Rethinking the long-standing caricature of Thoreau, the crank.
Henry David Thoreau, as we know him today, was an unrepentant crank. He complained about the railroad that cut along the edge of Walden Pond. He mocked the telegraph, anticipating that trans-Atlantic communication would chiefly address the minor ailments of lesser royalty. “For my part,” he wrote, “I could easily do without the post-office.” And he’s still best known for removing himself from society, “a mile from any neighbor,” supporting himself “by the labor of my hands only.” He seems the ultimate American individualist, a libertarian hermit living in defiance of the suggestion he might depend on anyone for anything.
That’s one Thoreau. But he rode the rails often, to borrow books from Harvard, meet friends in Worcester, and even visit Minnesota’s prairie in his final summer. He found it spiritually significant that, through the global trade in ice, “the pure Walden water is mingled with the sacred water of the Ganges.” He felt kinship among all material beings, asking, “Am I not partly leaves and vegetable mould myself?”
Laura Dassow Walls, a professor of English at Notre Dame, shows in this exhaustive, exhilarating biography that critics who cast Thoreau aside for his misanthropy or mock his habit of coming home from the woods for a home-cooked meal don’t know what they’re dismissing. Walls doesn’t make this argument explicitly; her trust in her reader is too great for that. With a light touch and prose equal to her subject, she introduces us to a Thoreau we need right now: a scientist, a moralist, a radical democrat, and an artist who might stir us to realize the highest ideals of self and nation.
Walls claims at the outset that Thoreau saw something that other Americans did not—the dawning of the era we now call the Anthropocene, an era defined by the unquestioned (yet possibly catastrophic) global dominance of the human species. Along the same lines, Walls claims that Thoreau perceived the rise of a new global economy. Even in the village of Concord, where the Revolution began and Thoreau was born, he could see the changes taking place, “and, in the sheer audacity of his genius, he decided it was up to him to witness the changes and alert the world. From his watchtower by the railroad, deep in Walden Woods, he would sound the alarm and point to a better way.”
That better way depended not on disconnecting from others but on realizing the full extent of humans’ connections. Thoreau saw that technology and trade facilitated slavery, imperialism, and environmental depredation. But with his rare scientific and social acuity, he also saw that consumerism, not hyperconnectivity, drove those immoral projects. Walls writes that in Thoreau’s view, humans repeatedly make the “tragic mistake of assuming a better life means working harder to earn more money to buy more stuff—tea, coffee, meat—thus buying into the very economy that feeds off slave labor, and fueling the machine Atropos, ‘Fate,’ the destroyer of worlds and consumer of souls.” He had to go to the woods to learn this. But to tell the rest of us, he couldn’t stay there.
To demonstrate that Thoreau wasn’t the cranky, unlikeable misanthrope he’s often made out to be, Walls fills this biography with friends. Thoreau’s friends accompanied him on long excursions and expressed disappointment when they could not join him on a trip. In the social universe Walls reconstructs, a celebrity like Emerson—who was often unkind to Thoreau—is less significant than Thoreau’s fellow poet Ellery Channing, his oddball fanboy Daniel Ricketson, and his hiking companion Edward Hoar. Although he styled himself a creature of the woods, Thoreau did not fear the cities. After all, that’s where he could find people to think with. On one weekend trip to New York, he and the Transcendentalist reformer Bronson Alcott dropped in on Horace Greeley, Henry Ward Beecher, and Walt Whitman.
Those bonds of friendship extended Thoreau’s close family ties. He always made it back from his travels in time for a meal at the bustling family home. Thoreau and his brother John did everything together (including unsuccessfully courting Ellen Sewall, the one woman Henry proposed to), and “when John died [of tetanus at age twenty-seven], it seemed half of Henry died with him,” Walls writes. A lifelong bachelor—Walls writes that “he crafted a self of fluid but carefully guarded sensuality and intense, thwarted romantic energies, which he invested in his writing”—Thoreau served as surrogate husband and father in the Emerson home while Waldo was on a European lecture tour.
