How Henry David Thoreau still surprises, 200 years after his birth

The rich legacy of the American nature writer, tax dodger, moralist, activist . . . and pencil manufacturer.

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This month marks the bicentenary of the birth of the American author and naturalist Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862). Despite the century and a half that have passed since his premature death – he was 44 when he succumbed to tuberculosis – Thoreau remains arguably the most important writer in the English language on our relationship with the rest of nature.

His book Walden (1854), widely viewed as his masterpiece, is available today in at least 17 different editions, and such is its enduring status as one of the classics of American literature that the novelist John Updike feared it was at risk of the same literary condition as the Bible: exalted but unread. Despite such misgivings, Thoreau’s continued relevance is indisputable. Almost every word that he ever wrote – much of it unpublished in his lifetime – is still in print in some form or other, including A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1849), The Maine Woods (1864), Cape Cod (1865), his collected essays and poems and his monumental, two-million-word journal, which runs to 14 volumes.

Thoreau was an important thinker on more than just the natural environment. His other great themes were humanity and the pursuit of a moral life. He was, for instance, a lifelong opponent of slavery and an inveterate source of succour to runaway slaves. In 1845, having withheld his poll tax for years from the US government on the basis that it was morally unfit to enjoy his meagre contributions, Thoreau was arrested and incarcerated.

The time spent in the town jail may have been no more than a single night, but three years later the experience inspired an essay that became one of the foundational texts on the individual’s moral duty towards unjust or illegal government. The title of the piece, Civil Disobedience, has helped to frame campaigns of resistance to oppressive regimes across the world and has impacted on the lives of millions of people.

All of this global significance comes from a man whose central legend is that he lived, worked, walked, thought, wrote and died in the small Massachusetts town of Concord, where he was born. Among the merits of Laura Dassow Walls’s excellent, wonderfully exhaustive biography is its ability to tease out and unpick many of the myths about Thoreau. One of them concerns his supposed relish for poverty. The author who wrote, “A man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone,” came from a family of French Huguenot descent that enjoyed increasing middle-class prosperity based on the factory production of graphite pencils.

Nor was the hermit of Walden Pond too unworldly to get involved in commerce. On the contrary, Thoreau was a tinkerer who loved to create or improve the design of things, from boats, houses and machinery to orchards and pencil production. It was his refinement of the manufacturing process that sealed the reputation of Thoreau pencils as among the finest in 19th-century America.

The parental household, in which he lived as a lifelong bachelor, appears to have been peaceful and loving, intellectually elevated, artistic, solidly liberal in politics and broad-minded in matters of religion. What helped determine the young Thoreau’s attitude towards Christianity was not parental pressure but the many disputes between Concord’s various Trinitarian and Unitarian factions. His creed evolved out of lofty indifference to such squabbles and a growing conviction that life’s only true text was nature, while the proper place for worship was the woods and fields.

In later life Thoreau’s vehicle for such ideas was the many lectures, essays and books that he produced over two decades, in which he perfected a prose admired for its mixture of pithy, aphoristic clarity and dazzling self-confidence. So it is striking to observe that the young author was noted not for any egotism but for his acute reserve. The youth of Concord used to throw snowballs at the po-faced young Henry, mocking his big nose and insulting him as “the old maid” or “the Judge”.

Thoreau’s years as a young adult were also marked by a struggle to escape the heavy shadows cast by the two older male figures to whom he was closest. These included his elder brother, John, who was as popular, outgoing and athletic as Henry was withdrawn and awkward. Yet there was never a hint of jealousy on Thoreau’s part towards his charismatic sibling.

This was partly a result of Thoreau’s dawning self-confidence, which he acquired through his Harvard education and was something that the family did not extend to their less-gifted elder son. The other more tragic reason was John’s death from tetanus in 1842, when he was just 26 years old. Henry was capsized by the event and eventually made his first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, a kind of memorial to his brother. Yet John’s early death had the unforeseen consequence of freeing Thoreau to cut his own increasingly individual path.

The other pivotal figure in his life was his Concord neighbour, the writer Ralph Waldo Emerson, who was already famous when they first met. Their relationship continued until Thoreau’s death, by which time his material and intellectual debts to the older man were massive. He often lived with and worked for Emerson, sharing household life as if he were a family member. Thoreau was also inducted into the wider society of Emerson’s transcendentalist coterie, which included the mystic and teacher Amos Bronson Alcott, the poet William Ellery Channing, the journalist and proto-feminist Margaret Fuller and the novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne. These connections expanded Thoreau’s horizons and helped bring his work to the attention of authors or editors, while hugely assisting his earliest efforts to be published.

The link between the two men may have survived, but it was often intensely troubled. Perhaps the force field created by Emerson’s reputation carried too high a voltage for the younger, unknown writer to flourish comfortably within its orbit. Critics such as James Russell Lowell sneered that Thoreau’s ideas were merely fruits stolen from his neighbour’s orchard. One of the small complaints I have of Walls’s biography is that she is too reluctant to step out from the daily facts to intrude her own opinions on these broader themes.

Walls is a distinguished academic specialising in Thoreau and the wider intellectual world of 19th-century New England. But her biography, the first major study in a generation, prefers to illuminate rather than to diagnose the character of its subject. All Walls will reveal about his relationship with Emerson is what Thoreau tells us. He repeatedly produced obituary notices of the friendship, while the other man noted: “As for taking Thoreau’s arm I should as soon take the arm of an elm tree.” For all their name-calling, however, their vital friendship strangely endured.

One of the benefits of Walls’s biographical method is that, in accumulating the minutiae of his daily life, she enables the reader to appreciate some of the contradictions in Thoreau’s character. One such example arises from his late career as a land surveyor, to which he brought the gifts of technical problem-solving and meticulous observation. Thoreau was much in demand about Concord and while it gave him an honest crust as he tried to write, his surveying work directly assisted the industrial conversion of a landscape he cherished. Many of the woods he surveyed were clear-felled and destroyed. He may have asked his readers to “get your living by loving” but Thoreau also helped to kill the things he loved.

Even more compelling is the opportunity she provides to examine Thoreau’s reputation as the consummate woodsman who, in Virginia Woolf’s words, “could lift a fish out of the stream with his hands [and] charm a wild squirrel to nestle in his coat”. In Maine, however, where Thoreau made several arduous expeditions into the furthest reaches of the Penobscot watershed, he hired as a guide a Native American called Joe Polis. This tribal elder, who was also a political champion of his people and well versed in the equally treacherous swamps of the white man’s politics, was frequently astonished by the childlike lack of survival skills exhibited by his Yankee clients. Not that the author bragged. “He begins where we leave off,” was Thoreau’s verdict on the relative merits of the white and red man, when it came to living off the land.

What this new book allows us to appreciate is Thoreau’s essential human qualities. He may well have been a lesser person than his legend. He may have been found wanting when measured by the moral strictures issued in his blistering – and, let’s be fair, humorous – writings.

Yet in his study of nature Thoreau demonstrated the same omnivorous appetite and intellectual qualities as his contemporaries Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859) and Charles Darwin (1809-82). He was a poet, philosopher and writer every bit the equal of Emerson. His masterpiece is a prototype for an entire literary genre, a text that mediates between the author’s self and the more than human parts of nature. As Walls writes, “Walden blossoms as a holograph of the planet and of one human life, lived as a prism refracting the sunlight on to the page.”

Mark Cocker’s new book, “Our Place”, will be published in 2018 by Jonathan Cape

Henry David Thoreau: a Life
Laura Dassow Walls
University of Chicago Press, 615pp, £26.50

This article first appeared in the 13 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Maybot malfunctions