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The Thoreau You Don't Know

by Robert Sullivan

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The Thoreau You Don't Know

© HarperCollins

HarperCollins, March 2009

In The Thoreau You Don't Know, Robert Sullivan (Rats, Cross Country) smashes our myth of Henry David Thoreau as hermit of the woods, the "secular priest of solitude," the technophobic, misanthropic, tree-hugging loner, and in its place depicts another man, a Thoreau who was an individual certainly, but not to the extreme that literary legend would have us believe. The Thoreau we don't know went to college at Harvard, where he lived for a time in a factory with a radical social reformer; he grew melons and threw an annual melon party for his neighbors; he took over the family business, a pencil-making factory, when his father died. The Thoreau we don't know once accidently set fire to the woods near Concord.

Yes, Thoreau built and lived in a house in the woods. However, the woods he built it in was actually a wooded lot owned by his friend, literary mentor, and sometime-employer Ralph Waldo Emerson, and it was just a stroll from town. Thoreau certainly loved nature and recorded his observations of the natural world in his journal in great detail, but as Sullivan points out, much of those observations came via his work as a surveyor. Thoreau excelled in surveying, and he was recognized in Concord for it. He took water depths in the Concord river, designed roads for local factories, and each year served as the official Concord surveyor for the plowing contest at the Middlesex County Fair. Surveying was the perfect job for Thoreau, whose true occupation was in observing and describing the goings-on around him,whether human or animal.
In The Thoreau You Don't Know, Sullivan adds dimension to the legendary father of environmentalism, inviting the reader into Thoreau's family life (his grandfather was a pirate!), his writing and publishing struggles, his attachment to Concord and to the farming community there, his relationships with other writers - Whitman, Hawthorne, Emerson, and his battle with tuberculosis, to which he lost his life at the age of 44. Sullivan sheds light on the many aspects of Thoreau's life which show him to be as much a man of the town as a man of the woods.

Some of the most interesting parts of the book concern Thoreau's seminal work, Walden. There is much about Walden that the casual reader takes for granted and much history surrounding the writing of Walden that is unknown. For instance, that in the years leading up to Thoreau's move to Walden, the U.S. was in a severe economic depression; that Thoreau's decision to move to Walden was largely motivated by his desire that writing be his chief occupation; and that living in a particular manner with the ultimate goal of writing about it could in many ways be viewed as a sort of literary stunt.
Walden is often portrayed as nature-writing, but it is in many ways a humorous work with satirical references to cultural aspects of Thoreau's time that are lost on the modern reader. Rather than a call for the reader to abandon the town in favor of the seclusion of nature, Walden was in fact a multi-layered social critique in which Thoreau wished to incite his readers to open their eyes and consciously take part in the direction of their lives, their community, and their country.

At the end of the book, Sullivan does what you might expect him to do. He embarks on a journey from his Brooklyn home to Concord to visit Walden Pond, to seek adequate closure for his biography of Thoreau. Upon pulling into Concord, Sullivan checks into the Colonial Inn, a hotel that happens to be in the building owned by Thoreau's grandfather, and, "in a Thoreauvian mood," leaves his car in the parking lot to walk, as Thoreau would have, to Walden Pond. However, when he inquires at the nearby post office for walking directions, Sullivan is met with blank stares and a serendipitous illustration of how Thoreau might have sometimes felt estranged from his more conservative neighbors:
"As I paid for postcard stamps, I asked if I could get to Walden Pond from there by heading down Walden Street, which seemed right, according to my maps.
'Yes, sure," one of the post office workers said to me. 'Where is your car parked?'
I told him that I was planning to walk to Walden Pond.
'You're walking to Walden Pond?' he asked incredulously. Suddenly the people in the other two lines were looking at me.
'Yeah,' I said. 'I've got some time, and i thought I'd walk.'
One of the people in line next to me asked the person next to her, 'Can you walk to Walden Pond?'
'You drive,' the woman said."

Robert Sullivan exhaustively researched his subject in writing The Thoreau You Don't Know, but the book is far from exhausting. Sullivan strikes a wonderful balance between biographical detail, literary criticism, and social and historical context to create a biography that is both intimate and thorough. Also, Sullivan's prose is a pleasure to read with its conversational tone and an undercurrent of humor that his subject would have appreciated. Whether you're new to Thoreau or have walked with him before, pick up The Thoreau You Don't Know for an engaging biography of this influential historical figure or as companion reading to Walden.
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