Henry David Thoreau was my first literary hero. We had a hammock in our yard, and in summers I would lie in the hammock and read my ninety-five-cent copy of Walden and Other Writings (yes, that’s an image of it, now some forty-plus years old, complete with duct tape holding it together). In the winters I would move inside and read it while I perched over the furnace grate, the waves of superheated air wafting up around me as I readied myself for the inevitable farmhouse chill once we had shut our bedroom doors.
I only got about half of it, of course. A kid of fifteen will miss most of the dry humor, skip through much of the close and precise description, and fail to appreciate the vast range of references that are dropped into every paragraph with such ease. But I did get Thoreau’s immense and uncompromising individualism and his insistence on the primacy of his own conscience. Over the years, I’ve returned to Thoreau again and again, understanding him a little bit more each time, appreciating his formidable intellect and powers of observation. People look at me in disbelief when I say Thoreau is a funny author, but honestly, I always get a laugh when I read Walden.
So I was eager to read Laura Dassow Walls’ new biography of Thoreau, and it did not disappoint. Walls’ biography is subtitled “A Life,” and it does indeed focus on the life of Thoreau, rather than his philosophy or literary work, although those intellectual matters do figure into the book since they were central to Thoreau’s life. But we are constantly reminded of Thoreau as a living person, an individual with friends, detractors, passions, and faults, and reminded that far from being the solitary hermit of Walden Pond familiar from popular myth, Thoreau lived a vibrant and engaged life, full of aspiration and struggle. He loved many people and was loved by many.
Thoreau remains one of my literary heroes. The bicentennial of his birth was last month, and it’s hard to think of many other American writers who remain so essential and relevant, or who will remain so two hundred years after their birth.