his poems makes frost burn and fire freeze.) One frequently comes upon such sentences as these: "If I were sadder, I should be happier"; "The longer I have forgotten you, the more I remember you." It may give a moment's pleasure when a writer takes two opposites and rubs their ears together in that way, but one may easily get too much of it. Words really mean nothing when used in such a manner. When Emerson told Channing that if he (Emerson) could write as well as he did, he would write a great deal better, one readily sees what he means. And when Thoreau says of one of his callers, "I like his looks and the sound of his silence," the contradiction pleases one. But when he tells his friend that hate is the substratum of his love for him, words seem to have lost their meaning. Now and then he is guilty of sheer bragging, as when he says, "I would not go around the corner to see the world blow up."
He often defies all our sense of fitness and proportion by the degree in which he magnifies the little and belittles the big. He says of the singing of a cricket which he heard under the border of some rock on the hillside one mid-May day, that it "makes the finest singing of birds outward and insignificant." "It is not so wildly melodious, but it is wiser and more mature than that of the wood thrush." His forced and meaningless analogies come out in such a comparison as this: "Most poems, like the fruits, are sweetest toward the blossom end." Which is the blossom end of a poem?
Thoreau advised one of his correspondents when he made garden to plant some Giant Regrets—they were good for sauce. It is certain that he himself planted some Giant Exaggerations and had a good yield. His exaggeration was deliberate. "Walden" is from first to last a most delightful sample of his talent. He belittles everything that goes on in the world outside his bean-field. Business, politics, institutions, governments, wars and rumors of wars, were not so much to him as the humming of a mosquito in his hut at Walden: "I am as much affected by the faint hum of a mosquito making its invisible and unimaginable tour through my apartment at earliest dawn, when I was sitting with door and windows open, as I could be by any trumpet that ever sang of fame. It was Homer's requiem; itself an Iliad and Odyssey in the air, singing its own wrath and wanderings. There was something cosmical about it." One wonders what he would have made of a blow-fly buzzing on the pane.
He made Walden Pond famous because he made it the center of the universe and found life rich and full without many of the things that others deem necessary. There is a stream of pilgrims to Walden at all seasons, curious to see where so much came out of so little—where a man had lived who preferred poverty to riches, and solitude to society, who boasted that he could do without the post office, the newspapers, the telegraph, and who had little use for the railroad, though he thought mankind had become a little more punctual since its invention.
Another conspicuous fault as a writer is his frequent use of false analogies, or his comparison of things which have no ground of relationship, as when he says: "A day passed in the society of those Greek sages, such as described in the Banquet of Xenophon, would not be comparable with the dry wit of decayed cranberry-vines, and the fresh Attic salt of the moss-beds." The word "wit" has no meaning when thus used. Or again where he says: "All great enterprises are self-supporting. The poet, for instance, must sustain his body by his poetry, as a steam planing-mill feeds its boilers with the shavings it makes." Was there ever a more inept and untruthful comparison? To find any ground of comparison between the two things he compared, he must make his poet sustain his body by the scraps and lines of his poem which he rejects, or else the steam planing-mill consume its finished product.
"Let all things give way to the impulse of expression," he says, and he assuredly practiced what he had preached.
One of his tricks of self-justification was to compare himself with inanimate objects, which is usually as inept as to compare colors with sounds or perfumes: "My acquaintances sometimes imply that I am too cold," he writes, "but each thing is warm enough of its kind. Is the stone too cold which absorbs the heat of the summer sun and does not part with it during the night? Crystals, though they be of ice are not too cold to melt.... Crystal does not complain of crystal any more than the dove of its mate."
He strikes the same false note when, in discussing the question of solitude at Walden he compares himself to the wild animals around him, and to inanimate objects, and says he was no more lonely than the loons on the pond, or than Walden itself: "I am no more lonely than a single mullein or dandelion in a pasture, or a bean leaf, or a sorrel, or a house-fly, or a humble-bee. I am no more lonely than the Mill Brook, or a weather-cock, or the North Star, or the South Wind, or an April Shower, or a January Thaw, or the first spider in a new house." Did he imagine that any of these things were ever lonely? Man does get lonely, but Mill Brook and the North Star probably do not.
If he sees anything unusual in nature, like galls on trees and plants, he must needs draw some moral from it, usually at the expense of the truth. For instance, he implies that the beauty of the oak galls is something that was meant to bloom in the flower, that the galls are the scarlet sins of the tree, the tree's Ode to Dejection, yet he must have known that they are the work of an insect and are as healthy a growth as is the regular leaf. The insect gives the magical touch that transforms the leaf into a nursery for its young. Why deceive ourselves by believing that fiction is more interesting than fact? But Thoreau is full of this sort of thing; he must have his analogy, true or false.
He says that when a certain philosophical neighbor came to visit him in his hut at Walden, their discourse expanded and racked the little house: "I should not dare to say how many pounds' weight there was above the atmospheric pressure on every circular inch; it opened its seams so that they had to be calked with much dulness thereafter to stop the consequent leak—but I had enough of that kind of oakum already picked." At the beginning of the paragraph he says that he and his philosopher sat down each with "some shingles of thoughts well dried," which they whittled, trying their knives and admiring the clear yellowish grain of the pumpkin pine. In a twinkling the three shingles of thought are transformed into fishes of thought in a stream into which the hermit and the philosopher gently and reverently wade, without scaring or disturbing them. Then, presto! the fish become a force, like the pressure of a tornado that nearly wrecks his cabin! Surely this is tipsy rhetoric, and the work that can stand much of it, as "Walden" does, has a plus vitality that is rarely equaled.
