Thoreau and Human Nature

The essay by HOWARD MUMFORD JONES which follows was written at the invitation of the Thoreau Society of America on the occasion of the installation of Thoreau’s bust in the Hall of Fame. Mr. .Jones, who began teaching at Harvard in 1936 and has been Abbott Lawrence Lowell professor of humanities, is note leaching at M.I. T. and is at work on a new book tracing the European origins of American culture.


ON SUNDAY, May 5, 1962, with appropriate ceremony Henry David Thoreau was, on the centenary of his death, formally admitted to the Hall of Fame in New York City. To his admirers over the world this seemed not only an appropriate action, but an action too long delayed. If Thoreau has not exerted an influence quite comparable to that of James Fenimore Cooper or Edgar Allan Poe, he has exerted an international influence that has increased in the twentieth century; and this influence, moreover, has been an influence of action, as in India or among our own Freedom Riders, and not an influence solely of literature and thought. It will in no way reflect upon the justice of his admission or upon the good sense of the jury that selected Thoreau to speculate on what he might have said, were he alive today and aware of the honor.

He hated cities, he hated museums, and he hated statuary. In September, 1843, he wrote in his Journal: “I walked through New York yesterday — and met no real or living person.” In another, undated entry in a notebook he said: “I hate museums; there is nothing so weighs upon my spirits. They are the catacombs of nature.” And in 1859, when somebody asked him to subscribe for a statue to Horace Mann, he declined, thinking that a man “ought not any more to take up room in the world after he was dead. . . . It is very offensive to my imagination to see the dying stiffen into statues at this rate.” Eulogies and statuary are perhaps necessary, however, and one may hope they are the outward and visible sign of our inward and spiritual grace.

I am not a Thoreau specialist. I am not expert in Thoreau’s reading, which was immense, nor in his economic views, if he had any, nor in his love life, which seems to have been meager and problematical, nor have I participated in the battle — dare one say, of the ants? — that has raged over the exact location of the famous hut on Walden Pond. But what does one find on rereading Thoreau?

One general image it is difficult to confirm. I can best express this image by citing two sentences with which Leo Stoller begins his study of Thoreau’s economic views. He writes: “Henry Thoreau is the man who lived alone in a hut by Walden Pond and went to jail rather than pay taxes. Such, at any rate, is the thumbnail sketch of him by an America eager to tolerate what it considers primitivism and oddity.” Mr. Stoller does not say this image is correct; he merely gives it as a sketch of popular belief. Neither branch of the legend seems to be quite true. Thoreau went to jail only once for failing to pay his taxes; he did not protest when they were paid for him; and Sam Staples, the town jailer, said he was mad as the devil at being locked up.

Engraving from HARPER’S magazine, 1894.

As for living an eremite’s life in a sort of primitive wilderness by Walden, this, too, will not quite do. Thoreau went there July 4, 1845, and it was theoretically his home for two years and two months. But he had to abandon it from Wednesday. November 12, to Saturday, December 6, because, not having plastered the hut in warm weather, he had to go home until the plaster had slowly dried. During the second summer he took a by no means solitary trip to the Maine woods. In good weather he went to Concord almost daily, sometimes lingering there into the night, going either to look after his family and see his friends or to do odd jobs for pay. In good weather, likewise, he was frequently visited by friends, neighbors, transcendentalists, curiosity seekers, and even young ladies. In the winter he had the companionship of the ice cutters, which he seems to have enjoyed, and in the (all, particularly, that of hunters, one group of whom he characterizes as a “numerous and merry crew.”

Of the eighteen chapters into which walden is divided, the first and longest, entitled “Economy” (in the Greek sense), is as much social commentary as it is directions on how to build a cabin and plant beans. Another is entitled “Visitors.” Another describes a visit to the Baker farm and chronicles a chat with its inhabitants. Another is entitled “The village” — “that desperate, odd-fellow society,” he calls it. Chapter Fourteen is a kind of Robert Frost commentary upon present and former residents and frequenters of the area.

