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Don't Call Henry David Thoreau a Hermit

Victor Grigas/Wikimedia Commons

It can sometimes feel impossible to differentiate Henry David Thoreau, the man, from Henry David Thoreau, the author of Walden. The famed transcendentalist took on a variety of roles in his too-short life—schoolmaster, abolitionist, pencil-maker, confidante to Ralph Waldo Emerson and Nathaniel Hawthorne, botanist, craftsman—but his two years in the woods near Walden Pond often eclipse the other 42 he lived in Concord and New York City. Endlessly quotable (and the source material for many a misanthrope’s daydreams), Thoreau’s masterwork pervades so much of nineteenth- and twentieth-century literature and culture—not to mention ecology and politics—that its creator slips into the background. And despite evidence to the contrary, Thoreau is all too often remembered and written about as a hermit.

Michael Sims’s merry new biography seeks to correct that slight by focusing its energy on Thoreau’s pre-Walden development as a writer and thinker. It chronicles his childhood in the family boarding house, his early engagement with the abolitionist movement and New England politics, his deep and abiding love for the woods and waterways of Concord and, perhaps most importantly and eloquently, his relationship with Ralph Waldo Emerson. Through a combination of happenstance (the Emersons lived within walking distance of the Thoreaus) and mutual admiration, the two men developed a working friendship that both invigorated and informed their writing, and enriched their emotional lives. Sims’s evocations of that relationship serve as a necessary reminder that it is only through communion with others that Thoreau stood to understand his own yearnings for solitude.  

It’s to Sims’s credit that he explores every avenue that led Thoreau to build his cabin near the pond: the loss of his brother and partner-in-adventure John, his passion for exploring and understanding his natural environment, and his eternal desire “to live deliberately.” John Updike wrote in 2004 that in the public imagination Thoreau had become “so perfect a crank and hermit saint, that [Walden] risks being as revered and unread as the Bible.” Although it may not perfectly grapple with Thoreau’s politics and philosophies, Sims’s book provides an even greater service: It makes flesh and bone of the man in the woods.