In "Walden" Thoreau, in playfully naming his various occupations, says, "For a long time I was reporter to a journal, of no very wide circulation, whose editor has never yet seen fit to print the bulk of my contributions, and, as is too common with writers, I got only my labor for my pains. However, in this case my pains were their own reward." If he were to come back now, he would, I think, open his eyes in astonishment, perhaps with irritation, to see the whole bulk of them at last in print.
His Journal was the repository of all his writings, and was drawn upon during his lifetime for all the material he printed in books and contributed to the magazines. The fourteen volumes, I venture to say, form a record of the most minute and painstaking details of what one man saw and heard on his walks in field and wood, in a single township, that can be found in any literature.
It seems as though a man who keeps a Journal soon becomes its victim; at least that seems to have been the case with Thoreau. He lived for that Journal, he read for it, he walked for it; it was like a hungry, omnivorous monster that constantly called for more. He transcribed to its pages from the books he read, he filled it with interminable accounts of the commonplace things he saw in his walks, tedious and minute descriptions of everything in wood, field, and swamp. There are whole pages of the Latin names of the common weeds and flowers. Often he could not wait till he got home to write out his notes. He walked by day and night, in cold and heat, in storm and sunshine, all for his Journal. All was fish that came to that net; nothing was too insignificant to go in. He did not stop to make literature of it, or did not try, and it is rarely the raw material of literature. Its human interest is slight, its natural history interest slight also. For upwards of twenty-five years Thoreau seemed to have lived for this Journal. It swelled to many volumes. It is a drag-net that nothing escapes. The general reader reads Thoreau's Journal as he does the book of Nature, just to cull out the significant things here and there. The vast mass of the matter is merely negative, like the things that we disregard in our walk. Here and there we see a flower, or a tree, or a prospect, or a bird, that arrests attention, but how much we pass by or over without giving it a thought! And yet, just as the real nature-lover will scan eagerly the fine print in Nature's book, so will the student and enthusiast of Thoreau welcome all that is recorded in his Journals.
Thoreau says that Channing in their walks together sometimes took out his notebook and tried to write as he did, but all in vain. "He soon puts it up again, or contents himself with scrawling some sketch of the landscape. Observing me still scribbling, he will say that he confines himself to the ideal, purely ideal remarks; he leaves the facts to me. Sometimes, too, he will say, a little petulantly, 'I am universal; I have nothing to do with the particular and definite.'" The truth was Channing had no Journal calling, "More, more!" and was not so inordinately fond of composition. "I, too," says Thoreau, "would fain set down something beside facts. Facts should only be as the frame to my pictures; they should be material to the mythology which I am writing." But only rarely are his facts significant, or capable of an ideal interpretation. Felicitous strokes like that in which he says, "No tree has so fair a bole and so handsome an instep as the birch," are rare.
Thoreau evidently had a certain companionship with his Journal. It was like a home-staying body to whom he told everything on his return from a walk. He loved to write it up. He made notes of his observations as he went along, night or day. One time he forgot his notebook and so substituted a piece of birch-bark. He must bring back something gathered on the spot. He skimmed the same country over and over; the cream he was after rose every day and all day, and in all seasons.
He evidently loved to see the pages of his Journal sprinkled with the Latin names of the plants and animals that he saw in his walk. A common weed with a long Latin name acquired new dignity. Occasionally he fills whole pages with the scientific names of the common trees and plants. He loved also a sprinkling of Latin quotations and allusions to old and little known authors. The pride of scholarship was strong in him. Suggestions from what we call the heathen world seemed to accord with his Gospel of the Wild.
Thoreau loved to write as well as John Muir loved to talk. It was his ruling passion. He said time never passed so quickly as when he was writing. It seemed as if the clock had been set back. He evidently went to Walden for subject-matter for his pen; and the remarkable thing about it all is that he was always keyed up to the writing pitch. The fever of expression was always upon him. Day and night, winter and summer, it raged in his blood. He paused in his walks and wrote elaborately. The writing of his Journal must have taken as much time as his walking.
Only Thoreau's constant and unquenchable thirst for intellectual activity, and to supply material for that all-devouring Journal, can, to me, account for his main occupation during the greater part of the last two years of his life, which consisted in traversing the woods and measuring the trees and stumps and counting their rings. Apparently not a stump escaped him—pine, oak, birch, chestnut, maple, old or new, in the pasture or in the woods; he must take its measure and know its age. He must get the girth of every tree he passed and some hint of all the local conditions that had influenced its growth. Over two hundred pages of his Journal are taken up with barren details of this kind. He cross-questions the stumps and trees as if searching for the clue to some important problem, but no such problem is disclosed. He ends where he begins. His vast mass of facts and figures was incapable of being generalized or systematized. His elaborate tables of figures, so carefully arranged, absolutely accurate, no doubt, are void of interest, because no valuable inferences can be drawn from them.
"I have measured in all eight pitch pine stumps at the Tommy Wheeler hollow, sawed off within a foot of the ground. I measured the longest diameter and then at right angles with that, and took the average, and then selected the side of the stump on which the radius was of average length, and counted the number of rings in each inch, beginning at the center, thus:" And then follows a table of figures filling a page. "Of those eight, average growth about one seventh of an inch per year. Calling the smallest number of rings in an inch in each tree one, the comparative slowness of growth of the inches is thus expressed." Then follows another carefully prepared table of figures. Before one is done with these pages one fairly suspects the writer is mad, the results are so useless, and so utterly fail to add to our knowledge of the woods. Would counting the leaves and branches in the forest, and making a pattern of each, and tabulating the whole mass of figures be any addition to our knowledge? I attribute the whole procedure, as I have said, to his uncontrollable intellectual activity, and the imaginary demands of this Journal, which continued to the end of his life. The very last pages of his Journal, a year previous to his death, are filled with minute accounts of the ordinary behavior of kittens, not one item novel or unusual, or throwing any light on the kitten. But it kept his mind busy, and added a page or two to the Journal.