One scholarly editor of Walden insists that Chapter Four, on “Sounds.” may be a lesson in how to read the universal, living language of Nature. I am not disposed to dispute this philosophical assertion or to pretend to be deaf to the “native wood-notes wild” held suspended in its exquisitely modulated prose. But of the twenty-two paragraphs that make up the chapter, nine are devoted to or take off from the noises made by the railroad trains, one has to do with the “faint rattle of a carriage or team along the. distant highway,” one is occasioned by hearing the church bells of Lincoln, Acton, Bedford, and Concord, one combines the distant lowing of a cow with a satirical passage on some village lads singing. The penultimate paragraph begins with another distant rumbling of wagons over bridges, the baying of farm dogs, and the lowing of another cow; and the final one opens with a meditation on crowing roosters, a sound, says Thoreau, heard round the world, even on sailing ships.

Sounds are sounds, and aural acuity — Thoreau had sensitive ears — can be as well displayed by recording the rumble of a team over a bridge as by recording the language of an aldermanic frog as tr-r-r-oonk, tr-r-r-oonk, tr-r-r-oonk, but the ordinary reader may be forgiven if he is baffled when told that this not very original onomatopoeia is a new lesson in the universal, living language of Nature.

I note also with mild amusement that Chapter Five, entitled “Solitude,” contains phrases like these: “I find that visitors have been there”; “I was frequently notified of the passage of a traveller along the highway sixty rods off by the scent of his pipe”; “some came from the village to fish for pouts”; “men frequently say to me” “I one evening overtook one of my townsmen.” Wiser than specialists. Thoreau says flatly in Walden that we belong to the community.

[ think he went to Walden Pond in part to get away from his garrulous mother, in part to meditate and write, but he was no solitary Alexander Selkirk, no monarch of all he surveyed, no Robinson Crusoe discovering with astonishment on the sand a print of a human foot, no Trappist monk dedicated to silence, no St. Anthony trying to be holy in the desert. He built his hut and he lived in it because it was fun to do so. I have known Vermonters who lived far more solitary lives in far more lonely dwellings.

A MAN maun gang his ain gait, as the Scots say, without being a solitary in either the romantic or the religious sense. On rereading other books by Thoreau I am astonished to see how large a fraction of their bulk is devoted to commentary on humanity. A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers runs to 518 pages, of which about 200 have to do directly with the journeying. Both streams run—and ran — through territory long since subdued to human needs, and the pages deal with farm and church, canal and bridge, lock and village, factory and stagecoach, river commerce and social history. He or his brother ever and again hails canalboat men or farmers or small boys or lockkeepers or hospitable farmwives.

Their little trip, in itself charming, was quite without wildness, and could be described in good set Victorian terms as the lazy tour of two idle apprentices. For wildness one has to turn to Kinglake’s Eothen, or Frémont’s Report of the Exploring Expedition to the Rocky Mountains, or Parkman’s The California and Oregon Trail, or Melville’s Tybee, all more or less contemporary with the Week. Thoreau’s harmless camp-outs contrast sharply with Bartram’s desperate struggle to preserve his boat and his gear from alligators in eighteenthcentury Florida.

The Week is no worse for not recording dangers of scalping by Indians or being imprisoned by fanatical Bedouins or being eaten by cannibals, but it is as it is, a volume diversified with essays on Chaucer, local history, the nature and function of poetry, the working of friendship, the nature of time, the truth of Neoplatonism, a whimsical theory of deserts, the effects of music upon the soul, Huguenots on Staten Island, Pythagoreanism, and the literary style of Sir Walter Raleigh.

I am not trying to find fault with the Week; I am merely trying to define its warm humanity, which has only a secondary relation to natural philosophy, as one will realize if he compares it to Muir’s The Mountains of California, or Clarence King’s Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada, or even the far more domesticated King Solomon’s Ring of Konrad Lorenz, in all of which scientific considerations are vertebrate, and central to the prose.

