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A Historical Guide to Henry David Thoreau

1 rating: 1.0
A book by William E. Cain

As an essayist, philosopher, ex-pencil manufacturer, notorious hermit, tax protester, and all-around original thinker, Thoreau led so singular a life that he is in some ways a perfect candidate for the historical and biographical treatments made possible … see full wiki

Tags: Books
Author: William E. Cain
Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA
1 review about A Historical Guide to Henry David Thoreau

Some nice essays, but title is misleading

  • May 2, 2008
There are some very good essays on a range of topics related to Thoreau in this collection, but as a whole it doesn't really live up to the expectation that I had based on its title. I bought this expecting that it was a guide to the historical background of Thoreau's writing and thinking. What it turned out to be was a small collection of historical essays on Thoreau, that don't seem to have been chosen with any clear aim towards comprehension of coverage. I found some of the essays to be quite good, but most of them were fairly narrowly specialized -- when I expected something more general that would appeal to and have relevance for anyone with interest in Thoreau the man and writer.

There is a brief biography of Thoreau, that would be quite valuable as a short introduction for someone who hadn't read any of the other more comprehensive biographies. I didn't find anything there, though, that added to or offered a new perspective on the approaches of some of the standard longer bios of Thoreau. This essay and a very worthwhile chronology of significant events in Thoreau's lifetime are the elements that most closely match what I was expecting from this book.

Beyond that, there are essays on Thoreau's conception of "manhood," on his critique of domesticity and how it relates to similar critiques that had been offered by his proto-feminist contemporaries, on his attempt to inscribe "the real" into his writing, on the background of his "civil disobedience," and on the reactions of his contemporaries to Thoreau the Hermit. I learned something from each of the essays, but I'm not sure I would have sought them out individually and, with the possible exception of the hermit essay by Robert Gross, don't think I got anything that will significantly alter my overall thinking about Thoreau at this point.

I don't know the genesis of this collection but it feels more like the editor asked a group of Thoreau scholars to write about whatever historical topic they happened to be working on in connection with Thoreau, rather than thinking carefully about what set of topics would together deliver an overall guide to the period and place and background of Thoreau's thought. The effect is that the volume as a whole feels more like an eclectic set of essays on Thoreauvian topics than a "historical guide."

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