The Prophet of Walden Pond: Nature Writer, Tax Dodger, Moralist, Activist, Pencil Manufacturer 200 Years after His Birth, Thoreau Still Surprises

By Cocker, Mark | New Statesman (1996), July 14, 2017 | Go to article overview

The Prophet of Walden Pond: Nature Writer, Tax Dodger, Moralist, Activist, Pencil Manufacturer 200 Years after His Birth, Thoreau Still Surprises


Cocker, Mark, New Statesman (1996)


Henry David Thoreau: a Life

Laura Dassow Walls

University of Chicago Press, 615pp, 26.50 [pounds sterling]

This month marks the bicentenary of the birth of the American author and naturalist Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862). Despite the century and a half that have passed since his premature death--he was 44 when he succumbed to tuberculosis --Thoreau remains arguably the most important writer in the English language on our relationship with the rest of nature.

His book Walden (1854), widely viewed as his masterpiece, is available today in at least 17 different editions, and such is its enduring status as one of the classics of American literature that the novelist John Updike feared it was at risk of the same literary condition as the Bible: exalted but unread. Despite such misgivings, Thoreau's continued relevance is indisputable. Almost every word that he ever wrote--much of it unpublished in his lifetime--is still in print in some form or other, including A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1849), The Maine Woods (1864), Cape Cod (1865), his collected essays and poems and his monumental, two-million-word journal, which runs to 14 volumes.

Thoreau was an important thinker on more than just the natural environment. His other great themes were humanity and the pursuit of a moral life. He was, for instance, a lifelong opponent of slavery and an inveterate source of succour to runaway slaves. In 1845, having withheld his poll tax for years from the US government on the basis that it was morally unfit to enjoy his meagre contributions, Thoreau was arrested and incarcerated.

The time spent in the town jail may have been no more than a single night, but three years later the experience inspired an essay that became one of the foundational texts on the individual's moral duty towards unjust or illegal government. The title of the piece, Civil Disobedience, has helped to frame campaigns of resistance to oppressive regimes across the world and has impacted on the lives of millions of people.

All of this global significance comes from a man whose central legend is that he lived, worked, walked, thought, wrote and died in the small Massachusetts town of Concord, where he was born. Among the merits of Laura Dassow Walls's excellent, wonderfully exhaustive biography is its ability to tease out and unpick many of the myths about Thoreau. One of them concerns his supposed relish for poverty. The author who wrote, "A man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone," came from a family of French Huguenot descent that enjoyed increasing middle-class prosperity based on the factory production of graphite pencils.

Nor was the hermit of Walden Pond too unworldly to get involved in commerce. On the contrary, Thoreau was a tinkerer who loved to create or improve the design of things, from boats, houses and machinery to orchards and pencil production. It was his refinement of the manufacturing process that sealed the reputation of Thoreau pencils as among the finest in 19thcentury America.

The parental household, in which he lived as a lifelong bachelor, appears to have been peaceful and loving, intellectually elevated, artistic, solidly liberal in politics and broad-minded in matters of religion. What helped determine the young Thoreau's attitude towards Christianity was not parental pressure but the many disputes between Concord's various Trinitarian and Unitarian factions. His creed evolved out of lofty indifference to such squabbles and a growing conviction that life's only true text was nature, while the proper place for worship was the woods and fields.

In later life Thoreau's vehicle for such ideas was the many lectures, essays and books that he produced over two decades, in which he perfected a prose admired for its mixture of pithy, aphoristic clarity and dazzling self-confidence. So it is striking to observe that the young author was noted not for any egotism but for his acute reserve. …

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