Thoreau on the Difference Between an Artisan, an Artist, and a Genius
By Maria Popova
“Talent is insignificant. I know a lot of talented ruins,” James Baldwin admonished in his advice to aspiring writers as he considered the real building blocks of genius: “Beyond talent lie all the usual words: discipline, love, luck, but most of all, endurance.” Two decades before that, in pondering whether great artists are born or made, Jack Kerouac proclaimed: “Genius gives birth, talent delivers.”
More than a century earlier, Henry David Thoreau (July 12, 1817–May 6, 1862) — one of humanity’s greatest artists, in the most expansive sense of the word — brought his formidable intellect and spiritual genius to this question in his 1849 masterwork A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (public library).
Right around the time he was contemplating the myth of productivity and the true measure of meaningful work, Thoreau writes:
The Man of Genius may at the same time be, indeed is commonly, an Artist, but the two are not to be confounded. The Man of Genius, referred to mankind, is an originator, an inspired or demonic man, who produces a perfect work in obedience to laws yet unexplored. The Artist is he who detects and applies the law from observation of the works of Genius, whether of man or nature. The Artisan is he who merely applies the rules which others have detected. There has been no man of pure Genius; as there has been none wholly destitute of Genius.
Thoreau — who wrote beautifully about the dignity of defining one’s own success — argues that true genius is often met with resistance; that the test and mark of genius is how well one is able to stay one’s course amid external pressures to conform to the beaten path:
To the rarest genius it is the most expensive to succumb and conform to the ways of the world. Genius is the worst of lumber, if the poet would float upon the breeze of popularity. The bird of paradise is obliged constantly to fly against the wind, lest its gay trappings, pressing close to its body, impede its free movements.
He is the best sailor who can steer within the fewest points of the wind, and extract a motive power out of the greatest obstacles. Most begin to veer and tack as soon as the wind changes from aft, and as within the tropics it does not blow from all points of the compass, there are some harbors which they can never reach.
Not unlike we use the word “artist” today, Thoreau uses the word “poet” in more than its literal sense, connoting not just writers of poetry but creators who enlarge our poetic appreciation of beauty and truth through their work, whatever its nature. He writes:
It is the worshippers of beauty, after all, who have done the real pioneer work of the world.
The poet will prevail to be popular in spite of his faults, and in spite of his beauties too. He will hit the nail on the head, and we shall not know the shape of his hammer.
To the artists whose genius goes unrecognized in their lifetime, Thoreau offers the consolation of a vaster perspective:
The poet … will remember only that he saw truth and beauty from his position, and expect the time when a vision as broad shall overlook the same field as freely.
Complement the immensely rewarding A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers with Thoreau on the sanctity of libraries, the art of walking, how silence ennobles speech, the value of useful ignorance, and what it really means to be awake, then revisit this lovely children’s book about his life and legacy.
Published March 3, 2016