It has been remarked that Wordsworth does not read very convincingly in the tropics; and when Henry Thoreau had really to confront the savagery of nature, even in a relatively limited degree, he found that the warm humanism he could impute to natural sights and sounds in eastern Massachusetts was not universal or relevant. Nothing is more illuminating than the mood of cosmic bewilderment that overcame him after his ascent of Mount Katahdin, as recorded in The Maine Woods:

Some part of the beholder, even some vital part, seems to escape through the loose grating of his ribs as he ascends. He is more lone than you can imagine. There is less of substantial thought and fair understanding in him than in the plains where men inhabit. His reason is dispersed and shadowy, more thin and subtile, like the air. Vast, Titanic, inhuman Nature has got him at disadvantage, caught him alone, and pilfers him of some of his divine faculty. She does not smile on him as in the plains. She seems to say sternly, Why came ye here before your time. This ground is not prepared for you. . . . The tops of the mountains are among the unfinished parts of the globe, whither it is a slight insult to the gods to climb and pry into their secrets, and try their effect on our humanity. Only daring and insolent men, perchance, go there. Simple races, as savages, do not climb mountains — their tops are sacred and mysterious tracts never visited by them.

And, some six pages later:

This was that Earth of which we have heard, made out of Chaos and Old Night. Here was no man’s garden, but the unhandseled globe. It was no lawn, nor pasture, nor mead, nor woodland, nor lea, nor arable, nor waste land. It was the fresh and natural surface of the planet Earth, as it was made forever and ever. . . . Man was not to be associated with it. It was Matter, vast, terrific — not his Mother Earth that we have heard of, nor for him to tread on, or to be buried in, — no, it were being too familiar even to let his bones lie there, — the home this, of Necessity and Fate.

THERE is more to the passage, all in the same tone. This, clearly, is not cosmic comfort but cosmic scare. It suggests that for Thoreau, as for Wordsworth, Nature is in the temperate zone, never far from the clearing, and has its meaning principally in terms of man.

Man is rather more central to Thoreau’s interest, despite the endless pages of natural lore in the Journals, than some schools of interpretation are prepared to admit. This truth is the more Strongly suggested when we contrast some of the books brought out within three or four years of his death with the four volumes of extracts on nature from the Journals published by H. G. O. Blake about a quarter of a century afterward. Thus, A Yankee in Canada is virtually a sociological report on French-Canadian life; and not even Thoreau’s curiosity about the falls in the rivers of Canada dislocates the centrality of the theme of Canadian culture.

The Maine Woods has, I think, two major interests, one of which is the actual life of white man and red man in the woods or in the clearings, and the processes of their existence; and the other is Indian psychology, especially the psychology of Joseph Polis, of which the “Allegash and East Branch” section of the book is a lengthy exposition in biographical form.

Thoreau’s interest in processes is an important element in the volume. A long passage on the New England Friction Match Company, a description of the McCauslin clearing, the way Joe Polis killed, skinned, and cut up a moose, the account of the Ansel Smith place, the way the guide set up camp, the way Joe Polis carried a canoe, the way Henry Thoreau located his lost companion — these passages of circumstantial observation of human behavior make us understand why, two thirds of the way through the book, Thoreau writes:

Wild as it was, it was hard for me to get rid of the association of the settlements. Any deadly and monotonous sound, to which I did not distinctly attend. passed for a sound of human industry. The waterfalls which I heard were not without their dams and mills to my imagination, — and several times I found that I had been regarding the steady rushing sound of the wind from over the woods beyond the rivers as that of a train of cars, — the cars of Quebec.

Even his magnificent description of the desolation wrought by flooding a lake draws from him a civic comparison to the “wharves of the largest city in the world, decayed, and the earth and planking washed away,” just before they reach the safe haven of the Chamberlain farm.

As for that remarkable book. Cape Cod, who can forget the human drama of the shipwreck at Cohasset, the vivid account of the wellfleet oysterman and his family, the memorable descriptions of Provincetown, or the shrewd remark that the Pilgrims possessed few of the qualities of the pioneer: “They did not go at once into the woods with their axes. They were a family and a church, and were more anxious to keep together, though it were on the sand, than to explore and colonize a New World.” Thoreau’s book is a close examination of how it is possible to live in an area so barren that the author several times “refrained from asking the inhabitants for a string or a piece of wrapping-paper, for fear i should rob them.” The landscape, or rather the seascape, is wonderfully described, but the problem is the environment as a setting for human existence, not, as on the top of Mount Katahdin, the landscape as a denial of human validity.

