Friday, April 4, 2014

Henry David Thoreau

This retouched photo of a
painting is in the Public Domain
I have Thoreau on my mind today, because yesterday I finished reading the latest middle grade fantasy by jane Langton in her Hall Family Chronicles, The Dragon Tree. 

Before I launch into Thoreau, let me just tell you a bit about this series and why I like the books in it so much. The eccentric Hall family live at 148 Walden Street, in Concord, MA. Professor Frderick Hall heads the family and is forever working on a book about Thoreau. His wife, Professor Alexandra Hall, manages to keep everyone else calm and focused, while being extremely absent-minded herself. The three children, Eleanor (currently in Paris), Edward (now in high school), and Georgie (now in sixth grade), periodically take on righteous causes, inspired by their father's devotion to Emerson and to Thoreau (whose bust graces a stand in the front hall). 

In The Dragon Tree, a strange family moves in next door to the Halls. The wife collects stuffed and mechanical animals. The young girl with them seems to live a Cinderella life (before the arrival of the fairy godmother). And the husband, Mortimer Moon, is the new tree warden in town. Almost immediately, he starts cutting down the local trees. Shortly after he fells the trees in his own yard, a mysterious little plant pushes up from the ground between his house and that of the Hall family, growing at an amazing pace. Soon it turns into a sapling, and then a tree, and then a bigger tree. It turns out to be the dragon tree of the book title; an enchanted tree: Thoreau's "dragon tree".  (And if you want to know what that means, you'll have to read this delightful book and maybe a little of Thoreau as well.) 

Jane Langton has written twelve books about the Hall family, and each one offers a different kind of magic. Evil is confounded in each book by the characters in this family, but it's a different kind of evil: the kind you might encounter in real life. Refreshingly, these books don't require a dystopian universe to engage a reader, and the magic differs in each book, drawing a reader into a new adventure where good hearts win the day. You can find her books and reviews Here and Here .

And now to Thoreau: 
In the public domain.
Picture is by his sister.

All my life I had heard about (and read parts of) his most famous book, Walden, basically a spiritual quest, eschewing distractions of the cluttered life in favor of what one can learn from living simply in nature. When I was growing up, my mother had a copy of this. She was also enamored of the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, a transcendentalist. What I didn't realize then was that Thoreau, too, was a transcendentalist. The transcendentalists believed in the inherent goodness of individuals and that corruption came from entrenched institutions -- a point that resonates with me these days, considering the state of today's politics. They believed that people are at their best when they are independent. (My mother treasured her copy of Emerson's Self Reliance, along with her copy of Walden.)

I didn't realize that Thoreau was an ardent abolitionist and that a great deal of his writing addressed the cause. I was aware of his Civil Disobedience. Mohandas Ghandi (Mahatma Ghandi) took inspiration from this philosophy. Later, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., took his inspiration from Ghandi -- testimony to the power of great ideas to reach across time and space and kindle the flame of justice in the human heart. Ghandi and King have been two of my heroes, and it's wonderful to realize that the ideas of this fairly quiet man from Massachussettes were able to emit such a beam of light a century later.

He was also a poet, and you can read his poems HERE 
He had quite a range: Some of the poems are philosophical, some ironic and humorous, and some quite clearly paeons to nature in all her beauty. 

How about you? Has any novel or piece of fiction turned your thoughts to a famous historical or literary figure? Is there any author you thought you knew about suprised you by their other writings?
Please share your thoughts.


  1. I read "Walden" several times when I was younger. I even made a pilgrimage to Walden Pond to see what it looked like. I was surprised by how small the pond is.

  2. Hi, Richard, I've been intrigued from Langton's books to actually see the area. So many things have disappeared in the past 150 years.

  3. I am a big fan of Walden. I loved every bit of it and used to teach some
    excerpts from it. One of the extra credit projects that I had on my list of
    for a student to read all of Walden and write a comprehensive report on it.
    I had one student take me up on it. He wrote a ten-page paper and thanked
    me for the assignment because, he said, he would have never read it
    otherwise and it would have been terrible to have missed it. Ah, sometimes
    the kids get it right!

  4. Hi, Rosi,
    What a wonderful extra credit assignment. I agree (as a former teacher) that sometimes the kids do get it right indeed! But sometimes the teachers do, too, and it sounds like you were a great teacher.

  5. Hi Elizabeth. The Dragon Tree sounds wonderful. I've added it to my 'to-be-read' list. Thanks for the tip (and for stopping by my blog earlier). It's been awhile since I've thought about Emerson or Thoreau and the transcendentalists. Makes me want to pull out my old English books and restudy that period. If you think your politics are in a bad state, take a look at the U.S. It's a mess over here!

  6. Hi, Sharon, thanks for your comments. I think you'll like The Dragon Tree. As for the politics - it was U.S. politics I meant. We live in the U. S. We travel a lot to Spain, so that may have given the impression we live there.

  7. This was a great post. Thanks for the background on Thoreau. The Dragon Tree sounds fascinating.

  8. Hi, Sandra, glad you liked the post. The whole Hall Family series by Jane Langton gets you interested in Concord's historical figures. It must be interesting to live in a town steeped in so many literary figures.