Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Book Review: The Thoreau You Don't Know

Title: The Thoreau You Don't Know: What the Prophet of Environmentalism Really Meant
Author: Robert Sullivan
Rating ***1/2
Tags henry david thoreau, walden, environmentalism, abolition, civil disobediance

This book is both social and intellectual history centered on Henry David Thoreau. It is written fairly well, there's just too much of it, it is more than I ever wanted to know about Thoreau.

Sullivan is at pains to describe the conventional wisdom on Thoreau and then to demolish it. The CW says that the man was an unsociable, humorless hermit. On the contrary, he was well-known in Concord, considered eccentric by some, but a fixture in the town. He used humor to get his points across more easily. He was not anti-technology, he did in fact design some machines and improve others. He was an abolitionist, and, though he wrote a precedent-setting essay on civil disobedience, he was never a pacifist and supported John Brown's raid despite its violence.

The author is also good at giving the context of the times. From our future-shocked era, the mid-nineteenth century may not seem like a time of great change, but it was. First of all was the overwhelming change in travel due to the railroads... a real game-changing event that made distances much smaller. Printing presses kept making technological advances that made printed material cheaper and more widely available.

In all of this, Thoreau spent most of his life studying the ecology of one town, Concord, Massachusetts. He made his study of this small ecology into a vast commentary on the topic of ecology, and for that he has an assured place in American intellectual history.

Publication Collins (2009), Hardcover, 368 pages
Publication date 2009
ISBN 0061710318 / 9780061710315

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