Why Thoreau did not succeed in his own lifetime

Julian Hawthorne, son of Nathaniel Hawthorne, wrote: “Perhaps if Thoreau could have been a religious fanatic, he would have prospered better.”

This is from The Memoirs of Julian Hawthorne, ed. Edith Garrigues Hawthorne (New York: Macmillan, 1938). Julian Hawthorne knew Thoreau, and like Thoreau was raised in part in Concord’s Unitarian church. This is one of the most perceptive commentaries on Thoreau I have read.

Had he lived a few decades later, Julian would have been a revered bestselling author; as it was, he had to live up to his father’s reputation, and so tried to write in a high literary style which was not his native tongue. After writing a concise and trenchant one-sentence critique of Thoreau, Julian follows it with a paragraph filled with less insightful and less well-written judgments. Here’s the whole paragraph:

Perhaps if Thoreau could have been a religious fanatic, he would have prospered better. He had no small mixture in him of the fanatic. But his faith in God was not that towering flame which the great religious reformers have manifested; the acid rationality was too strong in him. He was no barren atheist, but he had not fathomed the great secret, and could not preach without it. He had almost a rage for sincerity — to be as sincere as a bird, a tree, or a wolf; and the compromises and skilful locution of the church revolted him. If we cannot explain the Trinity, let us not affirm belief in it. He accepted the designation of Transcendentalist as committing him to nothing, but he did not regard himself as a disciple of Emerson or [Bronson] Alcott. His virtue was that he was a misfit anywhere in human congregations; he must be himself, and nobody, not even he, knew exactly what that was.

The middle of the paragraph is not really worth reading, but that last sentence is almost as good as the first. Put those two sentences together, and you have an image of someone who could have started a millennial cult. Actually, thinking back to the time when I was a tourist guide in Concord, some of today’s followers of Thoreau have all the characteristics of cultists, so maybe Thoreau did by accident found a cult; just not a very successful one.