CHAPTER FOURTEEN. LEXINGTON AND CONCORD
They took that extraordinary creature, Margaret Fuller, seriously, and they took a vast deal of poor poetry seriously. Because a few could write, nearly every one in the village seemed to think he or she could write, and write they did to the extent of a small library most religiously shelved and worshipped in its own compartment in the town library.
Genius is egotism; the superb confidence of these men, each in the sanctity of his own mission, in the plenitude of his own powers, in the inspiration of his own message, made them what they were. The last word was Alcott's because he outlived them all, and his last word was that, great as were those who had taken their departure, the greatest of them all had fallen just short of appreciating him, the survivor. A man penetrates every one's disguise but his own; we deceive no one but ourselves. The insane are often singularly quick to penetrate the delusions of others; the man who calls himself George Washington ridicules the claim of another that he is Julius Caesar.
Between Hawthorne and Thoreau there was little in common. In 1860, the latter speaks of meeting Hawthorne shortly after his return from Europe, and says, "He is as simple and childlike as ever."
Of Thoreau, Mrs. Hawthorne wrote in a letter, "This evening Mr. Thoreau is going to lecture, and will stay with us. His lecture before was so enchanting; such a revelation of nature in all its exquisite details of wood-thrushes, squirrels, sunshine, mists and shadows, fresh vernal odors, pine-tree ocean melodies, that my ear rang with music, and I seemed to have been wandering through copse and dingle! Mr. Thoreau has risen above all his arrogance of manner, and is as gentle, simple, ruddy, and meek as all geniuses should be; and now his great blue eyes fairly outshine and put into shade a nose which I thought must make him uncomely forever."
In his own journal Hawthorne said, "Mr. Thoreau dined with us. He is a singular character, - a young man with much of wild, original nature still remaining in him; and so far as he is sophisticated, it is in a way and method of his own. He is as ugly as sin, long-nosed, queer-mouthed, and with uncouth and somewhat rustic, though courteous, manners, corresponding very well with such an exterior. But his ugliness is of an honest and agreeable fashion, and becomes him much better than beauty."
Alcott helped build the hut at Walden, and he and Emerson spent many an evening there in conversation that must have delighted the gods - in so far as they understood it.
Of Alcott and their winter evenings, Thoreau has said, "One of the last of the philosophers. Connecticut gave him to the world, - he peddled first his wares, afterwards, as he declares, his brains; these he peddles still, prompting God and disgracing man, bearing for fruit his brain only, like the nut in the kernel. His words and attitude always suppose a better state of things than other men are acquainted with, and he will be the last man to be disappointed as the ages revolve. A true friend of man, almost the only friend of human progress. He is perhaps the sanest man and has the fewest crotchets of any I chance to know, - the same yesterday, to-day, and to-morrow. Ah, such discourse as we had, hermit and philosopher, and the old settler I have spoken of, - we three; it expanded and racked my little home;" - to say nothing of the universe, which doubtless felt the strain.
Referring to the same evening, Alcott said, - probably after a chastening discussion, - "If I were to proffer my earnest prayer to the gods for the greatest of all human privileges, it should be for the gift of a severely candid friend. Intercourse of this kind I have found possible with my friends Emerson and Thoreau; and the evenings passed in their society during these winter months have realized my conception of what friendship, when great and genuine, owes to and takes from its objects."
Nearly twenty years after Thoreau's death, Alcott, while walking towards the close of day, said, "I always think of Thoreau when I look at a sunset."
Emerson was fourteen years older than Thoreau, but between the two men there existed through life profound sympathy and affection. Emerson watched him develop as a young man, and delivered the address at his funeral; for two years they lived in the same house, and concerning him Emerson wrote in 1863, a year after his death, "In reading Henry Thoreau's journal, I am very sensible of the vigor of his constitution. That oaken strength which I noted whenever he walked or worked, or surveyed wood-lots, the same unhesitating hand with which a field laborer accosts a piece of work which I should shun as a waste of strength, Henry shows in his literary task. He has muscle, and ventures in and performs feats which I am forced to decline. In reading him I find the same thoughts, the same spirit that is in me, but he takes a step beyond and illustrates by excellent images that which I should have conveyed in a sleepy generalization. 'Tis as if I went into a gymnasium and saw youths leap and climb and swing with a force unapproachable, tho these feats are only continuations of my initial grapplings and jumps." One is reminded of Mrs. Hawthorne's vivid characterization of the two men as she saw them on the ice of the Musketaquid twenty years before.