MY FIRST ENCOUNTER with Henry David Thoreau was in high school English class. I was charmed, but also puzzled, by his experiment of living alone in the woods so he could "drive life into a corner" and by his gift for pithy statements that forced me to do a mental double take. Some of them, I realized after a little reflection, Thoreau believed are literally true-such as "The swiftest traveller is he that goes afoot" or "Only the defeated and deserters go to the wars, cowards that run away and enlist." Others I found more difficult to grasp: "It is a ridiculous demand which England and America make, that you shall speak so that they can understand you." Or worse yet: "For the most part, we are not where we are, but in a false position." I looked forward to the next class, hoping to have some of these mysterious declarations clarified.
When the time came for discussion, I was amazed that all the other students who spoke up were sure they knew what Thoreau was up to--and they didn't like it one bit. Even the teacher was hostile to his work. Some of my classmates seemed actually angry at Thoreau. They appeared to think he wanted to be alone because he did not like people, and they felt personally rejected.
Over the years, I've learned that the I-hate-you-right-back branch of Thoreau criticism is by no means limited to adolescent readers. A recent New Yorker essay about the man was headlined "Pond Scum." The title referred to Thoreau himself.
This persistent thread helps account for one of the most salient and also oddest features of Laura Dassow Walls' Henry David Thoreau: A Life--its defensiveness. Walls is eager to emphasize what she likes in her subject. Things she finds negative generally get the soft pedal. She seems convinced, more than I am, even, that he needs it.
This is not entirely a bad thing. Walls succeeds in burying the "misanthropic hermit" interpretation of Thoreau under a mountain of facts. He was, on her showing, a devoted son and brother, a steadfast friend for whom human relationships were profoundly important, an active and passionately committed member of a political movement (abolitionism), and an effective and engaged businessman. Walls' Thoreau would no more try to secede from humanity than he would chop off part of his body. I hope that, having been interred by Walls, the misanthropy interpretation will not soon dig itself out again.
Walls also excels in her account of Thoreau's relation to the science of his day. One...