Saturday, March 28, 2015

The Adventures of Henry Thoreau

 The Adventures of Henry Thoreau: A Young Man's Unlikely Path to Walden Pond
© 2014 Michael Sims
384 pages

Shortly before retreating for two years to his self-built cabin at Walden Pond, Henry David Thoreau accidentally started a forest fire. A simple attempt at having fish for lunch reduced 300 acres of woodlands to charcoal, and very nearly ignited Concord.  The village pariah would eventually be pardoned, for the town had known him before his attempt at civic ignition;  they knew his reputation as the nice if odd boy from a respectable family of teachers and pencil merchants. Before Henry David Thoreau loomed large over American literary history,  eventually helping inspire the environmental and civil rights movements, Henry was that nice if odd boy. The Adventures of Henry Thoreau examines Henry's life outside of Walden,  giving a history of his life as he lived it -- as a boy, as an awkward, courting teenager, as a adventure-thirsty young man who explored the whole lengths of rivers with his brother.

Michael Sims puts a human face to the man who has cast such a long shadow over American history. Here, Henry is no icon, but a frequently distracted student who barely gets into Harvard and who itches to escape it. Throughout his life, his abiding passion is the outdoors. Raised a Unitarian, Henry was already predisposed to look askance at traditional religion. For him, spirituality was an individual journey, and he communed with God best in the outdoors, skipping church to take long walks in the wilderness. He idealized Nature, and revered the native Americans as having lived more closely connected to it. But his lust for the natural wasn't limited to getting "moony-eyed over mountains";  his mind also had a scientific cast, and those long hours of meticulous study resulted in one work of technical import.  These aren't solitary quests, either; young Henry is companionable. He takes long walks into the woods with  remarkable friends, like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Nathaniel Hawthorne;  spends weeks on a river with his brother, and even takes classes of children into the wild to teach them how to observe,  investigate, and come to understand the world around them. As the books wear on, however, these connections fall away; he leaves his work as a teacher, his brother dies, and his object of affection rejects him on the advice of her father that Henry's prospects are too dismal to make him a fit husband. Throughout, he escapes increasingly more into solitude, and though he dies at home, with family watching over him, he seems a lonely figure sometimes substituting philosophy for people. He sought an authentic life free of distractions, and produced extraordinary work as a thinker -- but in light of the ordinary happiness of his early years, one wonders if the later monkishness was truly necessary.

I to Myself: from the Journal of Henry David Thoreau, Henry David Thoreau
Walden, Henry David Thoreau
"On Civil Disobedience", Henry David Thoreau

* "moony-eyed over mountains", as a skeptical professor of mine once described those who identify as spiritual, but not religious

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