Delving into the observations of people around Thoreau, such as family, other transcendentalists and townspeople, as well as the famed writer’s works, Sims (The Story of Charlotte's Web: E.B. White's Eccentric Life in Nature and the Birth of an American Classic, 2011, etc.) aims to flesh out this uniquely American genius.
An ecstatic observer of nature, an admirer of the Native American ways, practical builder and idiot savant, Thoreau was both a local boy schooled in the marvels of the natural scenery of the Concord River and a Harvard-educated scholar; he was erudite yet mocked for his homespun ways. With parents who seemed to have been extremely understanding of their son’s unconventional proclivities—his father had made a good living manufacturing pencils; his mother was a vocal opponent to slavery—young Thoreau tried his hand at teaching, like his other siblings, but quit due to the fact that he could not whip the children. Tramping about with his beloved older brother, John, Thoreau also grew more intimate with the “calm and lyrical revolutionary,” Ralph Waldo Emerson, who had moved into Concord with his wife and family in 1835 and suggested that the young freethinker keep a journal. While Emerson had a profound effect on Thoreau, the younger man also touched the poet as having “as free & erect a mind as any I have ever met.” Their deepening understanding encouraged Emerson’s other protégés, like Nathaniel Hawthorne, to overcome their initial criticism of Thoreau’s uncouthness, and his generous mentor allowed Thoreau to live in his home and even build a shack on his newly purchased acres around Walden Pond, where Thoreau would reside for two-plus years. Building his chapters with deliberate, sometimes-tertiary detail, Sims creates a sensuous natural environment in which to appreciate his subject, as the "quirky but talented young man named Henry evolve[d] into an original and insightful writer named Thoreau."
Ably directs readers back to the primary works of Thoreau and his contemporaries.