The Adventures of Henry Thoreau: A Young Man's Unlikely Path to Walden Pond
From this refreshing re-examination of a national icon, we learn that Henry David Thoreau was a non-conformist, a bit “on the spectrum” as we might deduce through today’s lens, but not quite the utter hermit some have supposed him to be. The cabin at Walden Pond was arrived at by logical steps, and was neither the beginning nor the end of a short but memorable life. Author Michael Sims describes Thoreau’s youthful progression in vivid, emotionally evocative language.
Thoreau was a child obsessed with science and nature. Surrounded by trees and streams, his people were not farmers. His mother was an early, self-styled abolitionist, and his father was a pencil manufacturer. They were remarkably tolerant of their son’s quirks; Thoreau was a demandingly curious, rough cut, woods wanderer who managed to scrape into Harvard on the bottom rung. These days, his trajectory would be considered pretty typical: a rebel without a cause for much of his youth, he dropped out of his first profession --- teaching --- because he did not believe in corporal punishment, at that time considered necessary to learning.
"From this refreshing re-examination of a national icon, we learn that Henry David Thoreau was a non-conformist, a bit 'on the spectrum' as we might deduce through today’s lens, but not quite the utter hermit some have supposed him to be."
A born naturalist, Thoreau roved the local landscape, seemingly measuring each plot for possible occupation. He once scandalized the region on one of his romps, by starting a fire that went out of control and burned a wide swath, calling forth the fire brigade and understandably inciting local wrath. Though he pretended to ignore the general outrage, Sims records that" he felt an inconsolable grief over the loss of the woods." He also suffered a deep personal loss when his more sociable older brother, John, whom he idolized, died of tetanus: “Henry was holding John in his arms when he gasped his last choking breath."
Thoreau’s friendship with Ralph Waldo Emerson was a saving grace for this odd, reserved young man. Emerson was a powerful intellectual who saw in Thoreau a raw but thoughtful talent. He urged him to keep a journal, which became the basis for Thoreau’s classic observations of life on Walden Pond, in the cabin he famously built and maintained by himself, on land belonging to his mentor. But, as Sims sagely points out, “Even in the wilderness…Henry did not escape the rest of the world." Through his connections with Emerson, he linked his energies with the abolitionist movement. While living in his cabin, he went to jail for a night in protest of an unjust tax. He also gave stirring lectures and composed some of his finest prose.
Sims’s colorful portrait of the boy who became the man ends with Thoreau leaving Walden after an experimental sojourn of two years --- and on the brink of American history.
Reviewed by Barbara Bamberger Scott on February 21, 2014