In his winter walks he usually carried a four-foot stick, marked in inches, and would measure the depth of the snow over large areas, every tenth step, and then construct pages of elaborate tables showing the variations according to locality, and then work out the average—an abnormal craving for exact but useless facts. Thirty-four measurements on Walden disclosed the important fact that the snow averaged five and one sixth inches deep. He analyzes a pensile nest which he found in the woods—doubtless one of the vireo's—and fills ten pages with a minute description of the different materials which it contained. Then he analyzes a yellow-bird's nest, filling two pages. That Journal shall not go hungry, even if there is nothing to give it but the dry material of a bird's nest.
The craving for literary expression in Thoreau was strong and constant, but, as he confesses, he could not always select a theme. "I am prepared not so much for contemplation as for forceful expression." No matter what the occasion, "forceful expression" was the aim. No meditation, or thinking, but sallies of the mind. All his paradoxes and false analogies and inconsistencies come from this craving for a forceful expression. He apparently brought to bear all the skill he possessed of this kind on all occasions. One must regard him, not as a great thinker, nor as a disinterested seeker after the truth, but as a master in the art of vigorous and picturesque expression. To startle, to wake up, to communicate to his reader a little wholesome shock, is his aim. Not the novelty and freshness of his subject-matter concerns him but the novelty and unhackneyed character of his literary style. That throughout the years a man should keep up the habit of walking, by night as well as by day, and bring such constant intellectual pressure to bear upon everything he saw, or heard, or felt, is remarkable. No evidence of relaxation, or of abandonment to the mere pleasure of the light and air and of green things growing, or of sauntering without thoughts of his Journal. He is as keyed up and strenuous in his commerce with the Celestial Empire as any tradesman in world goods that ever amassed a fortune. He sometimes wrote as he walked, and expanded and elaborated the same as in his study. On one occasion he dropped his pencil and could not find it, but he managed to complete the record. One night on his way to Conantum he speculates for nearly ten printed pages on the secret of being able to state a fact simply and adequately, or of making one's self the free organ of truth—a subtle and ingenious discussion with the habitual craving for forceful expression. In vain I try to put myself in the place of a man who goes forth into wild nature with malice prepense to give free swing to his passion for forcible expression. I suppose all nature-writers go forth on their walks or strolls to the fields and woods with minds open to all of Nature's genial influences and significant facts and incidents, but rarely, I think, with the strenuousness of Thoreau—grinding the grist as they go along.
Thoreau compares himself to the bee that goes forth in quest of honey for the hive: "How to extract honey from the flower of the world. That is my everyday business. I am as busy as the bee about it. I ramble over all fields on that errand and am never so happy as when I feel myself heavy with honey and wax." To get material for his Journal was as much his business as it was the bee's to get honey for his comb. He apparently did not know that the bee does not get honey nor wax directly from the flowers, but only nectar, or sweet water. The bee, as I have often said, makes the honey and the wax after she gets home to the swarm. She puts the nectar through a process of her own, adds a drop of her own secretion to it, namely, formic acid, the water evaporates, and lo! the tang and pungency of honey!
There can be little doubt that in his practical daily life we may credit Thoreau with the friendliness and neighborliness that his friend Dr. Edward W. Emerson claims for him. In a recent letter to me, Dr. Emerson writes: "He carried the old New England undemonstrativeness very far. He was also, I believe, really shy, prospered only in monologue, except in a walk in the woods with one companion, and his difficulties increased to impossibility in a room full of people." Dr. Emerson admits that Thoreau is himself to blame for giving his readers the impression that he held his kind in contempt, but says that in reality he had neighborliness, was dutiful to parents and sisters, showed courtesy to women and children and an open, friendly side to many a simple, uncultivated townsman.
This practical helpfulness and friendliness in Thoreau's case seems to go along with the secret contempt he felt and expressed in his Journal toward his fellow townsmen. At one time he was chosen among the selectmen to perambulate the town lines—an old annual custom. One day they perambulated the Lincoln line, the next day the Bedford line, the next day the Carlisle line, and so on, and kept on their rounds for a week. Thoreau felt soiled and humiliated. "A fatal coarseness is the result of mixing in the trivial affairs of men. Though I have been associating even with the select men of this and adjoining towns, I feel inexpressibly begrimed." How fragile his self-respect was! Yet he had friends among the surrounding farmers, whose society and conversation he greatly valued.
That Thoreau gave the impression of being what country folk call a crusty person—curt and forbidding in manner—seems pretty well established. His friend Alcott says he was deficient in the human sentiments. Emerson, who, on the whole, loved and admired him, says: "Thoreau sometimes appears only as a gendarme, good to knock down a cockney with, but without that power to cheer and establish which makes the value of a friend." Again he says: "If I knew only Thoreau, I should think cooeperation of good men impossible. Must we always talk for victory, and never once for truth, for comfort, and joy? Centrality he has, and penetration, strong understanding, and the higher gifts,—the insight of the real, or from the real, and the moral rectitude that belongs to it; but all this and all his resources of wit and invention are lost to me, in every experiment, year after year, that I make, to hold intercourse with his mind. Always some weary captious paradox to fight you with, and the time and temper wasted." "It is curious," he again says, "that Thoreau goes to a house to say with little preface what he has just read or observed, delivers it in a lump, is quite inattentive to any comment or thought which any of the company offer on the matter, nay, is merely interrupted by it, and when he has finished his report departs with precipitation."
It is interesting in this connection to put along-side of these rather caustic criticisms a remark in kind recorded by Thoreau in his Journal concerning Emerson: "Talked, or tried to talk, with R. W. E. Lost my time—nay, almost my identity. He, assuming a false opposition where there was no difference of opinion, talked to the wind—told me what I knew—and I lost my time trying to imagine myself somebody else to oppose him."
