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The Adventures of Henry Thoreau

A biographer takes a leisurely stroll through the environment that shaped Henry Thoreau.

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The Adventures of Henry Thoreau,
by Michael Sims,
Bloomsbury USA,
384 pp.

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Michael Sims’s stroll through the world of the great and peculiar American literary giant Henry David Thoreau is personal and idiosyncratic and goes its own way – rather like Thoreau himself. In his new biography, The Adventures of Henry Thoreau, Sims (who wrote about E.B. White in his 2011 book “The Story of Charlotte’s Web”), takes up whatever he’s interested in and doesn’t worry about thoroughness.

(Thoreau, by the way, was the first writer to make puns about his name.)

“I’m more interested in Thoreau’s imaginative response to nature, for example, than in his role as social critic and moral gadfly, and consequently much of this book takes place outdoors,” explains Sims.

So Sims lets himself meander after American literature’s best meanderer. And wherever Sims stops for a spell, he’s engaged and engaging. He shows us, for example, Thoreau in the midst of composing: “He was discovering that he enjoyed using an outdoor ramble as a unifying cord on which to string his thoughts.”

Sims reminds us, though he doesn’t quote them often enough, that the best biographical material of all is Thoreau’s own journals: “At the time of his death [in 1862], he had written two million words in this private storehouse, filling seven thousand pages in forty-seven volumes between October 1837 and November 1861. He came to realize that his most important task was attending to the natural phenomena of everyday life, and at one point he half-jokingly complained that his observations were becoming more scientific and less poetic.” The journals reveal the man not because of Thoreau’s desire to reveal himself but because they record what Thoreau actually noticed and thought: “He needed the journal for talking with himself. He kept reminding himself to pay attention, to look more closely at fleeting life.”

Thoreau is so good at evoking the immediate natural world. But Sims is at his best when he’s writing about the topics that hamstrung Thoreau – topics such as friendship and romance.

Thoreau was a genius at conveying this and creating our appreciation of animals, trees, stones, and the air but not at characterizing people or accounting for relationships. Even as a child, Sims tells us, “Young Henry was not adept at interpreting facial expressions.”

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