Henry David Thoreau has always been, at least for the general reader, an author one preferred to read rather than to read about. Indeed, his Walden (1854) is essentially a selective and controlled autobiographical memoir of his almost two years of self-sufficiency in the cabin and bean field beside Walden Pond near his native Concord, Massachusetts. What one learned about Thoreau that was not contained in Walden was essentially apocryphal, such as the fabled jail visit of his mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson after Thoreau had been arrested for not having paid the poll tax. Thoreau had always enjoyed seeing human life as well as nature in mythic terms and avoided detailed considerations of personal affairs, even in his private letters and journals.
Logically then, the first biographies of Thoreau by his friend Ellery Channing and by his acquaintance Frank B. Sanborn are anecdotal family histories, informal and readable to be sure, but without real attempts to discern what formed Thoreau’s mind, original even among his distinctive Transcendentalist contemporaries. Perhaps Channing and Sanborn were too close to Thoreau, either by friendship or in time, to make such judgments. Paradoxically, Emerson’s own Thoreau references are least helpful of all for objective study, and in the first quarter of the twentieth century interest in Thoreau had generally waned. Walden was suddenly rediscovered during the Depression, however, and with its renascence came the biography written by Henry Seidel Canby. Canby’s treatment was more scholarly than any that had come before it, but it essentially depended on Sanborn’s book for family history and material on nineteenth century Concord.
Clearly, a hundred years after Sanborn’s book and a hundred twenty-five after Thoreau’s death is the right time for a documented intellectual biography of Thoreau. Robert D. Richardson, Jr., provides this needed treatment in his Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind. This is not to imply that Richardson writes only for scholars, though Thoreau and Emerson scholars will no doubt read this book with profit and enjoyment. Richardson’s study is as much a social history of America between the Revolutionary and Civil wars as it is literary biography.
This period, in every sense, shaped Thoreau as it did his country. It produced a man for whom independent action was privileged and prized. The young Thoreau glorifies the soldier as a descendant of the Homeric heroes. Even so, great-souled independence could be won less easily as the United States adopted the mechanization which was primarily responsible for its collective greatness by the mid-nineteenth century. One solution was the withdrawal of the individual, but Richardson rightly rejects the all-too-often assumed notion that Thoreau would, had he been able, have remained beside the pond forever.
As Thoreau grew older, his soldier’s courage was increasingly channeled toward support of unpopular and controversial political causes. His essay “Civil Disobedience” is one indication of this involvement; another is his enthusiastic support of Emerson’s public position as an abolitionist. Richardson recounts Thoreau’s racing to announce Emerson’s famous address on the injustice of slavery and his ringing of the Concord church bell when the verger who normally performed that task refused to do so because he was not in sympathy with Emerson’s position.
One related motif thus clearly emerges in Thoreau’s life: his personal idealism. This led him to take courageous unpopular stands even as it militated against his joining organizations and movements which were clearly in harmony with his own views. Thoreau, for example, had no immediate family responsibilities (unlike Emerson) and so could easily have joined Margaret Fuller’s experiment in communal living at Brook Farm. As things turned out, he was wise not to have done so, for that community of philosophers quickly dissipated its energies through small-mindedness and ultimately disbanded when fire destroyed its main building. Thoreau saw Brook Farm as institutionalized reform, and he believed from its beginning that it could not succeed.
Fuller was always cold to Thoreau’s notions of independence. Richardson rightly implies that her resentment probably cost Thoreau an important ally in the publication of his work, for Emerson had made Fuller editor of The Dial, the famous Transcendentalist journal. Most of Thoreau’s essays did eventually appear in The Dial, though not without Emerson’s prodding. Even so, Thoreau remained throughout his life a man of generous feelings. When Fuller died tragically with her husband and son in a shipwreck off the Long Island coast, famous stay-at-home Thoreau raced to the scene in a futile attempt to rescue one of her manuscripts.
(The entire section is 1992 words.)