Evidently Concord philosophers were not always in concord.
More characteristic of Emerson is the incident Thoreau relates of his driving his own calf, which had just come in with the cows, out of the yard, thinking it belonged to a drove that was then going by. From all accounts Emerson was as slow to recognize his own thoughts when Alcott and Channing aired them before him as he was to recognize his own calf.
"I have got a load of great hardwood stumps," writes Thoreau, and then, as though following out a thought suggested by them, he adds: "For sympathy with my neighbors I might about as well live in China. They are to me barbarians with their committee works and gregariousness."
Probably the stumps were from trees that grew on his neighbors' farms and were a gift to him. Let us hope the farmers did not deliver them to him free of charge. He complained that the thousand and one gentlemen that he met were all alike; he was not cheered by the hope of any rudeness from them: "A cross man, a coarse man, an eccentric man, a silent man who does not drill well—of him there is some hope," he declares. Herein we get a glimpse of the Thoreau ideal which led his friend Alcott to complain that he lacked the human sentiment. He may or may not have been a "cross man," but he certainly did not "drill well," for which his readers have reason to be thankful. Although Thoreau upholds the cross and the coarse man, one would really like to know with what grace he would have put up with gratuitous discourtesy or insult. I remember an entry in his Journal in which he tells of feeling a little cheapened when a neighbor asked him to take some handbills and leave them at a certain place as he passed on his walk.
A great deal of the piquancy and novelty in Thoreau come from the unexpected turn he gives to things, upsetting all our preconceived notions. His trick of exaggeration he rather brags of: "Expect no trivial truth from me," he says, "unless I am on the witness stand." He even exaggerates his own tendency to exaggeration. It is all a part of his scheme to startle and wake people up. He exaggerates his likes, and he exaggerates his dislikes, and he exaggerates his indifference. It is a way he has of bragging. The moment he puts pen to paper the imp of exaggeration seizes it. He lived to see the beginning of the Civil War, and in a letter to a friend expressed his indifference in regard to Fort Sumter and "Old Abe," and all that, yet Mr. Sanborn says he was as zealous about the war as any soldier. The John Brown tragedy made him sick, and the war so worked upon his feelings that in his failing state of health he said he could never get well while it lasted. His passion for Nature and the wild carried him to the extent of looking with suspicion, if not with positive dislike, upon all of man's doings and institutions. All civil and political and social organizations received scant justice at his hands. He instantly espoused the cause of John Brown and championed him in the most public manner because he (Brown) defied the iniquitous laws and fell a martyr to the cause of justice and right. If he had lived in our times, one would have expected him, in his letters to friends, to pooh-pooh the World War that has drenched Europe with blood, while in his heart he would probably have been as deeply moved about it as any of us were.
Thoreau must be a stoic, he must be an egotist, he must be illogical, whenever he puts pen to paper. This does not mean that he was a hypocrite, but it means that on his practical human side he did not differ so much from the rest of us, but that in his mental and spiritual life he pursued ideal ends with a seriousness that few of us are equal to. He loved to take an air-line. In his trips about the country to visit distant parts, he usually took the roads and paths or means of conveyance that other persons took, but now and then he would lay down his ruler on the map, draw a straight line to the point he proposed to visit, and follow that, going through the meadows and gardens and door-yards of the owners of the property in his line of march. There is a tradition that he and Channing once went through a house where the front and back door stood open. In his mental flights and excursions he follows this plan almost entirely; the hard facts and experiences of life trouble him very little. He can always ignore them or sail serenely above them.
How is one to reconcile such an expression as this with what his friends report of his actual life: "My countrymen are to me foreigners. I have but little more sympathy with them than with the mobs of India or China"? Or this about his Concord neighbors, as he looks down upon them from a near-by hill: "On whatever side I look off, I am reminded of the mean and narrow-minded men whom I have lately met there. What can be uglier than a country occupied by grovelling, coarse, and low-minded men?—no scenery can redeem it. Hornets, hyenas, and baboons are not so great a curse to a country as men of a similar character." Tried by his ideal standards, his neighbors and his countrymen generally were, of course, found wanting, yet he went about among them helpful and sympathetic and enjoyed his life to the last gasp. These things reveal to us what a gulf there may be between a man's actual life and the high altitudes in which he disports himself when he lets go his imagination.
In his paper called "Life without Principle," his radical idealism comes out: To work for money, or for subsistence alone, is life without principle. A man must work for the love of the work. Get a man to work for you who is actuated by love for you or for the work alone. Find some one to beat your rugs and carpets and clean out your well, or weed your onion-patch, who is not influenced by any money consideration. This were ideal, indeed; this suggests paradise. Thoreau probably loved his lecturing, and his surveying, and his magazine writing, and the money these avocations brought him did not seem unworthy, but could the business and industrial world safely adopt that principle?
So far as I understand him, we all live without principle when we do anything that goes against the grain, or for money, or for bread alone. "To have done anything by which you earned money is to have been truly idle or worse." "If you would get money as a writer or lecturer, you must be popular, which is to go down perpendicularly." Yet his neighbor Emerson was in much demand as a lecturer, and earned a good deal of money in that way. Truly idealists like Thoreau are hard to satisfy. Agassiz said he could not afford to give his time to making money, but how many Agassiz are there in the world at any one time? Such a man as our own Edison is influenced very little by the commercial value of his inventions. This is as it should be, but only a small fraction of mankind do or can live to ideal ends. Those who work for love are certainly the lucky ones, and are exceptionally endowed. It is love of the sport that usually sends one a-fishing or a-hunting, and this gives it the sanction of the Gospel according to Thoreau. Bradford Torrey saw a man sitting on a log down in Florida who told him, when he asked about his occupation, that he had no time to work! It is to be hoped that Thoreau enjoyed his surveying, as he probably did, especially when it took him through sphagnum swamps or scrub-oak thickets or a tangle of briers and thorns. The more difficult the way, the more he could summon his philosophy. "You must get your living by loving." It is a hard saying, but it is a part of his gospel. But as he on one occasion worked seventy-six days surveying, for only one dollar a day, the money he received should not be laid up against him.
