The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XVI. Early National Literature, Part II; Later National Literature, Part I.

X. Thoreau

§ 10. Style

Thoreau has two styles, the oracular and the simple; and in Walden the simple prevails. Like the water of the pond, it is clear, colourless and wholesome. Thoreau is a careful writer, with an instinct for the right word which was developed and strengthened by a lifelong devotion to the best books. His love of the classics must have tended to purify his style and increase its natural dignity. Walden is generally free from oracular phrases and grotesque locutions like “eyes revolve in an Egyptian slime of health.” It must always retain the deep unfailing value of all autobiography, personal memoirs, “confessions.” The record of a life will never fail of an audience. When a man declares, “Thus I did, thus I thought, thus I felt,” other men are always eager to attend his tale.

The Walden experiment was not unlike the other Transcendental experiment of Brook Farm. Both were declarations of independence; both were attempts to place life on a new basis; both broke down. The Greek dog-sage in his tub, the English Quaker in his suit of leather, the Yankee land-surveyor in his wooden hut are three object lessons to the world of the ancient truth that “a man’s life consisteth not in the abundance of the things that he possesseth.” The Walden experiment is open to all the criticism of Lowell: “it presupposed all the complicated civilization which it theoretically abjured.” Even for Thoreau it was not a success. In the first year, his Homer lay open on the table, but he was so busy that he could only read it by snatches; in the second year, he was forced to set up a prosaic stove in the place of the romantic fire-place. Thoreau’s ideal of a world of book men, or contemplatives, is a dream. Still, the experience of the ascetic always shames the grossness of the worldly wiseman. If a man can live for a year for eight dollars, we certainly spend too much on things we could do without. Thoreau’s experiment will always have its appeal to hot, ambitious spirits on their first awakening to the intricacy of life. The hero of Locksley Hall longs to escape from civilization to summer isles of Eden. At least one American man of letters has followed Thoreau’s example by going into retreat.

After living in his hut for two years, Thoreau supported himself for three more by cultivating his garden, like Candide. Thus he obtained the freedoms he desired, the leisure to think, and to read, and to write, and to be himself. Then he went back to his land-surveying, his communing with the spirits of the wild, and the compilation of his voluminous journals. From the latter, several volumes have been quarried for the definitive edition of his works. They must always be of more interest to the admirer of Thoreau and the student of literature than to the general reader.

Then came the break-down of his health. It was the irony of fate that the man who lived according to nature, who obeyed the dictates of spare temperance, who never seemed to tire, should die of tuberculosis, the scourge of civilized life. His latest portrait, a daguerreotype taken in New Bedford, seven months before his death, shows a hairy, innocent, pathetic face; the eyes have the mute appeal of the consumptive. In 1861, the stricken man made a trip to the West, in the vain hope of restoration to health by change of air. He died in his birthplace, Concord, on 2 May, 1862, in the second year of the Civil War. He has been blamed for expressing his sense of detachment from that terrible conflict, but if, like Mercutio, he cries, “A plague on both your houses!” it must be remembered that, like Mercutio, he was a dying man. His last letter, dictated to his sister, concludes, “I am enjoying existence as much as ever, and regret nothing.”