Quotations and Commentary

Edited by L. James Hammond

© L. James Hammond 2003



Walden or, Life in the Woods

1--“[I] require of every writer, first or last, a simple and sincere account of his own life, and not merely what he has heard of other men’s lives.”

--“I have traveled a good deal in Concord; and everywhere, in shops, and offices, and fields, the inhabitants have appeared to me to be doing penance in a thousand remarkable ways....The twelve labors of Hercules were trifling in comparison with those which my neighbors have undertaken; for they were only twelve, and had an end; but I could never see that these men slew or captured any monster or finished any labor.”

--“I see young men, my townsmen, whose misfortune it is to have inherited farms, houses, barns, cattle, and farming tools; for these are more easily acquired than got rid of.”

--“Most men, even in this comparatively free country, through mere ignorance and mistake, are so occupied with the factitious cares and superfluously coarse labors of life that its finer fruits cannot be plucked by them. Their fingers, from excessive toil, are too clumsy and tremble too much for that....The finest qualities of our nature, like the bloom on fruits, can be preserved only by the most delicate handling.”

--“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.”

--“What old people say you cannot do, you try and find that you can.”

--“Some things are really necessaries of life in some circles, the most helpless and diseased, which in others are luxuries merely, and in others still are entirely unknown.”

--“At the present day, and in this country, as I find by my own experience, a few implements, a knife, an axe, a spade, a wheelbarrow, etc., and for the studious, lamplight, stationery, and access to a few books, rank next to necessaries, and can all be obtained at a trifling cost.”

--“Most of the luxuries, and many of the so-called comforts of life, are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind. With respect to luxuries and comforts, the wisest have ever lived a more simple and meager life than the poor. The ancient philosophers, Chinese, Hindoo, Persian, and Greek, were a class than which none has been poorer in outward riches, none so rich in inward.”

--“There are nowadays professors of philosophy, but not philosophers. To be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, nor even to found a school, but so to love wisdom as to live according to its dictates, a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust. It is to solve some of the problems of life, not only theoretically, but practically....The philosopher is in advance of his age even in the outward form of his life. He is not fed, sheltered, clothed, warmed, like his contemporaries. How can a man be a philosopher and not maintain his vital heat by better methods than other men?”

--“When he has obtained those things which are necessary to life, there is another alternative than to obtain the superfluities; and that is, to adventure on life now, his vacation from humbler toil having commenced.”

--“In any weather, at any hour of the day or night, I have been anxious to improve the nick of time, and notch it on my stick too; to stand on the meeting of two eternities, the past and future, which is precisely the present moment; to toe that line.”

--“I sometimes try my acquaintances by such tests as this,—Who could wear a patch, or two extra seams only, over the knee? Most behave as if they believed that their prospects for life would be ruined if they should do it.”

--“Even in our democratic New England towns the accidental possession of wealth, and its manifestation in dress and equipage alone, obtain for the possessor almost universal respect.”

--“It is desirable that a in all respects so compactly and preparedly that, if an enemy take the town, he can, like the old philosopher, walk out the gate empty-handed without anxiety.”

--“We worship not the Graces, nor the Parcae, but Fashion....The head monkey at Paris puts on a traveller’s cap, and all the monkeys in America do the same.”

--“In the long run men hit only what they aim at. Therefore, though they should fail immediately, they had better aim at something high.”

--“We may imagine a time when, in the infancy of the human race, some enterprising mortal crept into a hollow in a rock for shelter. Every child begins the world again, to some extent, and loves to stay outdoors, even in wet and cold. It plays house, as well as horse, having an instinct for it. Who does not remember the interest with which when young he looked at shelving rocks, or any approach to a cave? It was the natural yearning of that portion of our most primitive ancestor which still survived in us.”

--“Formerly, when how to get my living honestly, with freedom left for my proper pursuits, was a question which vexed me even more than it does now [I] used to see a large box by the railroad, six feet long by three wide, in which the laborers locked up their tools at night; and it suggested to me that every man who was hard pushed might get such a one for a dollar, and, having bored a few auger holes in it, to admit the air at least, get into it when it rained and at night, and hook down the lid, and so have freedom in his love, and in his soul be free. This did not appear the worst, nor by any means a despicable alternative. You could sit up as late as you pleased, and, whenever you got up, go abroad without any landlord or house-lord dogging you for rent. Many a man is harassed to death to pay the rent of a larger and more luxurious box who would not have frozen to death in such a box as this. I am far from jesting.”

