by Henry Seidel Canby
[Houghton Mifflin, $3.75]
MR. CANBY’S long-awaited biography of Thoreau is the first life of the Man of Walden which ever made that man plain to me. It is indeed the first connected account of the real events in his life which I have encountered, previous biographies having taken the easier turning of a history of Thoreau’s pilgrim’s progress through the world of ideas. We can all have opinions on that. But nobody else has satisfactorily explained the man. Mr. Canby’s long research into the details of his subject’s life is buried, where sound scholarship should be buried, under the lucid surface of narrative. appreciation, and criticism.
Ever distinguished, always easy, Mr. Canby has shown cause why he has been at his task these many years. He has thought so long and so well that line after line is an epigram. You can quote it right off and make it sound like something you heard years ago — like Fitzgerald-Omar, like Emerson, like, indeed, Thoreau!
This is not the time or place to talk again about Thoreau the writer. Everybody knows which part of Walden he loves; anybody can read the Journals for himself. Quietly Mr. Canby implies or asserts his own critical estimate that Thoreau the stylist was the purest, rockiest, most original of all the American writers of his day.
Mr. Canby apologizes for the shortcomings of Thoreau as a naturalist. I feel this is hardly necessary. No one reads him for his science and no naturalist but makes mistakes. As a nature writer. Thoreau cannot be overestimated or read too often. As a moralist, he strikes me as fervent, naive, unread by His enemies, requiring the protection of his friends. But I return to the author — own critical processes, which are here and now the point.
Mr. Canby’s concern is with thoreau the man. and though I have now read (rather inattentively because of dull style) two previous ‘lives,’ Mr. Canby had surprises in store for me, and I think he has for many Thoreauvians. We all knew H. D. T. loved a young girl and lost her. We never before saw why. It is epitomized in his urging his beloved to give up tea and coffee for cold spring water. But women are won with wine, of some sort, if not juice of the grape. There was more to his failure to win her than that, but it was all of a piece.
No misogynist was H. D. T., thinks Mr. Canby. He discusses one after another the women in Thoreau’s life: the two who were supposed to have committed suicide for despairing love of him, and Margaret Fuller, of whom Thoreau wrote most insultingly, as well as Mrs. Emerson, whose chicken dinners he ate; his sister Sophia, who mended his clothes; his mother, from whom he inherited garrulity; his Aunt Mary, who saw through her nephew and Transcendentalism, who dared to pity and laugh at him, who loved and admired him, and. when he went to jail, came. buckety-buckety, to pay his fine into the jailer’s daughter’s hand. Woman bore him. women admired him, women protected and tended him, women buried him, a woman wept him. Yet he never quite knew his debt. In his design for living, his scheme of things to set this sorry world to rights, it never occurred to him to project a world where a woman could breathe.
One mistaken belief about Thoreau after another is smashed up and thrown away by our careful biographer. Among his surprises is a fuller account of Thoreau’s relations with Whitman than I have read elsewhere. Both men have left us their full impressions (a rare circumstance in meetings of genius). Sometimes the Thoreaulover is horrified at the revelations. We all remember that in his speech on the imminent hanging of John Brown he said he almost feared that Brown would escape or be pardoned. Then he would not die for a principle. Yet it hurts to read that when Henry taught school and was told he must flog he was so incensed that he called out five unoffending boys and one girl and feruled them till the room was filled with cries and sobs. He then resigned, having proved to himself the injustice of corporal punishment, or having proved, rather, that he could not be made to cane tender innocents if he didn’t wish to. Who will agree now with Sinclair Lewis that Thoreau would make the best of possible dictators?
His contemporaries called Henry a Diogenes. Perhaps, but his beam, which might have enabled him to recognize a great man from Salem, Massachusetts, did not enable him to see as far as New Salem. Illinois.
Mr. Canby is wondrously frank about all this. But these are details of his honest revelation. The patient, scholarship of his work is best exemplified in the detailed study of Thoreau’s relations with Emerson. Mr. Canby dissects their influence upon each other with exquisite needles. They built upon each other, admiring in each other most the extensions of themselves, caring least for the other’s thoughts when they were, respectively, most original. Eventually each complained that the other conversed in monologues. They parted ways, but could never get apart. So Mr. Canby turns the facets of Thoreau’s complex nature — not a simple one, as is supposed because his clothes were baggy and his voice brusque. Only in details was Thoreau moulded by Emerson or Oriental philosophy, by women or even by Nature around Concord. What Mr. Canby brings out is the inner nature of Thoreau, a gem hard as a diamond, shaped by no one but himself, glittering with a unique and to me, though perhaps not to his biographer, a pathetic genius.