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Review: "Expect Great Things: The Life and Search of Henry David Thoreau," by Kevin Dann


I am a tremendous fan of Henry David Thoreau. I am sure that a large portion of my affection and respect for Thoreau grows out of an early reading in my relative college youth of Walden and On Civil Disobedience. I truly have had a simplified version of Transcendentalists and their effect on the American psyche and culture. In accord with the reading of this book I made a trip down to the Morgan Library in NYC where there was a large show presenting the actual letter of Thoreau, his desk and memorabilia. It has been wonderful to combine these two into a joined Thoreau experience.

Reading “Expect Great Things” was exceptional in every respect but also challenged my simplified understanding of Thoreau and Emerson. The author not only dissects Thoreau’s life but through his intense use of letters and accompanying correspondence from others allows us to enter the mind and soul of a outwardly simply, but internally incredibly intense and mindful individual. Throughout there are clear views of Thoreau’s strong-willed dislike, almost to the point of hatred, of society, higher culture, affectation, government and slavery. Again and again, we are brought to the daily life of Thoreau where he was an acute observer of all minutiae of the natural world. We often think of him as an environmentalist or a naturalist in the vein of Muir or Audubon, but that was not Thoreau’s vision at all. He was cataloguing and recording the smallest details in an effort to make sense of a world that is overwhelming on a macroscopic sense but just as phenomenal and, despite nearly scientific observations, mystical as well. The biography also displays a keen knowledge of a mind that was beyond well-educated, but perhaps on the level of a genius in the fields that he pursued.

Many would find this book to be cumbersome in its detailed accounts of small pockets of Thoreau’s life, but I feel that this is what accurate historical investigation should do: show us the individual, as well as the myth that surrounds that person. Although I took a long time in reading this book, measuring it out in parcels over weeks it afforded me the first real opportunity to truly understand Thoreau to a better degree.

The author does, at times, intercede with their own interpretations of Thoreau, the times and the personalities that surrounded him. There are authorial judgements made here that could have been left out. Pontificating, at times, does occur. Even with that, I highly, highly recommend this book to a very small number of people. It would be difficult for me to name but a handful of people who would read this book, certainly not for pleasure, but for an opportunity to learn, both about Thoreau and the world. To those people I will quote the author, “Set sail.”