Robert Louis Stevenson's Evolving View of Henry David Thoreau

In 1880, Robert Louis Stevenson published in Cornhill Magazine  "Henry David Thoreau: His Character And Opinions," a scathing and hilarious attack. He begins this way


 THOREAU'S thin, penetrating, big-nosed face, even in a bad woodcut, conveys some hint of the limitations of his mind and character.  With his almost acid sharpness of insight, with his almost animal dexterity in act, there went none of that large, unconscious geniality of the world's heroes.  He was not easy, not ample, not urbane, not even kind; his enjoyment was hardly smiling, or the smile was not broad enough to be convincing; he had no waste lands nor kitchen-midden in his nature, but was all improved and sharpened to a point.  

Stevenson's view of Thoreau as a sort of ascetic kill-joy is shared, I think, by many inmates in schools, where Thoreau is "forced" upon them. "Who is this guy to tell me...?" is a natural enough reaction, especially among those pursuing the American Dream or even the Great American Dollar. But this view of Thoreau is terribly incomplete. For one thing, Thoreau is a very funny guy, in the Great American Wisecracker tradition. For another, for all his irony he was not really a faker. He is sometimes charged with not living up to claims he never made, or would ever dream of making. 

Stevenson himself came to alter his view of HDT quite dramatically, and in so doing gave an example of fair mindedness one would seek far and wide in Journlandia without ever encountering. In Familiar Studies of Men & Books [1882], he recanted his earlier view by narrating his correspondence with a Dr. Jaap, who had written in reply to the Cornhill essay. Dr. Japp, who knew Thoreau, gave evidence from actually witnessed events, not from interpretation of text. Stevenson opens by attacking his earlier approach as a "perversion" (of Justice?) because interpretation should not be based on limited evidence reinforced by personal values:

Here [in the Cornhill essay] is an admirable instance of the "point of view" forced throughout, and of too earnest reflection on imperfect facts.  Upon me this pure, narrow, sunnily-ascetic Thoreau had exercised a great charm.  I have scarce written ten sentences since I was introduced to him, but his influence might be somewhere detected by a close observer. Still it was as a writer that I had made his acquaintance; I took him on his own explicit terms; and when I learned details of his life, they were, by the nature of the case and my own PARTI-PRIS, read even with a certain violence in terms of his writings.  There could scarce be a perversion more justifiable than that; yet it was still a perversion. 

And in the end, Stevenson thought, much about Thoreau remains enigmatic. 

 Thoreau's theory, in short, was one thing and himself another: of the first, the reader will find what I believe to be a pretty faithful statement and a fairly just criticism in the study [i.e. the Cornhill essay]; of the second he will find but a contorted shadow. So much of the man as fitted nicely with his doctrines, in the photographer's phrase, came out.  But that large part which lay outside and beyond, for which he had found or sought no formula, on which perhaps his philosophy even looked askance, is wanting in my study, as it was wanting in the guide I followed.  In some ways a less serious writer, in all ways a nobler man, the true Thoreau still remains to be depicted.

It would be a shame if someone missed out on the pleasures of reading Thoreau because of hasty judgment. 

Selections from Stevenson

Cornhill essay here:  

Recantation here: