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Cover image for The Thoreau you don't know : what the prophet of environmentalism really meant
The Thoreau you don't know : what the prophet of environmentalism really meant
1st ed.
Publication Information:
New York : Collins, ©2009.
Physical Description:
x, 354 pages ; 22 cm
General Note:
Includes index.
The Thoreau you don't know -- Where he was coming from -- Reading transcendental -- A life with principle -- A free-lance -- When the woods burned -- The road to Walden -- A place to work -- Imagine a city -- After Walden -- Autumn -- Perfectly distinct.
"Thoreau is one of those authors that readers think they know, even if they don't. He's the solitary curmudgeon with the shack out in the woods, the mystic worshipping solemnly in the quiet church of nature. He's our national Natural Man, the prophet of environmentalism. But here Robert Sullivan--who himself has been called an 'urban Thoreau' (New York Times Book Review) --presents the Thoreau you don't know: the activist, the organizer, the gregarious adventurer, the guy who likes to go camping with friends (even if they sometimes accidentally burn the woods down). Sullivan shows us not a lonely eccentric but a man in his growing village, and argues that Walden was a book intended to revive America, a communal work forever pigeonholed as a reclusive one--and that this misreading is at the heart of our troubled relationship with the environment today."--Publisher description.
Geographic Term:


Call Number
921 Thoreau, Henry David 2009

On Order



Robert Sullivan, the New York Times bestselling author of Rats and Cross Country, delivers a revolutionary reconsideration of Henry David Thoreau for modern readers of the seminal transcendentalist. Dispelling common notions of Thoreau as a lonely eccentric cloistered at Walden Pond, Sullivan (whom the New York Times Book Review calls "an urban Thoreau") paints a dynamic picture of Thoreau as the naturalist who founded our American ideal of "the Great Outdoors;" the rugged individual who honed friendships with Ralph Waldo Emerson and other writers; and the political activist who inspired Martin Luther King, Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, and other influential leaders of progressive change. You know Thoreau is one of America's legendary writers...but the Thoreau you don't know may be one of America's greatest heroes.

Reviews 4

Publisher's Weekly Review

Sullivan (Rats) weaves biography and American history in this playful attempt to recast Thoreau as more a complex (and convivial) creature than a dour and ascetic environmentalist and "anarchical loner." The book may stir controversy among those who have appropriated Thoreau for a particular cause-a welcome prospect for the author, who writes, "I suppose I have an ax to grind. The Thoreau you know bothers me too, in light of the one I think I've seen." According to Sullivan, the man has been lost to the myth, and the myth has removed him from the context of 19th-century Concord, Mass. Was he an eccentric genius? Probably. Was he an isolationist hermit with a lazy streak? No. In fact, Walden was just a stroll from town, and Thoreau thrived on visits from friends. Sullivan gleefully complicates our understanding of Thoreau and the values he championed-civil disobedience and environmentalism. Although the book may not be as revolutionary a study as Sullivan claims, he proves a fine companion on yet another pilgrimage to Walden. (Apr.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Kirkus Review

"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 (181762) 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. Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Booklist Review

*Starred Review* A mischievous reporter on the universe, Sullivan has found beauty in a notorious swamp in The Meadowlands (1998) and wisdom in an alley in Rats (2004). In his latest slyly philosophical inquiry, he endeavors to free Henry David Thoreau from his calcified reputation as a cantankerous hermit and nature worshipper. Sounding like your favorite teacher who manages to make history fun and relevant, Sullivan vibrantly portrays the sage of Walden as a geeky, curious, compassionate fellow of high intelligence and deep feelings who loved company, music, and long walks. An exceptional writer mad for puns, Thoreau was also a bold social critic and the crux of Sullivan's stimulating argument a brilliant, tongue-in-cheek humorist. Sullivan, himself plenty saucy, also elucidates Thoreau's radical focus on man's interaction with nature. In command of a great diversity of fascinating material, Sullivan succinctly illuminates the striking parallels between Thoreau's time and ours foreclosures, lost jobs, and rapid technological change. Thoreau remains vital and valuable because of his acute observations, wit, and lyricism and his recognition that the force of life is everywhere, a perception even more essential now that the consequences of the societal choices Thoreau prophetically critiqued have reached staggering proportions.--Seaman, Donna Copyright 2009 Booklist

New York Review of Books Review

IT'S time to pack the old Thoreau - austere, high-minded, solitary - in mothballs and break out the new. This new model, as advertised by Robert Sullivan in "The Thoreau You Don't Know," is a wisecracking, subversive, entrepreneurial party boy, as likely to dance a jig and break into song as preach at you, a man who heads into Concord not just to do laundry at Mom's, but to attend dinner parties where he plays his flute before heading back late at night to his cabin. The cabin, and the woods around them, have also undergone substantial renovations: the shack is a parody of the vacation homes of the day, and the neighborhood, far from a pristine wilderness, is Concord's main wood supply, the mid-19th-century equivalent of "an electric power plant or a gas station," where "the sound of axes chopping was ubiquitous." In his bid to render his subject relevant, Sullivan, the author of the unconventional nature books "Rats" and "The Meadowlands," can sometimes push a little hard, making too many comparisons to "modern" life. Thoreau, we are told, is like "an online blogger"; sheet-music ballads are "the MP3 downloads of their day"; Thoreau's first book, "A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers," is like "a reality TV show"; and finally, this doozy: "To put it in contemporary electronic terms, nature is your hard drive." Which raises the question of just whom this book is for. The author admits that the answer isn't "scholars," and if you already know Thoreau, you already know the Thoreau You Don't Know. Perhaps the book is meant for the many readers who were force-fed Thoreau in sophomore English and came away bored or irritated with the preachy teetotaler, who find that Thoreau the nature saint has precisely zero to do with their lives - other than to make them feel a little bad. Sullivan asks those readers to consider what this more complicated, full-bodied and often funny writer has to say to them now, things they perhaps weren't ready to hear back in high school. One of those things is that nature isn't over there, in Yosemite or Yellowstone, but right here in your day-to-day life. Another is that the idea of thrift, which so often feels grim and, well, just plain un-American, can actually be exciting if it frees us to better spend our time. Sullivan explores the complexity behind the exhortation "Simplify!" Thoreau wrote during his own volatile economic times, when farming and local community were giving way to commuting and industrial life, changes that are still coming home to roost. For Sullivan, a central problem is the dichotomy that Thoreau's reputation helped create: true nature lovers lined up on one wall, and the soiled, cynical rest of us against the other. By keeping Thoreau hermetically sealed in his place, in a pristine museum version of Waiden Pond, we also keep us in our own place, separate from so-called nature. Sullivan's Thoreau is a sloppier environmental hero, less prissy and less somber, who reminds us that being in nature is, among other things, fun. He is both rabblerousing abolitionist and canny entrepreneur, keeping a strict account of his transactions while subscribing to a magazine called Businessman's Assistant. The book starts slowly but picks up just when Thoreau's life does, with the move to Walden to live what he called "a hard and emphatic life." "It was a stunt, plainly put," Sullivan writes. "This was a faraway wilderness retreat right on the edge of town." Its closeness is the point. As Thoreau put it, "It is in vain to dream of a wilderness distant from ourselves." Sullivan's book is an invitation to embrace a new idea of wildness, as something nearby and common-place. Seeing Thoreau as a guy who danced a jig might not save the world. But it does allow more of us to join the party. Sullivan's Thoreau is much funnier than the guy you remember from high school. David Gessner's books include "Sick of Nature" and "Return of the Osprey." He is the editor in chief of the journal Ecotone.