“What if the Thoreau you think of as a refuge-seeking mystic,” asks literary journalist Sullivan, “is a humorist with the eye of a social satirist?”
Readers of his previous volumes on whaling, rats and road trips (Cross Country, 2006, etc.) may be surprised by his latest book. Sullivan did not spend a week on the Concord and Merrimack or journey to the Maine woods or Cape Cod; he did not even go to Walden Pond until the final (dazzling) chapter. His text focuses instead on reading, thinking and writing, with Sullivan’s normally remarkable “I” regrettably concealed in a thicket of scholarly diction and convention. All the trappings of traditional academic volumes are here: thick block quotations, lengthy discursive and/or digressive footnotes, cavils with previous Thoreauvians, textual exegeses and dense passages on Transcendentalism, Fourierism, Swedenborgianism. Most chapters do feature some of Sullivan’s familiar touches, including detours, often more engaging than his thoroughfare, on the economy of 19th-century Concord, bean growing, the shipwreck that killed Margaret Fuller and utopian communities. Inviting us to imagine Henry David Thoreau (1817–62) at various pivotal or quotidian moments, the author offers thoughts both novel and illuminating. His research is prodigious, though the book seems to have been written to impress academics rather than to attract general readers. Nonetheless, this Thoreau is a more interesting and complex fellow than the pervasive tree-hugging, hermitical caricature. He could be a jerk, but he was manifestly not a loafer. Sullivan spotlights Thoreau’s work ethic, his business sense, his willingness to help others, his abolitionist sympathies, his belief that nature was all-encompassing and his insistence that change begins within, then ripples outward.
If this is the Thoreau you don’t know, it’s also a Sullivan you don’t expect.