As a matter of fact we find Thoreau frequently engaging in manual labor to earn a little money. He relates in his Journal of 1857 that while he was living in the woods he did various jobs about town—fence-building, painting, gardening, carpentering:
One day a man came from the east edge of the town and said that he wanted to get me to brick up a fireplace, etc., etc., for him. I told him that I was not a mason, but he knew that I had built my own house entirely and would not take no for an answer. So I went.
It was three miles off, and I walked back and forth each day, arriving early and working as late as if I were living there. The man was gone away most of the time, but had left some sand dug up in his cow-yard for me to make mortar with. I bricked up a fireplace, papered a chamber, but my principal work was whitewashing ceilings. Some were so dirty that many coats would not conceal the dirt. In the kitchen I finally resorted to yellow-wash to cover the dirt. I took my meals there, sitting down with my employer (when he got home) and his hired men. I remember the awful condition of the sink, at which I washed one day, and when I came to look at what was called the towel I passed it by and wiped my hands on the air, and thereafter I resorted to the pump. I worked there hard three days, charging only a dollar a day.
About the same time I also contracted to build a wood-shed of no mean size, for, I think, exactly six dollars, and cleared about half of it by a close calculation and swift working. The tenant wanted me to throw in a gutter and latch, but I carried off the board that was left and gave him no latch but a button. It stands yet,—behind the Kettle house. I broke up Johnny Kettle's old "trow," in which he kneaded his bread, for material. Going home with what nails were left in a flower [sic!] bucket on my arm, in a rain, I was about getting into a hay-rigging, when my umbrella frightened the horse, and he kicked at me over the fills, smashed the bucket on my arm, and stretched me on my back; but while I lay on my back, his leg being caught under the shaft, I got up, to see him sprawling on the other side. This accident, the sudden bending of my body backwards, sprained my stomach so that I did not get quite strong there for several years, but had to give up some fence-building and other work which I had undertaken from time to time.
I built the common slat fence for $1.50 per rod, or worked for $1.00 per day. I built six fences.
These homely and laborious occupations show the dreamer and transcendentalist of Walden in a very interesting light. In his practical life he was a ready and resourceful man and could set his neighbors a good example, and no doubt give them good advice. But what fun he had with his correspondents when they wrote him for practical advice about the conduct of their lives! One of them had evidently been vexing his soul over the problem of Church and State: "Why not make a very large mud pie and bake it in the sun? Only put no Church nor State into it, nor upset any other pepper box that way. Dig out a woodchuck—for that has nothing to do with rotting institutions. Go ahead."
Dear, old-fashioned Wilson Flagg, who wrote pleasantly, but rather tamely, about New England birds and seasons, could not profit much from Thoreau's criticism: "He wants stirring up with a pole. He should practice turning a series of summer-sets rapidly, or jump up and see how many times he can strike his feet together before coming down. Let him make the earth turn round now the other way, and whet his wits on it as on a grindstone; in short, see how many ideas he can entertain at once."
Expect no Poor Richard maxims or counsel from Thoreau. He would tell you to invest your savings in the bonds of the Celestial Empire, or plant your garden with a crop of Giant Regrets. He says these are excellent for sauce. He encourages one of his correspondents with the statement that he "never yet knew the sun to be knocked down and rolled through a mud puddle; he comes out honor bright from behind every storm."
All Thoreau's apparent inconsistencies and contradictions come from his radical idealism. In all his judgments upon men and things, and upon himself, he is an uncompromising idealist. All fall short. Add his habit of exaggeration and you have him saying that the pigs in the street in New York (in 1843) are the most respectable part of the population. The pigs, I suppose, lived up to the pig standard, but the people did not live up to the best human standards. Wherever the ideal leads him, there he follows. After his brother John's death he said he did not wish ever to see John again, but only the ideal John—that other John of whom he was but the imperfect representative. Yet the loss of the real John was a great blow to him, probably the severest in his life. But he never allows himself to go on record as showing any human weakness.
"Comparatively," he says, "we can excuse any offense against the heart, but not against the imagination." Thoreau probably lived in his heart as much as most other persons, but his peculiar gospel is the work of his imagination. He could turn his idealism to practical account. A man who had been camping with him told me that on such expeditions he carried a small piece of cake carefully wrapped up in his pocket and that after he had eaten his dinner he would take a small pinch of this cake. His imagination seemed to do the rest.
The most unpromising subject would often kindle the imagination of Thoreau. His imagination fairly runs riot over poor Bill Wheeler, a cripple and a sot who stumped along on two clumps for feet, and who earned his grog by doing chores here and there. One day Thoreau found him asleep in the woods in a low shelter which consisted of meadow hay cast over a rude frame. It was a rare find to Thoreau. A man who could turn his back upon the town and civilization like that must be some great philosopher, greater than Socrates or Diogenes, living perhaps "from a deep principle," "simplifying life, returning to nature," having put off many things,—"luxuries, comforts, human society, even his feet,—wrestling with his thoughts." He outdid himself. He out-Thoreaued Thoreau: "Who knows but in his solitary meadow-hay bunk he indulges, in thought, only in triumphant satires on men? [More severe than those of the Walden hermit?] I was not sure for a moment but here was a philosopher who had left far behind him the philosophers of Greece and India, and I envied him his advantageous point of view—" with much more to the same effect.
