Thoreau: A Century of Criticism

Thoreau: A Century of Criticism

Thoreau: A Century of Criticism

Thoreau: A Century of Criticism

Excerpt

As is the case with criticism of any genuinely original figure in literature, the criticism of Thoreau is characterized by little agreement or uniformity. He has been damned as loudly as he has been praised--and praised as loudly as damned. Worse yet, even those who admire him most cannot agree on either his strong or his weak points. As a critic of Thoreau's critics has said:

It is amusing, and occasionally startling, to observe the infinite variety of criticism that has been stirred up by Thoreau's life and works. Many writers, for example, are agreed in describing his temperament as ascetic. Robert Louis Stevenson, however, is not alone in holding the opposite view. "He was not ascetic," says Stevenson, "rather an Epicurean of the nobler sort." Professor Nichols, in his little work on American Literature, apparently is satisfied with middle ground, when he applies to Thoreau the classification, "lethargic, self-complacently defiant, too nearly a stoico-epicurean adiaphorist to discompose himself in party or even in national strifes." Nearly all the critics are agreed that Thoreau was a humorist, though they are by no means agreed as to the quality of his humor. Another school, headed by Lowell, is quite certain that he possessed no humor whatever. One writer speaks of him as "repellent, cold, and unamiable," while another declares that "in all social relations he was guided by a fine instinct of courtesy," and Emerson, who knew him nearly as well as anybody ever did, says that "he was really fond of sympathy"; a highly appreciative essayist speaks of the "fine resonant quality of his emotional side," and finds that he was "always thoroughly kindly and sympathetic."

These comments were written nearly half a century ago, but still the controversy rages.

Yet there is more pattern to the criticism than these comments might indicate. Thoreau's writings were pretty much ignored in his . . .

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