"I WOULD STAND UPON FACTS. WHY NOT SEE, USE OUR EYES? DO MEN KNOW NOTHING?": MAGNIFICENTLY BOUND LIMITED EDITION OF THOREAU’S COMPLETE WORKS, WITH SUPERB MANUSCRIPT LETTER OF OVER 900 WORDS FROM ONE OF HIS MOST FAMOUS LETTERS
THOREAU, Henry David. The Writings. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1906. Twenty volumes. Octavo, contemporary full brown morocco gilt, raised bands, elaborately gilt-decorated spines, burgundy morocco doublures, watered silk endpapers, top edges gilt, uncut.
Manuscript Edition, beautifully bound and illustrated, number 12 of 600 copies, with a remarkable manuscript leaf with over 900 words in Thoreau's hand from his first letter to Harrison Blake, arguably Thoreau's most important correspondent, echoing many of the themes of Walden.
Each set in this important limited edition includes a Thoreau manuscript leaf mounted and bound into the first volume; the leaf in this copy is written in ink on both sides, and can be found printed starting on page 160 in Volume VI of the Familiar Letters. It reads, in full:
CONCORD, March 27, 1848.
I am glad to hear that any words of mine, though spoken so long ago that I can hardly claim identity with their author, have reached you. It gives me pleasure, because I have therefore reason to suppose that I have uttered what concerns men, and that it is not in vain that man speaks to man. This is the value of literature. Yet those days are so distant, in every sense, that I have had to look at that page again, to learn what was the tenor of my thoughts then. I should value that article, however, if only because it was the occasion of your letter.
I do believe that the outward and the inward life correspond; that if any should succeed to live a higher life, others would not know of it ; that difference and distance are one. To set about living a true life is to go a journey to a distant country, gradually to find ourselves sur rounded by new scenes and men ; and as long as the old are around me, I know that I am not in any true sense living a new or a better life. The outward is only the outside of that which is within. Men are not concealed under habits, but are revealed by them ; they are their true clothes. I care not how curious a reason they may give for their abiding by them. Circumstances are not rigid and unyielding, but our habits are rigid. We are apt to speak vaguely sometimes, as if a divine life were to be grafted on to or built over this present as a suitable foundation. This might do if we could so build over our old life as to exclude from it all the warmth of our affection, and addle it, as the thrush builds over the cuckoo s egg, and lays her own atop, and hatches that only ; but the fact is, we, so thin is the partition, hatch them both, and the cuckoo s always by a day first, and that young bird crowds the young thrushes out of the nest. No. Destroy the cuckoo's egg, or build a new nest.
Change is change. No new life occupies the old bodies; they decay. It is born, and grows, and flourishes. Men very pathetically inform the old, accept and wear it. Why put up with the almshouse when you may go to heaven? It is embalming, no more. Let alone your ointments and your linen swathes, and go into an infant's body. You see in the catacombs of Egypt the result of that experiment, that is the end of it. I do believe in simplicity. It is astonishing as well as sad, how many trivial affairs even the wisest man thinks he must attend to in a day; how singular an affair he thinks he must omit. When the mathematician would solve a difficult problem, he first frees the equation of all incumbrances, and reduces it to its simplest terms. So simplify the problem of life, distinguish the necessary and the real. Probe the earth to see where your main roots run. I would stand upon facts. Why not see, use our eyes? Do men know nothing? I know many men who, in common things, are not to be deceived ; who trust no moonshine ; who count their money correctly, and know how to invest it; who are said to be prudent and knowing, who yet will stand at a desk the greater part of their lives, as cashiers in banks, and glimmer and rust and finally go out there. If they know anything, what under the sun do they do that for? Do they know what bread is? or what it is for? Do they know what life is? If they knew something, the places which know them now would know them no more forever.
This, our respectable daily life, in which the man of common sense, the Englishman of the world, stands so squarely, and on which our institutions are founded, is in fact the veriest illusion, and will vanish like the baseless fabric of a vision ; but that faint glimmer of reality which sometimes illuminates the darkness of daylight for all men, reveals something more solid and enduring than adamant, which is in fact the corner-stone of the world.
Men cannot conceive of a state of things so fair that it cannot be realized. Can any man honestly consult his experience and say that it is so? Have we any facts to appeal to when we say that our dreams are premature? Did you ever hear of a man who had striven all his life faithfully and singly toward an object and in no measure obtained it? If a man constantly aspires, is he not elevated? Did ever a man try heroism, magnanimity, truth, sincerity, and find that there was no advantage in them? That it was a vain endeavor? Of course we do not expect that our paradise will be a garden. We know not what we ask. To look at literature ; how many fine thoughts has every man had! How few fine thoughts are expressed! Yet we never have a fantasy so subtile and ethereal, but that talent merely, with more resolution and faithful persistency, after a thousand failures, might fix and engrave it in distinct and enduring words, and we should see that our dreams are the solidest facts that we know. But I speak not of dreams.
