Thursday, March 26, 2009


I just finished The Thoreau You Don't Know: What the Prophet of Environmentalism Really Meant by Robert Sullivan

I have always been a fan of Walden and Thoreau's other writings. I first read Walden in high school, and have read it once or twice as an adult. I have also read a few biographies of Thoreau over the years.

In 1991, I visited Walden - it was a pretty neat experience. Nothing spiritual, or life changing, but, it did mean a lot to me. Sullivan writes about his visit to Walden towards the end of the book (basically the last section, after he is done recounting Thoreau's life and work). To me, this part of the book seems contrived - it was not my favorite part, and I think he could have worked snippets of his visit in the book - but, that's just me.

Lately, as I have mentioned I have been reading a lot of Emerson. This Thoreau book was interesting in that it had a lot of information on Thoreau's and Emerson's relationship, as well as information about Emerson. At times Thoreau worked for Emerson. At times, Thoreau's writing style exasperated Emerson. As Thoreau got older and more established, their relationship became strained.

One thing that was EXTREMELY interesting, was the cultural, political, and financial situation during the time Thoreau came to prominence. Sullivan discusses the panic of 1837 (which becomes a full blown depression), then recounts another economic downturn in 1857. The descriptions of these downturns sound eerily like our current day downturns. Emerson and Thoreau both wrote during those times, and the conditions had to color their writing and thinking.

I was also interested in the discussion about HDT being, what amounted to the CEO of his family's pencil business. He was an innovator at the time with regard to pencils - now, they'd be featuring him in Wired or Fast Times magazine. I was also interested in his well respected work as a surveyor. And of course, I was interested in the discussion of his development as a writer.

In reading the Amazon customer reviews of this book, you get your typical Thoreau "experts" who downgrade this book (I think maybe they are mad that Sullivan is trying to make Thoreau more palatable to popular consumption, and taking him out of the realm of the experts who are constantly dissecting his life and writing. I also suspect they don't like it because it's not a "scholarly" biography - which, the author makes quite clear that it is not to be) - they recommend in some reviews reading a "real" biography, Robert Richardson's Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind. It is a good book, but it is NOT a quick read (dry, academic), overly interesting read like this one.

Overall, it didn't really change any of my opinions about Thoreau. I had learned when I was younger that Thoreau was not a recluse at Walden, nor did he live a monastic cloistered life at Walden. He spent time in town. People liked him, and I think for the most part, he liked people.

Thoreau has always seemed to me to be an eccentric, or someone, to paraphrase his classic line, who marched to the beat of his own drummer.

I think these days we need more eccentrics who know how to think in patterns and can see relationships. We need people who are keen observers and reporters, which, Thoreau was. We need men (and women) who can think differently about the world, and articulate their feelings about it in an inspiring way as Thoreau did.

Maybe we wouldn't be in the mess we are in.

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