Just in time for the 200th anniversary of Henry David Thoreau’s birth, former Seattleite Laura Dassow Walls’ 640-page biography of Thoreau revisits his works, letters, relationships, exploits, and contradictions.
“Henry David Thoreau: A Life”
by Laura Dassow Walls
University of Chicago, 640 pp, $35
This July 12 marks 200 years since the birth of one of America’s most original and provocative writers. As the bicentennial of Henry David Thoreau’s birth approaches, 21st-century publishing houses are paying extensive due to the man who, in his own lifetime, often contended with rejection and censorship from publishers, and apathy from the book-buying public.
While each of these new books on Thoreau offers insights into various aspects of his work, it is a comprehensive new biography, from a former Seattleite who went through the University of Washington’s English program, which prevails as the must-read choice.
“Henry David Thoreau: A Life” was written by Laura Dassow Walls, who received both bachelor’s and master’s in English from the UW before going on to earn her Ph.D. elsewhere. Today she’s on the faculty at the University of Notre Dame.
More new books on Thoreau
“Expect Great Things,” Kevin Dann, TarcherPerigee, 400 pp, $30
“Thoreau’s Animals,” edited by Geoff Wisner, Yale University Press, 280 pp, $30
“Thoreau and the Language of Trees,” by Richard Higgins, University of California Press, 248 pp, $24.95
Selected Thoreau works
“A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers”
“Civil Disobedience and Other Essays”
“The Maine Woods”
Walls’ 640-page biography of Thoreau revisits the works, letters, relationships, exploits, and contradictions of a man who is most often pigeonholed as the hermit philosopher of Walden Pond.
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Walls quickly dispels the incomplete caricature that has come down to us over time. By blending warm regard for her subject with intensive scholarship, she reintroduces us to a fully dimensional Thoreau, whose genius entwined keen observation of the natural world, conscientious self-education, scrupulous “self registration,” and connection to an ethical framework.
Among his colleagues, fellow philosophers who embraced the concept (radical for its time) of Transcendentalism, Thoreau consistently pushed to expand the boundaries of their thoughts and their actions.
As one close neighbor said of Thoreau, “It is no small boon to live in the same age with so experimental and true a Man.”
Yet Thoreau’s professional trajectory was haphazard. After conducting his two-year experiment of living “deliberately” in the cabin he’d built at Walden Pond, he spent the next year as live-in helper to his mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson’s family while Emerson was away on a lecture tour of Europe.
Thoreau undertook extended walkabouts around his hometown of Concord, Massachusetts, and farther out to New Hampshire, Maine, and Cape Cod, but when his own family needed assistance with their pencil-manufacturing business, he jumped into the fray, helping to develop a new pencil that became the American gold standard for that writing implement.
And when that wasn’t enough to sustain the family, he took up surveying to bring in more money.
Despite these fits and starts, and with the mid-19th century tumult over slavery emerging, Thoreau carved out time for a writing practice that Walls reconstructs with marvelous specificity for today’s readers.
In this biography overall, Walls has wrangled a vast amount of material, a cast of strong characters, and an era of dramatic flux to establish a flowing and highly enjoyable narrative. Time and again she produces the judicious quotation, the discerning observation, or the apt detail. Not only does the biographer capture the breadth and depth of Thoreau’s relations and work, she leaves us tantalized, wanting more.
For that, we can turn to Thoreau’s own remarkable writings.