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If Thoreau Were Alive, He'd Be 'Shouting From The Rafters,' Biographer Says

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If Thoreau Were Alive, He'd Be 'Shouting From The Rafters,' Biographer Says

If Thoreau Were Alive, He'd Be 'Shouting From The Rafters,' Biographer Says

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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Perhaps no American writer is more associated with a place than Henry David Thoreau. And that, by the way, is the family pronunciation. In 1845, Thoreau went into the woods near Concord, Mass., at Walden Pond. He built a small cabin and lived a simple, solitary life. It's also where he wrote his best-known works, "Walden" and "Civil Disobedience." Thoreau was born 200 years ago today. Reporter Tom Vitale marked the anniversary with a trip to Walden Pond.

TOM VITALE, BYLINE: It's a sweltering morning as Notre Dame professor Laura Dassow Walls leads the way through the tall pines on the trail that hugs the shoreline of the 60-acre Walden Pond. Wall says Thoreau spent hours hiking in these woods every day.

LAURA DASSOW WALLS: His writing became uniquely his own style and his own thinking when he figured out that the way to break through into his own way of doing things was to think as he walked. And he started writing down his thoughts as he walked.

VITALE: Walls has spent her lifetime studying Thoreau. Her new 615-page biography is out today to coincide with his 200th birthday. She says he scribbled notes in pencil on scraps of paper, descriptions of the sights, sounds, smells and feel of the things around him.

WALLS: To do that is to break the wall between ourselves and nature and to understand that we're always a part of nature and nature's always a part of us. So to be here and to be wholly immersed, to be hot when it's hot and cold when it's cold, to be hearing the birds and feeding the little mouse that lives under his cabin is to completely demolish that barrier and understand something really fundamental about what it is to be human.

VITALE: A quarter mile down the path, we arrive at a clearing where Thoreau built his 10-by-15-foot cabin. He moved in on Independence Day 1845.

DON HENLEY: Thoreau, when he moved to his little cabin at the pond, you know, he was on a quest for self-discovery, I think. He was declaring his own independence.

VITALE: Don Henley, singer, songwriter and drummer for the rock band The Eagles, says he discovered Thoreau when he was 22 years old in 1969.

HENLEY: And people who were my age in the '60s were on the same quest. "Walden" was a very popular book back then. So I was just seeking spiritually, as Thoreau was, for something to ground me.

VITALE: In 1990, Henley founded the Walden Woods Project. He raised $20 million to purchase 200 acres of wooded land adjacent to Walden Pond so that it couldn't fall into the hands of real estate developers.

HENLEY: In Thoreau's time, he was looking at the Industrial Revolution. And he stood up in the face of the Industrial Revolution and said, wait a minute. We have to slow down. We have to take a look around us and not destroy what's left. You know, his famous quote was, in wildness is the preservation of the world. You know, it's difficult to be 150 years ahead of your time, but he was.

VITALE: Thoreau was 27 when he moved to Walden Pond to think through his life and also, says biographer Laura Walls, the life of the nation.

WALLS: He thinks something is going deeply wrong with America. And he's trying to figure out, what is the foundational problem that gives rise to such destructive habits and patterns of life that we could imagine it's OK to enslave people?

CHRISTINE NELSON: As we go through Thoreau's journal, he'll be writing about nature. But now and then, he bursts out with an entry full of rage.

VITALE: Christine Nelson is curator of a Thoreau bicentenary exhibition at the Morgan Library in New York City.

NELSON: And, you know, we're looking at one right here from 1851. And he exploded in his journal. Do we call this the land of the free? What is it to be free from King George and continue the slaves of prejudice?

VITALE: The Morgan exhibition includes of the author's handwritten journals along with artifacts from his life.

NELSON: Yeah. We're actually looking, amazingly enough, at the very lock from the jail cell where Thoreau was confined for a night.

VITALE: For refusing to pay his taxes to a government that sanctioned slavery and waged what he considered an illegal war against Mexico. The experience inspired his essay "Civil Disobedience." It's a tract urging nonviolent resistance to unjust laws that later influenced Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.

Kevin Dann is author of another new Thoreau biography called "Expect Great Things." Dan says Thoreau's overriding theme of the sovereignty of the individual is why he's more relevant now than ever.

KEVIN DANN: You know, the brutality of the police in this country and the surveillance systems - everybody in this country is afraid. If he were alive today, he would have been out there, shouting from the rafters. People, go into the streets. You have no sovereignty anymore. It's gone. It is gone.

VITALE: Back at Walden Pond, Notre Dame professor Laura Dassow Walls points to a sign next to the site where Thoreau built this cabin.

WALLS: And it reads, I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life and see if I could not learn what it had to teach and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.

VITALE: Henry David Thoreau died from tuberculosis in 1862. He was just 44 years old. For NPR News, I'm Tom Vitale.

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