Conversing with Thoreau: An Interview with Laura Dassow Walls

By Bob Blaisdell

Laura Dassow Walls is an English professor at the University of Notre Dame and the author of The Passage to Cosmos: Alexander von Humboldt and the Shaping of America, Seeing New Worlds: Henry David Thoreau and Nineteenth-Century Natural Science and Emerson’s Life in Science: The Culture of Truth. In this year that marks Thoreau’s 200th birthday, we exchanged emails about the writing of her new and first-rate biography, Henry David Thoreau: A Life.


BOB BLAISDELL: You write: “Thoreau was already working his way into the minds of the writers around him, already finding his biographers.” How and when did he work his way into your mind as a subject of a biography?

LAURA DASSOW WALLS: Thoreau worked his way into my mind as an interlocutor as soon as I found Walden in the late ‘60s — a typical teenager hunting for a path of my own. Until 2009, I had absolutely no desire to do a biography of Thoreau. It came as quite a shock when I heard a voice telling me that my next book would be this biography. It was not a conscious decision, nor was it a choice: the voice simply announced it as a fact. I was relieved to learn a lot of biographers experience this — that biographies find their authors, not the other way around. I suspect that, after decades of interior conversation, I needed to break out his voice into a separate, fully externalized identity, fleshed out with his own historical life — perhaps to get on with a life of my own! Or perhaps so the two of us could finally have a real conversation, one on one.

Which stereotype of Thoreau is most wrong? Which one is most right? Or, what does “everybody” think they know about him, but don’t really?

Most wrong? That he was lazy. HA! He was the most driven person I know, and he worked all the time. Even in his sleep. Almost as wrong? That he was anti-technology. No, he was a professional engineer and inventor who loved to work with his hands, tinkering; he needed to understand how systems work, and that’s an engineer’s mind. Which also means understanding how systems fail: Thoreau got very, very good with that one. Most right? That he was a hermit. That’s only half wrong, because he was a hermit about half the time — he’d go hermetic part of every day. Then he’d join the family for dinner and be the life of the party. Catch him in his hermit mode, and he’d ignore you; catch him in his social mode, and he was the loveliest of human beings. His friends knew enough to let him be himself, and loved both sides of him.

A colleague tells you she has decided she is going to write a biography of a famous literary figure. Where does she start? How did you start? When did you begin your work on this biography? How did you keep the body of the biography to 500 pages?

Read absolutely everything your subject wrote, in chronological order; read as much as you can of what they read, also in chronological order. Respond to everything you read, in writing: what do you see happening, moment to moment, in your subject’s mind, life, heart, experience? Read everything that was written to your subject — letters are golden — or about them by anyone with first-hand knowledge. At least that’s what I did, starting in 2009. Note that I’d already written on Thoreau, but as an intellectual historian. Biography required a much more open lens, and more patience; you cannot throw anything away. The most significant things were those I’d previously ignored. As for length, at first it was huge. Getting it to 500 pages meant rethinking and rewriting, for the better part of a year, always seeking the essential. That’s more than editing; it’s conceptual work, and it takes time.

“Outside his window he saw farmers carting peat and muck over the frozen meadows to fertilize the soil. Didn’t scholars do the same? — muck out in winter the fertile soil thrown up in summer?” Can you describe how you prepared the soil of this biography?

By keeping a journal. First off, in conscious imitation, following his method — far in the rear and feebly by comparison, but I can vouch that it works! Second off, in writing this biography, I found that I absolutely had to keep a journal in order to keep my own identity from being swamped by his. Here’s my speculation: the more that biography, as a creative work, requires the biographer to disappear, the more the biographer needs a place to bitch and celebrate and puzzle and be very, very present in the now — that can look pretty mucky, but without muck, nothing good can grow. Also, it helped to keep track of my timeline, our historical moment today, as distinct from Thoreau’s; keeping them apart, so the timelines could be in real conversation, required some vigilance.