What can be expressed in words can be ex pressed [ in life.]
[The rest of the letter, not present here, continues;]
My actual life is a fact, in view of which I have no occasion to congratulate myself; but for my faith and aspiration I have respect. It is from these that I speak. Every man's position is in fact too simple to be described. I have sworn no oath. I have no designs on society, or nature, or God. I am simply what I am, or I begin to be that. I live in the present. I only remember the past, and anticipate the future. I love to live. I love reform better than its modes. There is no history of how bad became better. I believe something, and there is nothing else but that. I know that I am. I know that another is who knows more than I, who takes interest in me, whose creature, and yet whose kindred, in one sense, am I. I know that the enterprise is worthy. I know that things work well. I have heard no bad news.
As for positions, combinations, and details, what are they? In clear weather, when we look into the heavens, what do we see but the sky and the sun? If you would convince a man that he does wrong, do right. But do not care to convince him. Men will believe what they see. Let them see. Pursue, keep up with, circle round and round your life, as a dog does his master s chaise. Do what you love. Know your own bone; gnaw at it, bury it, unearth it, and gnaw it still. Do not be too moral. You may cheat yourself out of much life so. Aim above morality. Be not simply good; be good for something. All fables, indeed, have their morals; but the innocent enjoy the story. Let nothing come between you and the light. Respect men and brothers only. When you travel to the Celestial City, carry no letter of introduction. When you knock, ask to see God, none of the servants. In what concerns you much, do not think that you have companions: know that you are alone in the world. Thus I write at random. I need to see you, and I trust I shall, to correct my mistakes. Perhaps you have some oracles for me. HENRY THOREAU.
The recipient Harrison Gray Otis Blake was two years ahead of Thoreau at Harvard, although the two had only a passing acquaintance at the time. According to Blake, his "first real introduction was from the reading of an article of his in the Dial… That led to my first writing to him, and to his reply, which is published in the volume of letters [the present manuscript]. Our correspondence continued for more than twelve years, and we visited each other at times." Franklin Sanborn considered Blake to be a correspondent of great consequence for Thoreau: "That friend to whom Thoreau wrote most constantly and fully, on all topics, was Mr. Harrison Blake of Worcester, a graduate of Harvard two years earlier than Thoreau… at that time , as Thoreau wrote to Horace Greeley, he had been supporting himself for five years wholly by the labor of his hands; his Walden hermit life was over, yet neither its record nor the first book had been published… In March, 1848, Mr. Blake read Thoreau's chapter on Persius in the Dial for July, 1840… 'It has revived in me,' he wrote to Thoreau, 'a haunting impression of you, which I carried away from some spoken words of yours. . . . When I was last in Concord, you spoke of retiring farther from our civilization. I asked you if you would feel no longings for the society of your friends. Your reply was in substance, "No, I am nothing." That reply was memorable to me. It indicated a depth of resources, a completeness of renunciation, a poise and repose in the universe, which to me is almost inconceivable; which in you seemed domesticated, and to which I look up with veneration…. If I understand rightly the significance of your life, this is it: You would sunder yourself from society, from the spell of institutions, customs, conventionalities, that you may lead a fresh, simple life with God… Amid a world of noisy, shallow actors it is noble to stand aside and say, "I will simply be." Could I plant myself at once upon the truth, reducing my wants to their minimum, . . . I should at once be brought nearer to nature, nearer to my fellow-men, — and life would be infinitely richer. But, alas! I shiver on the brink.'" Thoreau's entire 50-letter correspondence with Blake—"the longest and most philosophical letters he ever wrote" (Harding, Days of Henry Thoreau, 231)—has been published separately as Letters to a Spiritual Seeker. The first letter contains "what is perhaps Thoreau's most thoughtful analysis of the journey metaphor" and "has the essential Thoreauvian credo… and the essential Thoreauvian challenge"—"I know many men who, in common things, are not to be deceived… who yet will stand at a desk the greater part of their lives, as cashiers in banks, and glimmer and rust and finally go out there. If they know anything, what under the sun do they do that for?" (Richardson, Thoreau, A Life of the Mind, 188). Thoreau biographer Walter Harding has called Blake "one of Thoreau's most devoted disciples": as is noted in the publisher's advertisement for this set in Volume I, the four volumes of selections from Thoreau's Journal in this set were "edited by his friend and correspondent, Mr. H.G.O. Blake, into whose hands the manuscript volumes passed on the death of Thoreau's sister Sophia."
This beautiful set also contains a foldout map of Concord, reproductions of Thoreau's journal illustrations, and over 100 tissue-guarded illustrations. Boswell & Crouch 1721. BAL 20145. Borst A20.1.a.
Letter and interiors fine, expert restoration to a few joints of beautiful elaborate full morocco-gilt.