Henry David Thoreau: A Life
by Laura Dassow Walls.
University of Chicago Press, 2017.
Hardcover, 640 pages, $35.

Reviewed by John Byron Kuhner

Of all the great American writers, I think I pity Henry David Thoreau the most. Long paired by curriculum writers with readers probably least suited to him—an uncomprehending multitude of high school sophomores—he is often poorly served by English and American History teachers, many of whom enjoy peddling the myth of Thoreau as the Original Hypocrite, writing paeans to rugged self-reliance at Walden Pond and then strolling back home to drop off the laundry and opine Orphically on Nature over a batch of mamma-made chocolate chip cookies. This particular myth has created a small but exploitable market for journalists: a writer of sentences, Thoreau is easily quoted out of context, and six or seven of his sentences can provide all the fodder necessary for a two-thousand-word hit piece. Just in the past few years the mainstream press has dubbed him “the Puritanical Thoreau, a sorehead and a loner” (Garrison Keillor), a “sociopath” (Boston Globe), “priggish and tiresome” (Bill Bryson), and (my personal favorite, from The New Yorker) “self-obsessed, narcissistic,” and “pond scum.”

On the face of it, the detractors of Thoreau appear to be myopic or arguing in bad faith. We know he was involved in the Underground Railroad, and there is good documentary evidence of him personally assisting multiple slaves escape to freedom at great personal risk, which would probably be enough to redeem him if he had spent the whole rest of his life as a mafia hit-man. His essay “Civil Disobedience” sparked multiple great moral reform campaigns in the twentieth century. Many naturalists cite him as a seminal force for the study of ecology and the preservation of wild spaces. He also wrote what is the most widely read book of antebellum American literature (Walden). How much more can we expect out of one man, much less one who lived in poverty as a carpenter and surveyor and died at age forty-four?

To some extent of course Thoreau is to blame for this. He invited criticism by playing critic himself. When you fight your battles on the margins of other people’s lives—and Thoreau certainly did that, having choice words for nearly all the people in his vicinity—you will find them fighting suddenly on the margin of your own. If you preach some kind of reform, the eternal response is always an argumentum ad hominem. The Catholic Church has protected its moral reformers by calling them saints and declaring their lives above reproach. All other reformers have to deal with the same hostile response: “Who the hell are you, anyway?”

Perhaps the most remarkable fact about Thoreau is that up until this year, the average reader had no easy access to that question: who exactly was Thoreau, anyway? No complete biography has been written in half a century; and even that one, Walter Harding’s Days of Henry Thoreau, has a decided tendency toward mere chronological compilation of facts. Robert Richardson and David Robinson have written about Thoreau as a thinker and as a naturalist; but none attempted to answer the question of who Thoreau was as a man.

This defect has been remedied by Laura Dassow Walls and her new Henry David Thoreau: A Life. Thoroughly researched and well-reasoned, it is likely to serve as the standard reference for the facts about Thoreau’s life. It is also eminently readable, the sort of literature the literary sort can finish in three or four sittings, and enjoy all the while. I found myself reading aloud many of its passages to my wife, especially the choice quotations—which adorn nearly every paragraph—and the dramatic historical scenes, such as the one which produced Thoreau’s fiery denunciation “Slavery in Massachusetts”:

Two days later, an angry crowd led by several of Thoreau’s friends—Higginson, Alcott, Theodore Parker, and Wendell Phillips—mobbed the courthouse where Burns was held, but failed to free him. In the trial that followed, Judge Edward G. Loring ruled that, as property, Burns must be returned to his owner. On June 2, Bostonians shrouded their streets in black and watched as Burns was marched in chains to the harbor, where a ship waited to take him south. The procession was guarded by police with guns drawn, armed federal marshals, an artillery regiment, and three platoons of marines, one armed with cannon. The birthplace of the American Revolution was effectively under martial law. (345)

Some of the material sounds like it could have been written about the 1960s—such as this quotation by Ellen Emerson about the 1840s:

All sorts of visitors with new ideas began to come to the house, the men who thought money was the root of all evil, the vegetarians, the sons of nature who did not believe in razors nor in tailors, the philosophers and all sorts of come-outers. (133)

As a biographer, Walls has the ability to weave together both small details and grand meanings—an aptitude ideally suited to Thoreau, who wrote of “Higher Laws” and “Life without Principle” and yet rooted all his philosophy in the details of life—how we eat, drink, are clothed and warmed. She is not afraid to examine—briefly, but usefully—how Thoreau’s life as a writer developed from the family pencil-making business:

