A New York Times Notable Book
(New York Times
"One of the ten best books of 2017."
(Wall Street Journal
"Laura Dassow Walls has written an engaging, sympathetic, and subtly learned biography that mounts a strong case for Thoreau's importance. . . . Thoreau's political engagement isn't exactly news, but Walls foregrounds it vividly. . . . The details are sometimes wonderful. . . . Walls's Thoreau is truly a man for all seasons, a person who, in many ways, is a 21st-century liberal’s idea of our best self: pro-environmental, antiracist, anti-imperialist, feminist, reformist, spiritual but not religious. It is extraordinary how much there was in Thoreau to support this interpretation, and part of the power of Walls's book is how she traces these liberal and humane preoccupations to the radicalism of his family and of Concord’s intellectual life."
"In this definitive biography, the many facets of Thoreau are captured with grace and scholarly rigor by English professor Walls. By convention, she observes, there were 'two Thoreaus, both of them hermits, yet radically at odds with each other. One speaks for nature; the other for social justice.' Not so here. To reveal the author of Walden as one coherent person is Walls's mission, which she fully achieves; as a result of her vigilant focus Thoreau holds the center--no mean achievement in a work through whose pages move the great figures and cataclysmic events of the period. Emerson, Hawthorne, and Whitman are here; so are Frederick Douglass and John Brown. Details of everyday life lend roundness to this portrait as we follow Thoreau's progress as a writer and also as a reader. Walls attends to the breadth of Thoreau's social and political involvements (notably his concern for Native Americans and Irish-Americans and his committed abolitionism) and the depth of his scientific pursuits. The wonder is that, given her book's richness, Walls still leaves the reader eager to read Thoreau. Her scholarly blockbuster is an awesome achievement, a merger of comprehensiveness in content with pleasure in reading."
"I've always been slightly skeptical of biography doorstops. . . . I read the book in two sittings. It will not be used as a doorstop--ever. . . . Walls, scouring his published and unpublished writings, gives her readers hundreds of these fleeting chances to catch sight of a beautifully untamed but distinctly American existence. . . . Walls comes as close as any biographer has to giving us the wild Thoreau--disorienting and bewildering."
(John Kaag Chronicle of Higher Education
"Superb. . . . Exuberant. . . . Walls paints a moving portrait of a brilliant, complex man."
(Fen Montaigne New York Times
"A superbly researched and written literary portrait that broadens our understanding of the great American writer and pre-eminent naturalist. . . . Magnificent. . . . A sympathetic and honest portrait that fully captures the private and public life of this singular American figure."
(Kirkus Reviews, starred review
"Study the living being, not its dead shell. And this is precisely what Walls has done in her definitive life of this opinionated, often difficult, but always interesting writer. . . . To her great credit, Walls gives us so much more than the quotable Thoreau, the bane of the American literature survey course. . . . She immerses herself and her readers fully in Thoreau’s environment, the fields, meadows, woods, and streets of Concord. Walls’s book is, first and foremost, the product of an extraordinary act of empathy. But it is also an outstanding literary achievement. No biographer has more credibly evoked those blisteringly cold, crystal-clear New England winter days, days that, thanks to Walls’s prose, sparkle, glimmer, and chill for us the way they once did for Thoreau. . . . The great imaginative accomplishment of Walls’s book is to put Thoreau firmly back into the community that fostered and, for the most part, protected him."
"As Laura Dassow Walls makes clear in her excellent Henry David Thoreau: A Life, he was a man of obsessively high principles, self-contained, a stickler for details who
insisted on his own way of seeing the world, however quirky. . . . Walls earns her keep, digging into Thoreau’s aphoristic letters and journals, finding acute reflections by his contemporaries, and drawing a wonderfully brisk and satisfying portrait. . ."
(Jay Parini Times Literary Supplement
"This new biography is the masterpiece that the gadfly of youthful America deserves. I have been reading Henry David Thoreau and reading about him for 40 years; I’ve written a book about him myself. Yet often I responded to Laura Dassow Walls’s compelling narrative with mutterings such as 'I never knew that' and 'I hadn’t thought of it that way.' I found myself caught up in these New England lives all over again. . . . On a foundation of rigorous scholarship, Walls resurrects Thoreau’s life with a novelist’s sympathy and pacing."
(Michael Sims Washington Post