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Emerson, and the other Transcendentalists. The years had “come full circle,” the Sibyl had burnt her last prophetic book, and the new æon was about to open with the downfall of slavery.
EARLY ESSAYS IN AUTHORSHIP.
It has been a common delusion, not yet quite faded away, that the chief Transcendentalists were but echoes of each other, — that Emerson imitated Carlyle, Thoreau and Alcott imitated Emerson, and so on to the end of the chapter. No doubt that the atmosphere of each of these men affected the others, nor that they shared a common impulse communicated by what Matthew Arnold likes to call the Zeitgeist, the ever-felt spirit of the time. In the most admirable of the group, who is called by preëminence “the Sage of Concord,” — the poet Emerson, — there has been an outbreathing inspiration as profound as that of the Zeitgeist himself; so that even Hawthorne, the least susceptible of men, found himself affected as he says, “after living for three years within the subtle influence of an intellect like Emerson's." But, in
fact, Thoreau brought to his intellectual tasks an originality as marked as Emerson's, if not so brilliant and star-like - a patience far greater than his, and a proud independence that makes himn the most solitary of modern thinkers. I have been struck by these qualities in reading his yet unknown first essays in authorship, the juvenile papers he wrote while in college, from the age of seventeen to that of twenty, before Emerson had published anything except his first little volume, “ Nature," and while Thoreau, like other young men, was reading Johnson and Goldsmith, Addison and the earlier English classics, from Milton backward to Chaucer. Let me therefore quote from these papers, carefully preserved by him, with their dates, and sometimes with the marks of the rhetorical professor on their margins. Along with these may be cited some of his earlier verses, in which a sentiment more purely human and almost amatory appears, than in the later and colder, if higher flights of his song.
The earliest writings of Thoreau, placed in my hands by his literary executor, Mr. Harrison Blake of Worcester, are the first of his Cambridge essays, technically called “themes” and “ forensics.” These began several years before his daily journals were kept, namely, in 1834; and it is curious that one of them, dated January 17, 1835, but written in 1834, recommends “keeping a private journal or record of our thoughts, feelings, studies, and daily experience.” This is precisely what Thoreau did from 1837 till his death ; and it may be interesting to see what reasons the boy of seventeen advanced for the practice. He says:
“ As those pieces which the painter sketches for his own amusement, in his leisure hours, are often superior to his most elaborate productions, so it is that ideas often suggest themselves to us spontaneously, as it were, far surpassing in beauty those which arise in the mind upon applying ourselves to any particular subject. Hence, could a machine be invented which would instantaneously arrange upon paper each idea as it occurs to us, without any exertion on our part, how extremely useful would it be considered! The relation between this and the practice of keeping a journal is obvious. . . . If each one would employ a certain portion of each day in looking back upon
the time which has passed, and in writing down his thoughts and feelings, in reckoning up his daily gains, that he may be able to detect whatever false coins may have crept into his coffers, and, as it were, in settling accounts with his mind, — not only would his daily experience be greatly increased, since his feelings and ideas would thus be more clearly defined, — but he would be ready to turn over a new leaf (having carefully perused the preceding one) and would not continue to glance carelessly over the same page, without being able to distinguish it from a new one.”
This is ingenious, quaint, and mercantile, bespeaking the hereditary bent of his family to trade and orderly accounts ; but what follows in the same essay is more to the purpose, as striking the key-note of Thoreau's whole after-life. He adds :
“ Most of us are apt to neglect the study of our own characters, thoughts, and feelings, and, for the purpose of forming our own minds, look to others, who should merely be considered as different editions of the same great work. To be sure, it would be well for us to examine the various copies, that we might detect any errors ; yet it would be foolish for one to borrow a work which he possessed himself, but had not perused."