The Life and Search of Henry David Thoreau
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A sympathetic biography of the famed 19th-century transcendentalist.

Commemorating the bicentennial of the birth of Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862), historian and naturalist Dann (Lewis Creek Lost and Found, 2001, etc.) offers a reappraisal of the writer’s life, focusing on Thoreau’s connection to, and celebration of, the invisible and ineffable. To support his analysis, Dann draws largely from Thoreau’s journals, letters, and published writings as well as a three-volume work by Emerson scholar Kenneth Walter Cameron, Transcendentalists and Minerva: Cultural Backgrounds of the American Renaissance with Fresh Discoveries in the Intellectual Climate of Emerson, Alcott, and Thoreau (1958), one of the few secondary sources he references. Dann does not differ from other biographers who examine Thoreau’s self-description as a mystic, but he underscores the significance of mysticism, pantheism, and empathy to the writer’s personality and life choices. Based on Thoreau’s admiration for Sir Walter Raleigh and Raleigh’s “esteem for astrology,” Dann asserts that Thoreau “was convinced that the stars played down into human life.” Thoreau articulated “his sense of his own personal destiny” by using “the language of the stars” and believed in a personal guiding star. Dann explains Thoreau’s depression in 1852 as caused by “a planetary configuration called the black moon." Dann also asserts that Thoreau was attuned to “the ways of the faerie world,” although he revealed his encounters with faeries in “an understated, cryptic form of reporting” so as not to incite his contemporaries’ derision. Although Thoreau thought mesmerism and spiritualism were “idiotic,” he was fascinated by the “invisible fluid” that formed the basis of popular vitalist theories. Despite proclaiming “repugnance for the Church,” Thoreau, Dann believes, “identified with Christ the fellow heretic.” Because he privileges Thoreau’s reveries over his philosophical and political grounding, Dann’s argument at times seems insistent rather than persuasive, but this should appeal to readers interested in Thoreau’s more esoteric beliefs.

Thoreau emerges from this admiring portrait as a man richly connected to the cosmos.

Pub Date: Jan. 3rd, 2017
ISBN: 978-0-399-18466-6
Page count: 400pp
Publisher: Tarcher/Penguin
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1st, 2016


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