In July of 1917, Virginia Woolf wrote an article commemorating the 100th anniversary of Henry David Thoreau’s birth for the Times Literary Supplement.
Woolf was an admirer of American writers like Thoreau and felt American writers were more inventive and adventurous than any British writer to date.
What is interesting about this essay is that, despite Woolf’s exclusively upper class British upbringing, she understood Thoreau better than most modern-day American readers and even more so than some of his own peers, such as Woolf’s American godfather and Thoreau’s rival James Russell Lowell.
Woolf saw Thoreau not as a misanthropic hermit trying to hide from society in the woods, but as a “noble” rebel attempting to teach his fellow man his unique philosophy on life through his writing and actions.
It was as if she saw him as she saw herself, a misfit trying to invent a new way of life, much like she and her fellow Bloomsbury group members were attempting to do in 20th century London.
In recent years, many literary critics have even drawn comparisons between the Bloomsbury group and the Concord transcendentalist writers, which include Thoreau, Hawthorne, Emerson and Alcott, nicknaming them the “American Bloomsbury.”
Woolf seems to have picked up on these similarities well before anyone else did and instead of distancing herself from her American counterparts, fully embraced them.
Woolf’s essay on Thoreau, despite the fact that it was published nearly a century ago, remains to this day one of the most insightful, thoughtful and intelligent tributes to this all too often misunderstood man.