There are two moments where I decided I had identified the primary theme of the biography. You write: “In life, John overshadowed his shy brother. In death, John became his brother’s muse […] John’s death became Henry Thoreau’s birth — the birth of the writer who would voice Nature to the world.”

And you write: “From now on, Thoreau would be a writer in an entirely new sense: instead of living a little, then writing about it, his life would be one single, integrated act of composition.”

Are either of these your primary theme?

Both. When John died, Henry’s world broke in two — it’s impossible, I think, to understand Henry without understanding how profoundly he was traumatized by John’s death (which was gruesome). It was by inventing this new way to write — as a single, integrated act of composition — that Thoreau healed the break and became whole. In a real way, reinventing John as his Muse gave Henry his voice. As the reader discovers, Thoreau’s life broke several times, and each time, he repeats this same pattern — indeed, he makes it into his primary subject of study, becoming, in effect, a professional student of death, destruction, and regeneration. In his natural history studies, this allowed him to innovate in forest ecology and plant succession; but as his writings make clear, the material dimension — the clearcut forests, the sacrifice of the scientific specimen, even the breaking of his nation into two warring states — required literary redemption, binding it to a spiritual, or transcendent, dimension. He bound the material, and the poetic, in one integrated act.

You say: “Walking was becoming synonymous with writing, the measure of his steps with the measure of his prose.” Has walking helped you write?

I walk every day and cannot imagine not walking and writing together. Walking will jar loose the words that get stuck. But I don’t walk nearly as well as he did. It’s a discipline, a commitment. I’ve allowed my hours to be colonized by my job, with all the institutional “busyness” that entails — which, ironically, given my responsibilities as a teacher, writer, and thinker, militates against practicing the kind of measured, bodily thought needed to do this work really well. When I teach “Walking,” my students of course dismiss his demand that every one of us walk at least four hours a day; but otherwise, Thoreau warns, we are literally “out of our senses.” That’s quite an indictment. What would it take to return ourselves to our senses? Another way of life. And that’s Thoreau’s point: you must change your life. Unless you are satisfied to be something less than fully sane — which is, apparently, the case for most of us.

Thoreau writes: “It is after we get home that we really go over the mountain, if ever.”  How is this true in your own experience?

This book — the experience of writing it, the challenge of living in such close neighborhood with a mind and voice as rigorous as Thoreau’s — feels to me like that mountain. Producing a book means fretting about deadlines, fussing with a software update, nailing down some bit of evidence, planning what to pack in this paragraph or that chapter. But now that I’m on my way “home,” so to speak, I see that getting over this particular mountain will take time. What did the mountain say? What did the mountain do? Yes, I’ve know this in other, more tangible experiences — including, once, on an actual mountain. I don’t think one ever finishes going over them.

You mention that “the method Thoreau established of developing his writings by watching his words miss or hit home with a living audience stayed with him …”  How have your lectures on Thoreau helped you with the writing of the biography? How much of his published writing did he read aloud? Do you read your writing aloud?

Yes, I read everything aloud. Several times. Lectures have helped, but more with envisioning an audience for the writing, less with the writing itself — the lecture is a special genre, dependent on the ear, and cognitively much more linear. But learning to hear is essential. Toni Morrison taught me this: hearing her speak brought home to me the necessary weight and sound of written words. But the person who showed me how to write this biography is the Maine filmmaker, Huey, while we worked together on his documentary Henry David Thoreau: Surveyor of the Soul [premiering in Concord on July 15]. Huey works by creating conversations on film; he wants every word to be spoken by someone the viewer can see on camera. Nothing anonymous, no controlling voices from On High. His art lies in selecting from hundreds of hours of film and weaving together a compelling story: polyphonic, many-layered. The biographer, it seems to me, is well served by this method.

You’re a good quoter (I made that note to myself when I read this: “On he pressed through the rocks — ‘as if sometime it had rained rocks’ — until he climbed into the skirts of cloud”; do you have any rules for yourself about quoting? Is there an American writer as quotable as Thoreau?

