Thoughts on Thoreau: The Winged Life and The Days of Henry Thoreau

Posted December 28, 2011 by Heather in Book Reviews / 1 Comment

This post will conclude my lengthy project on the Transcendentalists…for now. I will be reading more about/from them in the future, but the year is almost over and I have other things I’d like to start reading in January. I have found this project interesting and enlightening, and I’m glad that I decided to wrap it up with two books about Henry David Thoreau. He is my favorite of the Transcendentalists and I have a lot of respect for him.

The Winged Life: The Poetic Voice of Henry David Thoreau
Title: The Winged Life: The Poetic Voice of Henry David Thoreau
Editor: Robert Bly
Format: Paperback
Length: 151 pages
Genre(s): Nonfiction / Poetry
Publisher: HarperPerennial, 1992

This wonderful book, edited and with commentaries by Robert Bly, is a collection of some of Thoreau’s best poetry and prose. It also includes pictures of wood engravings done by Michael McCurdy which are beautiful. Unfortunately, the copy I own was purchased as a used book and some of the pictures were cut out of the book by a previous owner, so I have missed out on a few.

I wouldn’t say that I love Thoreau’s poetry, although I enjoyed it much more than that of Margaret Fuller. I do love his beautiful prose, though. Robert Bly did a great job of collecting some of Thoreau’s best prose and Bly’s commentary is often just as beautiful. This is what Bly had to say of Thoreau’s writing in the Preface:

Thoreau wrote some marvelous poems, which deserve to be known. They are not many. Some of his greatest poetry lies secretively glowing in his prose, as Thoreau himself implied when he remarked that he had two notebooks, one for facts and one for poems, and he often had difficulty deciding where a certain passage belonged.

Bly is right: Thoreau’s prose is written so beautifully that it often has the feel of poetry. His nature writing is by far my favorite and the greatest amount of respect that I hold for Thoreau is due to his environmentalism and love of nature. When I read Walden every year, I feel like I’m living on Walden Pond with him and I can almost smell the fresh air and pine trees. The Winged Life is a collection of pieces from Walden, Thoreau’s journals, essays and travel books that capture his wonderful prose and poetry. I recommend it to those interested in Thoreau and his writing.

The Days of Henry Thoreau: A Biography
Title: The Days of Henry Thoreau: A Biography
Author: Walter Harding
Format: Paperback
Length: 519 pages
Genre(s): Biography
Publisher: Dover, 1982

This is a fantastic biography. There was so much about Thoreau that I didn’t know before. There are many people who are of the opinion that Thoreau was some crotchety old recluse who didn’t want to be bothered with other people. Those people have misread Walden and couldn’t be further off the mark. Thoreau loved to be around his family and friends, and he loved taking children with him on his daily walks so he could teach them about nature. Yes, he was hard-headed and held fast to his beliefs, but that didn’t make him a bad person… although it did frustrate his friends at times.

This biography includes so much about Thoreau’s day-to-day life, as well as the lives of his closest friends and colleagues. Thoreau was actually quite funny and lovable to those who knew him well. Many of the anecdotes about Thoreau in this book made me chuckle. I learned much more about his nature studies and discoveries from this biography, and I also learned just how involved he was in the success of his father’s pencil manufacturing business. I had no idea that Thoreau pencils were so popular at one time. Thoreau’s life was quite interesting and he was so much more than just a guy who many people these days know about from his two-year stint living on Walden Pond in a shack.

Throughout the book, Harding highlights the many descriptions given to Thoreau and his personality by his friends and acquaintances, but I liked Emerson’s description of him best. This is what Emerson had to say about Thoreau at the memorial service after Thoreau’s death:

The scale on which his studies proceeded was so large as to require longevity, and we were the less prepared for his sudden disappearance. The country knows not yet, or in the least part, how great a son it has lost. It seems an injury that he should leave in the midst his broken task, which none else can finish,–a kind of indignity to so noble a soul, that it should depart out of Nature before yet he has been really shown to his peers for what he is. But he, at least, is content. His soul was made for the noblest society; he had in a short life exhausted the capabilities of this world; wherever there is knowledge, wherever there is virtue, wherever there is beauty, he will find a home.

That really does capture how I felt about Thoreau after reading this book. Another description that I think perfectly describes him came from the president of the Concord bank after Thoreau’s death. He wrote to a friend:

Mr. Thoreau was a man who never conformed his opinions after the model of others; they were his own; were also singular. Who will say they were not right? He had many admirers, and well he might for, whatever might be the truth of his opinions, his life was one of singular purity and kindness.

I agree wholeheartedly.

If you want to read a thorough biography of Thoreau’s life, I recommend The Days of Henry Thoreau. I fell even more in love with him while reading this book.

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Reading these two books–but especially the biography–just solidified my love for the man and his writing. There will always be beliefs held by the Transcendentalists that I do not agree with, but Thoreau will always have a special place in my heart for his love of nature and for many of his ideas/beliefs. I wish I could have known him while he was alive.

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