Thoreau’s own working method coevolved with the family pencils. Selling them helped fund his writing, but more important, the pencil allowed him to take notes out in nature, in wind or heat or bitter cold—notes he inked into his notebooks back home. Quite literally, Thoreau’s writing career rested on the humble pencil, so much a part of him that, when he drew up a list of travel essentials, he forgot to mention a pencil, the same way he forgot to mention air to breathe or water to drink. (40)

She also brings us close to Thoreau when he is confronting graver questions. In 1850, Margaret Fuller, a citizen of Concord and intimate of Thoreau’s and Emerson’s, was sailing from Italy with her lover, the Marquis d’Ossoli, and their son. Fuller had become a figure in the 1848 Italian revolution and was returning to the United States to publish a memoir. Their ship was caught in a hurricane and wrecked, drowning its passengers. Delegated by Fuller’s friends as “the most competent” to search for remains, Thoreau traveled to Fire Island, where he found a macabre scene. The locals had already combed the beach for valuables. The locks on Fuller’s trunks had been smashed open, and her papers tossed, as things of no worth. Fuller’s dresses were being worn by the wives of the beachcombers. He found a few items—some books, some letters, a button that had belonged to the Marquis’s coat. After some time he heard word of a human skeleton some miles down the shore, and he walked to it. The bones’ inanimate, bodily silence unnerved him:

They were alone with the beach and the sea, whose hollow roar seemed addressed to them, and I was impressed as if there was an understanding between them and the ocean which necessarily left me out, with my sniveling sympathies. (294)

Not knowing whose bones they were, he had them buried on the beach. At home with the button, he held it to the light and considered how strange it all is—the button that remained, the lives that had gone. He wrote that night in his journal his own memento mori, a specimen of that inspirational prose which so distinguishes the later parts of Walden, which he was to publish four years later. “If you can drive a nail and have any nails to drive, drive them. If you have any experiments you would like to try—try them—now’s your chance” (295).

Frequently Walls is able to root Thoreau’s convictions in his personal experiences. His belief in nature as ultimately friendly and forgiving—not everyone’s conviction—she roots in his experience of starting a forest fire on the outskirts of Concord that burned a hundred acres. When he saw that he was to blame, he “felt like a guilty person—nothing but shame and regret.” (Later, intriguingly, he would accept that he had done the deed, but refuse to feel any guilt for it.) But later nature offered a kind of forgiveness:

In the spring I burned over a hundred acres till the earth was sere and black—and by mid-summer this space was clad in a fresher and more luxuriant green than the surrounding even. Shall man then despair? Is he not a sproutland too after never so many searings and witherings? (173)

Walls writes: “Nature, unaccountably and miraculously, forgave him, even when his neighbors would not.”

The spiritual life is often portrayed as a material body struggling to adapt to spiritual demands. The opposite was true for Thoreau. He seemed comfortable as spirit; but to be finite, corporeal, and material—this was a struggle. In between moments of “be native to the universe!” inspiration, he finds himself despairing: “I do not think much of the actual … It is a sort of vomit in which the unclean love to wallow.” And then, atop Mount Katahdin, in what Walls calls “the most pivotal and emotional passage in all of Thoreau’s work,” he is both exalted and terrified by the universe, and that, strange as it is, his body belongs to it, like the bones on the beach:

I stand in awe of my body, this matter to which I am bound has become so strange to me. I fear not spirits, ghosts, of which I am one,– that my body might,—but I fear bodies, I tremble to meet them. What is this Titan that has possession of me? Talk of mysteries!—Think of our life in nature,—daily to be shown matter, to come in contact with it,—rocks, trees, wind on our cheeks! The solid earth! The actual world! The common sense! Contact! Contact! Who are we? Where are we? (227)

Emerson in his (excellent, and well worth reading) eulogy for Thoreau portrayed him as a bit of a marble colossus (“he had no temptations to fight against,—no appetites, no passions, no taste for elegant trifles.… he never had a vice in his life”)—and perhaps to Emerson Thoreau wished to appear that way—but good biography reveals the struggle which humanizes the man. This one is rich in such details: his strange psychosomatic illness after his brother’s death (he developed tetanus symptoms just after his brother died of it), his difficulties with money and finding a job suited to him, his lifelong ego-jostling with Emerson, his anger at editors who censored his work on religious or moral grounds, his doubts about his appreciation for nature in the face of the injustice of slavery (“I walk toward one of our ponds, but what signifies the beauty of nature when men are base?”).

