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A New York Times Editors' Choice
Most readers think they know Henry David Thoreau: the solitary curmudgeon with the shack out in the woods. In this delightfully engaging book, Robert Sullivan gives us the Thoreau we don't know: the gregarious adventurer, the guy who liked to go camping with friends (even if they sometimes accidentally burned the woods down). Here is no lonely eccentric but a man who danced and sang, who worked throughout his short life at the family ...
A New York Times Editors' Choice
Most readers think they know Henry David Thoreau: the solitary curmudgeon with the shack out in the woods. In this delightfully engaging book, Robert Sullivan gives us the Thoreau we don't know: the gregarious adventurer, the guy who liked to go camping with friends (even if they sometimes accidentally burned the woods down). Here is no lonely eccentric but a man who danced and sang, who worked throughout his short life at the family pencil-making business, who moved into his parents' house after leaving Walden Pond and always paid his father rent. Passionate yet whimsical, The Thoreau You Don't Know asks us to cast off our misconceptions as we reexamine our everyday relationship with the natural world and one another.
Sullivan (Rats) weaves biography and American history in this playful attempt to recast Thoreau as more a complex (and convivial) creature than a dour and ascetic environmentalist and "anarchical loner." The book may stir controversy among those who have appropriated Thoreau for a particular cause-a welcome prospect for the author, who writes, "I suppose I have an ax to grind. The Thoreau you know bothers me too, in light of the one I think I've seen." According to Sullivan, the man has been lost to the myth, and the myth has removed him from the context of 19th-century Concord, Mass. Was he an eccentric genius? Probably. Was he an isolationist hermit with a lazy streak? No. In fact, Walden was just a stroll from town, and Thoreau thrived on visits from friends. Sullivan gleefully complicates our understanding of Thoreau and the values he championed-civil disobedience and environmentalism. Although the book may not be as revolutionary a study as Sullivan claims, he proves a fine companion on yet another pilgrimage to Walden. (Apr.)Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Robert Sullivan doesn't make it quite as far as MCI-Concord. He does get to Walden Pond, though, arriving there in the last chapter of The Thoreau You Don't Know: Like a good Thoreauvian he ends his journey where it begins and writes his book backward, receiving the salute of the starter's pistol just as he breasts the finishing line. He walks to the pond from downtown Concord, an improbable hike these days, navigating interzones of American sprawl, his dash across Route 2 making him feel "like a wild animal, like some woodchuck that was about to get flattened." Getting there at last and staring about him at the famous woods, Sullivan finds himself lapsing into that state of burdened half trance, that stupor of significance, so well known to us 21st-century types. "It was certainly meaningful," he writes, "in a way that has to do with it being a place where a lot of people have showed up over the years thinking it was meaningful. You might say Walden is littered with meaning."
Clearing away some of this meaning-debris, taking the trash tongs to it, is Sullivan's brief in The Thoreau You Don't Know. He proceeds by biography, by history, by reflection, by cheerfully unscholarly scholarship. ("Contrary to almost everything you will read about Thoreau, he did not hate New York City.") Author of the bestselling Rats, which he researched by sitting for a year next to a Manhattan dumpster with a pair of night vision goggles on, he comes to rescue a fellow freelancer from his own reputation. The Thoreau of graduation day pieties must be swept aside. The line about the different drummer, and the line about going confidently in the direction of your dreams -- forget them. Blot them from your mind. Sullivan's Thoreau is not above the world but of it, in it, a wild and witty all-rounder, a powerhouse ironist who has been misread both by his detractors -- those who, like Bill Bryson, find him "inestimably priggish and tiresome" -- and (perhaps more perniciously) by the mass of his admirers.
Sullivan writes lightly and comfortably, but his idea is abstract and severe and rather beautiful. The sterile mystique that exists around Thoreau, he argues, precisely expresses our current state of divorce from the natural world. Venerating a Thoreau that is "separate from us," we absent and absolve ourselves from our own environment -- from the "nature" that doesn't brood in solitude but is exactly where we are. "We see the nature of Walden Pond as separate from the nature of the railroad tracks...as separate from nature in our driveways, where our car has a leak and the oil seeps out and down the street to who knows where.... We don't see our actions, the how we live, as relating to Thoreau's nature, which is in town, right where we live."
So back into Thoreau's nature we go -- his human nature, this time. Sullivan gives us the funny Thoreau, the trickster whose lectures -- as Emerson recorded in his journal -- had audiences "laughing until they cried." He gives us the practical local man: the woodsman, the expert surveyor. This Thoreau inherited the family business -- pencils -- and by synthesizing a new kind of pencil lead created a smear-free writing implement that was considered to be the best in the country. (Let's not allow the poetry of this to pass us by: it's like Don DeLillo having a hand in the invention of Microsoft Word.) Transcendentalist, a label none of them liked anyway, is of course too airy a tag for this Thoreau. He's an Immersionist, a Declivitator, a diver-into-things. A plumber, you might say -- he built Emerson's drain. Sullivan gives us Thoreau in 3-D: a more human humanist and a freer freethinker.
Is he also, as Sullivan claims, "America's proto-James Joyce"? That might be pushing it. Certainly Thoreau had a fondness, a weakness in some cases, for puns. And certainly there's a kind of generative linguistic power inside Walden. But Joycean? Still, I like Sullivan for erring on the side of expansion, for having had his mind blown by Walden. Because (if I may extrapolate from his argument a little) we are all of us, in America, in a continuing state of having our minds blown by Walden -- by its moments of heretical truth, when Thoreau wields his trusty "Realometer" and the clouds of BS are parted; by its moments of intellectual reverie, when his prose creaks with the 17th-century music of Sir Thomas Browne; by its moments of theta-state intensity, when he is "notified of the passage of a traveler along the highway sixty rods off by the scent of his pipe" or sits like Thomas Merton in his cabin, listening to the rain, "suddenly sensible of such sweet and beneficent society in Nature, in the very pattering of the drops, in every sound and sight around my house, an infinite and unaccountable friendliness all at once like an atmosphere sustaining me..."; by its endlessly expanding moments. --James Parker
James Parker is the author of Turned On: A Biography of Henry Rollins (Cooper Square Press), and a correspondent for The Atlantic.
1 The Thoreau You Don't Know 1
2 Where He Was Coming From 21
3 Reading Transcendental 37
4 A Life With Principle 58
5 A Free-Lance 74
6 When the Woods Burned 101
7 The Road to Walden 122
8 A Place to Work 153
9 Imagine a City 188
10 After Walden 226
11 Autumn 259
12 Perfectly Distinct 277
Posted April 18, 2015