In her new biography, “Henry David Thoreau, ” Laura Dassow Walls documents nicely and in detail how deeply engaged with his community Thoreau was, hardly the hermit that is the image many people have of him.
Walls gives us a real sense of the man, along with many of the other hugely influential figures he interacted with, from Emerson to Hawthorne to Margaret Fuller. We also get a feel for life in Concord, an astonishingly hip and humanitarian place for its time, and where Thoreau spent almost his entire life.
Major biographies of Thoreau seem to arrive every two or three decades; the Henry Seidel Canby biography dates from 1939, Walter Harding’s biography from 1965, and Robert Richardson’s biography from 1986. I’ve always thought the Richardson biography especially good.
The new Walls biography is a valuable addition to the Thoreau literature. I’d suggest pairing it with Robert M. Thorson’s excellent “The Boatman,” published only last year, in which he documents convincingly that however much time Thoreau spent at Walden and in the woods, his real love was the nearby rivers, where he spent far more of this time.
The Walls biography only reinforces the image I’ve had of Thoreau for many years now. He could be difficult, uncompromising for sure, but that did not mean he did not have a large circle of friends and acquaintances, many of whom he interacted with throughout his life, many of whom he had a warm relationship with. Children were drawn to him, and he often led them berry picking, outings that became nature walks. He was close to his family, living with them essentially his whole life, but for his Walden time and trips mostly in New England. Walls makes clear that the Thoreau home, moreover, was a virtual Concord gathering spot. So much for Thoreau the hermit.
Indeed, much of his life Thoreau was either speaking or writing about nature, and social issues, notably slavery, which he opposed with unbending fervor. He spent countless hours walking or rowing his boat, often with others, documenting with grace the flora and fauna of the Concord area and its ecology. He was a remarkably patient and thorough student of the natural world, recognizing long before others, for example, why certain tree species succeeded others after a fire or storm.
Far ahead of his time, Thoreau was calling for nature preserves long before the first national parks and state parks.
His 26-month stay in his little cabin at Walden Pond? Walls calls it “performance art,” a clever description, and, even if a little too cute, close to the mark. As Walls notes, “living alone on the pond in ostentatious simplicity, right in sight of a main road, he became a spectacle. It’s not clear that Thoreau anticipated this. His original determination to live deliberately and confront only the essential facts of life, voiced so movingly in his earliest days at the pond, show his design to pursue an inward journey, but the accidental circumstances that made that journey possible meant it would be performed on a very public stage.” So, maybe we consider it “unplanned performance art.”
Walls draws richly from letters to and from Thoreau, journals by others, writings by others. I found her account of Thoreau’s lectures over the years especially enlightening. He spent far more time lecturing than I had known, and it shows what a celebrity he had become, most notably after the publication of Walden.
Walls quotes a reviewer in Portland, ME., who wrote, “He bewilders you in the mists of transcendentalism, delights you with brilliant imagery, shocks you by his apparent irreverence, and sets you in a roar by his sallies of wit.”
As for “Walden” the book, with its call to live a purposeful, spartan life, embracing the natural world, I can’t agree more with Walls that it can be read as a kind of bible, “a new sacred book for the modern age.” I’ve been saying just that for years.
Moreover, I like to think of it as America’s greatest self-help book yet.