cover image The Adventures of Henry Thoreau: A Young Man's Unlikely Path to Walden Pond

The Adventures of Henry Thoreau: A Young Man's Unlikely Path to Walden Pond

Michael Sims. Bloomsbury, $26 (384p) ISBN 978-1-62040-195-8

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.)