Capturing Henry David Thoreau between covers

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Henry David Thoreau:  A Life by Laura Dassow Walls, University Of Chicago Press, US $35.00, Pp 640, July 2017, ISBN 978-0226344690

Henry David Thoreau was a member of the intellectual group gathered around Ralph Waldo Emerson. He was an ardent naturalist, a manual laborer, and inventor, a radical political activist. Although many biographers have covered various aspects of his personal life and achievements, as Laura Dassow Walls says, “Thoreau has never been captured between covers; he was too quixotic, mischievous, many-sided” even two hundred years after his birth. In Henry David Thoreau, Laura Walls captures Thoreau between covers. She covers Thoreau’s life, from his early days in the intellectual hothouse of Concord, when the American experiment still felt fresh and precarious, and “America was a family affair, earned by one generation and about to pass to the next.” He died in 1862, at only forty-four years of age. Walls presents a Thoreau who is vigorously alive in all his quirks and contradictions. He believed in human freedom and the value of labor which made him an uncompromising abolitionist.

Walls says that the Thoreau she sought was not in any book and so she wrote this book. She offers a reading of Thoreau’s life as a writer and a book and expects her readers to see for themselves how he wrote his life. She writes, “Two hundred years after his birth, we have invented two Thoreaus, both of them hermits, yet radically at odds with each other. One speaks for nature; the other for social justice. Yet the historical Thoreau was no hermit, and as Thoreau’s own record shows, his social activism and his defense of nature sprang from the same roots: he found a society in nature, and nature he found everywhere, including the town center and the human heart.” Thus where others see a schism, Walls see Emerson’s “bundle of relations” and “knot of roots” – roots of which Thoreau’s life and writings are the flow and fruit. The sweep of his life takes in the deep, even geological, time of the land he walked and studied and the social history of his family, town, and nation, which were already part of a global network.

Thoreau himself embodied this intertwined narrative so deeply that at his death, his friends said his truest memorial was Concord itself. It is true that he often lived in tension with his townsfolk, but he was always near them, and often among them – a gadfly not above stinging his neighbors to wake them up. Walls says that this relationship shaped his every word, for as his ideas outran his time, Thoreau often found his voice silenced and censored – so often that Walls marveled he found the courage to keep speaking at all.

In short, Thoreau struggled all his life to find a voice that could be heard despite the din of cynicism and the babble of convention. That he was a loving son, a devoted friend, a lively and charismatic presence who filled the room, laughed and danced, sang and teased and wept, should not have to be said. But astonishingly, it does, for some deformation of sensibility has brought Thoreau down to us in ice, chilled into a misanthrope, prickly with spines, isolated as a hermit and nag. He could, of course, be icy, prickly, occasionally hermitous, and even a nag – features that I hope this biography makes clear, perhaps understandable.

Henry David Thoreau is a fascinating and first comprehensive biography of a leading American thinker and activist. Laura Walls showed Thoreau was far ahead of his times and espoused the causes that became popular only at the end of twentieth century. Henry David Thoreau is a meticulously researched and referenced book. Walls also busts some myths woven around him over time. The academic credentials of Laura Walls are unmatchable. This enjoyable read is a must read for everybody interested in the intellectual history of America.