Laura Dassow Walls, "Writing Henry's Life"


Thoreau couplet   

   As the pained little couplet above suggests, the problem of biography lies at the very heart of Thoreau’s profoundly autobiographical art. How can one live one’s life as a poem—a comprehensive artistic act—if one spends that same life bowed over endless sheets of paper, uttering it into language? Emerson could assure his protégé that “Words are also actions, and actions are a kind of words,” but all his life Thoreau faced the problem of both acting well, and wording well, without letting either consume the time he reserved for the other.1 His solution was to make his life itself a form of literary composition, designing his actions to embody and enact his principles; writing could then be an unceasing process, from the inception of possibility to the record of having lived—from the seeds planted in the pages’ endless furrows to the harvest reaped into publications that would embody his life in a world, and carry that life into worlds to come.

   This tight coupling of life and language poses a special challenge to Thoreau’s biographers, who must not only be honest with the shape of the life he composed, but also respond to the challenge posed by his language: that we live with equal intentionality. Thoreau himself was aware of this. His earliest writings were biographical explorations, attempts to seek in other lives a frame sufficient for his own—sufficient, but not limiting. As he wrote in his Journal while drafting “Thomas Carlyle and His Works,” “When I am stimulated by reading the biographies of literary men to adopt some method of educating myself and directing my studies—I can only resolve to keep unimpaired the freedom & wakefulness of my genius.”2  From his 1837 obituary of Anna Jones to his 1859 “Plea for Captain John Brown,” his own biographies were provocations for living better, as well as warnings to live one’s own life rather than another’s. Logically enough, then, Thoreau’s mature writings were virtually all autobiographical— “simple and sincere account[s] of his own life,” as he said in the opening of Walden.3 This is, of course, outrageous, given that his account was entirely unsimple and his sincerity so multiple it spawned a cast of characters large enough to fill a Broadway stage, including several self-mocking self-portraits that highlight his own limitations. Of all those limitations, the most telling was the lack of an ending: “There is not one of my readers who has yet lived a whole human life,” he reminds us with a wink.4  So it shouldn’t surprise that Thoreau died quite literally as he lived, composing the conclusion of his life as carefully and masterfully as ever he composed Walden.

   That no one alive has lived a whole life means that authorship of a life is too large to be borne by a single generation. Thoreau comes back to us as one of Wai Chee Dimock’s “noisy ghosts,” haunting future generations, demanding that we give voice to the dead to lift from them “the gag order that comes with mortality.”5  In my case, the visitation was quite spectral (and I learned with relief that this experience is quite common among biographers): late in 2008, with my biographical study of Alexander von Humboldt on its way to publication, I was preparing for a graduate class by transcribing a list of topics in American literature in need of scholarly attention. When I came to item #4, “A new biography of Henry David Thoreau,” my writing hand simply refused to move. The feeling of paralysis was strong, and a little alarming. In that state of arrest, I heard a voice say, very distinctly, over my right shoulder, “You are writing that biography.” The voice brooked no argument; it wasn’t a command, simply a fact, being communicated to me from somewhere else. I remember gasping in panic, “That’s a decade of my life!” By the time I returned from an unusually long walk, the thing was settled: I was now writing a biography of Thoreau. Simple as that.

   Biography itself makes certain demands, but a biography of Thoreau poses additional challenges. First, he’s not merely a literary figure, but a world icon; worse, just what that icon stands for has caused heated controversy ever since he went from being his hometown’s good son to being its moral gadfly. Thoreau is something of a third rail in American literature: he carries an ideological overcharge; he’s less a writer than a brand. Mess with the brand, and people get mad. How can a biographer thread the needle of truth amidst such a polarized landscape?

