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IV

THE BOOKS

Early in September, 1839, the Thoreau brothers, John and Henry, made a voyage down the Concord and Merrimac rivers. The boat used was of their own building. It was painted blue and green, had wheels by which it could be dragged around the dams, and must have been as ugly as it was useful. A Week on the Concord and Merrimack records the unadventurous adventures of the two young men both on this and other excursions.

It is a medley of prose and verse, of homely common-sense and lofty speculation. Side by side with realistic portraits of plain people, farmers, fishermen, boatmen, and lock-keepers, are minute and exquisite descriptions of the life of field, mountain, stream, lake, and air. The literary allusions are many, and taken from sources as wide apart as the poles, Shattuck (the historian of Concord) and Anacreon, Gookin and Chaucer. Here is to be found the famous essay on Friendship, the spirit of which may be partly divined from this sentence: 'I could tame a hyena more easily than 'my friend.'

The poetry in the volume is a stumbling-block to not a few readers. Doubtless it has its virtues, but too often Thoreau's poetry must be forgiven for the sake of his prose. The stiff, almost selfconscious air of A Week on the Concord and Merrimack and the hobbling verse help to explain the indifference of the author's contemporaries to a very original work.

Walden, the second of Thoreau's books, is the better of the two, which does not mean that the first could be spared. The style is easier, the flavor more racy, the spirit more humorous. The attitude of the writer is characteristically provoking and pugnacious. The chapters abound in audacities which at once pique and delight the reader. This modern Diogenes-Crusoe, solving the problem of existence on an improvised desert-island two miles from his mother's door-step, is a refreshing figure.

Life in the woods fascinated Thoreau. Walden is a tribute to this fascination. In the absence of domestic sounds he had the murmur of the forest, the cry of the loon, the 'tronk' of the frog, and the clangor of the wild-goose. Society was plenty and of the best. His neighbors were the squirrel, the field-mouse, the phæbe, the blue jay. Human companionship was not wanting, for there were visitors of all sorts, from the half-witted to those who had more wits than they knew what to do with. Matter-of-fact people were amazed at the young man's way of living, lacking the penetration to see that he might live as he did from the humor of it. When sceptics asked him whether he

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thought he could subsist on vegetable food alone, Thoreau, to strike at the root of the matter at once, was accustomed to say that he could live on board 'nails.' 'If they cannot understand that they cannot understand much that I say.'

The Walden episode was an experiment in emancipation, and the book is a challenge to mankind to live more simply and freely. Thoreau mocks at the worship of luxury. 'I would rather ‘sit on a pumpkin and have it all to myself than be crowded on a velvet cushion. I would rather ‘ride on earth in an ox-cart, with a free circulation, “than go to heaven in the fancy car of an excursion train and breathe a malaria all the way.'

Excursions is a collection of nine essays. Some of them are formal and scientific with the Thoreau-esque flavor ( Natural History of Massa

chusetts,” “The Succession of Forest Trees,' * Autumnal Tints,' Wild Apples '), others are pure Thoreau (‘A Walk to Wachusett,' "The * Landlord,''A Winter Walk,''Walking,' Night ‘and Moonlight). The flavor of these wildlings of literature, as a devotee happily calls them, is as marked almost as that of Walden. They are, in fact, Walden in miniature.

The Maine Woods consists of three long essays, * Ktaadn,'Chesuncook,' and 'The Allegash and 'East Branch.' They are readable, informing, uninspired. In the degree in which he left himself out of his pages Thoreau became as tame and con

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ventional as the most academic of writers. The strength of some men of letters lies in conformity. Thoreau is strongest in non-conformity.

Cape Cod is far more characteristic than the Maine Woods. He who likes the savor of salt and the tonic of ocean air will enjoy this book whether he cares for Thoreau or not. It is interesting as an early contribution to the history of Cape Cod folks by a historian who was more of an enigma to the natives than they were to him.

The best part of A Yankee in Canada is not to be found in the account of the excursion to Montreal and Quebec, but in the sheaf of anti-slavery and reform papers bound up in the same volume. Here are printed the address on 'Slavery in Mas'sachusetts,' the paper on Civil Disobedience,' containing the lively account of the author's experience in Concord jail, the two addresses on John Brown, the essay on Life without Principle,'

‘ and the critical study of Thomas Carlyle and his < Works.'

The four volumes named for the seasons are valuable for the light they shed on Thoreau's method as a writer, and his skill and accuracy in reporting the facts of Nature. They are sure to be read by the faithful, because the genuine Thoreau enthusiast can read his every line. The rest of the world will be content to know him by two or three of the twelve volumes bearing his name. A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, Walden, the Familiar Letters, and a few essays from Excursions and the Anti-Slavery papers ought to be sufficient.

No more than greater men of letters can Thoreau be disposed of in a paragraph. Some of his pronounced characteristics can be, however.

He was a paradoxical philosopher. To praise Nature at the expense of civilized society, to eulogize the perfection of the one and lament the degradation of the other, to declare solemnly that church spires deform the landscape, and that it is a mistake to do a second time what has been done once, — these declarations give a wholly incomplete but, so far as they go, not unjust idea of his manner. Taking Thoreau literally is a capital way to breed a dislike for him. Grant him his own manner of expressing his thought, make no effort to exact conformity from so wayward a genius, and at once you are, as Walt Whitman would say,

rapport ’ with him. It is easy to exaggerate his paradoxicalness. Say to yourself as you take up the volume: 'Now let us find out just how whim‘sical this fellow can be,' and straightway he disappoints by not being whimsical at all.

If Thoreau's praise of Nature at the expense of Society seems to border on the absurd, one must bear in mind how complete and intimate was his knowledge of what he praised. His love of forest, lake, hill, and mountain, of beast and bird, was

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