640 pages, 44 b/w photos
"Walden. Yesterday I came here to live." That entry from the journal of Henry David Thoreau, and the intellectual journey it began, would by themselves be enough to place Thoreau in the American pantheon. His attempt to "live deliberately" in a small woods at the edge of his hometown of Concord has been a touchstone for individualists and seekers since the publication of Walden in 1854.
But there was much more to Thoreau than his brief experiment in living at Walden Pond. A member of the vibrant intellectual circle centred on his neighbour Ralph Waldo Emerson, he was also an ardent naturalist, a manual labourer and inventor, a radical political activist, and more. Many books have taken up various aspects of Thoreau's character and achievements, but, as Laura Dassow Walls writes, "Thoreau has never been captured between covers; he was too quixotic, mischievous, many-sided." Two hundred years after his birth, and two generations after the last full-scale biography, Walls restores Henry David Thoreau to us in all his profound, inspiring complexity.
Walls traces the full arc of Thoreau's life, from his early days in the intellectual hothouse of Concord, when the American experiment still felt fresh and precarious, and "America was a family affair, earned by one generation and about to pass to the next." By the time he died in 1862, at only forty-four years of age, Thoreau had witnessed the transformation of his world from a community of farmers and artisans into a bustling, interconnected commercial nation. What did that portend for the contemplative individual and abundant, wild nature that Thoreau celebrated?
Drawing on Thoreau's copious writings, published and unpublished, Walls presents a Thoreau vigorously alive in all his quirks and contradictions: the young man shattered by the sudden death of his brother; the ambitious Harvard College student; the ecstatic visionary who closed Walden with an account of the regenerative power of the Cosmos. We meet the man whose belief in human freedom and the value of labour made him an uncompromising abolitionist; the solitary walker who found society in nature, but also found his own nature in the society of which he was a deeply interwoven part. And, running through it all, Thoreau the passionate naturalist, who, long before the age of environmentalism, saw tragedy for future generations in the human heedlessness around him.
"The Thoreau I sought was not in any book, so I wrote this one," says Walls. The result is a Thoreau unlike any seen since he walked the streets of Concord, a Thoreau for our time and all time.
"One of the ten best books of 2017."
– Wall Street Journal
"Laura Dassow Walls has written an engaging, sympathetic, and subtly learned biography that mounts a strong case for Thoreau's importance [...] Thoreau's political engagement isn't exactly news, but Walls foregrounds it vividly [...] The details are sometimes wonderful [...] Walls's Thoreau is truly a man for all seasons, a person who, in many ways, is a 21st-century liberal's idea of our best self: pro-environmental, antiracist, anti-imperialist, feminist, reformist, spiritual but not religious. It is extraordinary how much there was in Thoreau to support this interpretation, and part of the power of Walls's book is how she traces these liberal and humane preoccupations to the radicalism of his family and of Concord's intellectual life."
"In this definitive biography, the many facets of Thoreau are captured with grace and scholarly rigor by English professor Walls. By convention, she observes, there were 'two Thoreaus, both of them hermits, yet radically at odds with each other. One speaks for nature; the other for social justice.' Not so here. To reveal the author of Walden as one coherent person is Walls's mission, which she fully achieves; as a result of her vigilant focus Thoreau holds the center – no mean achievement in a work through whose pages move the great figures and cataclysmic events of the period. Emerson, Hawthorne, and Whitman are here; so are Frederick Douglass and John Brown. Details of everyday life lend roundness to this portrait as we follow Thoreau's progress as a writer and also as a reader. Walls attends to the breadth of Thoreau's social and political involvements (notably his concern for Native Americans and Irish-Americans and his committed abolitionism) and the depth of his scientific pursuits. The wonder is that, given her book's richness, Walls still leaves the reader eager to read Thoreau. Her scholarly blockbuster is an awesome achievement, a merger of comprehensiveness in content with pleasure in reading."
– Publishers Weekly
"I've always been slightly skeptical of biography doorstops [...] I read the book in two sittings. It will not be used as a doorstop – ever [...] Walls, scouring his published and unpublished writings, gives her readers hundreds of these fleeting chances to catch sight of a beautifully untamed but distinctly American existence [...] Walls comes as close as any biographer has to giving us the wild Thoreau – disorienting and bewildering."
– John Kaag, Chronicle of Higher Education
"Superb [...] Exuberant [...] Walls paints a moving portrait of a brilliant, complex man."
– Fen Montaigne, New York Times
"A superbly researched and written literary portrait that broadens our understanding of the great American writer and pre-eminent naturalist [...] Magnificent [...] A sympathetic and honest portrait that fully captures the private and public life of this singular American figure."
