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

§ 3. His Reading

Thoreau became a man of letters, but he was also a wild man, a faun; he became Emerson’s man, and—although it is rather difficult to fit into the picture—he was a Harvard man. He went up at sixteen and took his degree at twenty. His portrait at this time shows a smooth, grave face dominated by a Roman nose and overhung by a bush of fine brown hair. What benefit he derived from his college years is a matter both of record and of inference. “What I was learning in college was chiefly, I think, to express myself,” he writes five years after leaving Harvard. Perhaps the most significant memorial of his college career is the Latin letter he wrote to his sister Helen, in 1840. It gave him pleasure to use the language of Virgil and Cicero, for one of the many paradoxes in Thoreau’s life was the union of true American contempt for tradition with an unaffected love of the classics. After a diatribe against the narrow religiosity of New England, he draws breath to praise “the Ionian father of the rest,” with the enthusiasm of Keats.

  • There are few books which deserve to be remembered in our wisest hours, but the Iliad is brightest in the serenest days, and embodies still all the sunlight that fell in Asia Minor. No modern joy or ecstasy of ours can lower its height, or dim its lustre, but there it lies in the east of literature, as it were the earliest and latest production of the mind.
  • From the wildwood simplicity of Walden, he startles the reader with deliverances which might have come from the Bodleian.
  • Those who have not learned to read the ancient classics in the language in which they were written must have a very imperfect knowledge of the history of the human race.… Homer has never been printed in English, nor Æschylus, nor Virgil even,—works as refined, as solidly done, as beautiful almost as the morning itself; for later writers, say what we will of their genius, have rarely if ever equalled the elaborate beauty and finish and the lifelong and heroic literary labours of the ancients.
  • Thoreau translated the Prometheus Vinctus and tried his hand at Pindar. His pages are sown with classical allusions and quotations. The sunset at Cape Cod brings a line of Homer into his memory “with a rush,” as the shining torch of the sun falls into the ocean. He has words of just appreciation for Anacreon. His odes
  • charm us by their serenity and freedom from exaggeration and passion, and by a certain flower-like beauty, which does not propose itself, but must be approached and studied like a natural object.
  • Such genuine admiration for Greek genius is rare at any time, and certainly not many American hands could have been busy translating Æschylus, Pindar, and Anacreon in the hurried forties and fifties of the nineteenth century. This large and solid academic basis for Thoreau’s culture is not generally observed. His devotion to the Greeks rings truer than his various utterances on Indian literature and philosophy. Besides, he was well seen in the English classics from Chaucer downwards. A few pages of A Week yield quotations from Emerson, Ovid, Quarles, Channing, Relations des Jesuits, Gower, Lydgate, Virgil, Tennyson, Percy’s Reliques, Byron, Milton, Shakespeare, Spenser, Simonides. As Lowell remarks, “His literature was extensive and recondite.” The truth is, Thoreau was a man of letters, whose great ambition was to study and to write books.

    During and after his college career, Thoreau taught school, like the hero of Elsie Venner. He is quite frank about this episode. “As I did not teach for the good of my fellow-men, but simply for a livelihood, this was a failure.” Brief as was his apprenticeship to the schoolmaster trade, one might possibly conjecture that it left some mark upon him. The many citations of recondite literature do not escape the suspicion of parade and pedantry. There is a certain gusto with which he inserts the botanical name of a plant after the picturesque vernacular, and distinguishes between Rana palustris and Rana pipiens. In general, the tone he adopts towards the world is that of the pedagogue dealing habitually with inferior minds.