Mention Henry David Thoreau to many Americans, and if they remember it, it’s most likely as the name of this dry guy they had to read in high school English. For all of the very real impact the man has had on spiritual and public thought (this was the guy, after all, who set down the principles of “Civil Disobedience”), to many, he’s just a vague figure from the past. Leave it to a pair of French graphic novelists to put some flesh and blood on the man: Maximilien Le Roy and A. Dan’s Thoreau: A Sublime Life (NBM) gives life to what was just a name in textbooks.
Their graphic novel opens in Concord, MA, 1845, with the young philosopher coming into town to borrow an ax from the local blacksmith; he uses it to build a cabin in the woods where we see him begin his explorations into the natural world. Presented in largely wordless sequences, with Dan’s line work ably capturing the quiet beauty of the New England wilds, these early sequences lay the groundwork for Thoreau’s eventual elevation of the natural world over sovereign nations.
But if the man were only a quirky eccentric who spent his days watching ants in a glass, he wouldn’t be as giant a figure in American letters. Thoreau was also a man of conscience who recognized the unjustness of slavery – and railed against it in writings and sermons as well as personal action. Briefly jailed for not paying his taxes in protest against the U.S. government’s support of slavery and its war against Mexico, he also was a participant in the underground railroad, helping to transport escaped slaves to Canada.
His non-violent actions are contrasted in the book with those of the violent abolitionist John Brown, who saw Thoreau’s militant pacifism as cowardice. Yet when Brown himself was captured after unsuccessfully trying to foment a slave revolt, Thoreau publicly and fervently stood up for Brown’s anti-slavery beliefs.
Constantly exploring, Thoreau was unique in his day for his delving into Eastern religion and his impatience with traditional monotheism. “For a philosopher like me,” he states at one point, “all sects and nations are equal.” This “plain-living” man could be a pain in the ass to his family (amusingly depicted in a conversation with the aunt who bailed him out jail and more seriously shown in his last days with his sister), and the graphic novel works to establish his occasional cantankerousness and intellectual restlessness. An ill-fated attempt at a romance is also effectively conveyed in a two-page silent sequence, a testament to Dan’s graphic storytelling skill.
A humanizing work about a figure who often appears rather rarefied to students delving into Walden for the first time: wish I’d had this book back when I was in high school.