Although best remembered for his nature books for young children and young adults, Sterling North also wrote a number of biographies of American literary and historical figures that added to his reputation as one of the most popular twentieth-century writers for young adults. He was born on November 4, 1906, on a small farm overlooking Lake Koshkonong, near Edgerton, Wisconsin. North first found literary fame through his poetry, which he sold to literary magazines throughout his high school and college years. After graduating from the University of Chicago in 1929, North worked as a reporter for the Chicago Daily News. In 1932 he became the newspaper’s literary editor, a position he later held at the New York Post and at the New York World Telegram and Sun. In 1957 he accepted a post with Houghton Mifflin, his primary publisher, as editor of North Star Books, a series of historical books for children. Sole author of twenty-six novels, biographies, and children’s books, North edited over twenty other books and anthologies as well. He also contributed poems, articles, and stories to a variety of national publications, including the Atlantic, Harper’s, Poetry, and The Nation.
Thoreau espoused a simple way of life that exemplifies the American spirit of self-sufficiency and thrift advocated by Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. The true measure of Thoreau’s success is the influence he had on the moral and social philosophy of scores of famous Americans, as well as intellectuals in other parts of the world. North’s biography seeks to inform its readers how unique this stoic New Englander truly was.
Born on July 12, 1817, Thoreau lived in one of the most intellectual communities of any era in American history, mid-nineteenth-century Concord, Massachusetts. He was friends with many of the authors and philosophers associated with the movement called New England transcendentalism, including Ralph Waldo Emerson, Bronson Alcott, William Ellery Channing, and Margaret Fuller.
North’s biography of Henry David Thoreau concentrates on the theme of human interaction with nature and, as a corollary, on individualism. The book recounts Thoreau’s quiet, pensive nature and his appreciation of the outdoors. Although he is a good student, Thoreau receives his real education from nature, which the transcendentalists called “the Academy of the Universe.” North shows how Thoreau’s individualism puts him closer to the natural world more than it pulls him away from society.
Perhaps the greatest literary value of Thoreau of Walden Pond is that it covers Thoreau’s entire life. The biography does not concentrate on the circumstances surrounding the composition of Thoreau’s greatest work, Walden, but instead devotes considerable space to Thoreau’s journey up the Concord and Merrimack rivers, his Harvard education, and his journeys to the Maine wilderness toward the end of his relatively short life. Such an Overview of Thoreau’s life is vital to an understanding of his work, for Thoreau’s personal beliefs and experiences have a particularly profound effect on his writing.
A few of North’s remarks in the book seem directed exclusively to young males, but this does not occur so frequently that readers of both sexes cannot relate to Thoreau’s life and philosophy. Thoreau was a man of great conscience who was deeply concerned with the ills that plagued the society of his day, and North objectively and thoroughly recounts his subject’s responses to social problems, particularly Thoreau’s involvement in the abolitionist movement. North portrays Thoreau’s love of solitude not so much as antisocial behavior but as evidence of his strong bond with the natural world. Overall, readers should find a positive example in Thoreau’s strong principles and abiding respect for the worth of the individual.
1. Why do you think that Thoreau is considered not merely a great American writer, but also a great American?