The Transcendentalist: 5 March 1853


Audio: Read by Kaylen Hayes

In response to an 1853 inquiry from Spencer Fullerton Baird, the first curator of the Smithsonian Institution and secretary of a major scientific body, Thoreau filled out a questionnaire, listing his occupations as “Literary and Scientific, Combined with Land-surveying.” He highlighted his interest in the indigenous peoples of the Algonkian language group and cited the great Prussian naturalist Alexander von Humboldt as a particular inspiration. But in this journal entry, Thoreau revealed what was really on his mind as he completed Baird’s survey. How he could convey to scientists (without inviting ridicule) that he was “a mystic – a transcendentalist – & a natural philosopher to boot”?

The Secretary for the Association for the Ad. of Science – requested me as he probably has thousands of others – by a printed circular letter from Washington the other day – to fill the blanks against certain questions – among which the most important one was – what branch of science I was specially interested in – Using the term science in the most comprehensive sense possible– Now though I could state to a select few that department of human inquiry which engages me – & should be rejoiced at an opportunity so to do – I felt that it would be to make my-self the laughing stock of the scientific community – to describe or attempt to describe to them that branch of science which specially interests me – in as much as they do not believe in a science which deals with the higher law. So I was obliged to speak to their condition and describe to them that poor part of me which alone they can understand. The fact is I am a mystic – a transcendentalist – & a natural philosopher to boot. Now I think of it – I should have told them at once that I was a transcendentalist – that would have been the shortest way of telling them that they would not understand my explanations.

How absurd that though I probably stand as near to nature as any of them, and am by constitution as good an observer as most – yet a true account of my relation to nature should excite their ridicule only. If it had been the secretary of an association of which Plato or Aristotle was the President – I should not have hesitated to describe my studies at once & particularly.

Henry David Thoreau’s journal for 8 January–8 March 1853. MA 1302.20. Purchased by Pierpont Morgan, 1909. (The quoted passage begins about a third of the way down the manuscript page.)