Henry David Thoreau has long been an intellectual icon and folk hero. In this strikingly original profile, Michael Sims reveals how the bookish, quirky young man who kept quitting jobs evolved into the patron saint of environmentalism and nonviolent activism.Read more...
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Henry David Thoreau has long been an intellectual icon and folk hero. In this strikingly original profile, Michael Sims reveals how the bookish, quirky young man who kept quitting jobs evolved into the patron saint of environmentalism and nonviolent activism.
Working from nineteenth-century letters and diaries by Thoreau's family, friends, and students, Sims charts Henry's course from his time at Harvard through the years he spent living in a cabin beside Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts.
Sims uncovers a previously hidden Thoreau--the rowdy boy reminiscent of Tom Sawyer, the sarcastic college iconoclast, the devoted son who kept imitating his beloved older brother's choices in life. Thoreau was deeply influenced by his parents--his father owned a pencil factory in Concord, his mother was an abolitionist and social activist--and by Ralph Waldo Emerson, his frequent mentor. Sims relates intimate, telling moments in Thoreau's daily life--in Emerson's library; teaching his neighbor and friend, Nathaniel Hawthorne, to row a boat; exploring the natural world and Native American culture; tutoring Emerson's nephew on Staten Island and walking the streets of New York in the hope of launching a writing career.
Returned from New York, Thoreau approached Emerson to ask if he could build a cabin on his mentor's land on the shores of Walden Pond, anticipating the isolation would galvanize his thoughts and actions. That it did. While at the cabin, he wrote his first book, "A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers," and refined the journal entries that formed the core of "Walden." Resisting what he felt were unfair taxes, he spent the night in jail that led to his celebrated essay "Civil Disobedience," which would inspire the likes of Gandhi and Martin Luther King.
Chronicling Thoreau's youthful transformation, Sims reveals how this decade would resonate over the rest of his life, and thereafter throughout American literature and history.
Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
- Review Date: 2013-12-23
- Reviewer: Staff
In this uneven biography of Henry David Thoreau, Sims (The Story of Charlotte's Web) succeeds in his ambition "to find Henry" rather than "admire the marble bust of an icon," though the portrait that emerges is far from flattering. Focusing primarily on Thoreau's life before he earned renown with Walden, Sims depicts his subject as a spirited young man with a keen eye for observing nature; a devoted brother to his older sibling, John; a freethinker who defiantly rejected religious orthodoxy; and a teacher appreciated by his students because he refused to dole out corporal punishment. At the same time, Thoreau comes across as feckless, unambitious, irresponsible, and incapable of living the life of an independent adult but for the charity of his mentor, Ralph Waldo Emerson. Sims has culled scholarly sources to recreate the early 19th-century landscape of Concord, Mass., and its active social and literary scene, but Thoreau is not always at the center, and in some chapters, not present at all. Consequently, the portrait he paints of the young Thoreau seems sketchy in places. Though he writes with great sympathy for the Bard of Walden Pond, readers may finds themselves agreeing with Nathaniel Hawthorne's assessment of Thoreau as "the most unmalleable fellow alive—the most tedious, tiresome, and intolerable—the narrowest and most notional." Agent: Heide Lange, Greenburger Associates. (Feb.)
Henry's journey to Walden Pond
BookPage Nonfiction Top Pick, February 2014
Wild, irregular and free, Henry Thoreau cut a distinctive figure in 19th-century Concord, Massachusetts, whether carving “dithyrambic dances” on ice skates with Nathaniel and Sophia Hawthorne or impressing Ralph Waldo Emerson with his “comic simplicity.” More at home in the woods than in society, Thoreau began the first volume of his celebrated journals with a simple word that also functioned as his motto: solitude.
But Thoreau was hardly a recluse, as accomplished nature writer Michael Sims shows in The Adventures of Henry Thoreau, an amiable and fresh take on the legendary sage of Walden Pond. As a friend, brother and teacher, Thoreau had many relationships that were critical to his development as a writer and thinker. Whether unconsciously imitating the speech of his beloved mentor Emerson or grieving the death of his brother John, Thoreau was as capable of deep feeling for humans as he was of delighting in the mouse, the fox and the New England pole bean.
By focusing his book on the young Henry, Sims gives us an animated portrait of an uncertain writer and reluctant schoolmaster. He portrays the questing, struggling, stubborn Henry, constantly asking “what is life?” and finding it, most often, in the woods and on the rivers. Henry’s two-week boating trip with his brother John on the Concord and Merrimack rivers shows Henry at his best, singing and paddling and living off the land like the Native Americans he so admired. Henry’s tracking abilities—his sharp eye for an arrowhead or a long-abandoned fire pit—were developed by studying the land as intently as he translated Pindar or Goethe. His time living in the woods led him ever closer to an appreciation for reading the landscape, as in his months-long winter project to study the ice and plumb the depths of Walden Pond.
As in his well-received 2011 portrait of E.B. White, The Story of Charlotte’s Web, Sims has found another subject who brilliantly bridges the worlds of nature and thought. Like White, who visited Walden Pond in 1939 to pay tribute to his predecessor, Thoreau found in plants and animals and seasonal cycles his most enduring material. Similarly, Sims has once again proven himself to be a distinctive writer on the subjects of human nature and humans in nature.