Reviews — From the October 2017 issue

Into the Wild

Henry David Thoreau as prophet, naturalist, and stealth comedian

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Discussed in this essay:

Henry David Thoreau: A Life, by Laura Dassow Walls. The University of Chicago Press. 640 pages. $35.

Given his role as the patron saint of environmentalism, it seems fitting that Henry David Thoreau’s life should be permeated with recycling. The cabin he built on Walden Pond was constructed in part from the boards of an Irish laborer’s shanty, whose owner had worked on the railroad that ran through the woods just a few hundred yards away. After Thoreau returned to civilization, the roof of his rotting cabin was used to cover a pigsty. As for the jail cell where he spent a single night — according to local lore, when the building was demolished in the 1880s, some of the rubble was used to buttress the cemetery where Thoreau’s body had been buried. There he lies beneath a chaste headstone reading henry. If you stand before his grave, which is often surmounted by a small copse of pens and pencils stuck in the ground by admirers, you can just make out the glinting surface of the pond that he surveyed for the cemetery’s founders.

Thoreau’s Cabin, by Richard Bosman. Courtesy the artist and Elizabeth Harris Gallery, New York City

This endless recurrence is partly due to the modest size of Concord, Massachusetts, where Thoreau spent most of his days, and to the cheeseparing glory of Yankee thrift. But it also operates as a metaphysical principle in both his life and art, which Laura Dassow Walls chronicles so effectively in her new biography. In fact, she begins Henry David Thoreau: A Life with her subject’s discovery of what he described in his journal as a “most perfect arrowhead, as sharp as if just from the hands of the Indian fabricator.” He had been fooling around on the banks of the Concord River when this fortuitous relic came to hand. Yet it induced a kind of time-traveling euphoria in the young Thoreau, and gave him a hint of the stereoscopic vision that would eventually allow him to fuse, in Walls’s words, “present and past, white and Indian, civil and wild, man and nature.”

In the fall of 1837, however, Thoreau wasn’t there yet. At age twenty, he had just graduated from Harvard, where the students, enraged by the college’s fierce disciplinary system, had staged an Animal House–style insurrection during his freshman year. Despite his later enthusiasm for civil disobedience, Thoreau couldn’t afford to engage in such antics: he was a scholarship student, often mocked for his green homespun coat and floppy handshake. He kept his nose clean, worked hard, and graduated nineteenth in a class of forty-one. He also received a $25 prize and a speaking slot at commencement — thanks to Ralph Waldo Emerson, who lobbied the school’s nitpicking president, Josiah Quincy, on Thoreau’s behalf.

This intersection with Emerson was arguably the formative event of Thoreau’s life. The previous year, Emerson had published Nature, his transcendentalist call to arms, which Thoreau repeatedly borrowed from the library and viewed with almost scriptural reverence. Emerson, who was then thirty-four, was not the inventor of transcendentalism. Indeed, this kitchen-sink philosophy — which the scholar Perry Miller once described as a reaction to the “emotional starvation” of New England life, and especially to the chilly rationalism of the Unitarian Church — was too vague to have a single inventor. Nobody, however, had articulated its intuitive style and hostility toward received wisdom with even a fraction of Emerson’s aphoristic verve. Every human being, he insisted in Nature, should enjoy an “original relation to the universe.” This required a Zen-like attentiveness to the natural world — which was itself a crude approximation of the spiritual world that lay behind it, accessible only in glimpses, during those moments when the soul functioned as a sort of ecstatic antenna. The movement also spurred at least some of its foot soldiers to reconceive American society from the ground up, attending to such issues as slavery, temperance, public education, prison reform, and poverty.

For the young Thoreau, who had spent his childhood outdoors, a sunburned investigator of the hills, forests, and meadows around Concord, Emerson’s ideas must have been electrifying. What’s more, his hero actually lived in the same town, and had spent much of his youth roaming the identical landscape. When Thoreau returned to Concord after graduation, the two quickly grew close. “I delight much in my young friend,” Emerson wrote in his journal, “who seems to have as free & erect a mind as any I have ever met.”

It was, not surprisingly, a master-and-disciple relationship at the start. Indeed, Thoreau’s friends — and, eventually, his enemies — often teased him for imitating his guru’s tone, mannerisms, and lacquered prose. (“With my eyes shut I shouldn’t know them apart,” James Russell Lowell snidely noted in 1838.) The resemblance was certainly not physical. Emerson was tall and imposing, his height emphasized by his swanlike neck, while Thoreau was a stumpy and somewhat homely figure, with what his friend Nathaniel Hawthorne described as a “long-nosed, queer-mouthed” face. The two must have made quite a Mutt-and-Jeff pair during their lengthy rambles around Concord. Yet their rapport was intense from the start, and its gradual unraveling, as Thoreau found his voice and Emerson lost his, would cause both parties no end of pain and confusion. In a sense, and despite Thoreau’s warm relations with such members of the transcendentalist posse as Bronson Alcott, Emerson was his primary relationship — his Significant Other.

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is the editor of Harper’s Magazine. His next book, Glad to the Brink of Fear: A Portrait of Emerson in Thirteen Installments, will be published next year.

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