Happy birthday Henry David Thoreau


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Editor's note: This column was updated on July 13, 2017 at 12:54 p.m. to reflect the correct spelling of author Kevin Dann's name.

This month marks the 200th birthday of one of America's true individualists and prophets, Henry David Thoreau. Responding to the tenth reunion report for Harvard College in 1847, he described himself as "a schoolmaster, a surveyor, a gardener, a farmer, a house painter, a carpenter, a mason, a day-laboreur, a pencil maker, a glass-paper maker, a writer and a poeteaster."

Thoreau has become a hero and symbol for many of today's popular movements — environmentalism, mindfulness, vegetarianism, and the `back to nature' advocates. His epigrammatic writings make him eminently quotable: "Simplify, simplify, simplify"; "In wildness is the hope of mankind"; "I travel to the beat of a different drummer"; "I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately."

But Thoreau was much more than a source of sound bites. His daily Journal begun in 1837 when he was a newly minted graduate of Harvard College runs to 15 volumes in the Princeton edition published in 1906. His 200 poems, lectures on philosophy and natural history, and his classic writings Walden, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, and The Maine Woods are based on a deeply felt love for the natural world, exceptionally close observation and analysis, and a prescient sense of the role of Nature in our modern world,.

This anniversary year has already brought a flood of new books about Thoreau.

I'll recommend four books — two of Thoreau's own writings and two biographical works that can serve as a good introduction to this unique individual and his work.

To become acquainted with Thoreau, start with his classic Walden, published in 1854, seven years and seven versions after he left his cabin next to Walden Pond in Concord where he lived for two years and two months. I would read the excellent edition published by Beacon Press in 2004 with an introduction by Bill McKibben, the Schumann Distinguished Scholar at Middlebury College. Filled with Thoreau's observations on the pond, the forests around it, and pre-Civil War Concord, Walden serves as a fine introduction to Thoreau's views on solitude, nature, and the tension between working to amass money and property versus working to survive, the latter needing only food, clothing, and shelter and affording man the time and energy to think, study, observe nature and learn one's self. This edition also provides footnotes to identify the sources of Thoreau's many allusions.

Citing Homer (the Iliad was the only book Thoreau took to the cabin on Walden Pond), Ovid, ancient Greek writers, Aesop, the Bible, Shakespeare, Milton, Chaucer, Spenser, and many contemporary sources, Thoreau focuses his erudition and his passion on the questions of, "How do I know what I want?" and, "How much is enough?" One hundred and seventy two years after he built and inhabited his small cabin, his account of his time there is still well worth reading.

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The newly published biography, "Expect Great Things: The Life and Search of Henry David Thoreau," by Kevin Dann (Penguin Random House, 2017), is a readable account of Thoreau's life. Reflecting deep scholarship and research, it provides the historical context of 19th century America as a rich backdrop for the details of the life of this uniquely American individual. The friendship with the older Ralph Waldo Emerson, the death of his younger brother and companion on the Merrimack River trip, the gradually growing disappointment with his fellow men and society, and his deepening relationship with nature are effectively drawn by Dann, a historian who has taught at the University of Vermont. Perhaps more information than the casual reader might need, this book is an excellent source for the reader who wants to achieve a better understanding of the society and milieu in which Thoreau's philosophy developed.

For those who want to more extensively examine one specific aspect of Thoreau's love of nature, Richard Higgins' volume, Thoreau and the Language of Trees (University of California Press, 2017) is a lovingly produced volume. It provides an effective combination of commentary by Higgins, hundreds of quotations from Thoreau's writings, black and white contemporary photographs by Higgins well as classic photos of Herbert Wendell Gleason of the Concord sites described by Thoreau, and reproductions of several of Thoreau's own sketches from his Journal. This book will be treasured by those who share Thoreau's love for trees.

As he writes in Walden: " for I frequently tramped eight or ten miles through the deepest snow to keep an appointment with a beech tree, or a yellow birch, or an old acquaintance among the pines." Thoreau was writing at a time when the forests of Massachusetts and Vermont had been almost totally cleared for farming and pasture land. How thrilled he would be today if he could hike his old terrain, now regrown so it is nearly 85% forested and restored to the pre-Columbian status of dense woods.

Finally, to round out this Thoreauvian quartet, I recommend the beautiful photographic essay entitled, Thoreau's Maine Woods, with an introduction by Bernd Heinrich, Professor of Biology emeritus at the University of Vermont and with photographs by Dan Tobyne. Published in 2010 by Down East, the volume combines Tobyne's spectacular color photographs of Maine with selections from Thoreau's writings about his three trips to a very primitive, wild, and spectacularly beautiful Maine in 1846, 1853, and 1857. The photographs are well matched to the visually evocative prose and bring life to Thoreau's experiences of 160 years ago. This is a beautiful book to leaf through and another opportunity to feel the excitement of Thoreau's relationship to the natural world through his writing.

As 2017 proceeds, there will undoubtedly be a veritable waterfall of books about America's favorite naturalist, environmentalist, prophet, and poet. These four, very different volumes will provide the reader with a fine start. Happy Birthday, Henry David!

— Michael Epstein is a retired physician with a deep interest in reading and writing. He lived in Brownsville for 30 years and now resides in Cambridge, Mass.


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