   Second, Thoreau was massively productive, and in the way of an iceberg: nearly everything he wrote is below the surface. Of course, one has the familiar monuments, from Walden and “Civil Disobedience” to “Walking” and the John Brown addresses; then one has the great works far fewer have read, most notably A Week and the truly monumental Journal, which to this day has still not been fully published. Then one has the thousands of pages, entirely unpublished, on which everything else rests: the Indian Books, the fact books and the commonplace books, the maps and surveys, the thousands of pages of nature notes, the scores of phenological charts and piles of supporting materials—most of this still unknown even to specialists, and all awaiting excavation. And finally, one has the correspondence, only now coming into full publication—with the limitation that most of the Thoreau family papers have been lost, including quantities of family letters and related materials. How can a biographer acknowledge all this without being swamped by it? All of his writings are events in Thoreau’s life, and must be considered; worse, none of them may be taken at face value, for they are not simple records of a person’s life, but enactions of that person, creating an architecture only partially visible today.

   Third, Thoreau was a profoundly interdisciplinary writer. That is, he didn’t merely accumulate lots of interests in many different fields—poetry and literature, geology, botany, evolutionary and ecological science, politics and social reform, Christian religion and world scriptures, Greek and Roman classics, linguistics, travel and exploration, mathematics and practical surveying, historical cartography, philosophy, ethnography and Native American studies—but fused them in novel ways. Ellery Channing, his closest friend and first biographer, tried to capture this in the unsatisfactory phrase “Poet-Naturalist,” and numerous studies since have traced one or another of the threads in Thoreau’s thinking, including my own first book, on Thoreau as a founder of ecological poetics. No single biography can keep all his interests and explorations in play, even as any good biography must be aware of the style of his uniquely “transdisciplinary” thought and the innovations it opened. Indeed, part of the tragedy of Thoreau’s shortened life, and of the buried masses of his unpublished writings, is that the innovative nature and scope of his work has never fully come to light. How can a biographer comprehend even a fraction of this mélange of knowledges? Yet biography is the only form that can truly respond to this interdisciplinarity, for lives are, as Thoreau winked, lived in wholes, not in enclosed, disciplinary boxes. His life therefore acts as a lens, focusing our attention on the creative synergies that emerge when knowledges are allowed to meet, meld, and fuse, like the melting sandbank in Walden’s closing pages. 

   There is yet another set of challenges faced by any biographer today: just what is a biography supposed to do? Until well into the twentieth century, one could confidently approach biography as a species of moral uplift—the approach used by Thoreau himself; or one could use a more historicist approach, like Emerson in Representative Men, by specifying the uniquely individual elements within a larger historical process. The “New Historicism” of the 1980-90s, in which I was trained, built on social history to place individual lives as manifestations of larger, collective social types or forces: the classic trio of race, class, and gender instituted then still inflects much of literary study today, such that a biographer could comfortably draw attention to Thoreau’s class privilege, or his seeming masculinity, or his inevitable position as a member of the dominant Anglo-European race. During the 1970-80s, psychoanalytical approaches had a particularly good run, resulting in such militantly reductive treatments as Richard Bridgman’s Dark Thoreau; Walter Harding scribbled in the back of his own copy, “Rereading this in 1989 I find it so mean-spirited and picayunish that I have not bothered to finish it.”6  Yet Leon Edel, the great biographer of Henry James, turned psychoanalysis away from the therapist’s couch toward the language of literature: to Edel, the biographer’s real battle is the search for “the figure under the carpet,” the hidden private mythology, “the private dreams of the self.”7 Thoreau, he suggested, was a man who, having “lost the deepest parts of himself,” spent his life struggling to transcend those losses, a struggle resulting in great art.8 Harding was drawn to reading Thoreau as the sexually repressed son of a weak father and a dominant mother, which today sounds reductive; yet Harding’s obvious delight in chronicling Thoreau’s days infuses his own biography with so much life that two generations later it continues to be read.

   The “theory turn” that followed on Derridean deconstruction and Foucaultian posthumanism destabilized any simplistic approach to biography: there is no longer any such thing as a stable and coherent text, let alone a stable and coherent self. Acknowledging the text as a self-referential object and the author as a shifting and contested subject makes biography seem hopelessly old-fashioned. Fortunately, other theoretical avenues offer some direction: feminism, for example, shows that instead of regretting the instabilities of subjectivity, one can deploy them to suggest how people in the past might construct meaning in their lives—including through the embrace of cultural contradictions: how a novelist might, for instance, conclude her plot with a conventional marriage, but give her protagonist so much energy that the reader forgets the marriage and remembers only the strong, self-willed woman. 

