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Book Review: The Thoreau You Don’t Know: What the Prophet of Environmentalism Really Meant by Robert Sullivan

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Its always a little tragic when a personal image of a famous legend becomes tarnished by reality. It turns out writer and U.S. Naturalist Henry David Thoreau isn’t the image of perfection he once was. He wasn’t the aloof hermit or temperamental geodesist who famously stared into the soul of nature and man. He wasn’t the philosopher outcast who debated heroically against cackling philistine townsfolk who dared pollute his vision with their ignorance as they polluted his with their by-product philosophy. It turns out that although Thoreau still is an extraordinary writer he lived a common life.

Please join me in being disappointed. Shouldn’t creative types at least have the decency to commit to being weird and eccentric for our enjoyment? I mean, yeah, Thoreau did try to stick it to the man when he objected to having his taxes misappropriated and was imprisoned. But come on, he’s got to give us more to work with than that! He wrote stunningly and transformed perceptions of the world for millions but why does this writer whose quotations are more quotidian than the sunrise have the gall to update his persona from notorious to anonymous so many years after his death? But has our paganist pencil pusher ever had a droll personality or created work that can be stereotyped, categorized, or sit still? Maybe that is why Thoreau’s works have been bounding off shelves for so long.

Robert Sullivan insists we shouldn’t rest on our laurels of who we asserted Thoreau to be and we shouldn’t be beyond pruning them a bit. Sullivan’s gardening tip brings focus to the bucolic philosopher of life’s simple dignities in his creation of a new American idyl called The Thoreau You Don’t Know: What the Prophet of Environmentalism Really Meant. Now our older impressions must be composted and previous perceptions recycled to accept this new and au naturel bathing of the writer who so eloquently explained the shrinking mirage of solitude in his most famous work, Walden:

How far apart, think you, dwell the two most distant inhabitants of yonder star, the breadth of whose disk cannot be appreciated by our instruments? Why should I feel lonely? Is not our planet in the Milky Way? This which you put seems to me not to be the most important question. What sort of space is that which separates a man from his fellows and makes him solitary? I have found that no exertion of the legs can bring two minds much nearer to one another.

Although Thoreau doesn’t turn out to be a character that doesn’t mean the author of his most recent biography isn’t. Robert Sullivan acted as the Jane Goodall for the rodent kingdom and eked out a bestseller in 2005 with his book Rats and then trucked like the do-dah man with a followup best seller Cross Country. You might also have noticed his work from such monoliths as Rolling Stone, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and the New Yorker. The Thoreau You Don’t Know is an ecosystem of things. It's part Canterbury tale, it's part spruced-up biography, and it's part Where’s Waldo except in this version we are looking for Henry Thoreau and at it is surprising where he is found. Sully readership meet BlogCritics.org readership, both readerships meet The Thoreau You Don’t Know:

I’d like to introduce the Thoreau you don’t know, or don’t necessarily know, or know but perhaps never hear people talking about, when people talk about Thoreau. People talk a lot about Thoreau in America – they reference him in these days of ecological awareness, in these green times, in times when, as people all along the political spectrum agree, we can care about the earth, the wilderness, what’s wild.

What is wild and where is wild is exactly where this trail head begins. Where the trail head of wild leads is to something Sullivan reports as an "agree" culture.

The Thoreau You Don’t Know: What the Prophet of Environmentalism Really Meant is published by Collins and is now available for sale. There are currently no restrictions on buying two or three copies for your nature loving friends, just in case they get stoned and forget where they put it.

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About James O'Neil

  • I’m not quite sure what this review is really pointing to. Maybe that Thoreau is a bit of a Zelig character, who takes on the role of what we want him to take on? Possibly. But if his life was common, his mind was far from it. Maybe it was so full that it’s easy for us commoners to pick and choose from it and appear to have taken the full measure. But of course, we’ve only taken the limits of our own.

    Furthermore, it’s not like he has hidden himself. It’s out there in his 2 million word Journal. Better to read that to understand the man than any book length essay that’s assured of being more about the author than Thoreau. I’d suggest an edited version (like the one I blog at the The Blog of Henry David Thoreau [or the book I compiled thereof]), but then you only read the Thoreau the editor has come to know. It’s a start. But if you’re at all intrigued with Henry, then go for it. Give up Twitter for a spell, and read some worthy messages from a cast of characters. All geniuses, and all named Henry David Thoreau.