This past year, for pleasure reading I took on two massive biographies, each focusing on a man of great intellectual and creative powers who lived in the mid-19th century. One was the German composer Johannes Brahms, the subject of my previous post. The other was Henry David Thoreau, the American writer, naturalist, and philosopher.
I just completed Thoreau’s bio on the last day of 2018. One of the many revelations I gained from reading this wonderful biography Henry David Thoreau: A Life by Laura Dassow Walls (2017) is what an amazing scientist he was and how keen were his powers of observation and analysis of the natural world. I suppose this shouldn’t come as a surprise—after all, this is the man who famously spent a year or more living in a cabin in the woods on the edge of Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts. And yet I’d been used to thinking of him more as a political philosopher and “transcendendalist” than a scientist.
What got me into this subject in the first place? Well, last year (2017) marked the 200th anniversary of Thoreau’s birth, and the Concord Free Library was holding an exhibition of documents from their extensive collection of Thoreau’s notebooks, charts, and other documents. While perusing these documents on exhibition, it became clear how meticulous and conscientious he had been as an observer and measurer of the natural world. This led me to Walls’ book, which I picked up during another visit to Concord last summer.
Having grown up in the neighboring town of Acton, I have been familiar with Thoreau and his mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson since childhood. I spent many summers—and springs, falls, and winters—walking around or bathing in Walden Pond, I was always drawn to the spot where his cabin had been located on a plot of land owned by Emerson. I have also canoed on some of the rivers he and his brother John explored in his younger days, before John died a tragic early death, which obviously had an immense influence on Henry.
In fact, as I read through the bio, I found myself already familiar with many of the places he visited in his lifetime, at least in the New England region. The mountains he climbed—Wachusett, Monadnock, Katahdin, Lafayette—are all mountains that I climbed with family, friends, campmates, and college classmates in my youth. Growing up in Massachusetts, I spent many summers and winters visiting Maine and New Hampshire, and we used to spend time camping and sailing on Moosehead Lake in Maine, and white-water rafting on the Penobscot River, where Thoreau had some of his adventures. Like his Indian guides, we even engaged in a moose hunt or two, though not with guns.
Of course, the conditions in which Henry Thoreau and his colleagues explored these places were quite different in mid-19th century to what I experienced as a youth in the 1980s. Back then there were no highways leading up into the backcountry and up into the mountains of Maine and New Hampshire. Instead, you had to follow rivers and trails, preferably with a seasoned guide. One of my favorite episodes in the book occurs towards the end of his life when he and a friend undertook an expedition to the northern reaches of Maine in the company of an Indian guide. It was through this experience, Walls argues, that Thoreau earned a deep respect for the knowledge of native Americans. He seems to have regarded their knowledge of local and regional flora and fauna, waterways, trails, and folkways as a precious body of scientific knowledge that was far more advanced than what Europeans had mustered in their books. In this sense his insights into the scientific minds of native Americans presaged the work of anthropologists like Claude Levi-Strauss.
Like his Indian guides, though somewhat less astutely, Thoreau was a keen observer of nature. His favorite pastime was walking and exploring new terrain, or even familiar terrain in different times and seasons. Through his explorations of rivers and ponds (Walden in particular) and his work as a surveyor, he developed a sophisticated understanding of waterways and the flows of rivers and streams that was way ahead of his time.
He was also called upon frequently by his community to weigh in on agricultural matters. Like most people of his age, he knew how to grow, build, and plant things, but he also applied a scientific mind to understanding the basic principles of forestry. Walls has a beautiful passage towards the end of his book discussing Thoreau’s revelations about seeds and how everything in nature comes from a seed (this seems obvious to us now, but in the age of Creationism it wasn’t always so). These thoughts and observations of oaks and acorns, pines and pollen, put him at the forefront of the scientific world in the age when Darwin’s work was just becoming known, and of course he and his enlightened friends lapped up Darwin’s work when it was published.
Thoreau is also known for his strong political views, particularly his stance against slavery. He was an activist who fought for the lives and rights of slaves sent from Africa to America, not through war (the Civil War finally broke out not long before he died in 1862) but through rhetoric and writing, and also by helping to shepherd and harbor fugitive slaves and their sympathizers as they made their way northward from the deep South. He wrote essays and he gave fiery speeches until the end of his days (they got less fiery as he took ill) and he was one of the first men of letters to come out in support of John Brown, seeing him as a martyr and not a traitor after the siege of Harper’s Ferry.
Walls’s book puts Thoreau in the context of his community, the town of Concord, and the times in which he lived, providing just enough information without overloading you and veering too far from his life story. She brings to life this precious community of farmers, ministers, teachers, and intellectuals, portraying them so vividly that you get a very rich sense of what life was like in this town nearly two centuries ago. She also paints evocative pictures of the other places he rambled and explored during his all-too-short life, from Cape Cod to New York City, as well as the colorful characters Thoreau seemed to attract through his life’s work.
By the end of the bio at around the 500th page, Thoreau comes out feeling somewhat tragic, particularly if you consider how young he was when he died (44). Like Brahms, Thoreau was a lifetime bachelor and a bit of a loner, and he didn’t seem to have any substantial relationships with women outside of his own kith and kin. It’s hard to discern to what extent if any he had of a sexual life. He comes across in this bio as a very asexual creature, attracted more to ideas and to manifestations of nature than to the sensual warmth of a human body. Whether this is fair to Thoreau or not, I don’t know, and it seems that this has stymied his biographers as well.
Moreover, although he was a polymath and a jack of all trades, and above all a great observer and writer, Thoreau seems to have floated through life without planting deep roots in a family, institution, or trade. He was the ultimate dilettante and Renaissance Man, throwing himself into the study of all sorts of arcane subjects over his lifetime. Even writing eluded him, and he found it very difficult to get his work published. Walden was the big exception, and most of his other works were not nearly as successful. Many of his writings didn’t circulate until well after he died of illness relating to his chronic tuberculosis in 1862.
Most of his writing in fact is present in the hundreds of journals he kept over his lifetime, jotting down observations on countless phenomena from the natural and human worlds (which in his mind were inseparable). In particular, his volumes of notes on native Americans occupied a great deal of his time and energy. In this sense, he reminds me of another itinerant intellectual, Walter Benjamin, who spent much of his later years obsessed with a history of 19th century France, which became a collection of notes later published by Harvard as the Arcades Project.
While reading Walls’s book, one comes across lively passages about the other luminaries who interacted with Thoreau at various points and times in his life. These include the writer Nathaniel Hawthorn, the poet Walt Whitman, the Alcotts (Bronson in particular but also Louisa May), and many others. Of course, Emerson looms very large in the story as Thoreau’s mentor. It turns out that their relationship was a very complicated and at times a stormy one. It seems that Thoreau tried hard to break out of his famous mentor’s shadow, while also understanding how deeply he was indebted to Emerson for his crucial support of Henry’s career as a writer over the years. Their relationship reminds me in some ways of that between Brahms and Clara Schumann, and also the influence of Robert Schumann on the composer which extended well beyond his own lifetime.
Like any long, dense biography covering so much ground in such fine detail, the book does drag on in parts. I found myself skimming over many sections, only to plunge deep into a story as he went on yet another adventure in the wilderness (I must admit these were my favorite part of the book). It must be very hard for a biographer to pick and choose the right details and keep the story going through all the ins and outs of a lifetime. Overall, though, Walls does a great job of maintaining momentum throughout the book, and her writing is as beautiful as that of her subject. In sum, I can’t recommend this book highly enough for people who are into Henry David Thoreau and are looking to come out with a much deeper understanding and appreciation of the life, times, and thoughts of this unique American mind.