All in all the book is a highly sympathetic and convincing portrait of Thoreau. It refutes countless accusations against him without even mentioning them—notably that he was a child of privilege (he was the first in his family to go to college, where he worked to pay for his tuition; his childhood was spent in penury, his father a failed grocer who moved from job to job and town to town); and that he was a hermit or misanthrope (he lived alone for only two years in his life, keeping up a rich social life). He appears from the data to have been an unusually good citizen and neighbor: he took up collections to support local families in need; he served multiple terms as director of the Concord Lyceum; he took care of Emerson’s children and household while the sage was in Europe; there is a story that he prevented a woman being raped; he discovered at least one species of bird and ensured that it was brought to the attention of the scientific community. Most significant of all is his antislavery work, which he did both in word (he spoke at many Abolition rallies) and deed (there are several accounts of him helping slaves reach Canada).

Walls has gone a long way to treating Thoreau justly and factually. This is not to say her work is without flaws. The narrative is generally but not strictly chronological, and some of the resulting leaps are odd. And Walls unfortunately pulls back from treating with any kind of thoroughness Thoreau’s literary process, and the writing of Walden in particular, averring that “many rich and various interpretations of his works are already available.”

When she closes the seventh chapter, Thoreau has just weathered the great crisis of his life, and found a new confidence as a man, when he walked past Walden Pond and felt a dim stir of memory. It was the site of his house onthe pond, barely recognizable. He had left there five years ago, leaving the house to Emerson, who sold it and logged the land. “Where is my home?” he wrote. “It is indistinct as an old cellar hole now a faint indentation in a farmer’s field.” Walls writes that soon after, he decided to turn his draft of Walden into a book. He “got out the old pages, shook off the dust, and got to work.” It appears to be the prelude to a discussion of how Thoreau created one of the few indisputable literary classics of the American tradition, but in fact, Walls then skips ahead three years, and returns to Walden only as a published work, giving it five dutiful but unspectacular pages. Precisely where the English teacher—or indeed any reader—would like the book to shine, it disappoints.

The book also declines to engage with the anti-Thoreau literature—a decision which may prove wise, though I found it personally disappointing. Walls simply notes that the critics are trying to silence Thoreau, and waves off the question of his laundry: “No other male American writer has been so discredited for enjoying a meal with loved ones or for not doing his own laundry” (195). In the footnotes Walls notes that the laundry in the Thoreau house was done by Irish maids—implying that they probably did Henry’s too. Another Thoreau scholar, William Howarth, insists that at least while at Walden Thoreau did his own laundry “with Walden water.” The disagreement among scholars suggests that there really isn’t sufficient data—which makes me all the more curious about how the story got started, and how it has gained such wide circulation. Walls never mentions the story of the “cookies” at all, and it would be an interesting investigation to find out when that story enters the Thoreau mythos. (The most entertaining writing on this topic is from Rebecca Solnit, who says, “I found a long parade of people who pretended to care who did Thoreau’s laundry as a way of not having to care about Thoreau. They thought of Thoreau as a balloon, and laundry was their pin.”)

As for the man himself, and the imputation of hypocrisy—it seems, after reading of his life, a curious accusation. He preached a simple life, and it seems he lived it. Mohandas Gandhi noted that “he taught nothing he was not prepared to practice in himself”—nearly a definition of a life without hypocrisy. He was contrarian and persnickety, but he lived his principles. As Emerson noted, “few lives contain so many renunciations”—he had no profession, no church, no political party, little money, little travel, no wife (he did propose once and was rejected), no children, no known lovers. It would perhaps be more appropriate to say that the life he recommended is not for everyone—but he lived it. And it has borne fruit—many times over. All sorts of remarkable people, from E. B. White to Tolstoy to Gandhi to Marilynne Robinson have admired his work and legacy. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote:

During my student days I read Henry David Thoreau’s essay “On Civil Disobedience” for the first time. Here, in this courageous New Englander’s refusal to pay his taxes and his choice of jail rather than support a war that would spread slavery’s territory into Mexico, I made my first contact with the theory of nonviolent resistance. Fascinated by the idea of refusing to cooperate with an evil system, I was so deeply moved that I reread the work several times. I became convinced that noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good. No other person has been more eloquent and passionate in getting this idea across than Henry David Thoreau. As a result of his writings and personal witness, we are the heirs of a legacy of creative protest. The teachings of Thoreau came alive in our civil rights movement; indeed, they are more alive than ever before. Whether expressed in a sit-in at lunch counters, a freedom ride into Mississippi, a peaceful protest in Albany,Georgia, a bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, these are outgrowths of Thoreau’s insistence that evil must be resisted and that no moral man can patiently adjust to injustice.  

John Byron Kuhner blogs at johnbyronkuhner.com.