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Video: Thoreau biographer Laura Dassow Walls on why he's needed now more than ever

Author: Todd Boruff

 

“There have been periods when it was hard to convince people that (Henry David Thoreau) was interesting or worth paying attention to because he seemed out of sync with the mood of America, but he's very much in sync now.” 

— Laura Dassow Walls

Laura Dassow Walls is William P. and Hazel B. White Professor of English. Her research focuses on literature and science, with a special concentration on Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and on American transcendentalism more generally. More information can be found at her faculty page.


Video Transcript

I study 19th century literature, mostly American. I've got some interest in German and British as well and I also have an interest in the history and philosophy of science.

I grew up spending a lot of time outdoors and I always wanted to be a scientist, and in the mean time I also loved writing and I imagined being a writer, so I was drawn in that same moment to the writings of Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson and of course, they're very nature oriented, so all of this sort of ended up in a fascination for these people who, before the Civil War, were really imagining the kind of world America could be and really saw themselves as agents of change, and this was the foundation of the, among other things, the environmental movement and the moment when science became a profession and the moment when literature flourished. So I never was quite sure where I would fit in that mix but I knew that I wanted to be right in there in the midst of all of these really energizing and creative people that are still big part of my life today.

My most recent biography, really the only one that's a full comprehensive biography, is Henry David Thoreau: A Life. What we have is somebody who spoke for a kind of authentic individual self and the voice of conscience in a very difficult conflicted world. He was, he lived at a time when the nation was moving towards the Civil War. There have been periods when it was hard to convince people that he was interesting or worth paying attention to because he seemed out of sync with the mood of America, but he's very much in sync now. This is a moment when we need to clarify our own sense of justice and ethical standing against so many voices that come at us from all over. That's the reason he went to Walden Pond, to do that at a very confusing and difficult moment, both in his life and in the life of the nation.

The other half of the story that often gets lost: he didn't stay at Walden. It famously was two years, two months, and two days. This becomes a huge part of his outward turn to social justice, to political problems, to how to create a sense of agency in the world, that you can actually bring change and bring justice, and it was a challenging moment in American history, so standing up to that challenge is something that I think speaks to people today.