Thoreau's reaction from the ordinary humdrum, respectable, and comfortable country life was so intense, and his ideal of the free and austere life he would live so vivid, that he could thus see in this besotted vagabond a career and a degree of wisdom that he loved to contemplate.
One catches eagerly at any evidence of tender human emotions in Thoreau, his stoical indifference is so habitual with him: "I laughed at myself the other day to think that I cried while reading a pathetic story." And he excuses himself by saying, "It is not I, but Nature in me, which was stronger than I."
It was hard for Thoreau to get interested in young women. He once went to an evening party of thirty or forty of them, "in a small room, warm and noisy." He was introduced to two of them, but could not hear what they said, there was such a cackling. He concludes by saying: "The society of young women is the most unprofitable I have ever tried. They are so light and flighty that you can never be sure whether they are there or not."
As a philosopher or expositor and interpreter of a principle, Thoreau is often simply grotesque. His passion for strong and striking figures usually gets the best of him. In discussing the relation that exists between the speaker or lecturer and his audience he says, "The lecturer will read best those parts of his lecture which are best heard," as if the reading did not precede the hearing! Then comes this grotesque analogy: "I saw some men unloading molasses-hogsheads from a truck at a depot the other day, rolling them up an inclined plane. The truckman stood behind and shoved, after putting a couple of ropes, one round each end of the hogshead, while two men standing in the depot steadily pulled at the ropes. The first man was the lecturer, the last was the audience." I suppose the hogshead stands for the big thoughts of the speaker which he cannot manage at all without the active cooeperation of the audience. The truth is, people assemble in a lecture hall in a passive but expectant frame of mind. They are ready to be pleased or displeased. They are there like an instrument to be played upon by the orator. He may work his will with them. Without their sympathy his success will not be great, but the triumph of his art is to win their sympathy. Those who went to scoff when the Great Preacher spoke, remained to pray. No man could speak as eloquently to empty seats, or to a dummy audience, as to a hall filled with intelligent people, yet Thoreau's ropes and hogsheads and pulling and pushing truckmen absurdly misrepresent the true relation that exists between a speaker and his hearers. Of course a speaker finds it uphill work if his audience is not with him, but that it is not with him is usually his own fault.
Thoreau's merits as a man and a writer are so many and so great that I have not hesitated to make much of his defects. Indeed, I have with malice aforethought ransacked his works to find them. But after they are all charged up against him, the balance that remains on the credit side of the account is so great that they do not disturb us.
There has been but one Thoreau, and we should devoutly thank the gods of New England for the precious gift. Thoreau's work lives and will continue to live because, in the first place, the world loves a writer who can flout it and turn his back upon it and yet make good; and again because the books which he gave to the world have many and very high literary and ethical values. They are fresh, original, and stimulating. He drew a gospel out of the wild; he brought messages from the wood gods to men; he made a lonely pond in Massachusetts a fountain of the purest and most elevating thoughts, and, with his great neighbor Emerson, added new luster to a town over which the muse of our colonial history had long loved to dwell.
A CRITICAL GLANCE INTO DARWIN
It is never safe to question Darwin's facts, but it is always safe to question any man's theories. It is with Darwin's theories that I am mainly concerned here. He has already been shorn of his selection doctrines as completely as Samson was shorn of his locks, but there are other phases of his life and teachings that invite discussion.
The study of Darwin's works begets such an affection for the man, for the elements of character displayed on every page, that one is slow in convincing one's self that anything is wrong with his theories. There is danger that one's critical judgment will be blinded by one's partiality for the man.
For the band of brilliant men who surrounded him and championed his doctrines—Spencer, Huxley, Lyall, Hooker, and others—one feels nothing more personal than admiration; unless the eloquent and chivalrous Huxley—the knight in shining armor of the Darwinian theory—inspires a warmer feeling. Darwin himself almost disarms one by his amazing candor and his utter self-abnegation. The question always paramount in his mind is, what is the truth about this matter? What fact have you got for me, he seems to say, that will upset my conclusion? If you have one, that is just what I am looking for.
Could we have been permitted to gaze upon the earth in the middle geologic period, in Jurassic or Triassic times, we should have seen it teeming with huge, uncouth, gigantic forms of animal life, in the sea, on the land, and in the air, and with many lesser forms, but with no sign of man anywhere; ransack the earth from pole to pole and there was no sign or suggestion, so far as we could have seen, of a human being.
Come down the stream of time several millions of years—to our own geologic age—and we find the earth swarming with the human species like an ant-hill with ants, and with a vast number of forms not found in the Mesozoic era; and the men are doing to a large part of the earth what the ants do to a square rod of its surface. Where did they come from? We cannot, in our day, believe that a hand reached down from heaven, or up from below, and placed them there. There is no alternative but to believe that in some way they arose out of the antecedent animal life of the globe; in other words that man is the result of the process of evolution, and that all other existing forms of life, vegetable and animal, are a product of the same movement.
To explain how this came about, what factors and forces entered into the transformation, is the task that Darwin set himself. It was a mighty task, and whether or not his solution of the problem stands the test of time, we must yet bow in reverence before one of the greatest of natural philosophers; for even to have conceived this problem thus clearly, and to have placed it in intelligible form before men's minds, is a great achievement.
Darwin was as far from being as sure of the truth of Darwinism as many of his disciples were, and still are. He said in 1860, in a letter to one of his American correspondents, "I have never for a moment doubted that, though I cannot see my errors, much of my book ["The Origin of Species"] will be proved erroneous." Again he said, in 1862, "I look at it as absolutely certain that very much in the 'Origin' will be proved rubbish; but I expect and hope that the framework will stand."
