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.”