The Many Facets of Henry David Thoreau

In his new book, Walden's Shore, ecology and evolutionary biology professor Robert Thorson presents a reassessment of one of America’s leading men of letters. (Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)

In his new book, Walden’s Shore, ecology and evolutionary biology professor Robert Thorson presents a reassessment of one of America’s leading men of letters. (Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)

While Henry David Thoreau may be viewed as a poster-child of transcendentalism and revered for his environmental consciousness, ecology and evolutionary biology professor Robert Thorson explores many other facets of this extraordinary man and his surroundings in his latest book, Walden’s Shore (Harvard University Press, 2014).

Thorson, a geologist by training and himself something of a poet, champions Thoreau’s refusal to be categorized as either ‘just’ a humanist or ‘just’ a scientist. In fact, he writes that in systems theory, Thoreau’s mind could be classified as an ‘intransitive’ system because, “It had two equally viable equilibrium states: the poetic and the scientific. During the summer of 1852 he was tottering on the threshold between these two states when he wrote his widely quoted statement that ‘every poet has trembled on the verge of science.’ The backdrop for this statement was not Thoreau the poet being seduced by science, but Thoreau the scientist being pushed to the brink of poetry.”

Robert Thorson reads passages of Thomas Cole and Henry David Thoreau to a group of students during a field trip, part of an honors course on Walden and the American Landscape. (Sean Flynn/UConn Photo)

Robert Thorson reads passages of Thomas Cole and Henry David Thoreau to a group of students during a field trip, part of an honors course on Walden and the American Landscape. (Sean Flynn/UConn Photo)

Walden’s Shore is an outgrowth of an honors course on ‘Walden and the American Landscape’ that Thorson developed in concert with professor of early American history Robert Gross and associate professor of photography Janet Pritchard.

“Initially, I carefully reread Walden to keep up with the honors students taking our course,” Thorson says, “and I was struck by how good it was. Years later, when writing about America’s kettle lakes and ponds, the intellectual gravity of Walden and Thoreau’s prose kept drawing me back in. Eventually, I found myself quite literally exploring the landscape of Walden Woods.”

He says the book is an outgrowth of extemporaneous remarks he made to an annual gathering of the Thoreau Society. “It’s the result of my ever-growing curiosity about this man of letters and his immense knowledge of his physical surroundings,” he adds.

Thorson’s publisher, Harvard University Press, notes that the book mirrors the spirit of its subject in that it is considered equally appropriate for a scholarly audience and for non-academics who are simply curious about the man and his relationship with the world around him.

Walden’s Shore has no predecessor in the field of Thoreau studies. It is a welcome addition and a needed reassessment of an iconic figure.

Thorson succeeds in establishing the ‘place’ in which Thoreau lived and wrote from a geological perspective – complete with explanations of such things as the Laurentide Ice Sheet and a discussion of Thoreau’s own surprisingly accurate bathymetric pond survey. But he also explores Thoreau’s physical and emotional relationship with his surroundings as they are recorded by references in his Journal – the things that Thoreau reports seeing and feeling and hearing in his daily travels.

“Above all else,” Thorson writes, “Thoreau was a visual creature … it is no accident that Thoreau became a surveyor, a vocation literally based on lines of sight.”

Jeffrey S. Cramer, curator of the Thoreau Institute at Walden Woods, says, “Walden’s Shore has no predecessor in the field of Thoreau studies. It is a welcome addition and a needed reassessment of an iconic figure.”

What is apparent from reading Walden’s Shore is that author and subject share a kindred spirit, neither willing to succumb to the temptation to ‘specialize’ too intensely, lest the opportunity to explore additional pathways be overlooked.

Signed copies of Walden’s Shore are available at the UConn Co-op in Storrs Center.