NEARLY all that H D Thoreau has said is quotable. So profound he was. He is till date an unmatched American intellectual and social figure. The Thoreau Society is the oldest and largest organisation devoted to an American author. He lived a short life, forty-five years from 1817-1862. And yet has influenced generations of leaders world over. Tolstoy, Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr, and several such leaders have drawn inspiration from the words of Thoreau.
And hence, The Quotable Thoreau, edited by Jeffrey S Cramer is a highly readable collection of Thoreau’s words indexed under various topics. There are over 2,000 quotes in the book, some published, some not yet published from 150 subjects.
The profile of Thoreau is interesting. “Thoreau was the vegetarian who ate meat; the conservationist who surveyed woodlots in Walden Woods; the pacifist who endorsed violence; the hermit who loved gossip. This is not to support his detractors who held him a hypocrite. it is, instead, to confirm that he was a questioner of the very concepts we have come to associate with his name.”
In an unpublished poem, against slavery, Thoreau says ‘Wait not till slaves pronounced the word/ To set the captive free,/ Be free yourselves, be not deferred,/And farewell slavery.”
Thoreau is insightful on friendship. He says “The language of friendship is not words but meanings. It is an intelligence above language.” “All that has been said of friendship is like botany to flowers.” “Treat your friends for what you know them to be — regard no surfaces. consider not what they did, but what they intended.” “Who are the estranged? Two friends explaining.”
On governance he says, “That certainly is the best government where the inhabitants are least often reminded of the government.” “The law will never make men free; it is men who have got to make the law free. They are the lovers of law and older, who observe the law when the government breaks it.”
The quote on silence: “The silence rings — it musical and thrills me. A night in which the silence was audible — I hear the unspeakable.” And on music “Listen to music religiously as if it were the last strain you might hear.” “When I hear music I fear no danger, I am invulnerable, I see no foe. I am related to the earliest times and to the latest.”
Thoreau wrote his most known essay on civil disobedience after spending a night in prison because he did not pay the taxes when he was approached by the tax collector when he was out on a stroll into town. Though his tax was paid by the tax collector’s daughter, he refused to get out of the jail in the night, as he had already removed his boots!
All the quotes have been sourced and indexed. There is a section on what Thoreau said about his contemporaries and what they said about him. Jeffrey S Cramer is curator of collections at the Thoreau Institute at Walden Woods and editor of many books.
(Princeton University Press, 41, William Street, Princeton, New Jersey-08540; press.princeon.edu)