Laura Dassow Walls, the William P. and Hazel B. White Professor of English, has been awarded a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) to complete a biography of Henry David Thoreau.
Walls is one of two College of Arts and Letters professors awarded NEH fellowships for 2015, continuing Notre Dame’s record success. Arts and Letters faculty have received a total of 53 NEH fellowships since 1999—more than any other university in the country.
A renowned scholar of American transcendentalism, Walls began working on the book with the support of a John Simon Guggenheim fellowship during the 2010-11 academic year. She plans to publish the book to coincide with the 200th anniversary of Thoreau’s birth in 2017.
She said the NEH fellowship, her second such award, is a wonderful way to “bring the project home.”
“This gives me the time to immerse myself in this huge, complex project and bring it to completion,” Walls said. “You just can’t do this kind of writing without a large, continuous amount of time to concentrate.
“I am also grateful for the affirmation the NEH provides. It confirms your sense that you might have something to say that is important beyond your circle of specialists and gives you the opportunity to say it.”
Exploring an American Icon
Walls’ book will be the first comprehensive biography of the life of Thoreau since Walter Harding’s The Days of Henry Thoreau in 1965, she said, and will reflect the “immense amount of work” done on Thoreau and his connections in the last 50 years.
“Thoreau carries a deeper, wider message than many other writers,” she said. “He is an American icon who stands for so many different things—many of them contradictory.”
Exploring those contradictions is intriguing, Walls said. In Walden, Thoreau carefully crafted his persona as a hermit, while in fact, he was deeply socially engaged. He was a practical businessperson who wrote critiques of capitalism, she notes, and an inventor who was fascinated by technology, but deeply attuned with nature and protective of the environment.
“He wrote the great essay about non-violence, ‘Civil Disobedience,’ and yet a few years later, he stated that only a violent resistance would end slavery,” she said.
“It’s a fascinating project because you’re trying to untangle who he was underneath all of that.”
Finding Your “Walden”
Thoreau was also a brilliant writer—“a prose stylist”—who had a powerful influence on her as a young person, Walls said.
“Thoreau’s writing touched me in a way that was really important when I was a teen,” she said. “He asked, ‘if you come to terms with your deepest sense of who you are, what do you dream of? What’s your Walden?’ That’s a hard question and it takes a long time to answer. But Thoreau allowed me to begin asking it.”
Walls enjoys sharing that inspiration with her students now, and said that message is something most young people struggle with—even Thoreau himself.
“Thoreau had to go through this as well,” she said. “He was well into his 20s before he had a clear sense of vision. He had no role models; he had to figure it out. So, he understood what it is to be young and ambitious and wanting to do something important.”
Walls hopes the biography will reach a wide, general audience and said she is enjoying the creative writing aspect of the project.
“Although I’m a scholarly writer, not a creative writer, this project is a narrative; I’m telling a story,” she said.
“It’s like writing a novel with a cast of hundreds of characters and riveting events, suspense and crises and resolutions, and triumphs and tears—and it’s the most fun I have ever had writing.”