By DAVID CRUMM
Editor of ReadTheSpirit Magazine
Kevin Dann’s new biography, Expect Great Things, puts the surprise in Henry David Thoreau’s 200th birthday party.
Thoreau was born July 12, 1817, and died at age 44 after a long-running battle with tuberculosis on May 6, 1862. He lived at Walden Pond from 1845-1847, leaving his cottage to moved into Ralph Waldo Emerson’s home. Thoreau labored over his book about Walden for years and did not publish it until 1854. Although weakened by the disease toward the end of his life, Thoreau still had plenty of vigor to help campaign on behalf of the imprisoned John Brown—until Brown was executed in 1859 and eventually, by the end of the Civil War, was catapulted into the role of a beloved martyr for the anti-slavery cause.
Thoreau did not live long enough to witness the impact of his own work.
Nevertheless, to this day, millions of American Baby Boomers assume they know a thing or two about Thoreau. After all, Walden became a commonplace idea in our culture, along with catchphrases like “a different drummer.” We all know Thoreau as a rebel who wanted to get away from everybody and live alone in the woods.
Or so we thought.
Now, Dann’s inspiring new 350-page biography of Thoreau’s spiritual life shows us there’s a lot about Thoreau we may have missed. For instance: Was Thoreau rejecting everyone else to become a hermit at Walden? Hardly! Thoreau was so thoroughly committed to warm, friendly relationships that Dann found the defining themes in his diaries and other writings were “love” and “sympathy.” Thoreau relished spending time with friends, family and visitors to the pond.
Here’s another surprise: Yes, he took controversial stances, like opposing slavery, and he once spent a night in jail for refusing to pay taxes. While he did celebrate hearing a different drummer, and courageously followed that beat in many instances—Dann shows us that he was widely loved. Although he never married, he held love and true friendship among the highest of spiritual values—and others responded to him in kind.
Or consider this question: Was he rejecting Christianity to find a faith drawn from nature? Talk to anyone with a casual awareness of Thoreau and they’re likely to dismiss him as a “Transcendentalist”—as if that label describes some alternative to the world’s religious life. Weren’t these Transcendentalists the people who rejected “God” so they could go find their own spiritual ecstasies in contemplating nature, instead? Contrary to that stereotype, Dann shows us that Thoreau was eager to embrace many elements of world religion. In particular, Dann details lots of fascinating evidence that Thoreau was passionately seeking a deeper, truer Christianity and that he considered himself a follower of Christ.
One of the most intriguing sections of the new biography explores Thoreau’s Christian-themed references in his writing. If we believe Dann’s interpretation of Thoreau’s carefully crafted book about his life at Walden, there are a couple of clues that Thoreau believed he had experienced a deeply personal encounter with Christ during his sojourn in the cabin.
In its review of Dann’s new book on January 12, 2017, The New York Times puts it this way: “A reader expecting great things from Dann’s book will certainly encounter aspects of Thoreau he or she has never seen before.”
In a recent interview, Dann said that he was surprised as well as he dug deeper into Thoreau’s life and his writings both in private and public. Dann says that, like many Americans growing up in the second half of the 20th Century, “I fell in love with Thoreau as a 16- or 17-year-old kid in high school. Here was somebody speaking directly to me as a reader.”
To rediscover Thoreau again later in life, Dann said, “was really a process of falling in love with Thoreau over a long period of time. Because of my own response to Thoreau’s writing, I don’t think it was as surprising to me, as it might be to others, that he held love and sympathy as a keynote in his life. But I do think what I found in my research, and have put into this book, is going against the grain of a lot of typical references to Thoreau in the popular conception as some kind of misanthrope.”
What really should surprise readers, Dann stressed in the interview, is the depth of Thoreau’s spiritual reading, reflections and writing.
The New York Times review was written by University of Massachusetts Lowell philosophy professor John Kaag, who zeroes in on this same point. As Kaag puts it: Thoreau’s “enduring popularity has turned on a paring-down of his spiritual eccentricities in order to fit an increasingly reductionist conception of the natural world. Modernity’s vision of nature is narrow and devoid of magic, which in turn, according to Dann, constricts our understanding of its guardian, Thoreau. As a corrective, Dann conjures a naturalist-magician.” In the course of his book review, Kaag takes issue with some of Dann’s spiritual speculations—but, overall, it is a very positive recommendation of the book.
A Pilgrim to Inspire Pilgrims
In our recent interview, I asked Dann whether his book was placing Thoreau in the great tradition of spiritual pilgrims and he said he liked that way of describing this side of Thoreau emphasized in his book. “Pilgrimage is a timeless way of crossing boundaries,” Dann said. “When you’re out wandering through the world, people are incredibly impressed that you’re out on the road with no purpose other than exploration and discovery.”
Thoreau truly wanted to find new connections in the growing body of material available to him from libraries and friends about global religious traditions. He was a voracious reader, although his options for reading were relatively limited compared with the 21st century’s vast access to materials on philosophy, spirituality and religion.
Despite that contrast in what Thoreau could achieve in his wandering and reading—and what contemporary pilgrims can achieve today—Dan hopes that reading about Thoreau’s life may help spark contemporary pilgrims to hit the road.
“It’s true that Thoreau came from a small village and never traveled far—but in the travels he did take, he met the highest standards of opening himself to what he could discover in the world,” Dann said. “He set off on laudable quests to restore the spiritual dimension of the human being. Rediscovering Thoreau’s life today raises the question: Where is that practice of pilgrimage alive in the contemporary world?
“It doesn’t matter how small the world becomes or how sophisticated our technology becomes, it is by literally crossing boundaries that we discover new things. I hope that some who find and read my new book will begin moving through the world, crossing boundaries themselves.”