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Natural Life: Thoreau's Worldly Transcendentalism

Natural Life: Thoreau's Worldly Transcendentalism

by David Robinson
"An essential step in Thoreau's recovery of a 'natural life' is to reawaken and expand his awareness of the present moment, not only in the sense of knowing more of the world around him, but of entering into it fully. Admitting in Walden that 'I did not read books the first summer; I hoed beans,' he also confesses to moments in which he neglected both of these


"An essential step in Thoreau's recovery of a 'natural life' is to reawaken and expand his awareness of the present moment, not only in the sense of knowing more of the world around him, but of entering into it fully. Admitting in Walden that 'I did not read books the first summer; I hoed beans,' he also confesses to moments in which he neglected both of these conflicting duties. . . . In periods of reverie, Thoreau gave himself over to his senses, finding a fulfillment in his own attentive presence at the pond and the surrounding hills."—from Natural LifeHenry David Thoreau's Walden was first published 150 years ago, an event celebrated by many gatherings scheduled for 2004 and marked by the publication of this exceptional book. David M. Robinson tells the story of a mind at work, focusing on Thoreau's idea of "natural life" as both a subject of study and a model for personal growth and ethical purpose. Robinson traces Thoreau's struggle to find a fulfilling vocation and his gradual recovery from his grief over the loss of his brother. Robinson emphasizes Thoreau's development of the credo of living a "natural life," a phrase drawn from his first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. The depiction of the contemplative life close to nature in Walden exemplifies this credo. But it is also fulfilled through Thoreau's later life as a saunterer in the fields and forests around Concord, devoted to his studies of the natural world and dedicated to a life of principle.Natural Life takes note of and encourages growing interest in the later phase of Thoreau's career and his engagement with science and natural history. Robinson looks closely at Walden and the essays and natural history projects that followed it, such as "Walking" and "Wild Apples," and the remarkable and little-observed writing on night and moonlight found in Thoreau's journal.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"This book is considerably more than a compendium. . . . Robinson, having thought deeply about the scholarship he has read and about Thoreau's life and writings, has also added to his narrative many of his own insights, all of them stemming from or serving to highlight the central insight and guiding metaphor of the book: that Thoreau yearned to live a fulfilling 'natural life' which aligned him with his 'own deepest needs and instincts.' . . . Robinson is as fine and engaging a prose stylist as he is an insightful critic and generous, perspicacious scholar. Gracefully written, inexpensive, founded upon a solid of the last fifteen years and more of scholarship in Thoreau and transcendentalism, and brimming with wonderful insights into Thoreau's life and writings—Robinson's Natural Life is a magnificent contribution to Thoreau studies, one of the best contributions we've ever had."—Bradley P. Dean, Thoreau Society Bulletin, Number 249, Fall 2004

"Thoreau faced at least two significant crises in his life. One was recovering from the grief he suffered at the death of his brother. The other was finding a suitable career. According to Robinson, living the natural life helped Thoreau with both. To live the natural life meant two things to Thoreau: to study nature by observing and recording natural phenomena in the life around him, and to bring his life into a harmonious accord with all the movements, patterns, and events of nature."—Choice, February 2005

"David M. Robinson's Natural Life: Thoreau's Worldly Transcendentalism demonstrates that Thoreau's works are sufficiently rich that they invite continual new readings of the shifting and evolving nature of nature as he viewed it, understood it, and used its contours to mold his life. . . . Robinson's book may tell us more about the inside of Thoreau's head than about the world around him, but in so doing he adds depth and life to the Thoreau that we carry around in our own heads, the Thoreau who perennially sends us to find Waldens of our own. Insofar as Robinson explicates Thoreau's thought and thereby gets us to contemplate how to live our own 'natural lives,' he is doing important cultural work."—Kent C. Ryden, The American Scholar, Winter 2005

"Natural Life offers a rich synthesis of Thoreau criticism over the last two decades, providing an intellectual, spiritual, and emotional biography of Thoreau from his first introduction to transcendentalism to his last works, left unfinished and only recently published. . . . Robinson writes especially sensitively of Thoreau's relationship with his brother John, whose death in Henry's arms plagued him into a life-threatening despair. . . . That Henry was shadowed by survivor's guilt makes the serenity of his final essays all the more poignant, earned as it was against such a constant sense of sudden loss. Robinson, one of our foremost Emerson scholars, also gives a remarkably thoughtful account of transcendental ideals of friendship and the strain those ideals placed on Thoreau and Emerson's relationship."—Laura Dassow Walls, New England Quarterly

"Natural Life evokes both scholarly and personal responses. As scholarship, the book synthesizes David M. Robinson's extensive study of the life and work of Henry David Thoreau around the core of Thoreau's ideas about conducting 'a natural life.' At the same time, Robinson shows the development of the concept in Thoreau's texts and life in such a richly human life that I looked up from the book asking questions about my own life."—Donna Mendelson, ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and the Environment, Summer 2005

"The Thoreau of steadfast thought and of endless sauntering are both fully present in these pages. There is, in David M. Robinson's writing, a fullness of fact, a minimum of supposition, and a sense altogether of curiosity and appreciation for his subject. Natural Life is a testament to the presence, in Thoreau's life, of his grief, indecision, persistence, declarative joy, astonishing recordation of the works of the earth, and inspirational thought."—Mary Oliver

"This is the best, most thoughtful, most carefully worked out account of Thoreau's major ideas that I know. No lover of Thoreau can afford to miss this book. Just as reading Thoreau restores one's faith in an older and better America, so David M. Robinson's warm, informed, and brilliant writing restores one's faith in the modern American intellectual appreciation of that other and earlier America."—Robert D. Richardson Jr., author of Emerson: The Mind on Fire

"Natural Life is a deeply informed and wonderfully discerning guide to Thoreau's thought and writing, equally valuable for the light it sheds on Thoreau's individual works and for its grasp of the evolution of Thoreau's whole career as a continuous process of unfolding."—Lawrence Buell, Harvard University, author of Literary Transcendentalism; The Environmental Imagination: Thoreau, Nature Writing, and the Formation of American Culture; and Emerson

"Throughout his writing, Thoreau exhorts us to do what we love and Natural Life is a labor of such love. It is both a profound meditation on Thoreau's journey to find his true calling and to wholeheartedly embody his vision, and a compelling invitation to enter deep wilderness in order to quell our most basic thirsts."—John Daido Loori, Roshi, author of The Zen of Creativity

"David M. Robinson, a seasoned Emerson scholar, has now produced a valuable study of Thoreau's quest for a 'natural' life to undergird his career as a writer. Robinson's book is penetrating and illuminating—an indispensable addition to the Thoreau bibliography."—Joel Porte, Cornell University, author of Consciousness and Culture: Emerson and Thoreau Reviewed

"As Walden urges readers to engage themselves with 'not a fossil earth, but a living earth,' so does David M. Robinson's Natural Life construct a flesh-and-blood Henry David Thoreau in place of some remote and fossilized icon. This makes Robinson's book extremely useful for the present generation of students coming to terms with Transcendentalism, and for the present moment."—Don Mitchell, Middlebury College, author of The Nature Notebooks

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Cornell University Press
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