Category Archives: Literature

What Would Henry Think, Say and Do in 2018?

By Ken Lizotte

This month, as we transition into 2018, the various social and political challenges addressed in the book What Would Henry Do? published by Thoreau Farm Trust last year in time for Henry’s 200th birthday, loom today no less significant.

This unique collection of 41 essays — by many of this century’s great Thoreauvian thinkers — ponders critical issues by speculating how Henry might respond to them. After a stressful year of disruption on the national and international scene, the essays in our book might be more essential for us all to contemplate now than at any time in each of our lives.

Thoreau Farm Trust President Ken Lizotte in the Writer’s Retreat at Thoreau Farm.

As I explained in my introduction to the book, back in Henry’s time “societies in every corner of the earth had long been dominated by agriculture, ensuring a life where most everyone remained in one place from birth to death, living on and working off the land just outside one’s door. You interacted with the same friends and neighbors day in and day out, you thought the same thoughts, adhered to the same credos, held similar assumptions.

“Yet as Henry grew and matured in his little hometown of Concord, Massachusetts, the world around him seemed to break into pieces … For Henry and others, such upheavals both confused and disconcerted, raising new questions such as: What should I think about these times? What should I say about these times? And what, if anything, should I do about them?”

Today, at the dawn of a fresh year, we’re faced with the same sort of questions. How we answer them will either solve or exacerbate the many problems of our times. So on behalf of the Thoreau Farm Board of Trustees, I invite you to join us as we facilitate a dialogue throughout the coming year via panels and discussion programs, or by engaging with our blog, or during a quiet visit to Henry’s house and/or Walden Pond, or simply carrying the ideals and messages of Henry with you as move about the many corners of the earth.

Available at Amazon.com.

Who can be found between pages of our book? For starters there’s: Wicked author Gregory Maguire; Laura Dassow Walls, (author of the current best-selling Thoreau biography, Henry David Thoreau: A Life);  Larry Buell, author, (most recently, The Dream of the Great American Novel) and expert on Transcendentalism, Emerson and Thoreau; Robert D. Richardson, author of acclaimed biographies of both Henry and Ralph Waldo Emerson; Frank Serpico (yes, that Frank Serpico, former New York City police detective); actor-activist Ed Begley Jr.; and a former U.S. president who goes by the name of Jimmy! And many more.

Available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, the Shop at Walden Pond, the Concord Bookshop and independent bookstores throughout the US and Canada.

Ken Lizotte is President of the Board of Trustees at Thoreau Farm and lives in Concord, Massachusetts, with his family.

 

 

 

 

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Filed under General, Henry David Thoreau, Literature, Living Deliberately, The Roost

A Humane Being Living a Whole Human Life

Henry David Thoreau: A Life
Book Review By Lucille Stott

“I came here to meet him at last.”

A visitor to Thoreau Farm once left that note on the message board in the birthplace foyer. Those words came to mind as I read Laura Dassow Walls’s terrific new biography, Henry David Thoreau: A Life (University of Chicago Press). You will know what I mean when you take this book in hand, as I hope you will, for Walls has at last unveiled the Thoreau we celebrate at his birthplace. Hoping to put to rest the simplistic, one-dimensional caricatures of Thoreau that proliferate to this day (you will recall Kathryn Schulz’s outrageous hatchet job in the Oct. 19, 2015 New Yorker, entitled “Pond Scum.”), Walls offers readers a meticulously researched, elegantly written story of the complex, multi-layered man he was in life.

"Henry David Thoreau: A Life" by Laura Dassow Walls

“Henry David Thoreau: A Life” by Laura Dassow Walls

 

While acknowledging the fine scholars who came before her, notably Walter Harding, Robert D. Richardson, and David Robinson, Walls says in her Preface, “The Thoreau I sought was not in any book, and so I wrote this one.”

Richardson, whose 1986 biography, Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind remains a classic in its own right, offered a blurb for the book jacket that calls Wall’s work “a magnificent—landmark—achievement” and “the best all-around biography of Thoreau ever written.”

The Thoreau that emerges from Walls’s pages is indeed well rounded. As those who have read him in depth know, he was a busily engaged man who was known and loved by a great many of his contemporaries, including Ralph Waldo Emerson’s son Edward, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s son Julian, and the young Louisa May Alcott. Though Concordians felt free to tease and judge him—he was after all, one of their own—they relied on him to build their sheds and fences, cut the village Christmas tree, offer up keen insights from the dais of the Concord Lyceum, entertain their children on nature walks, and expertly survey and record much of Concord’s landscape. For his part, Thoreau—who traveled more widely than is generally known—never wavered from his devotion to his hometown and took precious time and energy from his own writing to help earn money for his family, tend to the needs of his friends, and work behind the scenes with neighbors to help transport escaped slaves to freedom.

