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The Thoreau You Don't Know: What the Prophet of Environmentalism Really Meant
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The Thoreau You Don't Know: What the Prophet of Environmentalism Really Meant

3.80  ·  Rating details ·  257 ratings  ·  60 reviews
Robert Sullivan, the New York Times bestselling author of Rats and Cross Country, delivers a revolutionary reconsideration of Henry David Thoreau for modern readers of the seminal transcendentalist. Dispelling common notions of Thoreau as a lonely eccentric cloistered at Walden Pond, Sullivan (whom the New York Times Book Review calls “an urban Thoreau”) paints a dynamic picture o ...more
Hardcover, 368 pages
Published March 17th 2009 by Harper
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Average rating 3.80  · 
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 ·  257 ratings  ·  60 reviews

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Claire Hall
Mar 29, 2009 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: biography
Robert Sullivan's new book, "The Thoreau You Don't Know," is not a traditional biography, but is more an extended essay on the life and meaning of the man revered by many as the father of environmentalism. Sullivan, whose previous books include "Rats" and the "Meadowlands," has been described as an "Urban Thoreau," and was an ideal candidate to undertake this task.

The debate over Thoreau has been going on for a long time--it began while he was still alive and has continued in the mor
Aug 19, 2009 rated it really liked it
The Thoreau You Don't Know What the Prophet of Environmentalism Really Meant by Robert Sullivan is a book that leaves you with the distinct impression that it would probably be a lot of fun to sit down and get really drunk with the author. The point of the book is ostensibly to provide a more balanced portrait of Thoreau as a man given to practicality and whimsy at least as much as the more stoic virtues generally used to illustrate his character. It certainly does this, citing letters, historic ...more
Aug 17, 2015 rated it liked it
Shelves: biography
Worth reading for insight into Thoreau’s life and what he was trying to achieve. Quotes:

“For a lot of writers, writing is something that has to be worked through, like a bad cold’; the goal is not to write but to think.”

“Thoreau doesn’t offer answers. His is the analysis that leads to questions.”

Thoreau - “But lo! men have become tools of their tools.”

“Thoreau mostly listened but, in the minds of the bystanders, didn’t so much talk as stalk the corners of the
Yelda Basar Moers
Now, if you’re going to write a book called The Thoreau You Don’t Know, you better give the reader something big and blazing that we don’t know about him, especially to those diehard fans out there like me. Of course I’m writing this review from a different perspective since I do know a lot about him, having read Walden over ten times, and many biographies on his life. I can see what the writer was trying to do, show him in a different light than as a prophet of nature that lived in the woods. B ...more
Christine Fay
Well, this certainly fleshed out my knowledge of Thoreau’s life beyond that of reading Walden. For instance, I did not know that he held a teaching position in Canton, Massachusetts for a while. He did teach off and on, but he seemed to be most happy watching Ralph Waldo Emerson’s children and teaching them all about the woods, of course. He was also once in love with a woman who chose to marry his brother over him, so he was never lucky in the love department. He hung out with a lot of influent ...more
Melissa A Comer
Jul 28, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I liked the scope of this book though it shattered some of my personal opinions about Thoreau--I had rather liked the naturalist and his simple existence, so, was comfortable with the Thoreau I already knew. First, the book gives further insight to the man and we see what was there all along; secondly, the historical references are proof of the familiar premise that history repeats itself.
John Fredrickson
May 08, 2017 rated it it was ok
Shelves: not-finished, thoreau
I enjoyed this during the first part of the book, but found that it got stale the longer it went on. I have read Walden numerous times, and was looking forward to learning more about the man Thoreau, particularly if it was something new and unexpected. This book failed to deliver.
Mike Prochot
Sep 01, 2011 rated it really liked it
What a great insight into Thoreau. Reading Thoreau's works over the course of my life (and gaining inspiration and very much pleasure and satisfaction from them), I have always felt if not actually sensed that much of his writing was filled with humor and irony, call it farce if you will. It seemed to me that he was cajoling his readers to look about and find the insights to many questions of their lives and world. It also seemed to me that Thoreau was not what we would classify today as a "gree ...more
Jeffrey Howard
Sullivan's biography is a witty read, but is oftentimes a frustrating example of author transference. While he should be praised for reminding us of the humorous and social aspects of Thoreau, Sullivan twists and morphs Emerson's friend and protege. Sullivan takes his own progressive, romanticized view of government and anti-capitalist bias, and breathes them into Thoreau. He tries to make the Concord eccentric less of an individualist-transcendentalist and more of a collectivist. In reality, Th ...more
May 13, 2009 rated it really liked it
Robert Sullivan has an axe to grind. In The Thoreau You Don’t Know Sullivan says that the popular conception of Henry David Thoreau, the image of the man so commonly invoked by writers and activists, is wildly off the mark.

