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A Little Man With a Big Nose

Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862)

I have just finished reading Laura Dassow Walls’s Henry David Thoreau: A Life. As I have mentioned before, I don’t usually like biographies, because if you admire the person who is the subject of them, you are devastated when he or she dies in the last chapter. Sitting in my little library, I was devastated when the American I most loved and admired succumbed to consumption at the age of forty-four.

Everyone knows a little about Thoreau, most of it wrong. When I first read the book, I was told by friends that when he moved to his cabin by the shores of Walden Pond, Thoreau “cheated.” What kind of a hermit was he when he spent a lot of time in Concord with his friends. The answer is: He was no kind of a hermit. The first chapter of Walden, or Life in the Woods is entitled “Economy,” not some eremitical mumbo-jumbo.

Long after he returned to his house in Concord, Thoreau lived an active life giving speeches, writing thousands of pages of notes on nature, fulminating against slavery (his house was a station on the Underground Railroad), and supporting John Brown and his followers even after Brown was executed for his raid on Harper’s Ferry. He had read and understood Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species, even while thousands of Americans condemned it as heretical.

I love the above photograph of Thoreau, which also is on the dust jacket of Laura Walls’s biography. Look at those piercing blue eyes. The scraggly beard was to warm his neck to protect him from the ravages of consumption.

This biography is nothing less than spectacular. I was saddened to come to the end of it.

Why do I admire Thoreau so much? I can only say that he was one of the most observant people who ever lived, easily on a par with John Muir and Charles Darwin. It was Thoreau’s notion of land set aside from human occupation as “commons” which led, via Muir, to the creation of the National Park System. Also, I regard Walden as a great book in a century that included such luminaries as Hawthorne, Melville, and Whitman.

Now I’m going to have to read some more Thoreau. Lucky me!

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