Jon M.'s Reviews > Henry David Thoreau: A Life

Henry David Thoreau by Laura Dassow Walls
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it was amazing

Henry David Thoreau: A Life
Laura Dassow Walls
(University of Chicago Press, 640 PP)

Since schooldays, I have been drawn to the author of Walden and Civil Disobedience – and so has Laura Dassow Walls. She brilliantly frames the concerns of the most enduring transcendentalist, demonstrating why Thoreau remains important today: his concerns feel nearly as present as they must have felt in the 1840s. “[I]t was clear to him that the American Revolution was incomplete: inequality was rife, materialism was rampant, and the American economy was wholly dependent on slavery,” Walls writes.

Thoreau’s career began with him declaring that his elders had created this mess and seemed unable or unwilling to clean it up. Some of those elders were exempt from his judgement, however. Men like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Orestes Brownson had an early, positive influence on Thoreau. I particularly enjoyed how Walls tells the story of these mentor friendships. In the chapter, “Transcendental Apprentice”, on Thoreau’s relationship with Emerson, she selects quotations that are just right, including Emerson writing in his journal: “Every thing that boy says makes merry with society though nothing can be graver than his meaning” for he is “spiced throughout with rebellion”. Thoreau was not yet 21, and after meeting Emerson he began what became one of the greatest works of American literature, his Journal; it begins with Thoreau recounting a conversation he’d just had with Emerson: “‘What are you doing now?’ he asked, ‘Do you keep a journal?’ – So I make my first entry today.”

Robert D. Richardson’s masterful Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind (1986) remains the definitive intellectual biography, but Walls reveals Thoreau the writer, situating his ­formation and influences in mid-nineteenth- century America as no biographer has before. She explains, for example, the debilitating effect that Edward T. Channing, professor of rhetoric at Harvard, had on the young Thoreau. The professor’s biting sarcasm stunted his mind and enthusiasm, and those of many others of Thoreau’s generation who took Channing’s obligatory courses.

“It took 10 years and a move to Walden Pond to shake himself free,” Walls concludes. There were more positive influences, such as Lucy Jackson Brown, a married woman with children, whose husband had recently ­abandoned her. As a young Harvard graduate, Thoreau wrote poems and left them where Brown would find them.

Soon, Thoreau was teaching writing to young boys at a school of his founding in Concord, Massachusetts. Unlike Professor Channing, who had assigned arcane topics that puzzled his students, Thoreau did the opposite: “Write on something you know, something before you,” he urged. A few years on, when Thoreau was a boarder in the Emerson household, the mentor commissioned the apprentice, who was prone to moping around the house, to review a series of natural history reports published by the State of Massachusetts. A month later, Thoreau had produced 50 pages which Emerson didn’t much like, but he needed to fill the July issue of the transcendentalist literary journal, the Dial. Thoreau’s article, which dismissed the reports but offered the first serious taste of his enthusiasm for wildness and woods, was the real birth of the writer. “A Natural History of Massachusetts” first appeared in 1842. While Emerson was striving to save religion from dogmatism and institutions, Thoreau brought a similar ­expediency and immediacy to the interpretation of the natural world.

Then there was the brief apprenticeship of Thoreau to the New York journalist (and later politician) Horace Greeley, who offered to be his literary agent. There would be times when the author of Walden would take Greeley’s advice over Emerson’s; at other times he would not, as when Greeley urged Thoreau to write essays on each of his popular Concord friends. Greeley would pay Thoreau $25 (£19) for each essay, place them in magazines, and then publish them together as a book. Thoreau said no.

Many other writing projects, experiments, failures and successes would follow, but most of all Walden and the venerable Journal, Thoreau’s real life’s work and a favourite of former US President Jimmy Carter. Walls reveals interesting details, too, surrounding the composition of Civil Disobedience, which Thoreau first wrote as a lecture to be delivered at the Concord Lyceum. The response of his audience led to revisions, creating the final version of this slim treatise (1849), that was subsequently to influence Gandhi, Martin Luther King and John F. Kennedy.

One final note: Laura Dassow Walls is a professor at one of the top Catholic universities in the US, Notre Dame in Indiana. Curious, after finishing her book I called to ask her about her own religious faith. “I am not Catholic,” she told me. “Like Thoreau, I am formally unchurched but deeply interested in religion.” She added: “A big reason I came to Notre Dame was to explore religious history with people who welcome such enquiries. And you’ll notice I’m far more engaged with Thoreau’s Catholic friends – Brownson, Hecker and Rouquette, for instance – than others have been.” This Catholic slant does indeed inform her biography, and is another of the fresh insights into Thoreau that Walls has given us.
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Reading Progress

Finished Reading
November 17, 2017 – Shelved

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message 1: by Jimmy (new)

Jimmy Johnson Jon, thanks for the great review. I think I need Thoreau now more than ever!


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