It’s too bad that Michael Sims’s lively new account of the young Henry Thoreau is bedeviled by marketing gimmicks. Though the book hasn’t been totally sabotaged by them, both title and subtitle promise far more than they deliver.
Adventures? Well, Thoreau did hike up Maine’s Mount Katahdin, but faced no great danger. He did take a leisurely and utterly safe boat trip with his brother, John, that later gave him his first book, “A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers.”
And how unlikely was the path from his Harvard graduation in 1837 to the classic “Walden,” not published until 1854? To begin with, he was educated at one of the finest colleges in the land, where he immersed himself in ancient and modern languages and philosophy.
Most important, his home town of Concord had become the new home of Ralph Waldo Emerson, then emerging as the most celebrated champion of a distinctive American literature.
Emerson was kind enough and shrewd enough to become this quirky young man’s mentor. He invited Thoreau to dinners and salons, allowed him the use of his library, encouraged him to keep a daily journal.
When Thoreau needed a job — after he and his brother had closed their private school — Emerson arranged a tutoring job with his brother’s children on Staten Island.
Only 14 years older, Emerson served as an intellectual elder brother, a crucial role in the wake of John Thoreau’s death from lockjaw.
For a time, the young man even lived in the Emerson household, as adept at performing magic tricks for five-year-old Waldo Emerson as debating abolitionism or German idealist philosophy with Margaret Fuller and Bronson Alcott.
So it was hardly a stretch that, despite his youth, he would be invited to contribute a poem or essay to the new Transcendentalist journal The Dial.
Sims’s account makes clear, however, that townspeople who were not part of Emerson’s circle would have been surprised that young Henry became a writer of any worth.
He did, indeed, march to a different drummer. In everyday situations, he could be a comic figure, a bit socially awkward. He kept asking the big questions that seemed out of place in ordinary encounters.
Throughout his 20s, he drifted from working in his father’s pencil factory to various short-term odd jobs.
But Thoreau couldn’t be called a loner. Though he never married, he fell in love, once, and wrote love poems in praise of vivacious, 17-year-old Ellen Sewall.
Trouble was, brother John was equally smitten. After she turned down his proposal, Henry took his turn, asking for her hand. Alas, her cleric father thought the young ne’er-do-well entirely unsuitable.
In 1844, the dubious reputation of the nearly 28-year-old Thoreau sank even lower. While camping in the woods outside Concord with a friend, their campfire raged out of control, destroying 300 acres of local timber. Locals now branded him a “damned rascal.”
Sims believes that this incident contributed to his decision — under consideration for several years — to begin building a cabin near the pond outside town the next year.
For Emerson, what really mattered was Thoreau’s mind. It was, he wrote in his journal, “as free & erect . . . as any I have ever met . . . Every thing that boy says makes merry with society though nothing can be graver than his meaning.”
In a sense, “The Adventures of Henry Thoreau” is the antithesis of Robert Richardson’s cerebral “Henry David Thoreau: A Life of the Mind.” Sims’s alternative mission is to “gambol with a sarcastic radical who could translate Pindar and Goethe, track a fox to its lair, and host an abolitionist rally outside a tiny cabin he had built himself.”
Occasionally, the book feels padded, the narrative overwhelmed by the author’s desire for context and scene-setting. Six pages on the suicide by drowning of a young Concord schoolteacher with no connection to Thoreau, for instance, is unnecessary, as are several pages devoted to the passenger pigeon.
For the most part, though, Sims proves himself a nimble storyteller. Readers will happily gambol alongside this young Henry Thoreau, finding him a delightfully peculiar, utterly fascinating companion.