HENRY DAVID THOREAU: A LIFE by Laura Dassow Walls, Reviewed by Michael Ziser

By Laura Dassow Walls
(Chicago, 2017) xx+ 615pp.
Reviewed by Michael Ziser on 2018-03-24.

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It has long been a question which of the several excellent biographies of Henry David Thoreau to recommend to people with varying kinds and degrees of interest in the man. The classic, Walter Harding's Days of Henry David Thoreau (1965), has the distinction of packing in the greatest number of documented events and records, a genuine treasure chest of Thoreauviana for the curious to sift. But Harding himself admitted that his work was better considered a collection of materials to be synthesized by later writers than a definitive biography, and indeed it scarcely provides a comprehensive sense and explanation of Thoreau's development over time. Several subsequent, thesis-driven analyses of parts of Thoreau's life--for example Richard Lebeaux's Young Man Thoreau (1975) and William Howarth's The Book of Concord: Thoreau's Life as a Writer (1982)--cast valuable light on aspects of his personal aesthetic development as it appears in the record of his writings. Others, like Richard Bridgman's unreliable, overblown, and malicious Dark Thoreau (1982), crystallized certain criticisms of Thoreau that still circulate in American culture, such as the charge that he was a pessimistic misanthrope who failed in the literary tasks he set himself. In addition, scores of more specialized historical and literary treatments of Thoreau often contain significant biographical material. In planning a recent graduate-level seminar on his life and work, I resolved the pragmatic question by assigning two biographies, Harding's charming miscellany and Robert D. Richardson, Jr.'s Henry David Thoreau: A Life of the Mind (1986). The latter, as its subtitle hints, places Thoreau deeply in the intellectual history of his time, ranging from post-Puritan theology to German Idealism, English and American natural history, economics, and aesthetics. Had I dared to impose further on my students, I might have added a third volume, David Robinson's Natural Life: Thoreau's Worldly Transcendentalism (2004), which is more closely attuned than the others to Thoreau's spiritual quests as they are charted in his major works.

Laura Dassow Walls's new biography was not yet available at the time of my seminar, but had it been I would have substituted it--sight unseen--for the trio cited above, so great is my respect for Walls as a researcher, writer, and illuminating guide to Thoreau and his milieu. I can think of no one better equipped and prepared to give us a comprehensive biography for the next generation of educated general readers and beginning specialists. Walls's three previous books--Seeing New Worlds: Henry David Thoreau and Nineteenth-Century Natural Science (1995), Emerson's Life in Science: The Culture of Truth (2003), and The Passage to Cosmos: Alexander von Humboldt and the Shaping of America (2009)--all dealt provocatively with the impact of new scientific theories on the religiously-conditioned minds of avowed and honorary Transcendentalists. More perhaps than any other single scholar except Howarth, Walls is responsible for fleshing out what was mostly a skeletal intuition until the 1990s: namely that the most valuable modern legacy of Emerson and Thoreau lies in the intensity of their late-life scientific pursuits. With the right cultivation, Thoreau famously wrote, the burgeoning corpus of scientific knowledge might flower into profound intellectual and spiritual truths.

Walls aims, however, not to press a particular interpretive line about Thoreau or those around him, but to portray her subject as fully as possible without cramming her canvas: without rehashing academic controversies, or including too many readings of individual texts, or too much social context. In this she succeeds wildly, and a wide range of readers from all walks of life are sure to turn to her biography with delight. Walls has long been notable for the vivacity and elegance of her prose, even when writing for strictly academic audiences, where readability is rarely prized. Her style--graceful, precise, but also occasionally touched with a well-executed flourish--is perfectly suited to the biographer's task of drawing readers through all of the details of a subject's life, the sublime as well as the mundane. And indeed one of the great accomplishments of this book is the remarkable steadiness and continuity with which it doles out its attention. While closely tracking Thoreau's lifetime of experiences, Walls is not unduly sidetracked by the many interesting things going on around him. Nor does she focus on some phases of his life to the detriment of others, or ride a hobby-horse, or get thrown by the spottiness of the record in certain parts. Reading this book, I felt that for the first time I had found in one place a comprehensive and gapless narrative of Thoreau's life from beginning to end.

