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Henry David Thoreau reviewed in the Financial Times

on Fri, 07/28/2017 - 14:41

The town of Concord is a 30-minute drive from Boston, a morning or an afternoon’s excursion.

Once there you can visit what’s now the Walden Pond State Reservation and inspect a replica of the one-room cabin Henry David Thoreau built for himself and inhabited from July 1845 to September 1847. You can walk around the wooded pond in less than an hour, enjoying the site’s serenity even though Route 2, Route 128 and the town are close by.  

The town was close by in Thoreau’s day too. Among the many mistaken ideas about Thoreau is that he was some kind of backwoods hermit or some kind of hypocrite for not being a backwoods hermit.  

In her luminous new biography of Thoreau, Laura Dassow Walls corrects many popular notions about the great American naturalist, dissident and writer who was born 200 years ago this month. His ambition at Walden was to establish an outpost where he could “simplify, simplify” his life and study the woods, but he was no misanthrope. He welcomed visitors, especially the local children who came to chat and fish in the pond. He often walked into town to dine with his friends, parents and sisters. Thoreau needed only enough solitude to see closely and think freshly. It proved enough solitude to make him the writer who would overturn progressive America’s thinking about the natural world and the political state.

Walls, a literary historian, came to Thoreau much as I did, along with other American teenagers in the late 1960s and early 1970s: a mass-market Signet paperback that combined the short books, Walden and Civil Disobedience, touchstones of the times. These tracts, already more than a century old, emphasised the main ethical strands of the counterculture: personal independence, reverence for nature, anti-materialism and resistance to authority. Reading Walls, I realise now just how deeply Thoreau carved his words into my character, or at least the character to which I aspired.

At Walden, Thoreau built his cabin from the woods’ white pines and the remnants of an Irish railroad worker’s shanty. He explored the woods, keenly alert to their animal inhabitants and every change in the seasons, and he measured the dimensions of the pond, including its abyssal depths. He farmed, doing the hard work of “making the earth say beans instead of grass”. The record of his two years at Walden laid the foundation for “a new generation of environmental thinking”, according to Walls. “What Thoreau was studying at Walden was how to see, in the wastelands at the margins of commerce, the center of a new system of value” — an economy based on human kinship with nature, not on the human primacy that in the 19th century would remake the North American continent.

Thoreau’s environmentalism and his self-reliance were accommodated by the religion Concord claimed as its own, the philosophy called “transcendentalism”. Advanced by Thoreau’s mentor, Ralph Waldo Emerson, the movement searched for the “higher” truths that extended beyond everyday life and found God everywhere. Nowadays these notions are easily incorporated by other sects and belief systems. They were then radical enough to disrupt communities. (The one woman to whom Thoreau proposed marriage refused him because she was Unitarian.) Even among transcendentalists, Thoreau was an outlier — a prickly loner interested in eastern religions. Although Emerson owned the land on which Thoreau built his cabin, he doubted the Walden project: “Cultivated people cannot live in a shanty.”

Thoreau was indeed cultivated, a Harvard graduate, but he wasn’t, like some other 19th-century romantics, rejecting a life of affluence to live in rusticated ease. Thoreau’s family fortunes were modest enough for his parents to take in boarders while his father ran a small pencil-making business. The firm depended on Henry’s industriousness. He was a relentless tinkerer, inventing a mechanism that ground graphite into more usable pencil lead. Another Thoreauvian innovation turned the lead into easily sharpened cylinders. But Thoreau the writer struggled to get his work published and paid for. Even as his literary career took off, he embarked on another career as a land surveyor, which he pursued for the rest of his life, often in the field for weeks at a time. Surviving maps and charts show that he was an excellent draftsman.

He was also a fiery, at-the-barricades activist — not simply an idealist with an aversion to state institutions. In his essay, “On the Duty of Civil Disobedience” (1849), Thoreau explained why, after refusing to pay taxes levied during the 1846-48 war against Mexico, he spent a night in the Concord jail — a blueprint for antiwar rebellion during the Vietnam era that encouraged draft resistance and other nonviolent protest. Thoreau understood that the war of his time was a slaveholder’s war, fought to expand America’s slaveholding territories to Texas and the west. Slave-holding delegitimised the whole republic. He declared, “I cannot for an instant recognise that political organisation as my government which is the slave’s government also.”

As the national crisis deepened during the 1850s, Thoreau joined the most outspoken of the abolitionists. His 1854 speech, “Slavery in Massachusetts,” excoriated the north’s passivity to the south’s slave trade, especially the free states’ willingness to return escaped slaves to bondage. His parents’ home served as a way station for the Underground Railroad. In 1859, the white abolitionist John Brown attacked the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry in Virginia, hoping to spark a slave rebellion. In the ensuing nationwide furore, Thoreau drove the cart that helped spirit one of the plotters out of the country. According to Walls, Thoreau was the first person in the country to defend Brown publicly.

As immersed as he was in the day’s political warfare, Thoreau never lost his connection to the outdoors. Nearly every day, wherever he was, he continued to enter in his journal, in vivid, crystalline prose, a record of the leaves and plants he encountered, every insect and animal, and every shade of colour that the seasons manufactured. Emerson observed that for Thoreau, “man is the faculty of reporting, & the universe is the possibility of being reported”.

I read much of this book in a nearby urban park, abruptly looking up from time to time, in a rush of enthusiasm, to take in my surroundings: the summer-lush trees and the fecund community garden, the sward of lawn populated by sunbathers, the Lycra-clad joggers. I took a moment to observe my own presence on the planet. I searched for the words to report it. Thoreau was inspiring me again. Through Walls’ biography, he once more challenges us to see, with his passion and intensity, the world in all its cruelty and its splendour, riddled with human lies and abundant in natural truths.

See review here

Henry David Thoreau: A Life
Laura Dassow Walls
ISBN 9780226344690
Hardback, £26.50

Contact Yale Representation for more information.