Henry David Thoreau was born 200 years ago this Wednesday, and the momentous event is marked by this ample, comprehensive, wholly sympathetic biography, the first major work of its kind in three decades. Laura Dassow Walls has no special perspective through which to consider her subject, but is concerned rather with exploring everything most salient about Thoreau’s life in an attempt to “bring Thoreau alive for our time.’’
Although she is a professor at Notre Dame, there is nothing off-puttingly “academic” about her effort to find appropriate terms in which to engage both her subject and her readers. She knows, as have earlier biographers like Walter Harding (”The Days of Henry Thoreau: A Biography”) and Robert Richardson Jr. (”Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind”), that Thoreau was “too quixotic, mischievous, many-sided, paradoxical” to be easily caught in a book. To create her portrait Walls steeped herself in the public and private writings of Thoreau and his associates, finding that her subject “made of his life itself an extended form of composition, a kind of open, living book.’’
When Thoreau died in 1862 at the age of only 44, victim of the tuberculosis that had struck other members of his family, his mentor and critic, Ralph Waldo Emerson, delivered the memorial address. They had been friends for 25 years, Thoreau living on two occasions in Emerson’s house. No better sentences have since been made than the ones Emerson assembled to sum up his friend’s character. Emerson playfully called him a “born protestant,” pointing out that few lives contained so many renunciations, which he then proceeded to list: “He was bred to no profession; he never married; he lived alone; he never went to church; he refused to pay a tax to the State; he ate no flesh, he drank no wine, he never knew the use of tobacco; and, though a naturalist, he used neither trap nor gun.”
Emerson noted shrewdly that Thoreau “did not feel himself except in opposition,” a habit Emerson admitted was “a little chilling to the social affections.” One of his friends is quoted as confessing “I love Henry, but I cannot like him, and as for taking his arm, I should as soon think of taking the arm of an elm-tree.” Summing up Thoreau in a rich sentence, Emerson said: “He chose, wisely, no doubt, for himself to be the bachelor of thought and Nature.”
It would be folly to attempt in a short review a linear account of the main events of Thoreau’s life, from Harvard College, to the death of his brother, to pencil manufacturing, to surveying, to radical, cultural politics and abolitionism, to the patient obsessive recording of nature’s phenomena that increasingly dominated his life and would fill 13 volumes of his Journal. When an event is of notable interest, such as the wreck of the ship Elizabeth off the shores of Fire Island, N.Y., in which his friend Margaret Fuller, the American journalist and women’s rights activist, perished, the biographer provides a vivid portrayal of the disaster: “The seas broke over the ship and poured through the cabin, tearing away sails, masts, and lifeboats, sending the terrified passengers, still in their nightclothes to the deck, where they could see the shore was only three hundred yards away.”
Although in recent years the major testament to Thoreau’s life as a writer has been the Journal, it is “Walden’’ that will keep him alive in the minds of most readers. Walls’s pages on that book employ precise and expressive language to bring out the sound of Thoreau’s voice — “bold, lyric, yearning, prophetic, confrontational.” She also reminds us humorously that Thoreau is “up on a soapbox,” concerned to make himself unmistakably heard.
As one who has read and attempted to teach the book numerous times, I now find myself more rather than less subject to mixed feelings about the “confrontational” style of “Walden.’’ Emerson himself noted that his friend’s style often contained “a trick of his rhetoric . . . substituting for the obvious word & thought its diametrical antagonist” — “It makes me nervous & wretched to read it, with all its merits,” he said of one of Thoreau’s essays.
Robert Frost who admired “Walden’’ called its style “conceited,” and the word is apt both in its earlier sense of witty comparisons and a more unfriendly one of affectation. A subtle book by Stanley Cavell, “The Senses of Walden,’’ admitted that from one perspective it was “an enormously long and boring book.” Many of my untutored students in their hearts have assented to this judgment; but even seasoned readers will have trouble navigating parts of the narrative that feel overextended and boastful. If there’s any fault in Walls’s account of the book, it is that she fails to imagine intelligent readers who might be unhappy with such qualities existing in a masterpiece.
Walls’s book abounds in memorable portraits of Thoreau in relation to his American literary contemporaries. Hawthorne found him “a singular character . . . ugly as sin, long-nosed, queer mouthed, and with uncouth and somewhat rustic, although courteous manners.” When Bronson Alcott brought him together with Walt Whitman, the great men eyed each other “like two beasts, each wondering what the other would do, whether to snap or run.” For the young William Dean Howells, meeting Thoreau “was not merely a defeat of my hopes, it was a rout.” Emerson admired his friend’s “perennial threatening attitude,’’ even as he was cautioned by it.
At one point Walls suggests that “[i]n another time and place he might have found his life’s partner with a man.” But Emerson gave a finer, more poetic characterization when he called Thoreau, in the phrase quoted earlier, “the bachelor of thought and Nature,” an icy, prickly poet of the natural world and a deeply committed social activist, “a humane being living a whole human life.’’ When near the end of his life, his orthodox Aunt Louisa asked him whether he had made his peace with God, Thoreau answered “I did not know we had ever quarreled, Aunt.”
An earlier version of this review incorrectly said that Margaret Fuller had drowned off Cape Cod.
HENRY DAVID THOREAU: A Life
By Laura Dassow Walls
University of Chicago, 615 pp.,
William H. Pritchard is Henry Clay Folger professor of English emeritus at Amherst College.