--“If it is asserted that civilization is a real advance in the condition of man—and I think that it is, though only the wise improve their advantages—it must be shown that it has produced better dwellings without making them more costly; and the cost of a thing is the amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it....An average house in this neighborhood costs perhaps eight hundred dollars, and to lay up this sum will take from ten to fifteen years of the laborer’s life....If we suppose him to pay a rent instead, this is but a doubtful choice of evils. Would the savage have been wise to exchange his wigwam for a palace on these terms?”

--“The farmer is endeavoring to solve the problem of a livelihood by a formula more complicated than the problem itself. To get his shoestrings he speculates in herds of cattle. With consummate skill he has set his trap with a hair spring to catch comfort and independence, and then, as he turned away, got his own leg into it.”

--“When the farmer has got his house, he may not be the richer but the poorer for it, and it be the house that has got him....Our houses are such unwieldy property that we are often imprisoned rather than housed in them....I know one or two families, at least, in this town, who, for nearly a generation, have been wishing to sell their houses in the outskirts and move into the village, but have not been able to accomplish it, and only death will set them free.”

--“The best works of art are the expression of man’s struggle to free himself from this condition, but the effect of our art is merely to make this low state comfortable and that higher state to be forgotten.”

--“[I] found that the student who wishes for a shelter can obtain one for a lifetime at an expense not greater than the rent which he now pays annually.”

--“Economy of living [is] synonymous with philosophy.”

--“Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious things. They are but improved means to an unimproved end, an end which it was already but too easy to arrive at; as railroads lead to Boston or New York. We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate.”

--“This spending of the best part of one’s life earning money in order to enjoy a questionable liberty during the least valuable part of it reminds me of the Englishman who went to India to make a fortune first, in order that he might return to England and live the life of a poet. He should have gone up garret at once.”

--“I was more independent than any farmer in Concord, for I was not anchored to a house or farm, but could follow the bent of my genius, which is a very crooked one, every moment.”

--“No nation that lived simply in all respects, that is, no nation of philosophers, would commit so great a blunder as to use the labor of animals.”

--“For more than five years I maintained myself...solely by the labor of my hands, and I found that, by working about six weeks in a year, I could meet all the expenses of living. The whole of my winters, as well as most of my summers, I had free and clear for study.”

--“When formerly I was looking about to see what I could do for a living...I thought often and seriously of picking huckleberries; that surely I could do, and its small profits might suffice,—for my greatest skill has been to want but little,—so little capital it required, so little distraction from my wonted moods, I foolishly thought....But I have since learned that trade curses everything it handles.”

--“I am convinced, both by faith and experience, that to maintain one’s self on this earth is not a hardship but a pastime, if we will live simply and wisely; as the pursuits of the simpler nations are still the sports of the more artificial. It is not necessary that a man should earn his living by the sweat of his brow, unless he sweats easier than I do.”

--“While my townsmen and women are devoted in so many ways to the good of their fellows, I trust that one at least may be spared to other and less humane pursuits....As for Doing-good, that is one of the professions which are full.”

--“There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root, and it may be that he who bestows the largest amount of time and money on the needy is doing the most by his mode of life to produce that misery which he strives in vain to relieve.”

--“Philanthropy is almost the only virtue which is sufficiently appreciated by mankind. Nay, it is greatly overrated; and it is our selfishness which overrates it. A robust poor man, one sunny day here in Concord, praised a fellow-townsman to me, because, as he said, he was kind to the poor; meaning himself.”

--“I never heard of a philanthropic meeting in which it was sincerely proposed to do any good to me, or the like of me.”

--“All health and success does me good, however far off and withdrawn it may appear; all disease and failure helps to make me sad and does me evil, however much sympathy it may have with me or I with it....Do not stay to be an overseer of the poor, but endeavor to become one of the worthies of the world.”

2--“A man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone.”

--“I do not propose to write an ode to dejection, but to brag as lustily as chanticleer in the morning, standing on his roost, if only to wake my neighbors up.”

