Thoreau in His Own Time

A Biographical Chronicle of His Life, Drawn from Recollections, Interviews, and Memoirs by Family, Friends, and Associates

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Thoreau in His Own Time is a type of composite biography that highlights the various facets of Thoreau’s career. He lived many lives, not only the one he passed at Walden Pond, and they all warrant discussion in this fascinating and wonderfully researched edition of memoirs by those who knew him.”—Gary Scharnhorst, University of New Mexico 

“Sandra Petrulionis has brought together a first-rate collection of primary materials about one of our most original American writers. Ranging from the recollections of fellow writers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Louisa May Alcott, and Walt Whitman to those of friends and relatives, Thoreau in His Own Time is an outstanding book that will engage general readers and specialists alike.”—Susan Belasco, editor, Stowe in Her Own Time 

“In this generous collection of reports and remembrances, many drawn from unpublished manuscripts or obscure magazines and books, Thoreau emerges as neither a naysaying skulker nor a highminded icon but as the fully realized human being his contemporaries knew him to be. Thoreau in His Own Time is both an on-the-spot biography and a fascinating register of the cultural attitudes that shaped Thoreau’s nineteenth-century reputation, woven together by Sandra Harbert Petrulionis’s lively, insightful introductions.”—Robert D. Habich, author, Building Their Own Waldos: Emerson’s First Biographers and the Politics of Life-Writing in the Gilded Age

More than any other Transcendentalist, Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862) embodied the full complement of the movement’s ideals and vocations: author, advocate for self-reform, stern critic of society, abolitionist, philosopher, and naturalist. The Thoreau of our time—valorized anarchist, founding environmentalist, and fervid advocate of civil disobedience—did not exist in the nineteenth century. In this rich and appealing collection, Sandra Harbert Petrulionis untangles Thoreau’s multiple identities by offering a wide range of nineteenth-century commentary as the opinions of those who knew him evolved over time.

The forty-nine recollections gathered in Thoreau in His Own Time demonstrate that it was those who knew him personally, rather than his contemporary literati, who most prized Thoreau’s message, but even those who disparaged him respected his unabashed example of an unconventional life. Included are comments by Ralph Waldo Emerson—friend, mentor, Walden landlord, and progenitor of Thoreau’s posthumous reputation; Nathaniel Hawthorne, who could not compliment Thoreau without simultaneously denigrating him; and John Weiss, whose extended commentary on Thoreau’s spirituality reflects unusual tolerance. Selections from the correspondence of Caroline Healey Dall, Maria Thoreau, Sophia Hawthorne, Sarah Alden Bradford Ripley, and Amanda Mather amplify our understanding of the ways in which nineteenth-century women viewed Thoreau. An excerpt by John Burroughs, who alternately honored and condemned Thoreau, asserts his view that Thoreau was ever searching for the unattainable.

The dozens of primary sources in this crisply edited collection illustrate the complexity of Thoreau’s iconoclastic singularity in a way that no one biographer could. Each entry is introduced by a headnote that places the selection in historical and cultural context. Petrulionis’s comprehensive introduction and her detailed chronology of personal and literary events in Thoreau’s life provide a lively and informative gateway to the entries themselves. The collaborative biography that Petrulionis creates in Thoreau in His Own Time contextualizes the strikingly divergent views held by his contemporaries and highlights the reasons behind his profound legacy.