CRF Blog

The surprising persistence of Henry David Thoreau

by Bill Hayes

In The surprising persistence of Henry David Thoreau for The Nation, Jedediah Purdy reviews Henry David Thoreau: A Life by Laura Dassow Walls.

Thoreau’s political engagement isn’t exactly news, but Walls foregrounds it vividly to show him as part of a set of engaged communities: radical Concord, the Transcendentalist network, the abolitionist movement, and his own militant family. Far from being a hermit, the Thoreau that Walls portrays is, above all else, a social and political creature. He travels to Brooklyn for a visit with Walt Whitman (“It is as if the beasts spoke,” Thoreau wrote of Leaves of Grass) and elsewhere spends evenings with both Douglass and Brown. A key part of his early formation was working as a teaching apprentice under Orestes Brownson, the Catholic convert and proto-socialist who figures prominently in the history of American left-wing thought. He also spent time with the Alcotts and Nathaniel Hawthorne — who, Walls tell us, used Thoreau as the basis for the title character of The Marble Faun, a moody aristocrat rumored to be descended from satyrs.

Yet Thoreau was no aristocrat, Walls reminds us, no matter how he might have struck Hawthorne. He wasn’t a laborer’s son, as Brownson was, and he came from some means. But family members kept dying at inconvenient times, and the result was a life spent somewhere between what George Orwell called the “lower-upper-middle class” and Europe’s impoverished aristocrats. Thoreau found time for hiking trips and boating expeditions with college friends, and the family rose economically during his lifetime, becoming the leading pencil manufacturers in North America. But he always had to work for a living, including stints in his family’s pencil factory, as a schoolteacher and a surveyor, and years as a handyman, doing jobs that could be fitted in between writing and walking. [more]

For a free related classroom lesson, see The Transcendentalists in Action from CRF’s Bill of Rights in Action Archive.