--“I have been as sincere a worshipper of Aurora as the Greeks. I got up early and bathed in the pond; that was a religious exercise, and one of the best things which I did.”

--“Every man is tasked to make his life, even in its details, worthy of the contemplation of his most elevated and critical hour.”

--“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”

--“Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumb-nail.”

--“Why should we live with such hurry and waste of life? We are determined to be starved before we are hungry. Men say that a stitch in time saves nine, and so they take a thousand stitches today to save nine tomorrow.”

--“To a philosopher all news, as it is called, is gossip, and they who edit and read it are old women over their tea. Yet not a few are greedy after this gossip.”

3--“Men sometimes speak as if the study of the classics would at length make way for more modern and practical studies; but the adventurous student will always study classics, in whatever language they may be written and however ancient they may be. For what are the classics but the noblest recorded thoughts of man?”

--“To read well, that is, to read true books in a true spirit, is a noble exercise, and one that will task the reader more than any exercise which the customs of the day esteem. It requires a training such as the athletes underwent, the steady intention almost of the whole life to this object. Books must be read as deliberately and reservedly as they were written.”

--“The works of the great poets have never yet been read by mankind, for only great poets can read them.”

--“One who has just come from reading perhaps one of the best English books will find how many with whom he can converse about it? Or suppose he comes from reading a Greek or Latin classic in the original, whose praises are familiar even to the so-called illiterate; he will find nobody at all to speak to, but must keep silence about it.”

--“Our reading, our conversation and thinking, are all on a very low level, worthy only of pygmies and manikins....We are underbred and low-lived and illiterate; and in this respect I confess I do not make any very broad distinction between the illiterateness of my townsman who cannot read at all and the illiterateness of him who has learned to read only what is for children and feeble intellects. We should be as good as the worthies of antiquity, but partly by first knowing how good they were. We are a race of tit-men, and soar but little higher in our intellectual flights than the columns of the daily paper.”

--“We boast that we belong to the Nineteenth Century and are making the most rapid strides of any nation. But consider how little this village does for its own culture....We have a comparatively decent system of common schools, schools for infants only; but excepting the half-starved Lyceum in the winter, and latterly the puny beginning of a library suggested by the State, no school for ourselves....It is time that villages were universities, and their elder inhabitants the fellows of universities, with leisure—if they are, indeed, so well off—to pursue liberal studies the rest of their lives....In this country, the village should in some respects take the place of the nobleman of Europe. It should be the patron of the fine arts. It is rich enough. It wants only the magnanimity and refinement.”

9--“When I first paddled a boat on Walden, it was completely surrounded by thick and lofty pine and oak woods....The hills which form its shores are so steep, and the woods on them were then so high that, as you looked down from the west end, it had the appearance of an amphitheater for some kind of sylvan spectacle. I have spent many an hour, when I was younger, floating over its surface as the zephyr willed, having paddled my boat to the middle, and lying on my back across the seats, in a summer forenoon, dreaming awake, until I was aroused by the boat touching the sand, and I arose to see what shore my fates had impelled me to.”

11--“There is a period in the history of the individual, as of the race, when the hunters are the ‘best men’, as the Algonquins called them....Even in civilized communities, the embryo man passes through the hunter stage of development.”

--“The wonder [is] how you and I, can live this slimy, beastly life, eating and drinking....We are conscious of an animal in us, which awakens in proportion as our higher nature slumbers. It is reptile and sensual, and perhaps cannot be wholly expelled.”

--“The generative energy, which, when we are loose, dissipates and makes us unclean, when we are continent invigorates and inspires us. Chastity is the flowering of man; and what are called Genius, Heroism, Holiness, and the like, are but various fruits which succeed it.”

--“He is blessed who is assured that the animal is dying out in him day by day, and the divine being established. Perhaps there is none but has cause for shame on account of the inferior and brutish nature to which he is allied.”

17--“One attraction in coming to the woods to live was that I should have leisure and opportunity to see the Spring come in....The first sparrow of spring! The year beginning with younger hope than ever!....Walden is melting apace....Walden was dead and is alive again.”

18--“Why should we be in such desperate haste to succeed and in such desperate enterprises? If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.”


