Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind

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The two years Thoreau spent at Walden Pond and the night he spent in the Concord jail are among the most familiar features of the American intellectual landscape. In this new biography, based on a reexamination of Thoreau's manuscripts and on a retracing of his trips, Robert Richardson offers a view of Thoreau's life and achievement in their full nineteenth century context.

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Dec 9, 2016

"The Sun Is But A Morning Star"

In the concluding chapter of "Walden", Henry David Thoreau offers a parable of a great artist in the city of Kouroo "who was disposed to strive for perfection." In Thoreau's story, the artist spends eons working to carve the perfect staff. By the time the artist was satisfied, his friends had died, Kouroo was no more, the dynasty of the Candhars had ended, the polestar had changed, and "Brahma had awakened and slumbered many times". Yet, the artist saw that "for him and his work, the former lapse of time had been an illusion, and that no more time had elapsed than is required for a single scintillation from the brain of Brahma to fall on and inflame the tinder of a mortal brain. The material was pure, and his art was pure: how could the result be other than wonderful?"

This parable of the nature of the self, freedom, and high purpose, told in the language of Eastern thought, is one of many aspects of Thoreau that Robert Richardson illuminated for me in his biography, "Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind." (1986) Richardson's biography of Thoreau is the first of what has become an outstanding trilogy of studies of American thinkers. Its companions are "Emerson: A Mind on Fire" and, most recently, "William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism." These three biographies cast great light on intellectual and spiritual life and their continuing influence in the United States. Richardson was a professor at the University of Denver when he wrote "Thoreau". He is now an independent scholar.

Richardson's biography of Thoreau (1817 -- 1862) does not begin until its subject reaches the age of 20 and returns from Harvard to Concord, Massachusetts to teach school. Thoreau becomes friends with Ralph Waldo Emerson who encourages the younger man to keep a journal, a habit that will remain with him throughout life and which will constitue the best evidence we have of Thoreau's inner life. Richardson's study draws heavily on the Thoreau's Journal, which when completed ran about 2,000,000 words and which was the source, with Thoreau's other notebooks, for much of his published work.

Richardson aptly characterizes Thoreau as leading a "life of the mind" and his study focuses on Thoreau's intellectual development and on the books which he read. Richardson uncovers and elucidates Thoreau's broad reading over the course of his adult life. Thoreau read broadly in the ancient Greek and Roman classics, and he was greatly influenced by German writers, especially Goethe. His transcendental philosophy was heavily German in origin, as mediated by English writers such as Coleridge. Thoreau read copiously on the history of New England and Canada and on the Indians. He was a careful observer of nature, as is well known, and was influenced by Aristotle's writings on biology, as well as by the classification work of Linneaus, and Agassiz. After the publication of the "Origin of the Species", Thoreau was won over to the developmental theory of Darwin.

I was particularly struck with the influence of Hindu and Indian thought upon Thoreau. This influence is shown in the parable of Kouroo, discussed above, and throughout "Walden" and "A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers". Richardson also made connections between Thoreau and writers and friends on an individual level. For example, Richardson discusses Melville's "Typee" and the influence this book had upon Thoreau in its depiction of human nature, and allegedly primitive peoples. Melville's influence appears lasting upon Thoreau. Richardson discusses Thoreau's friendship with the former Unitarian minister, Harrison Gray Otis Blake, and the letters the two men exchanged. (These letters have been compiled in a volume titled "Letters to a Spiritual Seeker.") As a final example, Richardson also discusses Thoreau's meeting, late in his life, with Whitman and how these two writers came to view each other.

Richardson's book brings home Thoreau's conviction that human nature is basically the same everywhere and throughout time. Thus, for Thoreau, persons in his time or our own, are capable of leading a life of freedom and meaning upon the making of effort. Even though Thoreau was fascinated with the Greek, Roman, and Indian past, these sources taught him that people retained the potentiality of living for themselves. Richardson emphasizes the love of wildness in Thoreau, in man, animals, and nature, just below the surface of what he regarded as some of the superficialites of civilization. In addition to Thoreau's self-sufficiency and love of freedom, Richardson emphasizes Thoreau's love of good companionship. Richardson also argues that following the publication of Walden in 1854, Thoreau's interests turned from the self-sufficiency and freedom, to a recognition of the interconnectedness of all things in nature.

The strongest effect on me of Richardson's book was in making me revisit and rethink the inspiring conclusion of "Walden". After a paragraph devoted to life and the ever-present possibility of regeneration, Thoreau concludes Walden as follows:

"I do not say that John or Jonathan will realize all this; but such is the character of that morrow which mere lapse of time can never make to dawn. The light which puts out our eyes is darkness to us. Only that day dawns to which we are awake. There is more day to dawn. The sun is but a morning star."

Richardson's book inspired me and it encouraged me to want to read and reread Thoreau. Those readers who are also moved to rediscover Thoreau may want to explore the two large volumes of his works available in the Library of America.

Robin Friedman

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