So and So Is a Heretical Such and Such: Thoreau Edition

From today's Boston Globe review (by William H. Pritchard) of Laura Dassow Walls' new Thoreau bio, we encounter Emerson half-ironically identifying the neo-pagan Thoreau as a heretical Christian of the Protestant variety. Pritchard tells us:
When Thoreau died in 1862 at the age of only 44, victim of the tuberculosis that had struck other members of his family, his mentor and critic, Ralph Waldo Emerson, delivered the memorial address. They had been friends for 25 years, Thoreau living on two occasions in Emerson’s house. No better sentences have since been made than the ones Emerson assembled to sum up his friend’s character. Emerson playfully called him a “born protestant,” pointing out that few lives contained so many renunciations, which he then proceeded to list: “He was bred to no profession; he never married; he lived alone; he never went to church; he refused to pay a tax to the State; he ate no flesh, he drank no wine, he never knew the use of tobacco; and, though a naturalist, he used neither trap nor gun.”

Emerson noted shrewdly that Thoreau “did not feel himself except in opposition,” a habit Emerson admitted was “a little chilling to the social affections.” One of his friends is quoted as confessing “I love Henry, but I cannot like him, and as for taking his arm, I should as soon think of taking the arm of an elm-tree.” Summing up Thoreau in a rich sentence, Emerson said: “He chose, wisely, no doubt, for himself to be the bachelor of thought and Nature.”


  1. Also referenced in a Globe article (Alex Beam) were the salient facts that Thoreau ate at home twice a week and was a pyromaniac. Apparently, he set most of Cocord on fire, simply to watch it burn. Very "at one", I don't think.

  2. It's interesting what what we have learned about Thoreau, but whenever we wonder about the dubious particulars of his life we need only look to his prose, which is unsurpassed in American literature.


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