“Life Without Principle”

--This essay appeared in the Atlantic Monthly in 1863, shortly after Thoreau’s death. It was originally designed as a lecture, and Thoreau had read it many times in lecture halls. It begins with a theme that is familiar to readers of Walden: we shouldn’t spend our lives earning money, we should live for something higher than merely “making a living.” It ends with a different theme: newspapers and politics distract our attention from higher things, and obstruct us from living a good life.

--“The world is a place of business. What an infinite bustle! I am awaked almost every night by the panting of the locomotive. It interrupts my dreams. There is no sabbath. It would be glorious to see mankind at leisure for once. It is nothing but work, work, work. I cannot easily buy a blank-book to write thoughts in; they are commonly ruled for dollars and cents. An Irishman, seeing me making a minute [that is, a note] in the fields, took it for granted that I was calculating my wages. If a man was tossed out of a window when an infant, and so made a cripple for life, or scared out of his wits by the Indians, it is regretted chiefly because he was thus incapacitated for—business! I think that there is nothing, not even crime, more opposed to poetry, to philosophy, ay, to life itself, than this incessant business.”

--“If a man walk in the woods for love of them half of each day, he is in danger of being regarded as a loafer; but if he spends his whole day as a speculator, shearing off those woods and making earth bald before her time, he is esteemed an industrious and enterprising citizen. As if a town had no interest in its forests but to cut them down!”

--People generally believe that the work they do is useful; they can’t accept the idea that their work is useless: “Most men would feel insulted, if it were proposed to employ them in throwing stones over a wall, and then in throwing them back, merely that they might earn their wages. But many are no more worthily employed now.”

--Those who most deserve pecuniary rewards, don’t receive them. Money goes to those who, in some sense, prostitute themselves: “The ways by which you may get money almost without exception lead downward....If you would get money as a writer or lecturer, you must be popular, which is to go down perpendicularly. Those services which the community will most readily pay for it is most disagreeable to render. You are paid for being something less than a man. The State does not commonly reward a genius any more wisely.”

--Part-time work, occasional work, such as Thoreau himself did, is sensible, but full-time work isn’t: “If I should sell both my forenoons and afternoons to society, as most appear to do, I am sure, that, for me, there would be nothing left worth living for. I trust that I shall never thus sell my birthright for a mess of pottage. I wish to suggest that a man may be very industrious, and yet not spend his time well. There is no more fatal blunderer than he who consumes the greater part of his life getting his living.”

--Why this eagerness to make money? Poverty isn’t as bad as the means people use to avert it: “Cold and hunger seem more friendly to my nature than those methods which men have adopted and advise to ward them off.”

--After a few satirical paragraphs aimed at the gold-seekers in California and Australia, Thoreau turns his attention to newspapers: “I do not know but it is too much to read one newspaper a week. I have tried it recently, and for so long it seems to me that I have not dwelt in my native region. The sun, the clouds, the snow, the trees say not so much to me. You cannot serve two masters.”

--Don’t preoccupy yourself with news: “I believe that the mind can be permanently profaned by the habit of attending to trivial things, so that all our thoughts shall be tinged with triviality....We should treat our minds, that is, ourselves, as innocent and ingenuous children, whose guardians we are, and be careful what objects and what subjects we thrust on their attention. Read not the Times. Read the Eternities.”

--Americans boast of their freedom. But are they really free? “America is said to be the arena on which the battle of freedom is to be fought; but surely it cannot be freedom in a merely political sense that is meant. Even if we grant that the American has freed himself from a political tyrant, he is still the slave of an economical and moral tyrant.”

--We seem to have forgotten that money and work and economics are merely means: “We are warped and narrowed by an exclusive devotion to trade and commerce and manufactures and agriculture and the like, which are but means, and not the end.”

--The nation doesn’t need commerce and wealth, it needs ideals: “The chief want, in every State that I have been into, was a high and earnest purpose in its inhabitants.”

--Thoreau was preoccupied with nature and books and private life; he wasn’t politically-inclined, though he was an impassioned abolitionist. “What is called politics is comparatively something so superficial and inhuman, that, practically, I have never fairly recognized that it concerns me at all.”

--Politics and economics aren’t distinctively human, they’re merely the animal and vegetable part of living: “Those things which now most engage the attention of men, as politics and the daily routine, are, it is true, vital functions of human society, but should be unconsciously performed, like the corresponding functions of the physical body. They are infra-human, a kind of vegetation.”

