English professor publishes biography on Thoreau
Megan Valley | Tuesday, August 29, 2017
On the cusp of Henry David Thoreau’s 200th birthday in July, Laura Dassow Walls released her latest book — “Henry David Thoreau: A Life” — with the intention to rediscover the American icon and bring him to a broader audience.
Walls, an English professor at Notre Dame, said she was working on a list for her graduate students in 2010 for “what kinds of work needed to be done in the field.” When it came to the idea for a new biography of Thoreau, however, she said she couldn’t bring herself to add it to the list.
“It was like paralysis,” Walls said. “I knew that I was going to write it.”
Both Wall’s Ph.D. dissertation and first book were on Thoreau and she said it was this “deep education background” that made writing such an expansive book in seven years possible.
“I knew from my previous work that I was not satisfied with the biographies that were out there,” she said. “They didn’t match what I knew was there in the primary writings.”
Despite the work she and many of her colleagues have been doing for a number of years, Walls said Thoreau is still incorrectly cast as a “hermit and a misanthrope.”
“If you unpack his life [at Walden] and the rest of his life, you realize he was deeply engaged with the people around him,” Walls said. “Even as he steps out of the community to create this separate space for creative work, he still had a lot of responsibilities. That’s just not the story he wanted to tell.”
The “character” Thoreau creates for himself in “Walden” does not make him inauthentic, though, Walls said.
“When he speaks to people about his ideals, he speaks to them from the depths of his heart and with his most passionately held beliefs,” she said. “That is the voice that rings true. If it didn’t, we wouldn’t find it interesting or compelling. The icon never would have come into existence.”
Thoreau’s moment in history contributed to his status as an icon, Walls said.
“This is a very difficult time in the United States,” she said. “There was slavery; Thoreau was an abolitionist. Women’s rights were being argued. War with Mexico was being discussed and he was opposed to the war. Native American genocide was ongoing, which infuriated him.
“There was a sense that people were justifying and rationalizing that it was OK to do these things and he said ‘it cannot be OK — how can I find a way to understand why it’s not OK? What is the basis, the foundation for my beliefs and moral behavior?”
Walls said that, once again, the country is in a difficult time and that engaging with Thoreau can provide a sense of direction.
“ … To see how he plays a role in his time is to be reminded that we have agency in this time. We’re not helpless,” she said. “We don’t have to be the victim of forces that are so much bigger than we are.
“We can take responsibility for our actions in the world and take seriously what’s become kind of a cliche around here: ‘I want to change the world.’ Thoreau is absolutely serious about that and it’s not a cliche for him.”
It’s been only two months since “Henry David Thoreau: A Life” was released, but Walls said she has already received some confirmation that she found the diverse audience she was writing for.
“I’m getting emails constantly from all sorts of people, of all walks of life … this is wonderful,” Walls said. “They write me out of the blue to say they read my book and that it touched them. That’s incredibly moving for me — I’ve never experienced that with anything else that I’ve written.”