There may be such an American writer — Twain, no doubt (who shares more with Thoreau than one might think), but I haven’t worked with any. Humboldt, whom I adore, is almost impossible to quote. I wanted this biography to be told as much as possible through the voices of those who inhabit its pages, so I sought every quote that gave me that flash of a real voice in a real place: letters, journals, reminiscences. My rules for quoting are to find that little pocket of words that is irreducible, and irreplaceable, and then treat it like a fine diamond. The best register across at least two or three different thematic layers.

Your author photo shows you at Walden Pond. How often do you go there? Have you been there in all seasons?

I have been going to Concord, and to Walden, at least once a year, usually more, since 1991. I have been there at all seasons, and some in between. I have seen it so high it flooded the paths around it; recently it’s been lower than Thoreau ever saw it, with the sandbar across his cove high and dry and wide enough to park a couple of semis — that’s really shocking. I went there after 9/11, and found a community of people who’d done the same. We gathered in silence, or talked, day after day. What makes Walden matter today are the people who go there, and all the people who someday might; it’s a place of the imagination as much as a real pond, a community as big as the world.

Your dedication page is to Richard von Dassow. Who is he?

He is my (late) brother. (My parents dropped the “von” during World War II.)

You write that you wonder how he would have reacted to the atrocities and crimes committed by the government against Native Americans in the 1860s and ‘70s. Which atrocities in our time would have most angered him and roused him to civil disobedience?

Thoreau would be shocked and grieved that the three atrocities that angered him the most are still in the American bloodstream. Slavery is legally abolished, but social and institutional racism continues: he’d stand with Black Lives Matter. The Mexican War ended with the United States claiming the northern half of Mexico; he’d be furious that the border we drew has become a wall that we now defend against Mexico, as if our act of territorial theft gave us the further right to deport a nation’s people from their historical homelands. Speaking of which, America’s treatment of our First Nations would continue to break his heart. But most atrocious of all would be the relentless attack on the planet. He envisioned and worked for the regeneration of ruined lands; that humans would willingly destroy the very conditions that make regeneration possible would be beyond his comprehension and his forgiveness.

Do you wish Thoreau could read your book and respond to it?

Yes. The book is, in a real way, an implicit conversation with him. His responses, in his written words, carry many surprises, but at a certain point the record is closed; the surprises are done. But the living Thoreau was a continual astonishment to his friends. He always brought them something new. I would love to hear him say, “Yes, that’s fine as far as it goes, but…” Or just contradict me outright. That would be delicious.

If you could interview him, what would you ask him?

He wrote so much, interrogating himself at such length repeatedly over so many years, I feel as though he anticipated my every question.

What do you wish you knew about him that someone in his life once knew?

How he moved, laughed, danced, the glance of his eye, the sound of his voice. Every single person who ever met him knew what none of us can never know — how he existed in the living world. Even a 5-second film clip would illuminate. Imagine reading about Charlie Chaplin without any film — whole worlds fall into the void.

Which particular conversation of his, the contents of which haven’t come down to us, do you wish you had a transcript of?

His friend Ellery Channing, who knew them both, said that whenever Hawthorne and Thoreau got together, their laughter “was sufficient to split a pitcher.” I dearly wish we had a transcript of that — just one single bull session would do it. We’d probably have to rewrite American literary history.

Was it fortunate for us or for him that he didn’t marry and have children?

For us. Thoreau would have made a good father — he was a fine surrogate father to the Emerson’s three children, who all adored him; and he would have been a fine partner, as shown by his warm relationships with family and close friends. I’m sure that Thoreau would have written brilliantly, too, but who knows? Given the gender restrictions and economic demands of the time, marriage and children might have clipped his wings. Perhaps we’d have lost the wild questing Thoreau, the haunted Thoreau, the isolated Thoreau whose perpetual sense of difference dares us to break the rules. But then I read a book like Mike Branch’s wonderful Raising Wild, and I think, No, Thoreau as married and a father would have been just fine. He would have written something else just as wild, just as strange and full of wonder.

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