--In Thoreau’s opinion, as in that of many others, journalists are the most powerful force in society. Politicians do little but follow public opinion: “The poor President, what with preserving his popularity and doing his duty, is completely bewildered. The newspapers are the ruling power. Any other government is reduced to a few marines at Fort Independence.”


Selections From Thoreau’s Journals

Introduction and Notes by R. H. Blyth; Tokyo, Daigakushorin

--“Even in the present short selection, it will be clear that as Thoreau grew older, there was a gradual decrease in poetic and intuitive power, corresponding somewhat to that of Wordsworth. In Wordsworth it was theology that represented the stiffening of the mind, the ebb of poetic life. In Thoreau it was science—not so much the scientific spirit, as the mechanical collection of mere objective facts, that smothered the poet in him.”

--“Few [men], if any, are as deeply religious as he.”

1837 (all dates approximate)--“If one would reflect, let him embark on some placid stream, and float with the current....As we ascend the stream, plying the paddle with might and main, snatched and impetuous thoughts course through the brain. We dream of conflict, power, and grandeur. But turn the prow downstream, and rock, tree, kine, knoll, assuming new and varying positions...favor the liquid lapse of thought, far-reaching and sublime, but ever calm and gently undulating.”

--“As the least drop of wine tinges the whole goblet, so the least particle of truth colors our whole life. It is never isolated, or simply added as treasure to our stock. When any real progress is made, we unlearn and learn anew what we thought we knew before.”

1839--“Drifting in a sultry day on the sluggish waters of the pond, I almost cease to live and begin to be....I am never so prone to lose my identity. I am dissolved in the haze.”

1840--“Nature never makes haste....The bud swells imperceptibly, without hurry or confusion, as though the short spring days were an eternity....Why, then, should man hasten as if anything less than eternity were allotted for the least deed? Let him consume never so many aeons, so that he go about the meanest task well, though it be but the paring of his nails....The wise man is restful, never restless or impatient. He each moment abides there where he is, as some walkers actually rest the whole body at each step, while others never relax the muscles of the leg till the accumulated fatigue obliges them to stop short.”

1841--“Nature always possesses a certain sonorousness, as in the hum of insects, the booming of ice, the crowing of cocks in the morning, and the barking of dogs in the night, which indicates her sound state. God’s voice is but a clear bell sound....I thank God for sound; it always mounts, and makes me mount.”

1842--“The really efficient laborer will be found not to crowd his day with work, but will saunter to his task surrounded by a wide halo of ease and leisure. There will be a wide margin of relaxation to his day. He is only earnest to secure the kernels of time, and does not exaggerate the value of the husk.”

1851--“Listen to music religiously, as if it were the last strain you might hear.”


The Selected Journals of Henry David Thoreau, edited by Carl Bode

3/15/41--“A great cheerfulness have all great wits possessed, almost a profane levity to such as understood them not, but their religion had the broader basis in proportion as it was less prominent. The religion I love is very laic. The clergy are as diseased, and as much possessed with a devil, as the reformers. They make their topic as offensive as the politician.”

11/19/43--“Our summer of English poesy, which, like the Greek and Latin before it, seems now well advanced toward its fall, is laden with the fruit and foliage of that season, with all the bright tints of autumn; but the winter of age will scatter its myriad clustering and shading leaves.”

5/1/51--“When I observe how the mass of men speak of woman and of chastity—with how little love and reverence—I feel that so far I am unaccountably better than they. I think that none of my acquaintances has a greater love and admiration for chastity than I have.”

5/12/51--“By taking the ether the other day I was convinced how far asunder a man could be separated from his senses. You are told that it will make you unconscious, but no one can imagine what it is to be unconscious—how far removed from the state of consciousness and all that we call ‘this world’—until he has experienced it....If you have an inclination to travel, take the ether; you go beyond the furthest star.”

11/14/51--“In the evening went to a party. It is a bad place to go to—thirty or forty persons, mostly young women, in a small room, warm and noisy. Was introduced to two young women. The first one was as lively and loquacious as a chickadee; had been accustomed to the society of watering places, and therefore could get no refreshment out of such a dry fellow as I. The other was said to be pretty-looking, but I rarely look people in their faces, and, moreover, I could not hear what she said, there was such a clacking—could only see the motion of her lips when I looked that way. I could imagine better places for conversation, where there should be a certain degree of silence surrounding you, and less than forty talking at once....These parties, I think, are a part of the machinery of modern society, that young people may be brought together to form marriage connections....I derive no pleasure from talking with a young woman half an hour simply because she has regular features. The society of young women is the most unprofitable I have ever tried.”