Notably, Sullivan, who has sometimes been compared to Thoreau, claims that Thoreau was not in fact anti-social or reclusive. He actually spent very little time in that tiny cabin on Walden Pond, and even at Walden he hosted mellon-tasting parties (talk about debauchery
Jul 09, 2014 rated it liked it
Shelves: history-america, vine
"Walden" is a book I've always *wanted* to read but, unfortunately, I've never been able to get far into it - and I'm sure I'm not the only one. But Robert Sullivan says that we misunderstand Thoreau - making him the "prophet of the environmental movement" or thinking of him as a hermit or a malcontent. The reality, he says, is that Thoreau was never anti-society or against development. Rather he advocated living more simply and making the best use of nature's resources instead of the conspicuou ...more
Feb 04, 2009 rated it liked it
Shelves: biography-memoir
Sullivan's primary goal for the reader is to dispell the misuse and misunderstanding of Thoreau and his philosophy, focused on discounting the popular notion of H.D. as a humorless isolationist.

This is a noble goal and one that I have aspired to in various settings when I felt the need. That brings me to the point that the Thoreau that Sullivan tries to portray is "The Thoreau I Do Know". I was fortunate enough to spend almost three weeks in Concord studying transcedentalist writers
Nov 08, 2011 rated it really liked it
H.D. Thoreau is undoubtedly an oft-misunderstood figure in American letters. As he is in some sense a creature both of and out of his times, he stands alone (far surpassing his mentor Emerson) as a figure of initiative, simplicity, and uncommon sense. This little book helps to elucidate those facets of his personality which were mis-characteried as misanthropic, vainly rebellious, and antisocial.
Thoreau sought to bring an alchemistic balance to modern life such as it was- to find the Era
1.5 stars

I guess when it comes down to it this is the Thoreau I didn't really care about knowing. Overall I've never had much interest in Thoreau despite myself being a staunch environmentalist, which makes sense since I have never really considered Thoreau much of one--at least not one as it is known today. There is simply far too much time and change between Thoreau's time and now for his "environmentalism" to mean much of anything, honestly the farthest I think one can safely go b
Ancient Weaver
Interesting, but comes off as too apologetic at times.

I'm a little torn on how to rate this book. Yes, I did in fact learn quite a bit about Thoreau that I did not know prior to having read this book, so mission accomplished there. However, I became tired of Sullivan's constant need to apologize for this, that, and the other thing when it comes to Thoreau.

Look, Thoreau isn't necessarily for everyone. You can't get around that, neither should anyone feel like they have to
Mark Valentine
Dec 15, 2016 rated it really liked it
The deeper I waded into reading Sullivan's literary biography of Thoreau, the more I enjoyed it. At first, his tone seemed flippant, even cheeky, but I grew to appreciate his insights. I especially enjoyed reading his pages on Thoreau as trickster, punster, and prankster; although he didn't provide any exegesis on Thoreau's long paragraph in Villages in which he describes his encounter with Concord akin to his passage through the alimentary tracts (my favorite), he presented some of the 19th Cen ...more
Mar 12, 2013 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Several chapters in the book was thoroughoutly entertaining and informative, but I found myself scanning through the sentences at times. Sullivan did a good job depicting Thoreau in a different light, a more human one who lived in his times, reacted to the context of his American society, and struggled without much plaudits rewarding him for his toils. Anyone who've read Walden more than once have already envisioned Thoreau as something more than the two-dimensional mythical portrait of him as a ...more
Tiffany Young
May 28, 2012 rated it it was amazing
"Music is the sound of the circulation in nature's veins." —Thoreau in Walden

Few associate Henry David Thoreau as a lover of music and dancing, but if you read "The Thoreau You Don't Know," you'll learn a lot about the man who wrote "Walden" that you don't yet know about him. Rather than the recluse that some are often want to painting him as, Robert Sullivan sets out an argument for Thoreau as someone who knew his neighbors and often had visitors even while at Walden Pond.

I learned
May 13, 2011 rated it really liked it
Robert Sullivan's book captures the Thoreau that I do know. His book provides the context for Thoreau's writing (including but not limited to Walden ) that a college course would ideally provide. If you have studied Thoreau extensively, you may appreciate a well-written reminder of that which you know. If you have never taken a course on Thoreau or if you had a hard time appreciating Thoreau in your college or high school courses, this book should increase your enjoyment of Thoreau's writings. ...more
Nov 10, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Troubled by the recent article in The New Yorker that bashed Thoreau unfairly with every major misreading of his work and misconception about the man himself, I found this book at the library and thoroughly enjoyed it. Robert Sullivan does a masterful job of searching for the real Thoreau in contemporary letters, books, and memoirs as well as in Thoreau's own journals, essays, and letters. Sullivan takes on all the major misconceptions of who T really was, often points out how they originated, a ...more
Mark Schofield
Oct 31, 2009 rated it liked it
I am a serious student of Thoreau and I have to admit that I was apprehensive about purchasing this book. I waited to read it until I could get a free copy at the library. I was unsure that Sullivan was up to the task. Although his books are well researched I would call him a scholarly writer.