– Kirkus Reviews, starred review
"Study the living being, not its dead shell. And this is precisely what Walls has done in her definitive life of this opinionated, often difficult, but always interesting writer [...] To her great credit, Walls gives us so much more than the quotable Thoreau, the bane of the American literature survey course [...] She immerses herself and her readers fully in Thoreau's environment, the fields, meadows, woods, and streets of Concord. Walls's book is, first and foremost, the product of an extraordinary act of empathy. But it is also an outstanding literary achievement. No biographer has more credibly evoked those blisteringly cold, crystal-clear New England winter days, days that, thanks to Walls's prose, sparkle, glimmer, and chill for us the way they once did for Thoreau [...] The great imaginative accomplishment of Walls's book is to put Thoreau firmly back into the community that fostered and, for the most part, protected him."
– Weekly Standard
"As Laura Dassow Walls makes clear in her excellent Henry David Thoreau: A Life, he was a man of obsessively high principles, self-contained, a stickler for details who insisted on his own way of seeing the world, however quirky [...] Walls earns her keep, digging into Thoreau's aphoristic letters and journals, finding acute reflections by his contemporaries, and drawing a wonderfully brisk and satisfying portrait [...] "
– Jay Parini, Times Literary Supplement
"This new biography is the masterpiece that the gadfly of youthful America deserves. I have been reading Henry David Thoreau and reading about him for 40 years; I've written a book about him myself. Yet often I responded to Laura Dassow Walls's compelling narrative with mutterings such as 'I never knew that' and 'I hadn't thought of it that way.' I found myself caught up in these New England lives all over again [...] On a foundation of rigorous scholarship, Walls resurrects Thoreau's life with a novelist's sympathy and pacing."
– Michael Sims, Washington Post
"Beautifully written, this is a substantial volume in which every page feels essential. You won't want to put it down."
– Dianne Timblin, American Scientist
"Not only does the biographer capture the breadth and depth of Thoreau's relations and work, she leaves us tantalized, wanting more."
– Barbara Lloyd McMichael, Seattle Times
"Luminous [...] Through Walls's biography, Thoreau once more challenges us to see, with his passion and intensity, the world in all its cruelty and its splendour, riddled with human lies and abundant in natural truths."
– Financial Times
"Splendid [...] offers a multifaceted view of the many contradictions of his personality."
– Robert Pogue Harrison, New York Review of Books
"Laura Dassow Walls has written a grand, big-hearted biography, as compulsively readable as a great nineteenth century novel, chock-full of new and fascinating detail about Thoreau, his family, his friends, and his town. Walls's magnificent – landmark – achievement is the best all around biography of Thoreau ever written. It not only brings Thoreau vividly back to life, it will fundamentally change how we see him. We will hear no more about the 'hermit of Walden Pond.' Walls has given us a new socially engaged Thoreau for a new era, a freedom fighter for John Brown and America, and a necessary prophet and spokesman for Concord Mass. and Planet Earth."
– Robert D. Richardson, author of Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind
"This volume is a rich introduction to Thoreau for those unfamiliar with him and an almost casually brilliant reintroduction for those who know and love him."
Introduction: Land of the Grass-Ground River
Enclosures and Commons
The Genesis of Musketaquid
The Coming of the English
Living the Revolution
The Making of Thoreau
Concord Sons and Daughters
Coming to Concord
The Early Years of John and Cynthia Thoreau
Making Concord Home
Higher Learning from Concord to Harvard (1826–1837)
A Concord Education
A Harvard Portrait
Learning to Leave Harvard
Transcendental Apprentice (1837–1841)
Concord Social Culture
The Thoreau School
“There is no remedy for love but to love more”
“Not till We Are Lost” (1842–1844)
The Death of John Thoreau
“Surely joy is the condition of life!”: New Friends, New Ventures
Thoreau on Staten Island
The Road to Walden
The Making of Walden
“Walden, Is It You?” (1845–1847)
On Walden Pond: The First Season
Going to Extremes I: Thoreau in Jail
Going to Extremes II: Thoreau on Katahdin
A Writer’s Life (1847–1849)
“Will you be my father?”: Thoreau at the Emersons’
“Lectures multiply on my desk”: Thoreau Finds His Audience
A Basket of Delicate Texture: Weaving Thoreau’s Week
From Concord to Cosmos: Thoreau’s Turn to Science (1849–1851)
“The law which reveals”: Cape Cod
“Even this may be the year”: 1850
“The captain of a huckleberry party”
The Beauty of Nature, the Baseness of Men (1852–1854)
Abolition and Reform after the Fugitive Slave Law
The Hermit at Home
The Higher Law from Chesuncook to Walden
“What Shall It Profit?”: Thoreau after Walden
Illness and Recovery
“The infinite extent of our relations
Wild Fruits (1857–1859)
The Last Excursions to Cape Cod and the Maine Woods
Life in the Commons: Village, Mountain, River
“A Transcendentalist above all”: Thoreau and John Brown
A Constant New Creation (1860–1862)
The Year of Darwin
“The West of which I speak”: Thoreau’s Last Journey
“The leaves teach us how to die”
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Laura Dassow Walls is the William P. and Hazel B. White Professor of English at the University of Notre Dame. She lives in Granger, IN.