Henry David Thoreau by Laura Dassow Walls
A Life

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Ms Walls’s book is a timely and revealing study of an eminent American writer and environmentalist. Thoreau’s thinking bound science, politics and nature together in the hope that both the human and the non-human could flourish.
-The Economist

Synopsis

“Walden. Yesterday I came here to live.” That entry from the journal of Henry David Thoreau, and the intellectual journey it began, would by themselves be enough to place Thoreau in the American pantheon. His attempt to “live deliberately” in a small woods at the edge of his hometown of Concord has been a touchstone for individualists and seekers since the publication of Walden in 1854.

 

But there was much more to Thoreau than his brief experiment in living at Walden Pond. A member of the vibrant intellectual circle centered on his neighbor Ralph Waldo Emerson, he was also an ardent naturalist, a manual laborer and inventor, a radical political activist, and more. Many books have taken up various aspects of Thoreau’s character and achievements, but, as Laura Dassow Walls writes, “Thoreau has never been captured between covers; he was too quixotic, mischievous, many-sided.” Two hundred years after his birth, and two generations after the last full-scale biography, Walls restores Henry David Thoreau to us in all his profound, inspiring complexity.

 

Walls traces the full arc of Thoreau’s life, from his early days in the intellectual hothouse of Concord, when the American experiment still felt fresh and precarious, and “America was a family affair, earned by one generation and about to pass to the next.” By the time he died in 1862, at only forty-four years of age, Thoreau had witnessed the transformation of his world from a community of farmers and artisans into a bustling, interconnected commercial nation. What did that portend for the contemplative individual and abundant, wild nature that Thoreau celebrated?

 

Drawing on Thoreau’s copious writings, published and unpublished, Walls presents a Thoreau vigorously alive in all his quirks and contradictions: the young man shattered by the sudden death of his brother; the ambitious Harvard College student; the ecstatic visionary who closed Walden with an account of the regenerative power of the Cosmos. We meet the man whose belief in human freedom and the value of labor made him an uncompromising abolitionist; the solitary walker who found society in nature, but also found his own nature in the society of which he was a deeply interwoven part. And, running through it all, Thoreau the passionate naturalist, who, long before the age of environmentalism, saw tragedy for future generations in the human heedlessness around him.

 

“The Thoreau I sought was not in any book, so I wrote this one,” says Walls. The result is a Thoreau unlike any seen since he walked the streets of Concord, a Thoreau for our time and all time.

 
 

About Laura Dassow Walls

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Laura Dassow Walls is the William P. and Hazel B. White Professor of English at the University of Notre Dame and the author of several books, including, most recently, Emerson’s Life in Science: The Culture of Truth.
 
Published June 30, 2017 by University of Chicago Press. 640 pages
Genres: Biographies & Memoirs, Religion & Spirituality, Literature & Fiction, Law & Philosophy. Non-fiction
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Critic reviews for Henry David Thoreau
All: 6 | Positive: 6 | Negative: 0

Kirkus

Excellent
on May 16 2017

Thoreau has inspired so many esteemed biographies that it's difficult to claim any new one as definitive. However, Walls delivers a sympathetic and honest portrait that fully captures the private and public life of this singular American figure.

Read Full Review of Henry David Thoreau: A Life | See more reviews from Kirkus

Publishers Weekly

Excellent
on Sep 28 2017

The wonder is that, given her book’s richness, Walls still leaves the reader eager to read Thoreau. Her scholarly blockbuster is an awesome achievement, a merger of comprehensiveness in content with pleasure in reading.

Read Full Review of Henry David Thoreau: A Life | See more reviews from Publishers Weekly

NY Times

Above average
Reviewed by Fen montaigne on Jul 12 2017

One of the many pleasures of Walls’s book is how it transports us back to America in the first half of the 19th century...

Read Full Review of Henry David Thoreau: A Life | See more reviews from NY Times

Guardian

Good
Reviewed by SARAH BAKEWELL on Aug 10 2017

In her superb new biography, Laura Dassow Walls defuses such cavils with a wry, understated humour...Wall’s biography allows Thoreau to breathe his own air on her pages...

Read Full Review of Henry David Thoreau: A Life | See more reviews from Guardian

Toronto Star

Good
Reviewed by Bruce Whiteman on Jul 07 2017

It is much the longest biography to date, and while not exhaustive (I was left wondering, for example, whether Thoreau ever read his contemporaries Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick or Susanna Moodie’s Roughing It in the Bush), it does paint a detailed portrait of Thoreau and is exceedingly well written, even poetic in places.

Read Full Review of Henry David Thoreau: A Life | See more reviews from Toronto Star

The Economist

Above average
on Aug 10 2017

Ms Walls’s book is a timely and revealing study of an eminent American writer and environmentalist. Thoreau’s thinking bound science, politics and nature together in the hope that both the human and the non-human could flourish.

Read Full Review of Henry David Thoreau: A Life | See more reviews from The Economist

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