BookPage Nonfiction Top Pick, February 2014
Wild, irregular and free, Henry Thoreau cut a distinctive figure in 19th-century Concord, Massachusetts, whether carving “dithyrambic dances” on ice skates with Nathaniel and Sophia Hawthorne or impressing Ralph Waldo Emerson with his “comic simplicity.” More at home in the woods than in society, Thoreau began the first volume of his celebrated journals with a simple word that also functioned as his motto: solitude.
But Thoreau was hardly a recluse, as accomplished nature writer Michael Sims shows in The Adventures of Henry Thoreau, an amiable and fresh take on the legendary sage of Walden Pond. As a friend, brother and teacher, Thoreau had many relationships that were critical to his development as a writer and thinker. Whether unconsciously imitating the speech of his beloved mentor Emerson or grieving the death of his brother John, Thoreau was as capable of deep feeling for humans as he was of delighting in the mouse, the fox and the New England pole bean.
By focusing his book on the young Henry, Sims gives us an animated portrait of an uncertain writer and reluctant schoolmaster. He portrays the questing, struggling, stubborn Henry, constantly asking “what is life?” and finding it, most often, in the woods and on the rivers. Henry’s two-week boating trip with his brother John on the Concord and Merrimack rivers shows Henry at his best, singing and paddling and living off the land like the Native Americans he so admired. Henry’s tracking abilities—his sharp eye for an arrowhead or a long-abandoned fire pit—were developed by studying the land as intently as he translated Pindar or Goethe. His time living in the woods led him ever closer to an appreciation for reading the landscape, as in his months-long winter project to study the ice and plumb the depths of Walden Pond.
As in his well-received 2011 portrait of E.B. White, The Story of Charlotte’s Web, Sims has found another subject who brilliantly bridges the worlds of nature and thought. Like White, who visited Walden Pond in 1939 to pay tribute to his predecessor, Thoreau found in plants and animals and seasonal cycles his most enduring material. Similarly, Sims has once again proven himself to be a distinctive writer on the subjects of human nature and humans in nature.