Bloomsbury £18.99

The Adventures Of Henry Thoreau By Michael Sims - book review

 

The 19th-century American writer, Henry Thoreau, is best-known for Walden, his account of two intense years spent brooding on the nature of life, and the life of nature, in a hut by Walden Pond, Massachusetts. Dying comparatively young, he is an enduringly inspiring figure.

Sims’s subtitle is “A Young Man’s Unlikely Path to Walden Pond”. Though many who met young David Henry Thoreau felt that he was extraordinary, for a long time he must have seemed to anyone outside his adoring family as a wastrel, however inspired. Even a good friend, the novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne, said of him: “He is the most unmalleable fellow alive – the most tedious, tiresome, and intolerable ….” He was odd-looking, with a beaky nose, long arms and short legs, and unimposing at 5ft 7in.

The family business, a precarious one, was pencil-making. Sim explains how the home-grown article was deficient compared with imports from Cumberland, though Thoreau senior (a mere shadow in this book) worked diligently to improve his product. Growing up, Thoreau and his older brother John were inseparable, roaming the fields around their home in Concord, swimming, running, and shooting. In 1833, aged 16, he narrowly passed the entrance exams for Harvard. Sims gives a vivid picture of university life during the perishing Boston winters: a non-bookish student who repeatedly took the same large tome out of the library was discovered to be heating it on the fire and using it as a primitive bedwarmer.

“Contrary to myth, [Thoreau] was not a hermit,” Sims explains, stressing instead the high spirits and wild energy of the young man who loved to hike, ice-skate and explore. It was a wordy, scribbly time, and Sims weaves his narrative with the help of copious journals and letters by friends such as Hawthorne and his wife Sophia, family and acquaintances, above all, Thoreau’s older guru, the Transcendentalist essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Sims leaves the whole question of Thoreau’s sexuality to the side; there were a couple of young ladies he was briefly infatuated with, but so was his brother John, whose experiences he always loved to share. 

Sims brings to life the obstreperous American politics of the day, already marked with crude denigration and lively publicity stunts, and the sights and sounds of bustling Concord as the railways begin to change the old world forever. The result is a much more active Thoreau that we have been used to. This is an absorbing and touching account of his intensely felt life, but what ultimately led him to write Walden is as inexplicable as genius itself.

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