One is grateful for serious studies of Thoreau and transcendentalism, Thoreau and Oriental thought, Thoreau and the classics, Thoreau and the Harvard library, Thoreau and politics. I venture to suggest, however, that the topic of Thoreau and human nature is still a central theme.

There is a wonderful episode in Volume Five of the Journals (the entry is dated May 31, 1853), in which Thoreau tries to get George Melvin to tell him where he found the Azalea nudiflora, which reads as if it were written in prose by Robert Frost. George Melvin was not going to give in easily; whereupon Thoreau said, “Well, l told him he had better tell me where it was; I was a botanist and ought to know.” Channing had almost stumbled upon the secret place but hadn’t found it, and the entry runs: “ ‘Channing,’ he said, ‘came close by it once, when it was in flower. He thought he’d surely find it then; but he didn’t, and he said nothing to him.’ ”

Melvin, Thoreau, and the dog finally go to the spot. We have this characteristic bit of Yankee psychology:

Melvin showed me how near Channing came. (“You won’t tell him what I said; will you?” said he.) I offered to pay him lor his trouble, but he wouldn’t take anything. He had just as lief I’d know as not. He thought it first came out last Wednesday, on the 25th.

Or take this wonderful description of the drunken Dutchman in the Journals for 1850, which I condense:

Getting into Patchogue late one night in an oysterboat, there was a drunken Dutchman aboard whose wit reminded me of Shakespeare. When we came to leave the beach, our boat was aground, and we were detained three hours waiting lor the tide. In the meanwhile two of the fishermen took an extra dram at the beach house. Then they stretched themselves on the seaweed by the shore in the sun to sleep off the effects of their debauch. One was an inconceivably broad-faced young Dutchman, — but oh! of such a peculiar breadth and heavy look. I should not know whether to call it more ridiculous or sublime. . . .

For the whole voyage they lay flat on their backs on the bottom of the boat, in the bilge-water and wet with each bailing, half insensible and wallowing in their vomit. But ever and anon, when aroused by the rude kicks or curses of the skipper, the Dutchman, who never lost his wit nor equanimity, though snoring and rolling in the vomit produced by his debauch, blurted forth some happy repartee like an illuminated swine. It was the earthiest, slimiest wit I ever heard. The countenance was one of a million. . . . When we were groping up the narrow creek of Patchogue at ten o’clock at night, keeping our boat off, now from this bank, now from that . . . the two inebriates roused themselves betimes. . . . The Dutchman gave wise directions to the steerer. . . . Suddenly rousing himself up where the sharpest-eyed might be bewildered in the darkness, he leaned over the side of the boat and pointed straight down into the creek, averring that that identical hole was a first-rate place for eels. And again he roused himself at the right time and declared what luck he had once had with his pots ... in another place, which were floating over in the dark. At last he suddenly stepped on to another boat which was moored to the shore, with a divine ease and sureness, saying, “Well, good-night, take care of yourselves, I can’t be with you any longer.” He was one of the few remarkable men whom I have met. . . . When I said, “You have had a hard time of it to-day,” he answered with indescribable good humor out of the midst of his debauch, with watery eyes, “Well, it doesn’t happen every day.”

We rub our eyes. Is this the Henry Thoreau who sought in vain lor a hound, a bay horse, and a turtledove, or is it a picture by Hogarth or Teniers sympathetically translated out of pigment into prose?

OUR histories of American literature are deficient in a number of categories. They seldom or never, for example, recognize the greatness of American biographical writing, which, beginning before Cotton Mather and extending to our own time, has given us masterpieces by James Parton, Gamaliel Bradford, Douglas Southall Freeman, and others. They scarcely know what to do with most nonfictional prose, whether of the informal essay type, of political theory, or of science; and to read in them one would in many cases never learn that writers like Samuel Leonard, Daniel Dulany, John C. Calhoun, or Herbert Croly in one category, or James Wilson, Matthew Fontaine Maury, Isaac Ray, or Louis Agassiz in another, ever lived in the United States.