1/17/52--“It appears to me that at a very early age the mind of man, perhaps at the same time with his body, ceases to be elastic. His intellectual power becomes something defined and limited. He does not think expansively, as he would stretch himself in his growing days. What was flexible sap hardens into heart-wood, and there is no further change. In the season of youth, methinks, man is capable of intellectual effort and performance which surpass all rules and bounds.”

4/12/52--“I lose my respect for the man who can make the mystery of sex the subject of a coarse jest....I would preserve purity in act and thought, as I would cherish the memory of my mother.”

9/1/53--“There are two kinds of simplicity—one that is akin to foolishness, the other to wisdom. The philosopher’s style of living is only outwardly simple, but inwardly complex. The savage’s style is both outwardly and inwardly simple.”

4/8/54--“Some poets mature early and die young. Their fruits have a delicious flavor like strawberries, but do not keep till fall or winter.”

8/2/54--“My attic chamber has compelled me to sit below with the family at evening for a month. I feel the necessity of deepening the stream of my life; I must cultivate privacy. It is very dissipating to be with people too much. As C. says, it takes the edge off a man’s thoughts to have been much in society. I cannot spare my moonlight and my mountains for the best of man I am likely to get in exchange.”

10/29/57--“I think that men generally are mistaken with regard to amusements. Everyone who deserves to be regarded as higher than the brute may be supposed to have an earnest purpose, to accomplish which is the object of his existence, and this is at once his work and his supremest pleasure; and for diversion and relaxation, for suggestion and education and strength, there is offered the never-failing amusement of getting a living—never-failing, I mean, when temperately indulged in. I know of no such amusement—so wholesome and in every sense profitable—for instance, as to spend an hour or two in a day picking some berries or other fruits which will be food for the winter, or collecting driftwood from the river for fuel, or cultivating the few beans or potatoes which I want.”

4/3/59--“Men’s minds run so much on work and money that the mass instantly associate all literary labor with a pecuniary reward. They are mainly curious to know how much money the lecturer or author gets for his work. They think that the naturalist takes so much pains to collect plants or animals because he is paid for it. An Irishman who saw me in the fields making a minute in my notebook took it for granted that I was casting up my wages and actually inquired what they came to, as if he had never dreamed of any other use for writing.”

12/31/59--“A man thinks as well through his legs and arms as his brain. We exaggerate the importance of exclusiveness of the headquarters. Do you suppose they were a race of consumptives and dyspeptics who invented Grecian mythology and poetry? The poet’s words are, ‘You would almost say the body thought!’ I quite say it. I trust we have a good body then.”


“Thoreau,” by R. W. Emerson

--“I have repeatedly known young men of sensibility converted in a moment to the belief that this was the man they were in search of, the man of men, who could tell them all they should do. His own dealing with them was never affectionate, but superior, didactic, scorning their petty ways—very slowly conceding, or not conceding at all, the promise of his society at their houses, or even at his own.”

--“He knew how to sit immovable, a part of the rock he rested on, until the bird, the reptile, the fish, which had retired from him, should come back and resume its habits, nay, moved by curiosity, should come to him and watch him.”

--“It was a pleasure and a privilege to walk with him. He knew the country like a fox or a bird, and passed through it as freely by paths of his own. He knew every track in the snow or on the ground, and what creature had taken this path before him. One must submit abjectly to such a guide, and the reward was great. Under his arm he carried an old music-book to press plants; in his pocket, his diary and pencil, a spy-glass for birds, microscope, jack-knife and twine.”


Henry David Thoreau, by J. W. Krutch

1--“[Thoreau’s] first book [A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers] had been printed at his own risk in an edition of one thousand copies and when, four years later, fewer than three hundred had been sold he had taken over the remainder with the wry comment: ‘I have now a library of nearly nine hundred volumes, over seven hundred of which I wrote myself.’”

