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Thoreau, A Life

Thoreau, A Life

I was 19 years old and a sophomore in college when I read Henry David Thoreau’s Walden. The little paperback had me smitten good and proper. I was inspired by Thoreau’s worship of nature. I shouted “right on!” to his skepticism about God and conventional Christian religions. I nodded knowingly to his belief in the supremacy of inspiration over logic. And what impressed me most of all, was the way he valued life’s intangibles like beauty, goodness and truth over the useless junk that money buys – all the material riches that my hotshot college education was supposedly meant to yield. In those long lost college days, Thoreau was catnip to my hippy soul.

And, oh, how quickly did the effects wear off! Upon graduation, the real world set in. I had to get a job. I became a schoolteacher, and when a teacher’s salary didn’t seem like enough to keep a nice roof over my head, or to pay my weekly greens fees, or to see my kids riding the right Fischer-Price bikes, I got an MBA and went into corporate marketing. Although my Thoreau-esque idealism never went STONE cold (I always voted Democratic and gave to the Sierra Club), I spent the rest of my working life figuring ways to persuade target audiences to buy a pile of consumer goods they didn’t really need. And now that I’m retired, I have no plans of “going into the woods to live deliberately” anytime soon. What I aspire to these days, as much as ever, is material security – a new graphite fly rod, a smart phone with an upgraded camera, a car with lane-drifting warning beeps, vacations with grandkids at the beach, a nest egg that lasts.

If I’ve learned anything about life it’s that having transcendental leanings in the real world is a tough circle to square.

Which brings me to Laura Dassow Wall’s really terrific biography of my onetime hero, Henry David Thoreau. She chronicles his comings and goings – practically day by day from his birth to his death – daubing flesh and bone onto his other-worldliness. What a life the man led! And what a happening place Concord, Massachusetts must have been back in those years! How such a sleepy little town could be home to so many of America’s literary giants and leading thinkers is beyond me. Living around the corner from one another were Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Louisa May Alcott, the feminist Margaret Fuller, plus a whole slew of lesser known poets and intellectuals – and Thoreau stirred the pot with all of them.

Of all of America’s original transcendentalists, Thoreau was the one to most truly walk the walk. He was the real deal – the living embodiment of the movement – forever donning his corduroy togs and slouch hat, tossing a few apples into a knapsack and walking from Concord to the tip of Cape Cod, or canoeing up the Merrimack River, or scrambling to the top of Mount Washington, living off the land wherever he went while taking detailed notes of every little – and big — thing he observed. He spent his entire life soaring among the transcendent clouds, and yet there was a very down-to-earth and ordinary side to him too.

This is the part of Thoreau that Wall focuses on, and it’s what makes the book such a pleasant surprise, and so much fun to read. When Thoreau graduated from Harvard he moved back in with his parents and basically never left home for the rest of his life. The driftwood shelves in his simple attic bedroom were stuffed with animal skulls, arrowheads, bits of lichen, birds’ nests, rocks and minerals, autumn leaves, and whatever else he dragged home from his relentless wanderings. He started out as a humble schoolteacher, earning extra cash as a handyman, and later in life, as a professional land surveyor. Even before he became a highly acclaimed writer, everyone in Concord knew him. His neighbors more or less took his eccentricities in stride, although he could at times be more than a bit annoying. Like when he fried up some fish at his streamside campsite and accidentally burned down 200 acres of local woodlands. The kids in town were less equivocal. They completely adored him. Every August, bunch loads of boys and girls piled into the bed of his hayrick for their annual, song- and laughter-filled huckleberry-picking party. He may be known to history as a great transcendental philosopher, but to his neighbors, he was just good-ol’ Henry Thoreau, a loveable kook, and a very earthly presence.

Wall’s Henry David Thoreau is thoroughly humanized. Even he, we learn, had trouble squaring the circle of his lofty philosophy. Never lost on him was the irony of making audiences lay out cold hard cash to attend one of his lectures about the virtues of leading a life un-beholden to cold hard cash. And it bothered him greatly that a good chunk of his income was earned each year surveying stretches of beautiful countryside in order for some money-grubbing capitalist to come in and over develop it.

Oh well, Henry, I can relate.





  1. Margie Hall says:

    Sounds really interesting, now you piqued my curiosity. I’d like to read it and see if it soothes my hippy soul too.

    Good review!!

    • I gotta say, I thought of you a lot when I was reading this book. Thoreau would be right there with you and Dick on your environmental working vacations!

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