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The Thoreau You Don't Know: What the Prophet of Environmentalism Really Meant Hardcover – March 17, 2009

4.1 out of 5 stars 62 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

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.)
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From Booklist

*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. --Donna Seaman

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Harper; First Edition edition (March 17, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0061710318
  • ISBN-13: 978-0061710315
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 1.2 x 8.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 15.2 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (62 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,532,818 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Robert Sullivan is the author of Rats, The Meadowlands, A Whale Hunt, How Not To Get Rich; Or Why Being Bad Off Isn't So Bad, Cross Country, The Thoreau You Don't Know, and most recently My American Revolution. His writing has appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times, New York, A Public Space, Runner's World, Condé Nast Traveler, GQ, Rolling Stone, The Independent of London, The London Times and Vogue. He was born in Manhattan and now lives in Brooklyn, after living for many years in Portland, Oregon.

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
This is an exceptionally strange book. At the heart is something of an odd presumption. Sullivan imagines that you don't know who Thoreau was. Or, even if you do know who Thoreau was, he believes that you will recognize that most people don't know who he was. Now, I have to say that I have little doubt that Sullivan has a pretty good grasp of Thoreau. Whenever he writes about Thoreau, just tracking his own beliefs and ideas, I enjoyed the book. But when he was striving to correct misunderstandings of Thoreau, I'm afraid that I lost interest. I was constantly struggling with the Thoreau with whom I am familiar and which is pretty close to the Thoreau that Sullivan wants to put forward, and relating that to this other Thoreau, which Sullivan thinks is the standard or at least widespread view of Thoreau.

Personally, I don't think that people actually have this huge misconception about who Thoreau is. I think there are many people who are simply ignorant, but I'm not at all certain that this Thoreau that you supposedly know is actually all that prevalent. And even if it is, is it a good stepping off point for a book? Shouldn't Sullivan's editor have told him, "Hey, instead of combating this image of Thoreau that people may or may not have, why not just say what Thoreau believed?" Honestly, I blame his editor as much as Sullivan for this book. A good editor would have told him that this was a terrible pretext for a book. At most, this idea of the Thoreau that everyone knows versus the Thoreau that "you" don't know should have been an aside, not the basis for exposition.

I am not the target audience for the book and Sullivan pretty much admits that. That is, I've read both a great deal by and about Thoreau. I've read many of his major essays, sometimes (like "Walking") several times.
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Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
It's a process common in the treatment of historical figures. First, deification-- this man was a prophetic genius. Then, debunking-- this man was a contemptible hypocrite. Then, if we're lucky, a book like this comes along as an antidote to the swings of the pendulum.

Sullivan does not have shocking new revelations to share; serious students of Thoreau won't find anything here that they didn't already know. What he does suggest is that Thoreau has been over- (or mis-) simplified in popular knowledge as a grumpy antisocial hermit who isolated himself in the wilderness (and then dinged for cheating on that by slipping back to town too often).

What he does try to do is create a picture of Thoreau without trying to force that picture to match some grand, sweeping picture. It's a difficult trick to pull off, because ultimately he finds that Thoreau is not a philosopher-giant, a over-focused ideologue or genius of lofty vision-- basically he finds that Thoreau was, like, a guy trying to, you know, do some stuff.

By connecting Thoreau to his world, his times, and the people around him, Sullivan connects us to Thoreau's humanity, his wit, and his sometimes-contradictory nature. It is, for instance, refreshing to see the two years at Walden not as a reality escape, but a goofy reality check.

Many claims (and excuses) have been made in Thoreau's name (his friend Emerson is at the front of a long parade of them). Sullivan's quest to find Thoreau the Guy puts him not only back in perspective, but also within reach of ordinary folks, his insights and ideas not just the stuff of what we could do if we were someday rich and free to do That Sort of Thing, but the kind of guidance that we can use in ordinary daily life.
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Now, if you're going to write a book called The Thoreau You Don't Know, you better give the reader something big and blazing that we don't know about him, especially to those diehard fans out there like me. Of course I'm writing this review from a different perspective since I do know a lot about him, having read Walden over ten times, and many biographies on his life. I can see what the writer was trying to do, show him in a different light than as a prophet of nature that lived in the woods. But honestly, I have to say I didn't learn much about Thoreau in this book that I didn't already know. I do like how the writer goes into the transcendental movement, and gives some context to his life. He also does an excellent job starting chapters. The sentences that begin each one grab the reader, and keep him interested. I think they are the best chapter beginnings I have ever read of any nonfiction book. Still after reading I didn't really get a sense of a new Thoreau, or the real Thoreau. The only way to do that is to read Walden many times and his essays, particularly the one on John Brown, the abolitionist. Then we see who this passionate man really is.
I wish the writer had changed the title of this book, because it is a great book for those who don't know much about him. I just felt the title was misleading to those who do.
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Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
Sullivan is to be commended for trying to spread the word of Thoreau, but the truth is that one would be far better off simply reading Thoreau's works. I've read Walden maybe a dozen times, and it's one of the reasons I have come to value wilderness and solitude so highly. But there is nothing in this book that supersedes or really even enhances that book, or most of the rest of Thoreau's oeuvre.

I've read much of what Thoreau wrote, including the oft-fabulous diaries, which stretch for miles but also contain some of Hank's finest moments. This book has no such moments, and while I appreciate that it may bring new readers to one of the very finest of American thinkers/writers, it's nowhere near the quality of the many fine biographies of HDT already out there.

Nonetheless, any time I see Thoreau's name it makes me smile, and anyone willing to spend this much time to "correct" misconceptions, even if there truly aren't that many, deserves kudos.

Read Walden and especially the diaries. That's where "what he really meant" is most in evidence.
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