It’s true that Thoreau’s masterwork, Walden, presents an ideal of artistry that demands solitude and impassivity. In a parable in Walden’s conclusion, the artist of Kouroo makes “no compromise with Time.” He works, and meanwhile civilizations fall, the gods go to sleep. His work is immortality. He is kin to Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, who climbs the mountain and awaits old friends who will not recognize him.
Thoreau the man, however, was incapable of this ideal. Walden Woods were full of people. Channing bunked with him for two weeks. The conflict between the solitary ideal and Thoreau’s real drive to map connection plays out concretely in his many ascents up New England’s peaks. He went with five others up Maine’s Mount Katahdin. The ascent was anything but lonely. Katahdin’s slopes were populated by both the native Penobscot and white settlers. Billboards were tacked to trees. Thoreau made the summit, alone, but it was no mountaintop experience. Revelation came only after meeting his friends, who lagged behind to pick berries. As he wrote in a letter after a second, aborted, climb up Katahdin, “It is after we get home that we really go over the mountain, if ever.”
Back home, Katahdin taught Thoreau a natural fact that sustained the political and scientific projects that occupied the last part of his life. In Walls’s words: “The mystery that surrounds us, that touches us, that even caresses us, is us, all of us, for like all bodied beings we, too, are ‘hard matter in its home.’” The mystery is not disembodied spirit but our shared material life. “We’re all connected” sounds trite, but Thoreau drew out the concept’s radical implications.
To understand himself, then, he needed to become acquainted with “vegetable mould” through scientific observation. Because Thoreau was so attentive to both nature and society, recording these details in forty-seven manuscript volumes of journals, Walls can invite the reader into Concord’s world of rainstorms, unseasonable frosts, and the heat waves that made Thoreau’s attic bedroom stifling. The meticulous records he kept of blooms and harvests aid climate scientists today. He sent field specimens to Harvard’s Louis Agassiz and became an early fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. His limitless curiosity led Thoreau, as a youth, to engineer a way to grind graphite to fine powder for his family’s pencil business and, in middle age, to study the dispersal of seeds. In fact, his most-read work in his lifetime was the essay, “The Succession of Forest Trees,” explaining why when you cut down a pine grove, oaks grow in its place.
But the most important work of Thoreau’s final years—he died of tuberculosis at forty-four—was the relentless abolitionism he pursued, following his mother Cynthia, whose inn was part of the Underground Railroad. His racial outlook was linked to his scientific pursuits; he welcomed Charles Darwin’s hint in On the Origin of Species that all humans descended from a common seed, a view contrary to Agassiz’s scientific racism. Thoreau’s social and scientific convictions converged in his public outrage at a country that would put the abolitionist insurgent John Brown to death in order to maintain the bloody, lucrative supply chain that ran from Louisiana plantations to Massachusetts dinner tables.
Thoreau aimed his critique first at himself, for, as Walls puts it, “emancipation must begin with self-examination.” He wrote Walden to rid himself, and his neighbors and readers, of complacency. He thinks we could all be better and that, to attain the ideals of democracy, we have to be. Democracy’s opponents have leave to be immoral. Those who want self-governance do not. It takes moral strength to disobey unjust laws that degrade our human, animal, and vegetable relations. For as Walls asks, “How can the individual assert the right to live a virtuous life in a society that refuses to permit that right, or worse, actively destroys it?”
Thoreau called his sojourn at Walden Pond an “experiment.” This experiment, like his others, aimed “to offer a new moral framework strong enough to bear the weight of modern science, eloquent enough to assert that preacher and poet were one, and sharp enough to address the ethical challenges of slavery, industrialization, and wars of conquest.” He needed an ambitious artistry to give voice to it. Americans now face, along with these challenges, the pressing matter of climate change, and we face them at an ebb in democratic culture. We also face them without an artist who can wake us up to how all these challenges—and we humans, icebergs, and fungi ourselves—are connected. Thoreau may again have his moment.