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.
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."