Book Review: ‘The Adventures of Henry Thoreau’ by Michael Sims; Mother nature, and the father figure of Ralph Waldo Emerson, shaped the author of “Walden.”

Book Review: ‘The Adventures of Henry Thoreau’ by Michael Sims
Mother nature, and the father figure of Ralph Waldo Emerson, shaped the author of “Walden.”
March 19, 2014 7:12 p.m. ET
Although Henry David Thoreau documented in detail his sojourn at Walden Pond, we don’t really know the young man who will later become a canonical author, or so Michael Sims argues in “The Adventures of Henry Thoreau: A Young Man’s Unlikely Path to Walden Pond.” “I didn’t want to applaud Thoreau,” Mr. Sims explains. “I wanted to find Henry.” The title of Mr. Sims’s book echoes Mark Twain’s “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, ” but unlike those of Huck, the so-called adventures of Thoreau are largely internal.

Thoreau is, after all, the idiosyncratic individual who said he would not have written about himself if there were anyone else he knew as well. And so, for much of his youth, he got to know himself: He composed forgettable poetry, he walked through the woods and he paddled his boat up the Merrimack River. He also began keeping voluminous journals, filled with aphorism, wit and directive. “I want to see a sentence run clear through to the end,” he wrote, “as deep and fertile as a well-drawn furrow.”
Thoreau was born in 1817 in Concord, Mass., and after graduating from Harvard, where, according to Mr. Sims, he was regarded as something of a yokel, he taught briefly in a local grammar school but quit because he was required to mete out corporal punishment. He worked in his father’s pencil business. He and his beloved older brother, John, opened their own school. With John, he traveled by boat from Concord to the White Mountains of New Hampshire, a two-week vacation in 1839 that Thoreau would later transform into his first book, “A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers” (1849).
A deep-dyed enthusiast who loves Thoreau’s prose, Mr. Sims gracefully captures what he calls Thoreau’s “ecstatic response to nature”: Thoreau “wanted not only to read the language of bird tracks imprinted in snow, which were like a cuneiform tablet of events waiting to be deciphered, but to try to understand the snow itself, its varieties and forms, its behavior. He loved water, river and stream and pond, rain and its colder manifestations.”
But Mr. Sims does not add much to our knowledge of the man. And, oddly, as if the youthful adventures of Thoreau were too meager to fill his pages, he spends an entire chapter recounting an event from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s diary about the dredging of the Concord River for the body a hapless young woman who had evidently drowned herself. We learn that the Gentleman’s Magazine was the first periodical to use the French word “magazine” but little about Thoreau’s reaction to Ellen Sewall’s rejection of his marriage proposal. Nor can we be sure how Thoreau the young naturalist felt when he accidentally burned down 300 acres of woods near Concord after striking a match near a clump of dry grass. In his journal he noted with apparent indifference, “I have set fire to the forest, but I have done no wrong therein, and now it is as if the lightning had done it.”

The Adventures of Henry Thoreau
By Michael Sims
(Bloomsbury, 384 pages, $26)
Thoreau burned the woods in 1844; his journal entry came six years later. Mr. Sims attributes thoughts and dialogue to his characters as if they were speaking in the present, which creates an impressive sense of immediacy. But his method does not allow him to ruminate over the gap between an event and Thoreau’s writing of it: After six years, Thoreau still rationalized his part in the local disaster, for which he clearly felt guilty. And though Mr. Sims assures his readers that he has derived all quotations from printed sources, he frequently dips into memoirs composed long after Thoreau’s death in 1862—and thus after Thoreau had acquired a measure of fame. We learn that, in 1840, Thoreau shot a slate-colored sparrow to examine it more closely, but just five years later we hear him tell a group of children that he would never kill a bird merely to study it. We don’t learn when Thoreau changed his mind or how he decided, as he writes in “Walden” (1854), that “no humane being, past the thoughtless age of boyhood, will wantonly murder any creature which holds its life by the same tenure that he does.”
Mr. Sims does nicely delineate the friendship between Thoreau and his Concord neighbor Ralph Waldo Emerson, whom he met in 1837. Already the well-known lecturer who had recently published the Transcendentalists’ bible, “Nature,” Emerson invited Thoreau, as disciple, to live with his family and work as his handyman after Thoreau and his brother closed their school. But the relationship between Emerson and Thoreau was not without undercurrents. When the older man proposed the younger as tutor for his nephew, the recommendation was equivocal: “He may easily chance to pester you with some accidental crotchets,” Emerson wrote to his brother William, “and perhaps a village exaggeration of the value of facts.” After seven unfulfilling months, Thoreau quit the job.
“The Adventures of Henry Thoreau” concludes in 1846. Thoreau is 29. He has not yet begun the deliberate reworking of his journals that would culminate in the works for which we most remember him. He has not yet written the essay known as “Civil Disobedience” (1849), although he has just spent a night in the Concord jail for refusing to pay his poll tax. He has been living near town in a cabin at Walden Pond—he will stay there two years—on land borrowed from Emerson. He recently climbed Mount Ktaadn in Maine, where, according to Mr. Sims, “he never felt more alone or less important.” Shaken by the discovery of his insignificance—and nature’s majestic indifference—Thoreau returns to his cabin realizing that, as Mr. Sims puts it, “he was just as much a product of and participant in the life of a social community—several, in fact, from Concord to the larger world of American literature.” The results of this discovery—Thoreau’s unequivocal commitment to abolition, the defense of John Brown and to his life’s work as writer and ecologist—will bear much fruit in the 16 years left of his life.
Ms. Wineapple’s most recent book is “Ecstatic Nation: Confidence, Crisis, and Compromise, 1848-1877.”

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (, the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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