Its framework is the theory of Evolution, which is very sure to stand. In its inception his theory is half-miracle and half-fact. He assumes that in the beginning (as if there ever was or could be a "beginning," in that sense) God created a few forms, animal and vegetable, and then left it to the gods of Evolution, the chief of which is Natural Selection, to do the rest. While Darwin would not admit any predetermining factors in Evolution, or that any innate tendency to progressive development existed, he said he could not look upon the world of living things as the result of chance. Yet in fortuitous, or chance, variation he saw one of the chief factors of Evolution.
The world of Chance into which Darwinism delivers us—what can the thoughtful mind make of it?
That life with all its myriad forms is the result of chance is, according to Professor Osborn, a biological dogma. He everywhere uses the word "chance" as opposed to law, or to the sequence of cause and effect. This, it seems to me, is a misuse of the term. Is law, in this sense, ever suspended or annulled? If one chances to fall off his horse or his house, is it not gravity that pulls him down? Are not the laws of energy everywhere operative in all movements of matter in the material world? Chance is not opposed to law, but to design. Anything that befalls us that was not designed is a matter of chance. The fortuitous enters largely into all human life. If I carelessly toss a stone across the road, it is a matter of chance just where it will fall, but its course is not lawless. Does not gravity act upon it? does not the resistance of the air act upon it? does not the muscular force of my arm act upon it? and does not this complex of physical forces determine the precise spot where the stone shall fall? If, in its fall, it were to hit a bird or a mouse or a flower, that would be a matter of chance, so far as my will was concerned. Is not a meteoric stone falling out of space acted upon by similar forces, which determine where it shall strike the earth? In this case, we must substitute for the energy of my arm the cosmic energy that gives the primal impetus to all heavenly bodies. If the falling aerolite were to hit a person or a house, we should say it was a matter of chance, because it was not planned or designed. But when the shells of the long-range guns hit their invisible target or the bombs from the airplanes hit their marks, chance plays a part, because all the factors that enter into the problem are not and cannot be on the instant accurately measured. The collision of two heavenly bodies in the depth of space, which does happen, is, from our point of view, a matter of chance, although governed by inexorable law.
The forms of inanimate objects—rocks, hills, rivers, lakes—are matters of chance, since they serve no purpose: any other form would be as fit; but the forms of living things are always purposeful. Is it possible to believe that the human body, with all its complicated mechanism, its many wonderful organs of secretion and excretion and assimilation, is any more matter of chance than a watch or a phonograph is? Though what agent to substitute for the word "chance," I confess I do not know. The short cut to an omnipotent Creator sitting apart from the thing created will not satisfy the naturalist. And to make energy itself creative, as Professor Osborn does, is only to substitute one god for another. I can no more think of the course of organic evolution as being accidental in the Darwinian sense, than I can think of the evolution of the printing-press or the aeroplane as being accidental, although chance has played its part. Can we think of the first little horse of which we have any record, the eohippus of three or four millions of years ago, as evolving by accidental variations into the horse of our time, without presupposing an equine impulse to development? As well might we trust our ships to the winds and waves with the expectation that they will reach their several ports.
Are we to believe that we live in an entirely mechanical and fortuitous world—a world which has no interior, which is only a maze of acting, reacting, and interacting of blind physical forces? According to the chance theory, the struggle of a living body to exist does not differ from the vicissitudes of, say, water seeking an equilibrium, or heat a uniform temperature.
Chance has played an important part in human history, and in all life-history—often, no doubt, the main part—since history began. It was by chance that Columbus discovered America; he simply blundered upon it. He had set out on his voyage with something quite different in view. But his ship, and the crew, and the voyage itself, were not matters of chance but of purpose.
According to the selectionists' theory, chance gave the bird its wings, the fish its fins, the porcupine its quills, the skunk its fetid secretion, the cuttlefish its ink, the swordfish its sword, the electric eel its powerful battery; it gave the giraffe its long neck, the camel its hump, the horse its hoof, the ruminants their horns and double stomach, and so on. According to Weismann, it gave us our eyes, our ears, our hands with the fingers and opposing thumb, it gave us all the complicated and wonderful organs of our bodies, and all their circulation, respiration, digestion, assimilation, secretion, excretion, reproduction. All we are, or can be, the selectionist credits to Natural Selection.
Try to think of that wonderful organ, the eye, with all its marvelous powers and adaptations, as the result of what we call chance or Natural Selection. Well may Darwin have said that the eye made him shudder when he tried to account for it by Natural Selection. Why, its adaptations in one respect alone, minor though they be, are enough to stagger any number of selectionists. I refer to the rows of peculiar glands that secrete an oily substance, differing in chemical composition from any other secretion, a secretion which keeps the eyelids from sticking together in sleep. "Behavior as lawless as snowflakes," says Whitman—a phrase which probably stuck to him from Rousseau; but are snowflakes and raindrops lawless? To us creatures of purpose, they are so because the order of their falling is haphazard. They obey their own laws. Again we see chance working inside of law.
When the sower scatters the seed-grains from his hand, he does not and cannot determine the point of soil upon which any of them shall fall, but there is design in his being there and in sowing the seed. Astronomy is an exact science, biology is not. The celestial events always happen on time. The astronomers can tell us to the fraction of a second when the eclipses of the sun and moon and the transit of the inferior planets across the sun's disk will take place. They know and have measured all the forces that bring them about. Now, if we knew with the same mathematical precision all the elements that enter into the complex of forces which shapes our lives, could we forecast the future with the same accuracy with which the astronomers forecast the movements of the orbs? or are there incommensurable factors in life?
How are we to reconcile the obvious hit-and-miss method of Nature with the reign of law, or with a world of design? Consider the seeds of a plant or a tree, as sown by the wind. It is a matter of chance where they alight; it is hit or miss with them always. Yet the seeds, say, of the cat-tail flag always find the wet or the marshy places. If they had a topographical map of the country and a hundred eyes they could not succeed better. Of course, there are vastly more failures than successes with them, but one success in ten thousand trials is enough. They go to all points of the compass with the wind, and sooner or later hit the mark. Chance decides where the seed shall fall, but it was not chance that gave wings to this and other seeds. The hooks and wings and springs and parachutes that wind-sown seeds possess are not matters of chance: they all show design. So here is design working in a hit-and-miss world.
