Essex Books Presents Shelf Awareness: Dinner with Thoreau and the Concord Gang

Essex Books Presents Shelf Awareness: Dinner with Thoreau and the Concord Gang

The question pops up often, in variations on this theme: "Which three writers, dead or alive, would you invite to a literary dinner party?" My answer has long been the same: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller and Henry David Thoreau at Emerson's house in Concord, Mass.

I'd never get a word in edgewise. That would be fine.

I thought about this recently after reading Henry David Thoreau: A Life by Laura Dassow Walls, a fine exploration of Thoreau the writer. As sometimes happens with biographies, I opened the book thinking I already knew a lot about the subject. Five hundred pages later, I emerged humbled once again by revelations about and astute interpretations of Thoreau's singular life.

On a shelf near my desk is a ragged Modern Library edition of Walden that I purchased in the late 1960s. It represents my introduction to the Concord gang. "Everyone who comes to Thoreau has a story," Walls writes in her introduction. "Mine begins in a neighborhood bookstore where I pulled a book off the shelf simply because it was small and green--like the little green book I'd been carrying around (filched from my father's library) by a writer named Ralph Waldo Emerson."

Essex Books Presents Shelf Awareness: Dinner with Thoreau and the Concord GangWalls reminded me that all assumptions about 19th-century Concord are, and always will be, subject to revision. I experienced a similar jolt in the 1990s while reading Robert Richardson's dazzling book Emerson: The Mind on Fire and again a few years ago with Megan Marshall's excellent Margaret Fuller: A New American Life. Minds on fire indeed.

Early in her new book, Walls recounts a moment when Fuller, as editor of Dial, rejects an essay by the young Thoreau: "The challenge she offered was tremendous: no models existed for what Thoreau was attempting. He was on his own, bearing the potential for greatness but also the knowledge that getting to that greatness meant a leap to originality--a leap he didn't know how to make." I'd love to talk about that over dinner.

Written by Robert Gray, contributing editor for Essex Books Presents Shelf Awareness for Readers

Essex Books Presents Shelf Awareness: Dinner with Thoreau and the Concord Gang



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