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Thoreau’s reputation is unique. It has a pattern all its own, filled with paradoxes and contradictions, and widely vacillating from decade to decade. In his own day he was generally dismissed as a minor writer who would soon be forgotten; yet in our day he is universally recognized as one of the few American writers of the nineteenth century who deserve the appellation “great. ” But the progress of his reputation has not been steady.
Aside from a bit piece that he published anonymously in a local Concord newspaper in 1837, just after graduating from Harvard, he broke into print in the pages of the Transcendentalist Dial in 1840, where his neighbor and mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson pressured the editor, Margaret Fuller, to print some of his early essays and poems. Later, after Emerson himself took over the editorship of the Dial, he included more of Thoreau’s short works. Other than an occasional bit of praise in some newspaper reviews, they achieved little notice and were generally dismissed as just another effusion of another of Emerson’s many minor disciples. One of the earliest published evaluations of Thoreau’s writing, James Russell Lowell’s A Fable for Critics (1848), dismissed him as one who had "stolen all his apples from Emerson’s orchard" and urged him to strike out on his own. This was a charge that would haunt Thoreau’s literary career not only throughout his lifetime, but well into the twentieth century, even though it would be difficult to think of an author more ruggedly independent, or one who more fiercely prided himself on his distinct individualism than Henry Thoreau. Ironically, although Emerson’s intentions were of the best, it has been suggested that in the long run he probably hindered the development of Thoreau’s literary career rather than enhanced it, for he encouraged Thoreau in his early works to follow the styles and philosophy of the Transcendentalists, and it was only when Thoreau began to break out of that mold that he began to attract attention on his own.
As Henry Seidel Canby pointed out in his life of Thoreau fifteen years ago, there is a strange gap in the biography of Thoreau that has never been filled. In Sanborn's edition of the Familiar Letters of Thoreau (Boston, 1894), there is a letter of 14 November 1847 to Emerson, traveling in England at the time, stating in part:
I have had a tragic correspondence, for the most part all on one side, with Miss _____ She did really wish to—I hesitate to write—marry me—that is the way they spell it. Of course I did not write a deliberate answer—how could I deliberate upon it? I sent back a distinct No, as I have learned to pronounce after considerable practice, and I trust that this No has succeeded. Indeed I wished that it might burst like hollow shot after it had struck and buried itself, and make itself felt there. There was no other way. I really had anticipated no such foe as this in my career. (p. 166)
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