There are chance details in any general plan. The general forms which a maple or an oak or an elm takes in the forest or in the field are fixed, but many of the details are quite accidental. All the individual trees of a species have a general resemblance, but one differs from another in the number and exact distribution of the branches, and in many other ways. We cannot solve the fundamental problems of biology by addition and subtraction. He who sees nothing transcendent and mysterious in the universe does not see deeply; he lacks that vision without which the people perish. All organic and structural changes are adaptive from the first; they do not need natural selection to whip them into shape. All it can do is to serve as a weeding-out process.
Acquired characters are not inherited, but those organic changes which are the result of the indwelling impulse of development are inherited. So dominant and fundamental are the results of this impulse that cross-breeding does not wipe them out.
While I cannot believe that we live in a world of chance, any more than Darwin could, yet I feel that I am as free from any teleological taint as he was. The world-old notion of a creator and director, sitting apart from the universe and shaping and controlling all its affairs, a magnified king or emperor, finds no lodgment in my mind. Kings and despots have had their day, both in heaven and on earth. The universe is a democracy. The Whole directs the Whole. Every particle plays its own part, and yet the universe is a unit as much as is the human body, with all its myriad of individual cells, and all its many separate organs functioning in harmony. And the mind I see in nature is just as obvious as the mind I see in myself, and subject to the same imperfections and limitations.
In following Lamarck I am not disturbed by the bogey of teleology, or the ghost of mysticism. I am persuaded that there is something immanent in the universe, pervading every atom and molecule in it, that knows what it wants—a Cosmic Mind or Intelligence that we must take account of if we would make any headway in trying to understand the world in which we find ourselves.
When we deny God it is always in behalf of some other god. We are compelled to recognize something not ourselves from which we proceed, and in which we live and move and have our being, call it energy, or will, or Jehovah, or Ancient of Days. We cannot deny it because we are a part of it. As well might the fountain deny the sea or the cloud. Each of us is a fraction of the universal Eternal Intelligence. Is it unscientific to believe that our own minds have their counterpart or their origin in the nature of which we form a part? Is our own intelligence all there is of mind-manifestation in the universe? Where did we get this divine gift? Did we take all there was of it? Certainly we did not ourselves invent it. It would require considerable wit to do that. Mind is immanent in nature, but in man alone it becomes self-conscious. Wherever there is adaptation of means to an end, there is mind.
Yet we use the terms "guidance," "predetermination," and so on, at the risk of being misunderstood. All such terms are charged with the meaning that our daily lives impart to them and, when applied to the processes of the Cosmos, are only half-truths. From our experience with objects and forces in this world, the earth ought to rest upon something, and that object upon something, and the moon ought to fall upon the earth, and the earth fall into the sun, and, in fact, the whole sidereal system ought to collapse. But it does not, and will not. As nearly as we can put it into words, the whole visible universe floats in a boundless and fathomless sea of energy; and that is all we know about it.
If chance brought us here and endowed us with our bodies and our minds, and keeps us here, and adapts us to the world in which we live, is not Chance a good enough god for any of us? Or if Natural Selection did it, or orthogenesis or epigenesis, or any other genesis, have we not in any of these found a god equal to the occasion? Darwin goes wrong, if I may be allowed to say so, when he describes or characterizes the activities of Nature in terms of our own activities. Man's selection affords no clue to Nature's selection, and the best to man is not the best to Nature. For instance, she is concerned with color and form only so far as they have survival value. We are concerned more with intrinsic values.
"Man," says Darwin, "selects only for his own good; Nature only for the good of the being which she tends." But Nature's good is of another order than man's: it is the good of all. Nature aims at a general good, man at a particular good to himself. Man waters his garden; Nature sends the rain broadcast upon the just and the unjust, upon the sea as upon the land. Man directs and controls his planting and his harvesting along specific lines: he selects his seed and prepares his soil; Nature has no system in this respect: she trusts her seeds to the winds and the waters, and to beasts and birds, and her harvest rarely fails.
Nature's methods, we say, are blind, haphazard; the wind blows where it listeth, and the seeds fall where the winds and waters carry them; the frosts blight this section and spare that; the rains flood the country in the West and the drought burns up the vegetation in the East. And yet we survive and prosper. Nature averages up well. We see nothing like purpose or will in her total scheme of things, yet inside her hit-and-miss methods, her storms and tornadoes and earthquakes and distempers, we see a fundamental benefaction. If it is not good-will, it amounts to the same thing. Our fathers saw special providences, but we see only unchangeable laws. To compare Nature's selection with man's selection is like arguing from man's art to Nature's art. Nature has no art, no architecture, no music. Her temples, as the poets tell us, are the woods, her harps the branches of the trees, her minstrels the birds and insects, her gardens the fields and waysides—all safe comparisons for purposes of literature, but not for purposes of science.
Man alone selects, or works by a definite method. Might we not as well say that Nature ploughs and plants and trims and harvests? We pick out our favorites among plants and animals, those that best suit our purpose. We go straight to our object, with as little delay and waste as possible. Not so Nature. Her course is always a round-about one. Our petty economies are no concern of hers. Our choice selection of rich milkers, prolific poultry, or heavy-fleeced sheep is with her quickly sacrificed for the qualities of strength and cunning and speed, as these alone have survival value. Man wants specific results at once. Nature works slowly to general results. Her army is drilled only in battle. Her tools grow sharper in the using. The strength of her species is the strength of the obstacles they overcome.