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Why Thoreau still matters

Hulton Archive/Globe staff illustration

CONCORD — As he enters his 200th year, Henry David Thoreau is still living deliberately, thank you for asking.

“I’m as well as I deserve,” said Thoreau, as portrayed by historian Richard Smith, during a First Day hike Sunday at Walden Pond. Smith was seated by the woodstove inside the replica of the American philosopher’s cabin in the shadow of the new visitors’ center at Walden Pond State Reservation.

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If the scores of people — young, old, and in between — hiking around the pond to mark the new year were any indication, Thoreau’s bicentennial could invigorate a new round of interest in the consummate Concordian. The park rangers on hand duly noted Thoreau’s rebelliousness, idealism, humanism, and concern for the environment, qualities that could have particular resonance amid the current cultural and political upheaval.

The new year will present plenty of opportunity for the old man to prove his usefulness once again. Walking tours, lectures, and exhibitions are planned throughout the year, many in and around Thoreau’s hometown, but also in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, England, and France.

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July will bring the first full-scale Thoreau biography in nearly three decades, Laura Dassow Walls’s “Henry David Thoreau: A Life.” Also this year, the visitors’ center at Walden expects to begin showing its new short film, executive produced by Ken Burns, on Thoreau and his beloved pond.

Thoreau lives on because there is a Thoreau for everyone, says Leslie Perrin Wilson, curator of special collections at the Concord Free Public Library. There’s the Thoreau who celebrated his natural surroundings through careful observation and measurement; the man of conscience who practiced civil disobedience by refusing to pay taxes to a government that condoned slavery and prosecuted a war with Mexico that he considered unjust; the villager who enjoyed companionship far more than some of the myths handed down about him suggest.

There is, of course, the Thoreau who heard a different drummer. “And there’s always room for more,” says the librarian.

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What there is not, apparently, is a Thoreau speaking to a vast swath of contemporary teenagers, according to Kevin Dann, a naturalist and former environmental history teacher at the University of Vermont who has just published his own biography of Thoreau, “Expect Great Things: The Life and Search of Henry David Thoreau.”

Dann says he was alarmed to learn that “Walden,” for generations a requisite assignment in high school English classes, has “passed out of the canon” after decades of grudging tradition.

It’s distressing, says Dann, who grew up in a part of New Jersey that still had rural vestiges.

Still he’s optimistic about the current revival. “It will be fascinating to see just how the popular mind takes hold of him in this day and age,” says Dann.

The last time Thoreau’s legacy was thrust into the spotlight, it was to trash it. Kathryn Schulz’s New Yorker takedown, published in late 2015, cut through the serenity of Walden woods like an air horn. The writer’s complaints about Thoreau’s “narcissism, priggishness, ‘dour asceticism,’ and lack of fellow-feeling” showed the same “lack of generosity that she ascribes to Thoreau,” as one indignant English professor wrote to the magazine.

Schulz was not the first to go after Thoreau. Over the decades various writers and thinkers have leveled criticism at him over his extreme views and sometimes difficult personality. Joyce Carol Oates once referred to him as “the most controversial of American writers.’’

Dann’s Thoreau is considerably more lighthearted than the one Schulz encountered. Thoreau’s poetry is more modern than that of his friend Emerson, the author suggests, and his prose is often surprisingly playful. He wrote not one but three poems called “Friendship,” and the words “I love. . .” might be the most frequently repeated phrase in his immense, two-million-word journal, Dann says.

Thoreau still matters, says author Kevin Dann, because the transcendentalist belief in the inherent goodness of nature and human beings still matters.

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Contrary to Thoreau’s reputation as a man radiating a “curmudgeonly, misanthropic energy,” Dann argues, “he’s a guy who’s ready to fall in love with anything in his path. He had an impulse to go towards things, as much as he’s portrayed as someone going away from things.”

Perrin Wilson, the librarian, naturally applauds every effort to keep Thoreau’s legacy alive. In his heart, she believes, Thoreau was a spiritual person.

“That’s transcendentalism, right? God, man, nature — they’re all interconnected.”

Like many of his contemporaries — including Emerson and Hawthorne — Thoreau delighted in the British folklore of enchantment, the “faerie realm” of invisible spirits. In “Expect Great Things” the author considers his subject’s work in the context of the phenomena that captured the public imagination during Thoreau’s lifetime, from the mystifying new technologies of electricity, telegraphy, and photography to the intense interest in spiritualism, mesmerism, and evangelism that rose in reaction to the Industrial Revolution.

Thoreau still matters, says Dann, because the transcendentalist belief in the inherent goodness of nature and human beings still matters.

“The America they were dreaming of has disappeared to a great degree,” he says. “But our neighbors and friends have the most extraordinary capacities in them. I lived in Vermont for 30 years, and the most resourceful, creative, heroic people were my neighbors. The same is true in Brooklyn — there’s just a little more of them.”

Thoreau’s Concord, Dann says, was a small town that thought big.

“That’s the world we need to build. How do we make our nation look more like what our communities are?”

For more information on Thoreau Bicentennial events visit www.thoreaubicentennial.com. James Sullivan can be reached at jamesgsullivan@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.
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