Henry David Thoreau: A Life by Laura Dassow Walls. University of Chicago Press. 615 pp. $35.00.
This is one of the best biographies I’ve ever read. Right at the moment I can’t think of a better one. And it comes at an ideal moment for me.
The official occasion is the bicentennial of Thoreau’s birth, in 1817. There is a whole wave of writing coming out about him now. Thoreau’s life speaks to me because I’ve retired from my job at the university, and have a new opportunity to live my life deliberately, as he advocated (though I’ve tried always to do that). It also—rather unexpectedly—spoke to me about our political moment, and showed a side of Thoreau I hadn’t seen before.
In 1850, when he was at work on the book that would eventually become Walden—one of the most optimistic and essentially moral works in all of our literature—the Fugitive Slave Law was passed, saying that any fugitive slave in the country had to be returned to his owners, whether he was in a slave state or free. People who refused to assist in returning the slaves were themselves breaking the law. Many people in Massachusetts were infuriated by this law, and by the fact that their own Senator, Daniel Webster, had voted for it. Thoreau’s family, his mother and sisters, were heavily involved in the abolitionist movement, and continued to be, essentially becoming criminals. Thoreau assisted them and fulminated in rage against the law in page after page of his journal. Walden was finally published in the midst of this cloud, and at this tumultuous time in our history.
One of the things I most appreciate about Walls’ book is the way it takes us into this past time. It gave me a real feeling for what it was to live in a country where Thoreau could say that “In wildness is the preservation of the world,” but where a railroad ran right past Walden Pond, and trains interrupted the calm multiple times per day. It was a world where people made do with what they had, and got along on amounts of money that now seem tiny. Thoreau got the lumber for his Walden Pond house from someone else’s, and his house was eventually moved and the lumber used for another project. He lived for two years in a house that was roughly the size of the room I’m working in (10’ x 15’). There was no privy.
His own family was not wealthy by any means—Henry had to be a scholarship boy at Harvard—but his father was a successful businessman; a relative had discovered a graphite mine and staked a claim to it, and John Thoreau started a pencil factory and ran it all his life. Henry often worked there and inherited the business when his father died. The pencil was an important instrument in Thoreau’s career, freeing him from ink wells and enabling him to take notes out in the field, on his long walks. Among other projects as a young man he perfected the design of the modern pencil.
Walls’ book is not really revisionist, but every biography paints a different portrait of its subject, and she has a different take on Thoreau than any I had previously read. She doesn’t see him as the grouchy curmudgeon that others have portrayed; he was a sociable and curious man who talked to people all the time, all his life, and had many close friends. He was not as outgoing as his brother John, and was slightly weirder, more the solitary studious type. When John suddenly died of tetanus at the age of 26, having nicked a finger with a razor, Henry was devastated, seemed to become more introverted and to go deeper. It wasn’t quite like William Blake claiming that after his brother died he was in constant communication with the other world, but it had a similar spiritual effect.
It was startling to me—though this fact was sitting there in all the chronologies I’ve read of the man—that Thoreau was only 28 when he went to Walden Pond, 30 when he left. He didn’t go to become a hermit, according to Wall—plenty of people came to see him at his little house, and he usually went home for Sunday dinner most weeks—but to devote himself to his writing; he’d been floundering around since graduating from Harvard, had worked as a teacher, worked briefly in the pencil factory, tried to make money by publishing writing or giving lectures. He finally decided to reduce his needs and see how that worked. He got a substantial amount of work done at the pond, wrote a draft of A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, took the trip and wrote the notes that would later become the posthumous book The Maine Woods, and of course did the journal writing that he would eventually turn into his masterpiece. He left not because he was tired of the experiment but because Emerson was going to Europe for a year and wanted Thoreau to look after his family. It was Emerson who owned the land, and like a shrewd Yankee businessman he immediately rented the house to someone else. Otherwise Thoreau might have lived there much longer.
For the rest of his life he lived in his family’s attic and made a living largely as a surveyor—a job in which he took great pride—and a lecturer. Many of his most famous essays, including “Walking” and “Civil Disobedience,” were written first as lectures, and he gave them repeatedly, in a world before YouTube. The man I’ve always thought of as a dour moralist was apparently quite funny as a lecturer, and left people rolling in the aisles (I’ve found parts of Walden hilarious). He was also extremely energetic as a writer and scholar; in 1852-53 alone, he wrote 1253 pages in his journal, 500 pages in the notebooks he kept about Native Americans, and two new drafts of Walden.
That having been said, he spent plenty of time going on hiking expeditions, climbing mountains, accompanying people on hunting expeditions, though he himself didn’t hunt (he did eat the meat others got. Despite that chapter Higher Laws in Walden, he seems to have eaten meat all his life. But he was just as happy living on nuts and bread, whatever was available). He had close friends who accompanied him on these expeditions; he seems to have been a man who had a few close friendships, rather than many acquaintances. (Walls seems to think he was gay, though she doesn’t make a big deal of it, and there is no evidence that he ever had a sexual relationship.) He needed to make money, and wanted to publish his writing, but was not terribly successful; he published only two books, and a smattering of essays, in his lifetime. The original version of Walden sold a little over 2,000 copies.
The man was a perfectionist in everything—Walden went through multiple drafts—but he always seemed more interested in the new thing, writing up what went on that day, recording yesterday’s walk. Though there was one period in his life when he was suddenly weak, apparently from the tuberculosis bacillae making their way down into his joints, he did not suffer repeated bouts of tuberculosis, the way some writers did. But his final illness was quite debilitating; he stopped writing even in his journal. His death bed statements have all become part of Thoreau lore: “I was not aware that we had quarreled,” when an aunt asked him if he’d made his peace with God, “One life at a time,” when he was asked if he was ready for the next life, and the final murmured last words, “moose, Indians.”
Thoreau has always been one of my literary heroes, because he understood the value of writing both as a way to explore the self (his journal is said to be 2.000,000 words long) and as a way of communicating with others (if he had written only “Civil Disobedience,” his place in world history would be secure). He did live deliberately, and lived on his own terms. Walls’ biography only increased my admiration for the man. And my hat is off to her for a lifetime of scholarly work. This book is the culmination of it.
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