The commonly held notion of Thoreau's life, points out Edward Wagenknecht, is that he spent half of it living as a recluse by a pond and the other half in jail for being civilly disobedient. But the two years Thoreau spent on the shores of Walden Pond (living not all that reclusively) and the night he spent in jail for not paying his taxes really tell very little about this highly complex and contradictory man. In this book, which is neither full-scale biography nor work of literary criticism, Wagenknecht presents a "character portrait" of the writer who has both puzzled and fascinated scholars for over a century.
In this 172-page volume, which draws heavily on conclusions of other scholars , the author gives us a good sense of the singular personality that produced such singular work. A lot of the popular misconceptions about Thoreau fall by the wayside. So many of the traits attributed to him -- aloofness, a hatred of modern inventions, a pacifist nature -- are seen to have been only partially true.
To accomplish this, Wagenknecht organizes his chapters by topic rather than chronologically. Sections are devoted to Thoreau's personality, relationships, political views, and attitudes toward nature and religion. A chapter titled "Himself" is packed with detail that gives the reader a vivid sense of how the rugged-featured, agreeably homely man appeared to his Concord friends and neighbors. He dressed in the corduroy garb of an Irish laborer, preferred wild apples and berries to all other food, and, for the most part, lived with great zest and joy.
But in the chapters devoted to Thoreau's opinions and philosophy, the picture is not quite so clear. The only thing consistent about his viewpoints was their inconsistency. In his relationships with others this was particularly so. The same man who wrote, "Woe to him who wants a companion, for he is unfit to be the companion of even himself" was also a devoted friend to Ralph Waldo Emerson, Ellery Channing, Bronson Alcott, and others. And when he came across a hermit living in the Maine woods, he marveled that anyone could live so removed from humanity.
Neither can his views of nonviolence be neatly pigeon-holed. The man so often thought of as a model pacifist could write such a statement as, "I have a deep sympathy with war, it so apes the gait and bearing of the soul."
In subtitling his book "What Manner of Man?" the author has taken on a question that perhaps can never be fully answered. And although he does a credible job of exploring the conflicting angles, Thoreau remains an intriguing puzzle, one as full of rich depths a nd surprises as the work he left behind.