A True American: Searching for the Real Henry David Thoreau

According to the poet Ralph Waldo Emerson, “no truer American existed” than Henry David Thoreau.

Yet, as Emerson detailed at Thoreau’s funeral, the writer and philosopher remained single his whole life, never held a steady job, eschewed drink, meat, tobacco, firearms, religion, voting, and paying taxes, had little interest in material goods, and “chose to be rich by making his wants few.” If that describes a classic American character, it is certainly one which has fallen out of fashion.

Yet Thoreau himself, and his memoir of the years he spent living on the shores of Walden Pond, has only grown in popularity since his death in 1862. If you’ve ever exhorted yourself to “live deliberately,” or despaired that “most men lead lives of quiet desperation,” or just thought it might be nice to spend some time in a cabin watching the birds on the lake, you’ve been influenced by the essayist.

Thoreau was much more than a benign nature lover, though – an abolitionist, political activist, and social critic. He also had an abiding interest and belief in unseen forces determining the movement of the universe, and sought his whole life to uncover the nature of those forces. In his new biography of Thoreau, Expect Great Things, naturalist and historian Kevin Dann reconciles the mystical Thoreau with popular conceptions – and misconceptions – of the quintessentially American thinker. He discussed his book with Signature Reads.

SIGNATURE READS: Can you talk about the genesis for this book? Did your interest in Transcendentalism lead you to Thoreau, or the other way around?

KEVIN DANN: We read Walden my junior year of high school; I was hooked from the opening paragraph. That summer I hiked the Appalachian Trail with two friends, and we carried Walden for inspiration. Thoreau’s voice always felt close and familiar, and his wordplay and powers of observation mesmerized me.

When I was teaching history at SUNY about ten years ago, I was dismayed to discover that Walden was no longer part of the high school canon; my students were totally unfamiliar with Thoreau, beyond a horrific caricature that had sprung up as a kind of “urban legend,” that Henry wasn’t the rugged outdoorsman that had been invented in some circles in the 20th century. They had heard that his mother would bring pies and cakes out to his cabin, or that he’d go home to get his socks washed — crazy!

I knew his 200th birthday was coming up, and my goal was to invite a new generation to fall in love with him, as I had as a teenager.

SIG: There have been many biographies written about Thoreau already. What do you think they get wrong?

KD: Yes, Thoreau has not only attracted many biographers, but his own gift for prose has drawn some of America’s most gifted writers to him. I felt that the 20th century biographers caught either his empiricist side or his Transcendentalist seeker side; I hope Expect Great Things brings these two domains into conversation.

I could never understand why many commentators have made Thoreau out to be a misanthrope. All I could feel from him was his deep and intelligent love for his fellow creatures — humans included. I celebrate that persistent philanthropy (in its original sense of “love of man”), and his perennial quest for the spiritual beings standing behind the physical world.

SIG: You focus on the metaphysical aspect of Thoreau’s life and work, putting him in context of natural phenomena that occurred during his lifetime, which you call “romantic biology,” citing his references to an “invisible fluid” binding all of nature. Yet you write that today, “no acceptable scientific language exists with which to speak about the formative forces that fascinated Thoreau.” Do you think we are continuing to move away from a “romantic biology” that takes into account the invisible, or is science coming around to Thoreau’s vision of an underlying unified force (or fluid) in nature?

KD: I am afraid that Romantic biology – and even the most rigorous phenomenological natural scientific practices – has long ago been squeezed out by both the teaching and the practice of biology. Thirty years ago, Rupert Sheldrake’s quite insufficient “morphic resonance” concept gained some small purchase among professional natural scientists, and a larger following with lay people, but no similarly adventurous spokesperson for a non-material formative force in Nature has come forward since then.

As an undergraduate studying biology forty years ago, I grew restless that “biology” was a misnomer, for what the state-of-the-art practice studied was not life, but the lifeless. The underlying formative forces of Nature that so deeply moved and intrigued Thoreau are still waiting for their 21st century interpreter. I’m working on a book that does just this.

SIG: Today, most people know about Thoreau primarily or solely as the author of Walden, and many only know that book from a handful of its most popular quotes. Why does the book appeal to so many today, when it was ignored in its time, and do you think its success in any way actually harms Thoreau’s legacy?

KD: Walden is perhaps the first indigenous Gita fledged from American soil, and it continues to be refreshingly “modern” since it takes as its subject the eternal verities. I suspect the majority who say they have “read Walden” have not really done so, for there are worlds within worlds to be plumbed there. It is by turns profound, provocative, inspiring, and downright funny in its deep understanding of human nature.

The enormous technological change, imperial expansion, and social upheaval of the antebellum era in America prompted Thoreau to relentlessly ask his neighbors to become better citizens and friends. He was mocked and misunderstood – and jailed – for doing so. Sound familiar? As a moralist whose principled stance against exploitation and enslavement rested on his commitment to spiritual independence for all beings, he would no doubt be mercilessly calling us all to account for our present sins against both Nature and Humanity. And he’d remind us to live more simply and essentially. We need these reminders now more than ever!

SIG: Was there anything you learned about Thoreau in writing this book that surprised you?

KD: Though I’d very much like to leave the most surprising thing I discovered about Thoreau as a surprise – just as he would, and did – I’ll go out on a limb and say that I found that he was clairvoyant for elemental beings (“fairies”!), and also had a series of mystical visions of some radiant goddess, perhaps Sophia herself.

SIG: In recent years some critics have taken a revisionist view of Thoreau, writing that he was a misanthropist and hypocrite. Where do you think these attacks come from? Is there any validity to their criticisms?

KD: No! These writers are projecting their own cynicism as well as their superficial scholarship. Anyone who calls us to be better persons is open to just such attacks, but it is tragic that his ennobled and ennobling life often fails to be recognized in our time because we have fallen prey to the very forces and illusions which he so passionately identified.

SIG: With the results of the recent election, I think many Americans are fantasizing about retreating to cabins in the woods for the next four years. Does Thoreau offer a model for social engagement and political activism other than isolation and retreat? Has his role as an abolitionist and protester become obscured by the greater fame of Walden and how do you reconcile the two aspects of his life? How can his writings help us in this particular moment?

KD: Thoreau’s “retreat” was always an advance, a strenuous, disciplined striving to be better, rather than do better. I see no split at all between the two years spent at Walden Pond and his night in jail or ringing the First Church bell or his support of John Brown.

As to how he can reach across time to support us in our very broken present, one could do no better than to embrace his motto: “expect great things.” Those three words are an injunction and invitation for us all, if we take it in as Thoreau intended it, not in a material, but soul-spiritual sense. It can and will work magic.

In support of that motto, we can all embrace another of his most pithy pronouncements: “Know your own bone; gnaw at it, bury it, unearth it, and gnaw it still.”