This book was a pleasant surprise. I connected with this book as a Thoreau partisan. During my academic career I have found that Thoreau oftentimes comes in second to Emerson , it was great toi
Sara Van Dyck
Jul 21, 2012 rated it it was amazing
The reader looking for a detailed biography of Thoreau might look elsewhere, but Sullivan offers something different, more akin to a series of essays. His subtitle lets us know right away what he’s up to: “What the Prophet of Environmentalism Really Meant.” The author has crafted a sketchy biography of HDT (meaning that every part of HDT’s life isn’t accorded equal attention), and then examines details of his writings and experiences and connects those with current topics: Abu Ghraib, taxes, mor ...more
Jun 24, 2011 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
At one point in the book, Sullivan cites "one of those Thoreau quotes that can be considered either corny, or absolutely true": "Live in each season as it passes: breathe the air, drink the drink, taste the fruit, and resign yourself to the influences of each." With his book, Sullivan proves, (through extensive research and insightful, imaginative analysis) that Henry David Thoreau is a man for this season. Sullivan writes, "The great problem with Walden, as it reads to me today, is that we thin ...more
Mar 10, 2013 rated it really liked it
Shelves: americana
Robert Sullivan, a masterful observer of life, is a writer I'd follow anywhere, but in the case of "The Thoreau You Don't Know", Sullivan's topic squared up neatly with a reading bent I've been on for the last 3 years or so: the American 19th Century.

I stepped into this book armed with little more than a liberal arts 100 level name-recognition knowledge of the Transcendentalists, and some survey course info about Thoreau as a hermit who didn't pay taxes and loved nature. Needless to
Dan Pool
The key point I learned and it offers a whole new perspective on Thoreau is when Thoreau went to Walden Pond, he wasn't seeking to live in an unspoiled wilderness. He was in reality on a vacant lot on the edge of town -- 1.5 miles from Concord. It is better to think of him as a Roman philosopher like Diogenes, who seemed like a logical forerunner, when he lived in a ceramic jar and preached simplicity in Roman markets, much like HDT did when he lived in a small cabin and preached few possession. ...more
Jinxi Caddel
Jul 27, 2009 rated it it was amazing
I have been a fan of Thoreau's since first reading him in high school, but never appreciated him as much as I do now. Robert Sullivan provided such a delightful peek into Thoreau as a person. I was curious to read the book just to learn more about T, but was pleasantly surprised by how engrossed I got in the details of his life. What an interesting character he was. Always a bit of a rebel and eccentric, he was so much more than the HDT most of us envision when relying on Walden to paint the pic ...more
Oct 25, 2009 rated it it was amazing
Just a really enjoyable read on the life of Henry David Thoreau and his hitorical and literary reputation. I really enjoyed Robert Sullivan's contemporary perspective. Some really good analysis on how Thoreau's repuation has shifted over the years and how his comteporaries (Lowell, Emerson, etc.) played a large part in shaping his early reputation. Sullivan does an excellent job highlighting historical facts and anecdotes about Thoreau that are contrary to the perception some have of the writer ...more
Dec 11, 2014 rated it really liked it
Early on, I was afraid the premise that Thoreau is (Surprise!) more than the sum of the quotes used to sell nature gear and stir high school graduates would be a little too obvious to sustain an entire book. However, I appreciate the way Sullivan de-emphasizes the hermit aspect of Thoreau and how the point seemed to have more to do with questioning the American economy of the time and good stewardship than with his trying to "get away from it all." The book looks at his life in Concord, his rela ...more
Ann Woodlief
Jul 01, 2009 rated it really liked it
This is a great book, better than "Woodsburner" on several points. Sullivan is no scholar, but he understands Thoreau better than most people do--at least, the Thoreau I always saw. It's audacious to say that we "don't know Thoreau" but few authors have had as many wrong-headed stereotypes attached to them. Maybe the problem is that his words often hit very close to the reader's bone, so they categorize him and leave him be. Readers often miss his humor, his conviviality, his desperate struggle ...more
Apr 13, 2010 rated it liked it
Robert Sullivan takes the reader on a tour of Henry David Thoreau’s life – a tour very different from those who co-opt Thoreau’s for some political or philosophical end (i.e., environmentalists, politicians, etc.).

What we learn is that Thoreau was actually a bit of a nerd (or seen to be by his contemporaries such as Emerson). We learn that Thoreau’s venture into the woods was much more leisurely and much less extreme an adventure than one would think just by reading select excerpts i
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Librarian Note: There is more than one author in the Goodreads database with this name.

Robert Sullivan is the author of Rats, The Meadowlands, A Whale Hunt, and most recently, The Thoreau You Don’t Know. His writing has appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times, New York magazine, A Public Space, and Vogue, where he is a contributing editor. He was born in Manhattan and now lives in Brooklyn, New York.

Librarian Note: There is more than one author in the Goodreads database with this name.

Robert Sullivan is the author of Rats, The Meadowlands, A Whale Hunt, and most recently, The Thoreau You Don’t Know. His writing has appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times, New York magazine, A Public Space, and Vogue, where he is a contributing editor. He was born in Manhattan and now lives in Brooklyn, New York.