The creative genius and gifted naturalist we find in these pages is certainly familiar. But Walls succeeds in redressing the mischaracterizations that have long kept Thoreau out of reach for those who have seen him as too far removed from their own experience.

“Thoreau struggled all his life to find a voice that could be heard despite the din of cynicism and the babble of convention,” writes Wall. “That he was a loving son, a devoted friend, a lively and charismatic presence who filled the room, laughed and danced, sang and teased and wept, should not have to be said. But astonishingly, it does, for some deformation of sensibility has brought Thoreau down to us in ice, chilled into a misanthrope, prickly with spines, isolated as hermit and nag.”

Walls tells the story of a much less chilly Thoreau and so brings him closer to us. In struggling to overcome harsh criticism, bitter loss, and debilitating illness, Thoreau drew strength from love and joy and from the many human relationships that sustained him. The rough edges are still there, but Walls helps us understand why, providing a welcome corrective to common wisdom.

It took enormous courage and resilience for Thoreau to persist in his original thinking and pursue his own path in the face of relentless pressure to conform to others’—most significantly Emerson’s—ideas of who he should be and what he should do. All his life, Thoreau was made to stand in Emerson’s giant shadow. In the end, it is Emerson‘s intellectual brilliance that can come across as a bit cold, while Thoreau’s passion for life continues to ignite us to action. It was only after Thoreau died that Emerson, awed by the originality of his friend’s journals, realized that the thinker he may have undervalued “has surpassed me.”

Walls writes in her Preface, “Thoreau earned the devotion of friends who saw in him no saint, but something perhaps more rare: a humane being living a whole human life.” That is the Thoreau Walls sought and found, and readers everywhere will likely welcome him warmly.

Lucille Stott is a charter board member emerita and former president of Thoreau Farm Trust.

 

 

 

 

 

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To Begin at the End

“Only that day dawns to which we are awake. There is more day to dawn. The sun is but a morning star.” Thoreau, Walden

February is a stirring month. Or, more accurately, a month of stirrings. Eyes closed, face to the sun, tucked into a sheltered tree trunk or backed by a building’s corner-nook, I find a blissed-out few minutes, where the blush of warmth spreads over me, along the folds of my scarf, even, finally, to my feet. Heat is the seed of dreams. And mine are of summer and its elastic days.

Yes, I/we bow to the intervals of onslaught, the storm also stirring to our southwest. But already, it’s clear the warm will win, already it’s clear that the future is light. So much to do- for that I am thankful.

Gratitude is much on my mind today, and part of that thankfulness goes to you, a reader, on occasion, or in sequence, of this blog’s skein of posts. Over these 4+ years and 100,000+ words, I have written for you. And in doing so, again and again I’ve encountered the serendipity of learning more as I write – more about what I see and find daily, more about what lies in the folds of the world, more about Henry Thoreau, whose spirit and wide, wild intelligence stays with me like a third parent’s presence.

A familiar moment.

A familiar moment.

I send on these thanks now, because my current writing work suggests that I stop writing here on the Roost and focus on the book I’m completing. It’s about search and rescue in NH’s White Mountains (working title – On the Edge Of Elsewhere – Searchers and Rescuers in the White Mountains, University Press of New England, spring ‘18), specifically about the people who do this saving work. And so it’s about mountain altruism, a spirit and practice that runs directly counter to our always-problems of greed and selfishness. It is hopeful work; they are hopeful people. Even in the face of difficulty and tragedy. And yes, Henry Thoreau’s a presence there too: his 1858 wanderings on Mt. Washington appear as a primer on how not to get lost, or stay found.

During my time as a teacher, when my students and I reached the end of reading Walden, with its sunlit image of a morning star, I always asked them what they made of it. By then they were well attuned to the sun’s central presence and morning’s promise, and so, quick to note both. But we often lingered as you do when reaching the door of a life-room, and often I got a version of this: “You know,” said any number of them, “Thoreau’s hope is that this book, our reading, is a beginning, not an end. If the book’s had effect, we’re about to begin.”

Part of the pleasure of writing to and for you has been this feeling of starting afresh, of beginning again and again. Part of the pleasure of saying thank you lies in a sense of its being another beginning.

I hope, if an occasional post here has had effect, it too has offered a start. Thanks for reading toward each beginning; surely, there is “more day to dawn.”

Sandy

Scene from a November visit - choosing.

Scene from a November visit – choosing.

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Filed under Arts, General, Henry David Thoreau, Literature, Living Deliberately, Nature, News and Events, The Roost, Thoreau Quote, Walden