Henry David Thoreau: A Life

Laura Dassow Walls. Univ. of Chicago, $35 (640p) ISBN 978-0-226-34469-0
In this definitive biography, the many facets of Thoreau are captured with grace and scholarly rigor by English professor Walls (The Passage to Cosmos). By convention, she observes, there were “two Thoreaus, both of them hermits, yet radically at odds with each other. One speaks for nature; the other for social justice.” Not so here. To reveal the author of Walden as one coherent person is Walls’s mission, which she fully achieves; as a result of her vigilant focus Thoreau holds the center—no mean achievement in a work through whose pages move the great figures and cataclysmic events of the period. Emerson, Hawthorne, and Whitman are here; so are Frederick Douglass and John Brown. Details of everyday life lend roundness to this portrait as we follow Thoreau’s progress as a writer and also as a reader. Walls attends to the breadth of Thoreau’s social and political involvements (notably his concern for Native Americans and Irish-Americans and his committed abolitionism) and the depth of his scientific pursuits. The wonder is that, given her book’s richness, Walls still leaves the reader eager to read Thoreau. Her scholarly blockbuster is an awesome achievement, a merger of comprehensiveness in content with pleasure in reading. (July)
Reviewed on: 04/17/2017
Release date: 07/17/2017
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