Books  General Natural History  Biography, Exploration & Travel 

Henry David Thoreau: A Life

Biography / MemoirComing Soon

By: Laura Dassow Walls(Author)

640 pages, 44 b/w photos

University of Chicago Press

Hardback | Aug 2017 | #235404 | ISBN-13: 9780226344690
Availability: Usually dispatched within 4 days Details
NHBS Price: £26.50 $36/€30 approx

About this book

"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Drawing on Thoreau's copious writings, published and unpublished, Walls presents a Thoreau vigorously alive in all his quirks and contradictions: the young man shattered by the sudden death of his brother; the ambitious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.

"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




Introduction: Land of the Grass-Ground River
Tahatawan’s Arrowhead
Enclosures and Commons
The Genesis of Musketaquid
The Coming of the English
Living the Revolution

Part I
The Making of Thoreau

Chapter 1
Concord Sons and Daughters
Coming to Concord
The Early Years of John and Cynthia Thoreau
Making Concord Home

Chapter 2
Higher Learning from Concord to Harvard (1826–1837)
A Concord Education
A Harvard Portrait
Learning to Leave Harvard

Chapter 3
Transcendental Apprentice (1837–1841)
Sic Vita
Transcendental Self-Culture
Concord Social Culture
The Thoreau School
“There is no remedy for love but to love more”

Chapter 4
“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

Part II
The Making of Walden

Chapter 5
“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
Leaving Walden

Chapter 6
A Writer’s Life (1847–1849)
“Will you be my father?”: Thoreau at the Emersons’
“Lectures multiply on my desk”: Thoreau Finds His Audience
“Civil Disobedience”
A Basket of Delicate Texture: Weaving Thoreau’s Week

Chapter 7
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”

Chapter 8
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
Reading Walden

Part III

Chapter 9
Walden-on-Main (1854–1857)
“What Shall It Profit?”: Thoreau after Walden
Illness and Recovery
“The infinite extent of our relations

Chapter 10
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

Chapter 11
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.

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