They do not know what to do with the powerful library of travel literature written by Americans like John C. Fremont, John Wesley Powell, Isaac L. Stevens, Frederick Law Olmsted, or George B. Catlin — books that are catalogued in these histories but never analyzed as works of literary art. But I think the greatest deficiency in these manuals is their failure to recognize the existence of that type of writer the French call the moralist. For him American literary criticism has small space.

With us the moral is always equated with the didactic; and, properly, we flee from writing that has too palpable a design upon us. But the great moralists of the ancient world, like Cato, Theophrastus, and Plutarch; the great moralists of Europe—Machiavelli, Montaigne, La Rochefoucauld, Pascal, Lichtenberg, Voltaire, Vauvenargues; and our own Franklin and Emerson are not thus childishly to be dismissed.

When Pascal writes, “Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction”; when Voltaire writes, “I never made but one prayer to God, a very short one: ‘O Lord, make my enemies ridiculous.’ And God granted it”; when Emerson writes, “I have heard with admiring submission the experience of the lady who declared that the sense of being perfectly well-dressed gives a feeling of inward tranquillity which religion is powerless to bestow,” we know in each case that we are in the hands of someone who has profound observations to make about human nature. Such sententiae are not epigrams in the modern sense, though they may be in the classical meaning of the term, and they rise above mere brilliance in proportion as they make us feel their authors are men of sagacity, writers who have seen

cities of men

And manners, climates, councils, governments, themselves not least, but honored of them all. They have probed motives, analyzed actions, distinguished between the specious and the real; and they have been led to their generalizations partly by the love of an art that prefers condensation to expansiveness, and partly by a passionate interest in human character.

Thoreau is one of the great moralists in the French sense. In his apothegms, his pithy paragraphs on human behavior, we more frequently find that quality Lowell praised in Thoreau’s writing: “The style is compact and the language has an antique purity like wine grown colorless with age,” He labored to perfect this lapidary effect. In 1851 in the Journals he spoke of “sentences uttered with your back to the wall,” and the next year he said: “The peculiarity of a work of genius is the absence of the speaker from his speech.” A little before he quit his journal he wrote: “The fruit a thinker bears is sentences, — statements or opinions.” Sententiousness—the creating of the rhetorical form known as the sententia — is, I think, one of the unique achievements in Thoreau. Whereas his pages on nature tend to be loose and repetitive, his writing about man is tight and condensed. We have had a small library of books on nature out of Thoreau; we lack a good book on human nature in Thoreau.

I find the key of this writing in an entry for June 15, 1840, in the Journals:

Why always insist that men incline to the moral side of their being? Our life is not all moral. Surely, its actual phenomena deserve to be studied impartially. The science of Human Nature has never been attempted, as the science of Nature has. The dry light has never shone on it. Neither physics nor metaphysics have touched it.

It is not necessary to determine whether this is a transcendental remark in order to comprehend the special quality of Thoreau as an observer of humanity.

The subject is difficult for the critic to handle because all our attempts to force Thoreau into a system are as futile as the same attempt is with respect to Montaigne or La Rochefoucauld. Consider, however, these striking sententiae culled from the pages of Thoreau’s Journals:

Man is the artificer of his own happiness.

The words of some men are thrown forcibly against you and adhere like burrs.

We may well neglect many things, provided we overlook them.

Nothing was ever so unfamiliar and startling to me as my own thoughts.

The man of principle never gets a holiday.

There must be some narrowness in the soul that compels one to have secrets.

Any reverence, even for a material thing, proceeds from an elevation of character.

The imagination never forgives an insult.

Each of these compels one to think. But to what system of thought shall they be referred?

Sometimes Thoreau’s sententiae have a Voltairean tone, as in the following:

Read the Englishman’s history of the French and Indian wars, and then read the Frenchman’s, and see how each awards the meed of glory to the other’s monsters of cruelty or perfidy.

