Henry David Thoreau: A Life

I’m a little embarrassed that I’m only now embarking on reading biographies of my favorite 19th century authors (Melville, now Thoreau). Walls’s book is a terrific compendium of Henry’s life, compiled from various letters and journals to trace the footsteps of America’s first ecologist and one of the finest writers of the ages.

We all know he lived simply (a friend said “Give him sunshine, and a handful of nuts, and he has enough”), but I was in the dark about much of his process and life. Contrary to some deeply held belief I had, he traveled widely—to Montreal, Niagara Falls, Minneapolis, as well as extensively through Maine, Massachusetts, Cape Code, New Hampshire, and every inch of Concord. Walden was lived (the biographer claims it as performance art) then mulled over for many seasons, trotted out on the lecture circuit, then published.

His connection to Emerson is well-known, helping to raise Waldo’s family while R.E. is in Europe lecturing, tutoring Waldo’s brother’s family on Staten Island for his first exposure to NYC, and most egregiously being called a watered-down version of Emerson himself. Also well documented are his friendships with Ellery Channing, Bronson Alcott, Nathaniel Hawthorne. He met Walt Whitman once and decided to like him. Kansas abolitionist John Brown spent hours discussing the day’s events in the Thoreau parlor in Concord and Henry championed him in fiery lectures. He heard Caroline Dall speak in Concord and Lucretia Mott lecture in Boston, and counted Margaret Fuller among his friends. Horace Greeley tirelessly promoted him in publishing circles, Thoreau read Melville’s Typee (sadly, despite their mutual bosom friend of Hawthorne, it appears that the two men never met), and he crossed paths at Harvard with Richard Dana fresh from his years behind the mast.

The biographer makes a strident case that Thoreau witnessed the beginning of the Anthropocene, seeing the collapse of a two-hundred year old system of English farming that had been in place in Concord and watching the railroad cut a swath across the field near Walden Pond.