Bill Newell's Reviews > Henry David Thoreau: A Life

Henry David Thoreau by Laura Dassow Walls
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The first half of Laura Dassow Walls' 500 pp. Henry David Thoreau: A Life (University of Chicago Press, 2017). Turns out the book is focused on Thoreau as a writer, but nonetheless it provides wonderful insights into Thoreau's thought and personality as well. From his childhood through his two years at Walden Pond, Thoreau was a gifted eccentric radical in search of not just of his voice as a writer, but more importantly in search of a cause and the principles to guide his actions on its behalf. Yet he was also a brilliant inventor of commercial manufacturing processes, turning his family's pencil-making business into the best in the new world. Who knew?
I also was unaware that for a couple years he and his older brother John founded and taught a school that presaged the experimental college programs--the Paracollege at St. Olaf College and the Western College Program at Miami Univerity-to which I devoted my teaching career. Most notably the marriage of rigorous academic standards and experiential education, connecting the classroom to the surrounding community, thought to action.
At a intellectual level Walls helped me see for the first time the fundamental underlying connection between Thoreau's essay on civil disobedience and his writings on nature. The principle linking them was that ethical resistance to governmental injustice should be respected not just as self-defense, but even more as defense of all peoples facing injustice (in his day, slaves, Indians, and Mexicans) and, most radically of all, in defense of all non-human species, indeed of wild Nature as a whole, that require protection from humans. Turns out that in 2017 he's STILL ahead of the times in some ways.
The second half of Walls’ Henry David Thoreau: A Life reveals a young man—He died at age 44—whose various strands of stubbornly independent thought increasingly came together in ways that were so far ahead of his times (in some cases, of our times) that editors repeatedly censored his most progressive lines. Even the Massachusetts hotbed of radical thought was not ready to read that the Bhagavad Gita has as much to offer as the Bible, or that Whites have much to learn from Indians about living in (and being a part of) Nature.
Most impressive to me, though, was his ability near the end of his life to think systemically. He saw that “He and everyone he knew were implicated [in] in the evil of slavery, the damnation of the Indian, the global traffic in animal parts, the debasement of nature [and[ the enclosure of the ancient commons—the threads of the modern global economy were spinning him and everyone around him into a dehumanizing web of destruction.”
Less morbid, but no less controversial, was his vision of science as the foundation for spirituality. Even before George Perkins Marsh (Vermonter, fellow Transcendentalist, and author of the landmark Man and Nature), Thoreau was a pioneering ecologist, whose naturalist observations coalesced upon reading an advance copy of Darwin’s Origin of Species. He gained considerable scientific acclaim for building on Darwin’s principles to explain the role of seeds in forest succession. I like that the more he thought about the role of scientists in nature, the less he was willing to use a gun to collect samples.
I had forgotten (and probably underappreciated) the central role Thoreau played in igniting northern support for John Brown (of Harper’s Ferry fame) and turning him into a hero, prompting northerners to take action against slavery, not just dislike it. He truly changed the course of American history.
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Started Reading
October 31, 2017 – Finished Reading
April 23, 2018 – Shelved

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