Henry Thoreau

Book Card  -  Volume 1  -  Book Review Number 2  -  Fri, July 1, 1988 8:29 PM

TITLE: Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind
AUTHOR: Robert D. Richardson Jr.
PUBLISHER: U. of California Press

First of all, the book itself is a thing of beauty. Each section is preceeded by a black and white etching which focuses the reader's attention on the simple delights of form and texture that are all around us: falling pine needles, a pine cone, the details of a branch, and finally the whole tree in silence at the edge of Walden Pond.

Thoreau was not a conventional man and this is not a conventional biography, but is rather, as the title suggests, a study of the inner Thoreau, a careful tracing of his development as a writer and thinker. Normally a man's inner life is lost when he dies and the biographer must dwell instead on his deeds and actions. But Thoreau kept a detailed and beautifully written journal that stretches from his apprenticeship with Ralph Waldo Emerson when he was just out of college to his death 25 years later. Professor Richardson leads us step by step through the gradual unfolding of a great mind, with detailed descriptions of what Thoreau was reading and lucid summaries of the key people and events of his time.

I learned a number of things about Thoreau that surprised me: that he suffered from narcolepsy (sleeping sickness), that he was a talented designer of machines to make pencils, and that while down and out in New York City he sold subscriptions to agricultural magazines door to door.

More important was the insight I gained into Thoreau's development as a writer. I think Thoreau is the best writer, in terms of sheer craft and skill with words, that I've ever encountered. But in reading this biography I found that his writing did not come easily. He spent many years perfecting his craft, and he worked at it four or five hours a day every day. Walden went through seven major revisions before being sent to the printer - five years of almost constant work.

Reading this book was a slow, quiet process and at the end of it, when Henry died, I felt that I had lost a good friend. It is an excellent book, but one which should only be attempted by those who have the time for long afternoon strolls.