On Thoreau and His Reading


Robert D. Richardson Jr.’s,fullsizeoutput_d91

Thoreau: A Life of the Mind  (1987),

is an thoroughly researched and amazingly rich biography of the man who, for many, is mainly known as living a semi-solitary two years on property owned by Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walden pond, and offering up, as a product of this living experiment, the corresponding book, Walden, which documented his time there. For others, perhaps, Henry David Thoreau is vaguely remembered for his affinity toward nature. If you have any inclination to know more about Thoreau you must read Richardson’s biography of him. If you have heard the name Thoreau and were wondering what he wrote, then you should also read this biography. After reading Richardson’s biography you will be ready to read Thoreau. In fact, I recommend reading this biography before reading or continuing to read Thoreau’s work.

A few years ago I picked up a portable Viking edition of Henry David Thoreau with the intention of reading, Walden. I read through parts of it and then placed it on my shelf always meaning to get back to it.  There Thoreau remained for many years patiently waiting until I was ready to receive his words.

Back in June or July, I cannot remember now, I read about the death of Dr. Robert D. Richardson Jr.. I was surprised to find out he was married to Annie Dillard. She had said, apparently in response to questions regarding Richardson’s literary approach to writing biographies, that her husband, who taught English lit. at various universities until he began a career writing biographies, gathered from Thoreau’s journals a list of everything Thoreau had read. He then read all the books Thoreau had read, and take his own notes on these books extracting paragraphs that he thought might have made an impression on Thoreau.  After reading Dr. Richardson’s obituary I thought I would surely like to read his biography of Thoreau.

For anyone, who loves to read and write, and who is curious about the evolution of a writer, Thoreau: A Life of the Mind will inspire and humble you. Dr. Richardson follows Thoreau as he graduates from Harvard and takes the reader into the whirlwind of books, drafts, joys and sorrows of the man who took nine years to complete Walden, invented a new way to craft pencils, translated works from various languages, and influenced Gandhi all while reading a great deal, writing a great deal and walking a great deal!

Now, I do not have many comparisons regarding Thoreau biographies, and I’m not a Thoreauvian. I do have my 1982 Viking portable edition, which I obtained from a used bookstore, and for which I now feel embarrassed to have in my possession. The introduction makes Thoreau out to be rather one dimensional, and not well liked among his peers; overall a disappointed man who only managed to write two great works. To give the editor of the Viking Portable a fair turn, there is only so much space in an introduction so there is not much room for fleshing out. One is always hopeful with a “selected works” that part of the fleshing out comes with the selection that is made for the reader.  A difficult task! I probably would not be saying much about the editor, Carl Bode, if he did not attach an Epilogue at the end of the Portable where he gives us 13 more pages of Freudian theory applied to Thoreau’s life. If anyone has lingered for a while under the spell of Freud, especially in graduate school (I confess), then you will know where this is going, straight to a mother fixation. Yes, surprise, Thoreau — if anyone these days cares about Freudian application to another human being — had a mother fixation.  Admittedly, Freud made some meaningful observations during his lifetime and they are worth preserving, especially around trauma, but when it came to theorizing about why people do the things they do he was a bit of a johnny-one-note. 

Reading the Epilogue to the Viking Portable from so long ago after reading Dr. Richardson’s biography made me realize how language and theory are strangely similar to fashion. Compared to Dr. Richardson’s depth and care, Bodes Epilogue was not only uninspiring and reductive, but felt old and outdated. For this reason, Dr. Richardson’s work, which does not seek to fit any fashionable theory to a Thoreau, who left traces of himself in his published works and journals, is so important because it is a meticulously pointed biography suited to a man who was serious about his pursuit of life.

Photo from Dr. Richardson’s Biography

There is never a lull in Dr. Richardson’s work where he grows tired of his subject or starts wildly speculating about his subject. Dr. Richardson is careful when weighing in with his own opinion, and is like a skillful quilter who takes journal writings, published works, what others — especially Emerson — wrote regarding Thoreau, and his own analysis and patches them all together, creating a story that is whole and well structured. Like a quilt, one can see the patchwork, but the end result is beautiful, delicate, and made with attention. 

For me, the invaluable nature of knowing what Thoreau read was not so much as satisfying for the gossipy information of his book list, but rather it provided an understanding of how Thoreau’s reading shaped him… to a certain point! after which one is able to see from Thoreau’s perspective, which he himself had discovered about his own curious nature.  While certainly true Thoreau was being shaped by what he read, but too, and most important, he was learning the shape of his own soul by tracing the body of work he was reading.

Reading then is illumined as an entirely personal project of self-discovery. Thoreau had hit upon something very exciting about his own reading.  In effect, Dr. Richardson uses Thoreau’s own understanding of reading to present Thoreau to the world. What inevitably gets excised in any knowledge of what another person read is so much of the content.  One walks away with names of books.  But for what purpose? For this reason, Dr. Richardson’s project to read all that Thoreau read makes sense. How else could he understand Thoreau? If we could say that Dr. Richardson could understand him at all.

What we discover is that Thoreau’s reading was as serious as his life, and that although he stayed mainly in Concord during his lifetime, his reading reveals a man who traveled the world, and dipped his toe into the pools of eternity.

It would, however, be incorrect to conclude that Thoreau neglected the time and space he occupied during his life. He not only looked deeply at the natural world, but, when it came time for him to be a man of action he partook in what he thought to be his duty. He never pledged an oath to state or country as much as to life and what he could discern as right and wrong.  He was against slavery and assisted in escorting slaves to freedom. He had a strong admiration and respect for Native Americans and filled his journals with their wisdom.

What amazed me most about Thoreau is that he did not just write and rewrite in order to polish a piece, but rather his work was thoroughly dynamic. It took him nine years, from when he built his tiny one room shack on Walden pond, to finish, Walden; not because he was a scrupulous and tediously accurate writer, but because his relationship with his work was active and reciprocal. Whenever he went off on an excursion into the woods he would come back and add something to his work or edit something out; the same is true for what he was reading. Walden, therefore cannot be read exclusively as Thoreau’s time spent in the woods, but it must be read as Thoreau’s evolution over the course of nine years.

Beyond the books there is the relationships Thoreau had over his lifetime.  Dr. Richardson is careful and diligent in his work. He maintains Emerson’s enormity as a writer and icon of the times, as well as allows Thoreau’s frustrations with Emerson to be heard.  If the thought is that Thoreau was a pupil of Emerson, then this construct is shown to be untrue. One thing that comes shining through this biography is that Thoreau was able to think on his own, and in fact, preferred to do so.

Finishing the biography of Thoreau I felt as though I were at his beside.  I mourned his death and wondered what a longer life might have given to the world.  I am also ready to read Thoreau.

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Thank you Dr. Robert D. Richardson (June 14, 1934 – June 16, 2020) for giving the world, much like a translator, who goes through life fairly anonymous, the precious gift of a book worth reading.


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