2--“John Thoreau, the father, was a quiet, gentle man....John’s wife, Cynthia, was, on the other hand, a bustling, strong-minded woman.”

--“He hated killing, and in Maine he went with the moose hunters only as ‘chaplain’ and ‘conscientious objector’. But, as he once humorously confessed apropos his vegetarianism, ‘I am only half converted by my own arguments for I still fish.’”


Like Thoreau, Leonardo was scrupulously kind to animals, a vegetarian, and asexual. (Traces of homosexual feelings can, however, be found in both Thoreau and Leonardo.) Perhaps the cause of these traits, in both cases, was a dominant influence exerted by the mother during infancy.


--“Henry remained...dependent upon his family both spiritually and in practical affairs, so that it might, indeed, be argued that he never cut his mother’s apron strings. Despite various comings and goings...he spent a good part of his life under the parental roof and it was in the house of his mother, who survived him, that he finally died.”

--“Emerson’s portrait of his friend and onetime handy man sums up his sense of Thoreau’s unapproachability in the famous admission that he would as soon have attempted to take an elm by the arm.”

--“When Emerson observed...that at Harvard all the branches of learning were taught, Thoreau was to reply: ‘Yes, indeed, all the branches and none of the roots.’”

3--“Three years after he ceased to be a schoolmaster he was called ‘the only man of leisure in the town.’”

--“When Emerson invited him to come and live in the house as handy man as well as member of the family, he came—on April 26, 1841—to stay for two years.”

--Thoreau: “’I love my fate to the very core and rind, and could swallow it without paring it, I think.’”

--“The relations between [Emerson’s second wife and Emerson] were not warm and the philosopher lived with her what he himself called a ‘bachelor existence.’”


Emerson certainly wasn’t sensual and earthy, as Montaigne was, but neither was he cold and asexual, as Thoreau was. Emerson was married twice and had three children.


--Thoreau: “’Woman is a nature older than I and commanding from me a vast amount of veneration—like Nature. She is my mother at the same time that she is my sister, so that she is at any rate an older sister....I cannot imagine a woman no older than I.’”

5--Thoreau: “’I have never got over my surprise that I should have been born into the most estimable place in the world, and in the very nick of time too.’”


Thoreau foresaw that nature would soon be displaced by civilization, and no one ever enjoyed nature more than Thoreau did.


--Thoreau: “’I know of no more startling development of the morality of trade and all the modes of getting a living than the rush to California affords. Of what significance [is] a world that will rush to the lottery of California gold-digging—to live by luck.’”

6--Thoreau: “’It is remarkable that, notwithstanding the universal favor with which the New Testament is outwardly received...there is no appreciation of the order of truth with which it deals....There is [no book] so truly strange, and heretical, and unpopular....”Lay not up for yourselves treasures on earth.” “If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven”....Think of repeating these things to a New England audience!’”


This passage reminds one of Kierkegaard. Thoreau’s religious views were, however, very different from Kierkegaard’s. Like Emerson and Carlyle, Thoreau rejected Christianity.


--Thoreau: “‘What the essential difference between man and woman is, that they should be thus attracted to one another, no one has satisfactorily answered.’”


One suspects that Thoreau’s sexual feelings were displaced and sublimated into a love of nature.


--Thoreau: “’Each man’s mode of speaking of the sexual relation proves how sacred his own relations of that kind are. We do not respect the mind that can jest on this subject.’”


If Thoreau had lived after Freud, he would not have been able to interpret his sexual peculiarities as “sacredness”; Thoreau lived in the age of innocence.


7--On his deathbed, “Thoreau talked with the same curious combination of earnestness and fun which had always been his. Sam Staples, who had been his jailer long ago when the poll tax went unpaid, called upon him...and reported to Emerson: ‘Never spent an hour with more satisfaction. Never saw a man dying with so much pleasure and peace.’”


Thoreau was remarkably sanguine and cheerful throughout his life. He occupied himself with the pencil business and with the surveying business; both businesses were pleasant and profitable, but they didn’t prevent him from taking long walks every day, or prevent him from reading and writing. He was often alone, yet he also enjoyed the company of family and friends. He was free from religious doubts and scruples. He wasn’t troubled by poverty or by ill health, though he died at forty-five. His cheerfulness, however, should be ascribed to temperament as well as to external circumstances.