One man lies in his words, and gets a bad reputation; another in his manners, and enjoys a good one.

Beauty and true wealth are always thus cheap and despised. Heaven, or paradise, might be defined as the place which men avoid.

I am tempted to put into the same category this startling sentence:

I should be pleased to meet man in the woods. I wish he were to be encountered like wild caribous and moose.

This is perhaps superficial cynicism. Deeper lie more searching meditations on man that to me, at least, are quite as good as anything in La Rochefoucauld. Here are two:

No innocence can quite stand up under suspicion, if it is conscious of being suspected. In the company of one who puts a wrong construction upon your actions, they are apt really to deserve a mean construction. While in that society I can never retrieve myself. Attribute to me a great motive, and I shall not fail to have one; but a mean one, and the fountain of virtue will be poisoned by the suspicion.

It is only by a sort of voluntary blindness, and omitting to see, that we know ourselves, as when we see stars with the side of the eye. ... It is as hard to see one’s self as to look backwards without turning round. And foolish are they that look in glasses with that intent.

The component of stoicism in Thoreau’s outlook has been much discussed. Stoicism is an ambiguous word, but I have been struck by passage after passage in the journals that expresses the temper of Marcus Aurelius in the Meditations. Here are two representative instances:

Nature refuses to sympathize with our sorrow. She seems not to have provided for, but by a thousand contrivances against, it. She has bevelled the margins of the eyelids that the tears may not overflow on the cheek.

If I have brought this weakness on my lungs, I will consider calmly and disinterestedly how the thing came about, that I may find out the truth and render justice. Then, after patience, I shall be a wiser man than before.

Possibly should be put under this rubric what is to me the saddest line in all Thoreau:

The bones of children soon turn to dust again.

The observation is, if you will, commonplace, but it comes from a childless man who hungered on his deathbed for the companionship of the young.

But the sententiae are not confined to the sad sincerity of the great Roman; they also have the warmth, humor, and vitality of Montaigne. Some of the passages on men of the ancient world might have been written by that essayist. For example:

The Greeks were boys in the sunshine, the Romans were men in the field, the Persians women in the house, the Egyptians old men in the dark.

And finally, I cite this remarkable piece of selfanalysis:

I only know myself as a human entity, the scene, so to speak, of thoughts and affections, and am sensible of a certain doubleness by which I can stand as remote from myself as from another. However intense my experience, I am conscious of the presence and criticism of a part of me, which, as it were, is not a part of me, but spectator, sharing no experience, but taking note of it, and that is no more I than it is you. When the play — it may be the tragedy of life — is over, the spectator goes his way. It was a kind of fiction, a work of the imagination only, so far as he was concerned.

These are, of course, but samplings of about four hundred sententiae from the Journals alone. More could be found in the formal books. I have cited nothing from Thoreau’s sardonic observations on New England church life, on politicians, on family relationships, on the structure and manners of society, on science, or on the races of men, though I think the following too interesting to omit:

There is always a slight haze or mist on the brow of an Indian. The white man’s brow is clear and distinct. It is eleven o’clock in the forenoon with him. It is four o’clock in die morning with the Indian.

In categorizing many of the passages I have quoted as being like Voltaire or La Rochefoucauld, Marcus Aurelius or Montaigne, I wish neither to enter into a dreary debate over literary sources nor to derogate from the originality of Thoreau. I am merely trying to define him and to celebrate an aspect of his genius that seems to me neglected. Were we to extract from his writings the sententiae he wrote on human nature, human conduct, and human psychology, number them, and print them as separate paragraphs (as some of his observations on nature have been printed), we should have a book like the Maximes of La Rochefoucauld, the Pensées of Pascal, and the aphorisms of Licittenberg.

We ought to restore this surveyor of Concord to his rightful place as a shrewd and candid observer of the motives and behavior of men. He observed humanity quite as objectively as he did the muskrat and the loon. The moralist does not have to be tied to a system. It is enough, as Louis Kronenberger has said, that he gaze back and forth between his fellow beings and himself. Thoreau, I repeat, is, in the French sense, one of the great moralists of the Western world.