The Chronicle Review

Thoreau: The Wild Child at 200

A new biography vivifies Thoreau’s restless spirit

May 07, 2017

Natalya Balnova for The Chronicle Review
I n December 1849, Jacob Farmer, of Concord, Mass., killed a large hawk that had been preying on his hens, but rather than letting the remains fester and rot, he brought the carcass to his somewhat eccentric neighbor, Henry David Thoreau. Thoreau saw something, probably many things, in the raptor. He carried it to Samuel Cabot, curator at the Boston Society of Natural History.

The creature, which had been regarded as a nuisance and a threat, was in fact an extreme rarity: an American goshawk, the first of its species to be identified. Compared with the partially domesticated goshawks used by European falconers for centuries, this was a genuinely wild creature, fiercely independent and militantly protective of its nest.

Cabot skinned and stuffed it. Dissecting its muscles and bones, he preserved them in alcohol to save them for posterity. Thoreau was appalled. In Cabot’s attempt to conserve the wild animal, he had taken it apart, analyzed it, destroyed it. "Science applies a finite rule to the infinite," Thoreau lamented after returning to Concord, "its sun no longer dazzles us and fills the universe with light."

Thoreau's principal method was to accentuate the not-so-simple act of seeing.
This is the difficulty of studying anything even slightly feral. It’s also the challenge of writing about Thoreau, America’s most famous naturalist and original wild child. "In wildness," according to Thoreau, "is the preservation of the world." If he’s right, it is important to save his. This year, his 200th birthday, will test whether that’s possible.

With the bicentennial of his birth comes the publishing of four new scholarly monographs on aspects of his life and thought, an orchestrated four-day gala in his hometown of Concord, dozens of careful essays and articles written in his honor, and a graceful Ken Burns video about Thoreau’s beloved Walden. Crowds of visitors — an estimated 750,000 — will make the pilgrimage to his pond this year, and the well-appointed inns of Concord have been booked for three years in advance of the birthday party in July. Many of the attendees will exchange one very hefty present: Laura Dassow Walls’s new 600-page biography, Henry David Thoreau: A Life (University of Chicago Press, July), the first comprehensive account of Thoreau to be written in nearly 30 years.

I ’ve always been slightly suspicious of biography doorstops. Exhaustive biographies are sometimes just exhausting — very detailed postmortems rather than vivid depictions. If you’re looking for the wildness of a life, you should usually look elsewhere.

Walls’s book, however, is touted as "the best all-around biography of Thoreau ever written," high praise from Robert Richardson, author of Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind (University of California Press, 1986), a book that set the bar in Thoreau scholarship for decades. Walls tells the story not of an isolated thinker, a philosophical hermit, but rather of a vibrant life in touch with the world and replete with thought.

Richardson’s biography concentrates on Thoreau’s reading and writing, explaining the way that a variety of literary and philosophical influences worked their way through Thoreau. In Richardson’s words, this approach gives "the illusion of interiority," but "it doesn’t really give Henry’s mind at work except in the most general ways." That sells the project short, but he is trying to make a point. Walls, by contrast, attempts to get into not only the wild, subjective inside of Thoreau, but also the complex social and political relations that shaped him.

Her biography also comes at the right time. Today we desperately need to emulate Thoreau’s life and not just his thought. "Thoreau can make a single reader — even one suffering a life of quiet desperation — live with greater intensity," Richardson explains. "Nationally, we need his Resistance to Civil Government and we need it right now. Globally, we need Thoreau’s geomorphism, as opposed to anthropomorphism, to save the planet."

"Laura," Richardson says, "not only describes but embodies Thoreau’s commitments and methods."

Embodies Thoreau? For 600 pages?

I am skeptical.

I read the book in two sittings. It will not be used as a doorstop — ever. Richardson is right. Thoreau’s principal method in writing, in life, was to accentuate the not-so-simple act of seeing, of keeping one’s eyes open to the smallest sensorial nuance. For Thoreau, the task of staying awake to the world was a basic imperative of being alive. He writes in Walden that "we must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aids, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn, which does not forsake us even in our soundest sleep." Walls takes a similar approach in presenting the 44 years of the naturalist’s life.

"I never intended to write biography, but in all four of my books I’ve been drawn to a biographical frame," Walls explains to me. "The thought and experience of a single person — Thoreau, Emerson, Humboldt — describes a historical arc that indexes a larger history of ideas, but makes those ideas come alive in real decisions and experiences — how ideas count." That thoughts can matter, that poetry and philosophy can enrich the experience of people and their communities — this was pivotal for Transcendentalists, like Thoreau, and the American pragmatists who inherited their intellectual project after the Civil War.

For Thoreau’s part, Walls explains to me that his experiences in early life led him to believe that "environmental justice and social justice stem from the same ethical root. We cannot persist, as a society, in treating ‘nature’ as somehow outside ‘humanity.’ " She observes that Thoreau opens Walden, published in 1854, with the long chapter "Economy" to make us, in her words, "face how our own choices support a monstrous social and material substructure that underwrites our alienation from both nature and each other." Thoreau articulated the crisis of modernity, but also, and just as important, provided the beginnings of a solution or, at the very least, a way of working through the difficulty.

"Live deliberately," Walls asserts, echoing Thoreau. Sounds easy, but it’s not. "Walden asks us to examine every choice we make — and to realize that we do, in fact, have choices to make! — in terms of the human/natural commons." Much of modern life seems so scripted and necessary that it is at times difficult to remember that one has a choice about exactly how to live it. Returning to this basic existential fact, according to Thoreau, involves receptivity, but also intense self-scrutiny, which stands in marked contrast to the machinations of industrial society.