   And while poststructuralism warns us that there is no stable self to recover, it also enables the biographer of Thoreau to see how Thoreau himself realizes this, turning it to his own creative advantage to explore shifting selves and multiple voices. Finally, ecocriticism enlarges the scope of the field from spotlighting the human actor on nature’s passive stage, to interweaving the ecological relationships of human actor on nature’s passive stage, to interweaving the ecological relationships of human beings embedded in nature—co-creators of worlds within worlds, from the specifics of Concord’s New England environment (my biography begins, quite literally, 12,000 years ago with the melting of the glaciers), to the discovery that global industrial capital was overturning every facet of Thoreau’s social and political world—even of the planet itself, given (as we are only now beginning to realize) the discovery that humans, too, are now actors on a geohistorical scale. One cannot forget that Thoreau lived out his own search for meaning during the dawn of the Anthropocene—and more to the point, knew it.

   The conclusion is that biography must be a creative act. The scholarship must be rigorous and exacting; but the work built by that scholarship must be as apparently spontaneous yet artfully constructed as a good Victorian novel—a magic that conjures worlds on the page, worlds where tears and raindrops are both wet, where cold stings, heat makes one gasp, animal dung stinks up the street, berries astonish the tongue and birds sing with impossible sweetness in trees just as green as ours, under skies whose clearness would, today, make us weep. The rules of biography must be strictly followed: unlike the novelist, the biographer cannot invent a thing, not even when the facts dissolve, or our subjects close the door on us, or, most maddening of all, simply vanish from view. Nor can the biographer invent a more pleasing temporal framework, nor admonish her subjects when they are rude or cruel; they must exist in their own complete integrity, inhabiting their own sufficient world—a world in which we, just as much as they, experience on our pulses the infinite and terrible surprise of an unknowable future, with no navigational aids in sight.

   Thoreau himself, after his youthful experiments in the form, did little more with biography. As he asked one October day in 1857, after paddling home on the Assabet before a swift northwest wind, “Is not the poet bound to write his own biography? Is there any other work for him but a good journal?”9  In the absence of so many other family records, that very journal allows the biographer to approach Thoreau’s measure of success: “We do not learn much from learned books, but from true, sincere, human books, from frank and honest biographies.”10  My hope is that the biographer who knows enough of the northwest wind to paddle alongside Thoreau might still help him teach us some frank and honest lessons in navigation.



   1. Ralph Waldo Emerson, “The Poet,” Essays and Lectures, ed., Joel Porte (New York: Library of America, 1983), 450.

   2. Henry D. Thoreau, Journal, Volume 2: 1842-1848, ed., Robert Sattelmeyer (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984), 357.

   3. Thoreau, Walden, ed., J. Lyndon Shanley (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1971), 3.

   4. Thoreau, Walden, 331.

   5. Wai Chee Dimock, “The Planetary Dead: Margaret Fuller, Ancient Egypt, Italian Revolution,” ESQ 50.1-3 (2004): 23-57 (35).

   6. Water Harding’s marginal notes courtesy of the Thoreau Society collection, Thoreau Institute at Walden Woods.

   7. Leon Edel, Writing Lives: Principia Biographica (New York: Norton, 1984), 29-30.

   8. Edel, Writing Lives, 166.

   9. Thoreau, The Journal of Henry David Thoreau, ed., Bradford Torry and Francis Allen (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1906), X: 115.

   10. Thoreau, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, ed., Carl F. Hovde, William L. Howarth, and Elizabeth Witherell (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1980), 98.


Laura Dassow Walls Laura Dassow Walls is William P. and Hazel B. White Professor of English at the University of Notre Dame. She is the author of Henry David Thoreau: A Life  (University of Chicago Press, 2017).