Review of reviews: Books
Book of the week
Henry David Thoreau: A Life
by Laura Dassow Walls
(Univ. of Chicago, $35)
“Is there a more misunderstood American icon than Henry David Thoreau?” asked Chris Tucker in The Dallas Morning News. The bard of Walden Pond, born 200 years ago this month, is too often remembered today as a slacker and proto-hippie, a privileged freeloader who made a show of back-to-the-earth living during a two-year period when he holed up in a cabin outside Concord, Mass., studied his bellybutton, and sent his laundry home to Mother. Fortunately, a biography has arrived that debunks such slander, “digging through the accreted layers of nonsense to find the fascinating man below.” Laura Dassow Walls’ Thoreau is multifaceted: a writer and naturalist, yes, but also an intrepid traveler, a bold abolitionist, and a hardworking teacher, engineer, and surveyor. By showing Thoreau whole, Walls has “rendered a great service to American letters.”
“Walls is,” fortunately, “unafraid to dis- cuss difficult things,” said Jay Parini in the Times Literary Supplement (U.K.). Thoreau lived a life short on adventure: After a Concord childhood and an apprenticeship at his father’s pencil factory, he studied at Harvard, then returned to live and work in Concord, where his bond with Ralph Waldo Emerson offered him a surrogate family and a springboard to a life of letters. Given the limited outward drama, “it’s essential that any biographer should seek the contours of his inward journey,” and Walls jumps right in. She lightly speculates, by way of explaining Thoreau’s sometimes monkish detachment, that he was gay. More importantly, she closely tracks his moods: how his work as a surveyor brought him pride but also guilt about the forests he was helping to raze, or how his devotion grew to the work he poured into the private journals he kept from age 20 until his death at 44.
“But Walls sidesteps the reasons that people have bristled at Thoreau, including those who knew him,” said Jedediah Purdy in The Nation. Though he was an outspoken abolitionist, he distrusted other abolitionists; though he was a product of a lively intellectual community, he stood apart from community. The Thoreau Walls portrays could be “a 21st-century liberal’s idea of our best self: pro-environmental, anti-racist, anti-imperialist, feminist, reformist, spiritual but not religious.” But the reason Thoreau’s writing lives on is that it records a struggle to affirm the complicated world we all know—a place where people are both creators and destroyers, both kind and cruel. “His discontent with the world in which he lived was always a form of love.”