Everyone knows that Henry Thoreau wrote his greatest work while living in a cabin on Walden Pond, but few know that during those two years and two months, he also took up the task of surveying the pond. Thoreau was an exceptionally skilled professional surveyor, and his handiwork in this case – an original survey now owned by the Concord Free Public Library – is included in the gallery of this new biography.
Even the greatest literary masterpiece, as impressive and moving as it may be, lacks the unique kind of power that attaches to a document like this: Here is the man’s handwriting. Here are the points, distances, and angles he calculated with his chain, axe, compass, and plumb line. In the dead of winter, when the water had frozen thick enough to hold his weight and the weight of his instruments, he took the measure of the pond that he had loved since his childhood. And when he was finished, he went back to the cabin he built with his own hands and penned his two greatest works: Walden, or, Life in the Woods, and A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers.
“What a pleasure to discover that Henry Thoreau was so far ahead of his time . . .”
This is only one of many wonderful discoveries in a biography by Laura Dassow Walls that seems to me nothing less than revisionist history. Walls takes pains to acknowledge previous biographies, including Robert D. Richardson’s 1986 Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind, still considered definitive. She denies that biographies are written to supplant one another, but only to “continue the ongoing conversation.”
In theory she may be right, but her deeply sympathetic understanding of Thoreau the man is hard not to simply be in awe of, not to find totally persuasive. She describes her book as a reinterpretation for a new generation, and she is completely right on this point, as her emphasis on Thoreau’s environmentalism, and on his well-developed sense of social justice, informs the entire work. What a pleasure to discover that Henry Thoreau was so far ahead of his time not only in his writings, but in his humble, courageous, remarkable life.
The legendary hermit of Walden Pond was actually no hermit at all. He built his cabin just outside his hometown of Concord, Mass., in full view of a public road, receiving visits from curious passersby even before the cabin was built. He was active in local government and politics during those two years, not only famously spending a night in jail for refusing to pay taxes, but working with the Underground Railroad to aid and transport fugitive slaves.
A passionate abolitionist, he organized at least one meeting of like-minded citizens at the door of his cabin. He enlisted others to help him search for Native artifacts and for the few remaining local Indians to record their oral histories. He was, in fact, a local celebrity, conducting “performance art,” as Walls tells it – a lovely, 21st-century take on what her predecessor Richardson described, more detachedly, as a “laboratory experiment.”
Thoreau was not just a lover of nature, but a self-taught botanist, who grappled with the problems of depletion and regeneration of natural resources. His two final works, left unfinished at his death from tuberculosis at the age of 44, were Wild Fruits and The Dispersion of Seeds. With these works, he anticipated much of the scientific and environmental thinking of our time, and scientists today use his journals’ meticulous descriptions of the fluctuations of native flora to gauge the effects of climate change.
“‘Everyone who comes to Thoreau has a story,'” Walls begins, and proceeds to tell her tale . . .”
In other words, Thoreau’s life was lived to the brim, a life of great richness and complexity, so ahead of its time in so many ways. Walls opens the preface of her book with a personal anecdote about how she discovered and fell in love with the man. “Everyone who comes to Thoreau has a story,” she begins, and proceeds to tell the tale of how she first discovered Walden in a used bookstore when she was in her teens.
So in honor of the occasion – Thoreau’s 200th birthday – I too have a story to tell:
A few years ago, I moved back to my hometown on the Illinois River, a body of water linked to my childhood much as Walden Pond was linked to Thoreau’s. I wanted to “reclaim” the river – to hold it in my heart, so to speak – so because I had no plumb line, I began to study its history. I began with the War of 1812, when the area was populated with Potawatomi, with a French settlement just to the south.
During the war the Military Tract was created, allocating land to veterans of the war as payment for service. This tract included much of the land west of the river, including my hometown. The men who surveyed the land for the purposes of the tract were mostly young, and very brave to work under such dangerous conditions in such a wild land.
On the internet I found a map of the tract, complete with the measured lots, names of soldiers eventually awarded the land, and the dates of transfer. I pored over this map, fashioning a clear plastic overlay to superimpose on a modern map of my own. I memorized the names of all the soldiers, hoping to trace in the historical record as many as I could. This was almost an impossible task, as few if any probably ever settled there, but instead sold their land to speculators.
Undaunted, I persisted, taking great pleasure in flipping the overlay back and forth, imagining the fate of each section of our town, including the island just off the shore, including where my home sat; imagining the Indians gradually forced out, the squatters, speculators, and settlers moving in, closing the distance of the years, owning the land and the water. So when I read about Henry Thoreau, with his plumb line and chain and axe and tripod, fathoming the depths of his beloved Walden, I understood the impulse.
I knew Thoreau in my teens, just as Laura Walls did, but did not love him then. I was all into fiction those days, loving instead men like Hawthorne and Melville, women like Austen and Emily and Charlotte. That’s why my story is a recent one: This is the week I fell in love with Thoreau, and this is the book that caused it.