Henry David Thoreau is one of those authors that readers think they know, even if they don't. He's the solitary curmudgeon with the shack out in the woods, the mystic worshipping solemnly in the quiet church of nature. He's our national Natural Man, the prophet of environmentalism. But here Robert Sullivan--who himself has been called an "urban Thoreau" (New York Times Book Review)--presents the Thoreau you don't know: the activist, the organizer, the gregarious adventurer, the guy who likes to go camping with friends (even if they sometimes accidentally burn the woods down). Sullivan argues that Walden was a book intended to revive America, a communal work forever pigeonholed as a reclusive one, and this misreading is at the heart of our troubled relationship with the environment today. Sullivan shows us not a lonely eccentric but a man in his growing village: a man who danced and sang, who worked throughout his short life at the family pencil-making business, and moved into his parents' house after leaving Walden, but always paid his father rent. Passionate yet whimsical, The Thoreau You Don't Know asks us to re-examine our everyday relationship with the natural world, and one another.
Sullivan (Rats) weaves biography and American history in this playful attempt to recast Thoreau as more a complex (and convivial) creature than a dour and ascetic environmentalist and "anarchical loner." The book may stir controversy among those who have appropriated Thoreau for a particular cause-a welcome prospect for the author, who writes, "I suppose I have an ax to grind. The Thoreau you know bothers me too, in light of the one I think I've seen." According to Sullivan, the man has been lost to the myth, and the myth has removed him from the context of 19th-century Concord, Mass. Was he an eccentric genius? Probably. Was he an isolationist hermit with a lazy streak? No. In fact, Walden was just a stroll from town, and Thoreau thrived on visits from friends. Sullivan gleefully complicates our understanding of Thoreau and the values he championed-civil disobedience and environmentalism. Although the book may not be as revolutionary a study as Sullivan claims, he proves a fine companion on yet another pilgrimage to Walden. (Apr.)
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March 15, 2009
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