Themes and Characters

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.

Ralph Waldo Emerson exerts a profound influence on Thoreau and his philosophy. Emerson, Concord’s most prominent citizen, does more than just allow Thoreau to live on his land and become involved in the Concord Lyceum; he encourages and inspires young Thoreau to live a life of thrift and utility. North credits Thoreau’s fascination with Emerson’s Nature (1836) as the motivation behind the 1837 Harvard commencement address in which Thoreau proclaims that people should spend most of their days enjoying the “sublime revelations of nature.”

Content to wander about the Concord countryside, Thoreau has few, if any, opportunities to develop intimate relationships besides the one that he maintains with Emerson; hence, few other Characters appear in the book. The tragic death of Thoreau’s older brother John in 1842 seems to make him wary of establishing close relationships. But North mentions as minor Characters some of the famous Concordians who admire Thoreau, among them Louisa May Alcott, Bronson Alcott, William Ellery Channing, and Margaret Fuller.

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