Grant Loomis: "Thoreau and Zimmermann" in The New England Quarterly, v. 10, no. 4, 1937, p. 789-792.
This article by an established Thoreau specialist points out the influence of the Swiss writer Johann Ritter von Zimmermann (1728-1795) and his book Betrachtungen uber die Einsamkeit or Reflections on Solitude, which appeared in German in 1756 and was translated into English in a Boston edition in 1804 under the title: Solitude Considered With Respect to its Influence on the Mind and the Heart (though this was not the edition Thoreau owned). "The subject of solitude was very early of interest to the Concord hermit; therefore it can be assumed that he read this book with care and thought," notes Loomis, though Zimmermann, a physician and popularizer, reflected the limitations of his era more than the perspicacious Thoreau.
Loomis finds six areas or topics of interest that Thoreau shares with Zimmermann:
1. Individuals seek solitude for two chief reasons. First of all, because of an antipathy to the frivolity of society, and, second, because of a love for liberty and independence. Both authors have a good deal to say about these themes. Both express essentially the same ideas. Zimmermann concentrates his opinions into brief
chapters of his essay; Thoreau's ideas are scattered through his Journals, Walden, and his letters.
Thoreau delivered a lecture on the topic of "society" in Concord in 1838, the text of which is not available. Loomis speculates that Thoreau had by that time read Zimmermann and incorporated his ideas into this presentation.
2. Solitude nourishes the mind and feeds the imagination. This part of Thoreau's creed was a vital necessity to him. His intellect became more solitary year by year.
Loomis notes that in later writings, Thoreau does not emphasize the inner peace of solitude because he had effectively achieved it and now emphasized external nature as his preferred setting. Thoreau's daily walks in nature became so important to him that nothing could postpone or cancel them.
3. It was out-door solitude which interested Thoreau most.
Thoreau was restless indoors. His books did not appeal to him as much as did the woods, fields, and rivers. Loomis does not elaborate on this indicator, but it shows an eremitism distinct from religious and anchoritic traditions. Nature can nourish the traditional place-bound hermit as well as the wanderer. Zimmermann had less to say about the outdoors and nature. Clearly, Thoreau does not depend on Zimmermann here.
4. Thoreau puts more emphasis than did Zimmermann on the code of simplicity -- although the latter praised its essential values and noted that simplicity and solitude are natural companions. Economy in all things spelled freedom to the man from Concord. Plain living and high thinking interpreted life for him.
Zimmermann the physician was a dilettante in philosophy, history, and politics. He consorted with monarchs and was distinctly patriotic. Indeed, most studies of Zimmermann barely notice his book on solitude. The Encyclopedia Britannica 11th edition calls it of mere "historical interest." Zimmermann was the personal physician of the Hanoverian king and attended Friedrich II of Prussia on his deathbed. That Zimmermann enjoyed the circles of nobility is reflected in his writings. Hence, Zimmermann's personal life would not reflect either the psychological or diurnal life of simplicity that Thoreau considered important.
The Britannica contributor adds sharply:
In Zimmermann's character there was a strange combination of sentimentalism, melancholy and enthusiasm; and it was by the free and eccentric expression of these qualities that he excited the interest of his contemporaries.
5. Both Zimmermann and Thoreau believed that most people are not able to enjoy their leisure.
Again, Zimmermann's life does not project someone similarly appreciative of leisure. Thoreau understood that labor must be integrated with a life of the mind and heart, so that leisure was not a break from work but a continuum.
6. The association of music and bravery was one of Thoreau's favorite topics. It is a theme which one would not expect to find in a discussion of solitude; yet Zimmermann referred to it. The idea may have come to Thoreau through this channel.
Loomis does not elaborate, but Zimmermann's bravery was doubtless expressive of his eccentric character and his association with the nobility of Europe. Zimmermann wrote a treatise on the Seven Years War, defending true and false German patriotism, promoting the vague nationalism that did not threaten his monarchs but still might appeal to his readers. This is the source of bravery that does not share much with Thoreau.
With regard to music, too, Zimmermann's views are not deep. Thoreau, disdainful of artifice, elaborated on music as the sounds which emanate from nature and not merely the concert hall. One observer states that
In nature, sounds are neither planned nor structured according to some organizing principle, they simply happen. There are always unpremeditated. By aligning these sounds –- which others might refer to as noise -– with music, Thoreau broadens the definition of music considerably and paves the way for modern composers such as John Cage, who makes the so-called noise an integral part of his compositions. (Jannika Bock: "'There is Music in Every Sound': Thoreau's Modernist Understanding of Music" in COPAS, issue 7, 2006).
Whereas Zimmermann was theoretical in everything he wrote or advocated, Thoreau was the practitioner. Evidence from his notes, Thoreau acquired the book in the early 1840's. Concludes Loomis:
He [Thoreau] was still in his early twenties and had not definitely launched upon the literary career which was his dream. Not until five years later did he go to Walden to live. Whatever influence Zimmermann's work may have had upon the formation of Thoreau's creed of existence could have come early enough to have affected the important part of his life and the major portion of his writing. Basically, the ideas of the two men are alike at many points, but if Thoreau was an advocate of the principles of the Betrachtungen, he was an original disciple.