Book Review: FOLLOWED BY THE LARK by Helen Humphreys

Henry David Thoreau’s words were my companion during the writing of this novel. I read through all of his journals and his voice guided mine. I appreciated his wise and witty counsel and hope that this book conveys some of his mercurial spirit. –Helen Humphreys

In Followed by the Lark, a new book by Helen Humphreys, Henry David Thoreau is revealed in all of his permutations. What series of events influenced the poetic writer of nature with the unique worldview? Why has he attracted so many followers, even into the 21st century? Humphreys seeks to answer those questions.

We meet the child Henry, romping through the woodlands of Concord with his siblings, Henry the confused and homesick student at Harvard heating his room with a Civil War relic cannonball in the furnace, and then, of course, adult Henry, the eccentric savant who wrote the natural history masterpiece Walden.

Humphreys is a born storyteller, her prose jumping through the life and times of Thoreau, like a gentle river current in summertime. The result is a novel of astonishing insight into Thoreau’s complicated spiritual, and often tragic life. The author tells Thoreau’s history through a series of vignettes, rich with visual imagery obviously modeled after the master himself. The reader is immersed in Humphrey’s omniscient third person narration, coming to know Thoreau’s inner thoughts, his metaphysical relationship with nature, and why he often retreated into solitude.

After graduating from Harvard, Thoreau takes a job as the local schoolteacher in Concord, but quits when the superintendent orders him to use corporal punishment. By an act of serendipity, though, he meets the eminent philosopher Emerson while walking through the woods near Concord. It seems the famous transcendentalist is already an admirer of Thoreau’s early forays into the literary world. Emerson urges Henry to keep detailed journals of all his wanderings along rivers, swamps, forests, and mountains: “Write it down, Henry. Write it all down.” Thus the young muse begins to find his own niche, writing about the wonderful green world of the giving earth.

An invigorated Thoreau soon embarks on a river canoe trip on a boat he built himself with his brother, and best friend, John. These were happy and idyllic days on the Merrimack and Concord Rivers. Already the young writer was developing the keen naturalist eye for observation and classification of myriad plants and animals along the way that would result in his first book of natural history essays.

Returning from their expedition to the Thoreau home in Concord, though, inexplicable tragedy strikes. Beloved John cuts himself sharpening his razor, and dies 11 days later of tetanus. The “lockjaw” of the 19th century was a horrific death, described in shocking detail by Humphreys:

John couldn’t talk, or be saved from pain. He was often in spasmodic motion and, in the end, the only way to alleviate the bucking was for Henry to hold him tight in his arms and ride it out with him, as though his brother’s body was a ship on a stormy ocean and Henry had tied himself to the mast. p.34

Thoreau slips into a deep depression, and is plagued by bouts of hypochondria. A renewed life, free of heartbreak impeding his writing, doesn’t really come until Thoreau begins living a Luddite lifestyle for the two years on Walden Pond. The physical work of building the cabin, tending the garden, and the daily hikes into wilderness areas enable Thoreau to heal from paralyzing grief. A lifelong philosophy of nonviolence toward other people, and a reverence for the beauty of all wild things begins to take form.   Only nature would endure, and writing about nature would be his destiny. The naturalist’s whole life was lived in pursuit of the ideal that nature was divine, although he certainly didn’t withdraw from society after Walden. The iconic book was published on Aug. 9, 1854. Thoreau took no special pride in his book’s publication. At the time he was more concerned with the changes in the plants he was studying during the approaching fall of that year:

He noted its publication in his journal alongside the fact that the elderberries had ripened and the climbing bittersweet was yellowing. The publication of Walden was not, perhaps, any more important than the berries and the bittersweet as an occurrence in Henry’s universe. p.96

Not burdened with a marriage or children, Thoreau returned to his family home in the town of Concord. The household was supported by his father’s pencil factory located next door and Thoreau’s work as a land surveyor. He was a person of both town and land. Henry gave fiery speeches to end slavery and spent hours studying ferns and rare plants. He met the black slave insurrectionist John Brown and measured the ice thickness on Walden Pond each winter. He helped a slave escape to Canada on the Underground Railroad and noted the date of the first bluebirds coming to Concord every spring. To his last days, though, he was simply the proverbial “man walking in the woods.” He was happiest outside, and always an advocate for preservation of the natural world.

Thoreau was surrounded by hunters in those times and hated the practice. He loathed guns used for the killing of wild animals. Once he accompanied a friend on a moose hunting expedition and was horrified by the slaughter of a Mother Moose that left an orphaned calf. The majestic moose was left bleeding to death by a waterway and then skinned alive. Thoreau was enraged by the hunting party’s brutality and disrespect of sentient life. Silently he took measurements of the fallen creature to add to his notebook. This was Henry’s way of showing respect to an animal that did not deserve to die. The blood sport of hunting gave Americans the license to kill.

Thoreau was forever faced with a moral dilemma witnessing the townspeople around him causing ecological degradation of the local environment. Coyotes, beavers and deer in the Concord woods had already in his time been hunted to almost extinction. Trees were merely a resource to be extracted, as old growth stands of oak and pine were disappearing fast in the land rush. Henry counted the stumps on cleared parcels, dutifully recording the numbers in his journal. Neighbors bragged of killing ducks just for target practice, and taxidermists were more interested in ruminating about how they shot their  specimens than the inherent beauty of the preserved animals. No wonder there is a chapter in Walden entitled “Brute Neighbors.” 

Henry David Thoreau lay dying of tuberculosis at the age of 44. He still enjoyed the herbarium he and his sister Sophia always worked on together, delighted that she could supply him specimens of leaves from their collection to make engravings for his last living work, Autumnal Tints. Henry kept a wry sense of humor to the end, and was not bitter. He continued to rail against Lincoln for not moving fast enough against the South, who had already attacked the Union. Henry would not live to see the Emancipation Proclamation that finally freed the slaves. The gentle writer died on May 6, 1862.

Thoreau had other acquaintances that lived or spent time in the woods, residing in hardscrabble structures with picturesque views of the green idyll. He hoped others would meet people like this and be moved to change their consumptive lifestyles. No wonder so many of us baby boomers were inspired by reading Walden as we retreated into the wilds in hopes of just living sustainably on the land, without a gun or a chainsaw desecrating nature.

Perhaps there would be somebody who would take Alek as an example, and the simple shanty-dwelling life would ripple out into the future? It pleased Henry to think about this, to think that there might be always a person or two who desired to live simply and deliberately in the heart of nature. –p.172

From Walden Pond, to the dream of country living, to the freedom of the homestead. A full circle it would seem.


ISBN: 978-0-374-61149-1
Farrar, Straus and Giroux: New York

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