The best way to 'study' Thoreau might be to allow him to inspire us.
James Baldwin wrote that "the purpose of art is to lay bare the questions that are hidden by the answers." A century earlier, Thoreau was already in the process of excavating unspoken but powerful assumptions and unearthing forbidden questions. "He questions his own willingness to kill specimens for science in the same moment he questions his society’s willingness to enslave African-Americans for commerce," Walls says. "He regards these both as symptoms of a deep, underlying moral horror, treating life as a means rather than an end." And it is this horror that Thoreau battled until his death, at 9 o’clock on the morning of May 6, 1862.

B ut the horror remains. If there is a future for Thoreau studies, its vibrancy might turn on scholars’ willingness to address the dehumanizing forces that have only intensified since 1862. After a biography like Walls’s, one might wonder what remains to be said. Quite a bit, I think.

What would Thoreau say about the rise of Donald Trump, artificial intelligence, drone warfare, the ethics of immigration, Black Lives Matter, climate change, or the persistent sense of desperation that many of us feel about the future? This is not to suggest that we use Thoreau exclusively for our own purposes, or merely understand him through the narrow lens of present concerns. Rather, I am suggesting that the best way to "study" Thoreau might be to allow him to inspire us.

I ask Walls who is the Thoreau of the 21st century. The names come pouring out: "Bill McKibben, in environmental activism; Terry Tempest Williams, for her writing; John Lewis, for civil rights; in climate science, Michael Mann, James Hansen." Annie Dillard, who is Richardson’s wife, "embodies Thoreau for me, as an ideal realized," Walls says. Dillard’s many-sidedness is not unlike Thoreau’s.

In Walls’s biography, a reader is intimately acquainted with Thoreau the ambivalent student, the manic writer, the avid abolitionist, the measured environmentalist, the bench scientist, the halting lecturer, the not-so-closeted mystic. After he died, this man — all of these men — lived on, and Walls’s biography allows us to see exactly how much we owe him. Actually, Walls corrects me on this point: It isn’t how much we owe him, but rather what he continues to give us while asking nothing in return.

"Thoreau is the founder of a form of nonviolent political resistance, embodied most famously in Gandhi and King," Walls reminds me. This is perhaps Thoreau’s greatest contribution to our present American age. Civil disobedience was never meant to be restricted to world historical movements — like Indian independence and civil-rights advocacy — but to serve as a manual for everyday social resistance, inspiring average people in their daily lives to heed the call of conscience. "I have in mind someone like Walter Harding," she says, "whose Days of Henry Thoreau is the predecessor to both Bob’s biography and my own. Walter was a conscientious objector during WWII, which took immense courage." He said he found that courage in reading Thoreau, and that’s why he founded the Thoreau Society, in 1941, with the hopes of reaching a more politically engaged public.

If Thoreau’s commitments to justice and nonviolence speak to the immediate politics of present-day America, his environmental concerns address questions that will confront the world for decades — and hopefully centuries — to come. Writing at the height of the Industrial Revolution, Thoreau identified what future scholars would term the Anthropocene, the age in which the workings of nature are inescapably influenced by the expansion of human civilization. He dedicated many years — particularly the last decade of his life — to reconceptualizing natural and human spaces into a new, interdependent category. Says Walls:

"What he actually learned in ‘wilderness’ was, first, that human traces were already pretty much everywhere; second, despite that, Planet Earth is itself a vast wilderness, one ‘not bound to be kind to man.’ If we don’t save the planet, the planet won’t allow us to save ourselves. That’s a truth we have yet to absorb — a truth of Thoreau’s that will dominate the 21st century. I wish we would listen to him a bit more carefully."

The arc of Walls’s biography allows a reader to see how Thoreau’s experiences, commitments, and writings might be interpreted, and how they work, in the 21st century. She doesn’t tell us how to apply his life to our own, but her attention to detail and her lively prose make it nearly impossible not to.

But it is not in the grand trajectory, but rather in the faint, often-overlooked moments, of his life that a reader can truly see something transcendently wild in Thoreau. 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.

Henry’s grandfather Jean Thoreau was a privateer in the Revolution. Thoreau was a schoolteacher who refused to flog his pupils. John Thoreau died of lockjaw in his brother Henry’s arms. Thoreau wasn’t alone at Walden, but rather was surrounded by a dilapidated village of immigrants and freed slaves. Thoreau was part of the Underground Railroad. He helped raise the Emerson children. His famous neck beard was grown to counteract consumption. He couldn’t stand the sight of a butchered moose. He carried Whitman’s Leaves of Grass — a book that was virtually banned — around Concord like the Bible. In the depths of a fatal illness, he testified that "it was as good to be sick as it is to be well." At the end of his life, Thoreau remained fascinated by a frozen fish he’d once witnessed come back from the dead.

These vignettes cut into the smooth recasting of Thoreau. Walls comes as close as any biographer has to giving us the wild Thoreau — disorienting and bewildering. Could a life — my life, yours, anyone’s — be this intense? The stories she gives us are colorful but true. Making permanent or exact "sense" of them would be impossible. And that is for the best.

A goshawk cannot be understood, much less reassembled, on the dissection table.

John Kaag is a professor of philosophy at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell. His book American Philosophy: A Love Story was published last year by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.