‘His soul was made for the noblest society; he had in a short life exhausted the capabilities of this world…’ Henry David Thoreau: A Life, by Laura Dassow Walls

September 17, 2017 at 4:08 pm (Book review, books)

  Upon finishing this book several weeks ago, I felt overwhelmed by a mixture of  new knowledge, wonder, and grief. I needed some time to pass before I could write about it.

There is so very much more to Thoreau than Walden, as great as that book is. We have an image of him as a sort of recluse, but nothing could be further from the truth. He was actively engaged in the life of his beloved Concord. His friends were numerous; he was devoted to his family; his interests ranged far and wide. I like Wikipedia’s brisk summation:

Henry David Thoreau (July 12, 1817 – May 6, 1862) was an American essayist, poet, philosopher, abolitionist, naturalist, tax resister, development critic, surveyor, and historian.

Thoreau was born in Concord, Massachusetts, and never lived anywhere else. He was not widely traveled, although he loved to explore nature by boat and on foot. He delighted in the woods of Maine and scaled Mount Kahtadin.  He explored Cape Cod. He went as far afield as Montreal, New York City, and, toward the end of his life, Minnesota. (Ill though he was at the time, he rejoiced in this opportunity “to see the West.”) But always he returned to Concord, relieved and rejoiced to be back in his true home.

The subject of Thoreau’s life requires a biographer who above all has a prose style that is both incisive and gracious. Fortunately, Laura Dassow Walls is just such a writer:

Thoreau is often said to have turned to “Nature,” but what he actually turned to was, more exactly, the “commons”—spaces that, back then, were still open to everyone: woods, fields and hilltops, ponds and blueberry thickets, rivers, meadows, trails up nearby mountains, the long open beaches on the Atlantic shore. Nearly all his writings use landforms and watersheds to explore the commons, expanding our shared natural and intellectual heritage until it touches the Cosmos itself. When Thoreau sailed on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, he traveled the deep stream of time; when he walked the shore of Cape Cod, he dabbled his toes in a wild ocean stretching around the globe; when he stood on the shoulder of Mount Katahdin, he breathed the thin chill air of a planet in stellar space.

Laura Dassow Walls, most probably standing at the edge of Walden Pond

Walls’s account brims with fascinating incidents from Thoreau’s life. (And with sadness as well; life was still a precarious thing in the early nineteenth century.) Thoreau’s tenure in Concord coincided with that of a number of other worthies, among them Nathaniel Hawthorne, Bronson Alcott (Louisa May’s father), and above all, Ralph Waldo Emerson. The friendship of Emerson and Thoreau was rather fraught. They fell out over various issues any number of times, but the basic closeness and mutual respect never wavered.

In addition, Thoreau crossed paths with other notable individuals. During his sojourn in New York City, he was introduced to the young Walt Whitman. He was not quite sure what to make of him:

…a man so coarse and rough yet so gentle and sweet, who loved “to ride up and down Broadway all day,” sitting beside the omnibus driver and declaiming Homer at the top of his lungs.

And yet Thoreau very much liked Leaves of Grass.

And here is a passage that caused me to exclaim in delight. I was deeply grateful for its presence in the narrative, as it occurs as Thoreau and his traveling companion, Horace Mann Jr. are making their way back East, after their sojourn in Minnesota. As they cross Wisconsin, Thoreau’s health becomes increasingly precarious. And yet, at that very moment, a luminous synchronicity occurs:

They passed through Madison on June 27, where the university had just let out for the year, and a twenty-three-year-old John Muir was, that very day, walking north to his home in Portage. Muir, a student of geology, botany, and chemistry, had just finished his first term. Not until he quit school for “the University of the Wilderness” would he hear of Thoreau, who would become one of his heroes; in Muir’s work, Thoreau’s emerging environmental activism would mature into a national politics.

Reading this, I envisioned a map of Wisconsin, with these two paths nearly crossing; two lines not fated to meet, but coming close, an almost meeting that proved to  be deeply meaningful, as  the years passed.

Having been there several times, I can say with confidence that Concord is a town well worth visiting.  Orchard House, home of the Alcott family, Emerson’s house, the Old Manse, Sleepy Hollow Cemetery – all are there to be seen and admired. The house where Thoreau’s family lived while he attended Harvard has become the Concord Colonial Inn. We have twice enjoyed staying at this historic hostelry. (On the occasion of one of those stays, we had the great pleasure of becoming acquainted with Miss Emily Dickinson, distinguished poet.)

If you have the great good fortune to visit Concord, there is, of course, a wealth of related reading material with which to fortify your luggage. One you may not know about, though, is a mystery: God in Concord by Jane Langton.  I recommend a browse in the venerable Concord  Bookshop,   and most importantly, do not omit a visit to the Concord Free Public Library,  which plays such an entertaining role in Jane Langton’s novel.

Orchard House


‘Bush,’ home of Ralph Waldo Emerson


The Old Manse

Sleepy Hollow Cemetery

Concord Colonial Inn


Concord Free Public library, dedicated in 1873

Henry David Thoreau finally succumbed to the ravages of tuberculosis in 1862. He was 44 years old. This is the closing passage of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s eulogy

The country knows not yet, or in the least part, how great a son it has lost. It seems an injury that he should leave in the midst his broken task, which none else can finish,—a kind of indignity to so noble a soul, that it should depart out of Nature before yet he has been really shown to his peers for what he is. But he, at least, is content. His soul was made for the noblest society; he had in a short life exhausted the capabilities of this world; wherever there is knowledge, wherever there is virtue, wherever there is beauty, he will find a home.


Henry David Thoreau in 1854, crayon on paper, by Samuel Worcester Rowse


















  1. Mike Duffy said,

    An excellent account as always, Roberta!
    It’s refreshing to learn of Thoreau’s other interests and friendships with famous contemporaries! Too bad he and young John Muir did not meet. I was only ever schooled in the “Walden” aspects of Thoreau. Thanks, Friend!

    • Roberta Rood said,

      Lovely, comment, Mike – Thanks!

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