Like previous biographers, Walls foregrounds Henry's relationship with his ill-fated brother John. Starting with an anecdote about the brothers' immersion in the micro-watershed of the Musketaquid (Concord) River, she links this episode not only to Henry's affectionate duty to and dependency on his brother, but also to his stubborn sense that "the universe constantly and obediently answers to our conceptions," as he later wrote in Chapter 2 of Walden. Goofing off at the riverbank and self-consciously playing Indian, the young Henry pretended to discover Nashoba Chief Tahatawan's arrowhead, only to find that the stone his hand alighted on was indeed a perfect arrowhead "as sharp as if just from the Indian fabricator!!!!" (qtd. 3). This story prefigures most of the crucial elements that belong to Thoreau in particular (rather than to others in his Concord circle), and also anticipates his premature loss of John (to tetanus) and his sister Helen (to tuberculosis), his deep researches into the human and natural history of his region, and his lifelong quest to fashion a style of life congruent with what he found around him.

While this framing of Thoreau's life will be familiar to many, Walls also makes excellent use of Thoreau scholarship from the past twenty years so as to more fully illuminate the sources and social contexts of his world. In Walls's hands it seems fitting that Thoreau should descend on his father's side from a French Huguenot privateer (Jean Thoreau) and on his mother's side from a wealthy Royalist victim of Revolutionary upheaval (Asa Dunbar) and an adoptive Concord farmer (Jonas Minott). These and many other necessary but potentially dull details are always cashed out for their relevance to Henry, as in the case of a few pages dedicated to the religious history of the Thoreau family: when the Congregationalists split into conservative Trinitarians and progressive Unitarians, the Thoreaus' involvement in the schism gave Henry a taste of--and likely a distaste for--traditional theological disputation. Other little-known details of his early life are likewise significant. While attending Harvard on scholarship during a low point in its history and reading a variety of ancient and modern languages, Henry did not shine; he seems to have struggled to make close friends at college and made relatively light impressions on his teachers and fellows at the time. Likewise fleshed out more fully than in past biographies are his early occupations. His mixed success as a schoolteacher came to a crashing end with the death of brother and fellow teacher John, and his attempt to succeed as a writer in New York City was brief.

From there, the middle part of the story is widely known: Thoreau's deepening involvement with Emerson, his excursions to New Hampshire and Maine, his two years in the Walden cabin, his lecturing, writing, and anti-slavery activism. In re-examining this familiar ground, Walls makes good use of the excellent research of Sandra Harbert Pertulionis, whose crucial To Set This World Right (2006) carefully depicts the antislavery movement in Concord. Walls's picture of this movement makes Thoreau's abolitionism both less and more heroic than common caricatures would have it. While his mother and sisters organized the ultimately very effective Concord Female Anti-Slavery Society, Henry preferred quieter tasks: guiding fugitive slaves on their way to Canada and honing his public denunciations in his journal for strategic use on the Lyceum circuit. At the same time, Walls's account of the vigorous and violent opposition to abolition even within the comparatively progressive Concord community demonstrates that the end of slavery was anything but historically inevitable. In this context Thoreau's molten eulogy for John Brown, the first one offered publicly after the failed raid at Harper's Ferry, seems all the braver and more defiant.

