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Robert Sullivan’s “The Thoreau You Don’t Know”

Robert Sullivan has written a book that does not fit naturally into any of the major categories at the bookstore. It’s a mash-up of biography, literary criticism, social commentary and travel writing. This is a challenge for the HarperCollins marketing department, but readers who manage to find the book won’t consider it a drawback.

“The Thoreau You Don’t Know” aims to be a cultural corrective, an effort to set the record straight about the life and works of legendary 19th century author Henry David Thoreau (whose books, incidentally, also are tricky to categorize on bookstore shelves). And Sullivan succeeds wonderfully, I think, in clearing up an array of popular misconceptions.

Sullivan has two primary complaints about the common view of Thoreau. First, Thoreau is constantly referred to as a recluse, a hermit who was only comfortable wandering alone in the woods. In fact, Sullivan shows, Thoreau was quite a social person. He taught schoolchildren, played the flute at parties, hung out with the townspeople of Concord, ran a pencil-making business and lectured widely (often making his audience laugh). When he spent two years living in a cabin by Walden Pond, he frequently had visitors and often walked into town for social occasions. It’s easy to understand why some might assume that Thoreau was a monastic sort — a cursory reading of his best-known work, “Walden,” strongly suggests it — but the facts of his life simply don’t support the popular image.

Second, Sullivan argues against the common belief that Thoreau despised towns and cities, that his ideal lifestyle was to live off the land free of social and economic obligations. While it’s true that Thoreau was a nature lover, he was, as noted, a very social being and spent much of his life in towns and cities. By all indications, he loved his hometown of Concord. He was educated at Harvard. He lived for a time in New York City, where he worked as a freelance writer and took walks with Walt Whitman. In fact, Sullivan writes, Thoreau understood that communities were necessary and valuable, but he argued that there might be better ways to build them and live in them.

“I initially went to ‘Walden’ thinking of it as the archetype of rural living; I was fishing for Thoreau’s anti-urban musings . . . looking for the beginning of the great divide between us and nature, between the man-made and the non-man-made, nature and the city. But wading in, I discovered ‘Walden’ offered something else entirely. I found a vision of a city, a new metropolitan plan. The most complicated part of it all — and at the same time the simplest — is that the city envisioned in ‘Walden’ is not actual, and that ‘Walden’ is not about building a house or a place but rather about building a life and community, starting with you and your own.”

Sullivan says that for Thoreau, the wonders of nature are not limited to untrampled woods and rivers, that nature can be found wherever you happen to be, whether in the woods or in the middle of the city.

“The Thoreau You Don’t Know” also makes a good case for readers to explore beyond Thoreau’s most famous works, “Walden” and the essay “Civil Disobedience.” After you’ve digested those classics, you might spend a little time with Thoreau’s “Cape Cod” or “Wild Apples,” both containing great bits of nature writing and philosophy. But Sullivan says Thoreau’s real masterwork was his journal, which, when he died, amounted to 2 million words of “notes, thoughts, mental sketches — a mind thinking through the act of writing.” Today, Thoreau probably would have poured all his thoughts into a blog.

In the end, Sullivan achieves his basic goal of persuading readers that Henry David Thoreau was not a jerk, was not a hermit, was not a weirdo. He was a little eccentric, sure, but most creative types are. He was a noncomformist before it was cool.

More important, Sullivan does a good job of making Thoreau’s writing accessible and relevant to the modern reader. I was a Thoreau fan before I got this book, but after reading it, I have an even greater appreciation for the son of Concord and plan to dip into some of his lesser-known works. Reveling in Thoreau’s eloquence and wisdom is a inspiring reminder that the madcap pace and complexity of modern life is only one way to live, and it may not be the best way.

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