Much of the most interesting critical work on Thoreau since the Harding and Richardson biographies has tracked what Lawrence Buell called, in The Environmental Imagination, the arc from egocentricity to ecocentricity, i.e. the testing and revising of personal Transcendental intuitions against impersonal empirical realities. For many years, the materials that support this general notion had to be extracted from the Journal or transcribed from unpublished manuscripts. When editor extraordinaire Bradley Dean assembled and published these materials as Faith in a Seed (1993) and Wild Fruits (1999), he stirred a new wave of scholarship on Thoreau's late "broken task" of synthesizing his microscopic observations of the natural world around Concord. Walls weaves this ecological phase of Thoreau's intellectual life firmly into his daily existence, as exemplified by her account of Thoreau's response to Darwin's On the Origin of Species. Journal entries show that as soon as he read an advance copy of it--borrowed from Darwin's major American correspondent, Asa Gray--he recognized a kindred mind. Gradually shedding his deference to authorities like Louis Agassiz, he grew more confident in his ability to discern large zoological, botanical, and geologic patterns in tiny specimens and observations that he himself had carefully collected and recorded. In Walls's telling, you can practically feel Thoreau's delight at seeing the value of his scientific self-reliance affirmed.

Emerson once observed that Henry would rather stand in a swamp or captain a huckleberry party than put his shoulder to the wheel of grander work. Spurred by these cutting words, studies of his later life have sometimes seemed to corroborate the charge that he was an isolated misanthrope. But Walls makes it clear that Henry was as active and social as ever during his grand naturalistic project, travelling, speaking publicly on political and scientific topics, working diligently as a land surveyor, and taking ever greater responsibility for his shrinking and aging family. Indeed, it was likely the sheer quantity of his activities that made him vulnerable to tuberculosis, the family curse that had claimed his grandfather and sister and slowed his brother. When he died at age 44, it was not the logical end of a project of relinquishment but the interruption of a major new phase of philosophical and artistic growth, a phase we are only now beginning to glimpse.

Perhaps the only shortcoming to be found in Walls's approach is one that largely yields more good than ill: an abundance of affection for her subject. Infusing her accounts of Thoreau's activities at every turn, this love and admiration lift her story over some of the less flattering aspects of Henry's character and even lead to a few instances of special pleading. In the "Baker Farm" chapter of Walden, for example, Thoreau disdains the home and family of the Irish bogger, John Field, and there is no evidence that he later changed his opinion of such people. Yet Walls downplays the ugliness of his comments and even tries to partially excuse his contempt by means of an elaborate interpretation. Still more discomfiting is Walls's generous view of Thoreau's relationship with Native Americans, real and imagined, which she uses to frame the biography as a whole. The best analyses of this subject, Robert Sayre's Thoreau and the American Indians (1977) and Joshua Bellin's "In the Company of Savagists" (2008), draw by turns measured and skeptical conclusions about the degree to which Thoreau understood and sympathized with Native Americans. Late in life, Thoreau may well have glimpsed the vastness of his own ignorance about Native America, but there is plenty of counterevidence to suggest that he never discarded the stereotypes he inherited from his voracious reading of nineteenth-century ethnologists. Walls takes a welcome detour into the life of Joe Polis, the Penobscot meteoulin who guided Thoreau and his friends up the Allagash and became a major element of the posthumously published Maine Woods. Walls's wonderful research, however, highlights Thoreau's own damning incuriosity about the complex life and thoughts of his hired informant.

In addition, Walls largely skirts the complex subject of Thoreau's sexuality. As Harding first indicated and scholars Michael Warner and Peter Coviello have since argued in sophisticated ways, Thoreau's suppression of what we would now call homosexual desire has major implications for the interpretation of his life and work. Yet Walls relegates this important subject to a a few pages and a single footnote and balances it against some of the faintly heterosexual episodes in his life, perhaps hoping to avoid the minefield of presentism, pathologizing, and armchair psychoanalysis the subject invites. While that is an understandable impulse, readers deserve a biography as thorough as possible, including even--and perhaps especially--those parts of Thoreau that even he did not know how to name and master.

These very minor reservations aside, Walls's Thoreau is now unquestionably the leading biography of him, period. Sustained interest in Thoreau as a writer and thinker, most recently exemplified by Branka Aršič's prizewinning Bird Relics: Grief and Vitalism in Thoreau (2016), has borne out Thoreau's own statement (at the end Walden) that he has "several more lives to live." But thanks to Walls, there is now really only one life to read.

Michael Ziser is Associate Professor of English at the University of California Davis.

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