The Adventures of Henry Thoreau

A Young Man's Unlikely Path to Walden Pond


"Vivid. . . . Absorbing and touching"


"An in-depth portrait. . . . Vivid"


"A glimpse of a rich, complex life. . . . A great ride"


"Very human. . . . Highly readable"


"Henry becomes Huck Finn, a boy lighting out for the territory"


"Fresh, engaging. . . . Beguiling"


"[A] lovely, lively biography"

TIMES (London)

"Brilliant . . . . Bursting with colour"


"★ ★ ★ ★ Sims provides a way in to understanding Thoreau's times."


"Lively. . . . utterly fascinating"


"Wonderful. . . . Sims offers invaluable context"


"Intriguing sidelights and memorable details. . . . Sims helps us to see Thoreau as a colorful, crotchety human being"


"Sims is a good storyteller"


"Sims gracefully captures what he calls Thoreau's 'estatic response to nature' "


"Fascinating stuff on why Thoreau was driven to his cabin"


"Makes flesh and bone of the man in the woods"


"Vivid, emotionally evocative"


"Well-researched and richly detailed"


"A rich, entertaining testament"


"More touching than any other biographical account I have read"


"[A] surpassingly vivid and vital chronicle"


"Sims has crafted an affectionate and lively recreation of the world that surrounded [Thoreau]."


"An animated portrait . . . of the questing, struggling, stubborn Henry"

BOOKPAGE (lead nonfiction pick)

"Sims creates a sensuous natural environment"


"Recreate[s] the early nineteenth-century landscape"


"The closest you are ever going to get to going on a walk with Thoreau in his natural habitat"


"This appealing story succeeds beautifully"



Listen to Maureen Corrigan's review on FRESH AIR

Watch C-SPAN's broadcast of Michael's talk at the Concord Bookshop, just down the road from Walden Pond

Listen to Michael interviewed on Dublin radio station NewsTalk 106-108 FM (he appears at about 7:30)

Read Michael's list of "7 Things We Have Forgotten about Thoreau" for Huffington Post.

"Vivid. . . . Sims weaves his narrative with the help of copious journals and letters. . . . Sims brings to life the obstreperous American politics of the day, already marked with crude denigration and lively publicity stunts, and the sights and sounds of bustling Concord as the railways begin to change the old world forever. The result is a much more active Thoreau than we have been used to. This is an absorbing and touching account of his intensely felt life."


"In this lively biography, Michael Sims chronicles the writer’s formative years. . . . An in-depth portrait of the fledgling author. Nature lovers will revel in the vivid descriptions of Thoreau’s adventures and mishaps, from playing the flute to a mouse, to boat trips on the Concord river. . . . Sims explores the development of a bookish and sometimes prickly young man into the icon he is today."


"Sims puts the spotlight on the making of Thoreau. . . . We are given a glimpse of a rich, complex life. Thoreau was a colourful character. . . . The book is a great ride through America’s cultural and political history of the 1830s, not least the raging debate on the abolition of slavery and the struggle of families to rise above poverty. . . . We also get a ringside view of Thoreau’s interaction with the literary luminaries of his time, from Emerson to Nathaniel Hawthorne with whom he went skating and boating."

—Sudipta Datta, The Financial Express (India)

"Highly readable. . . . Sims draws from an impressively broad range of early writings by those who knew Thoreau personally, and the result is indeed a very human 'Henry' as opposed to, as Sims notes, 'a marble bust of an icon.'"

—T. H. Richardson, CHOICE (reviews scholarly books for university and public libraries)

"I was drawn to this new book by Michael Sims in part because Sims had written so well only a few years ago on E. B. White and the making of Charlotte's Web. He’s a canny writer, fond of oblique angles, gifted with a richly evocative style. . . . Henry becomes Huck Finn, a boy lighting out for the territory, though in this case it’s an inward journey. . . . Sims gives us a vision of the young Henry evolving into a great writer. . . . Sims leads us into the life with confidence, showing us the warm community of like-minded associates who helped Thoreau become one of the founders of the environmental movement. . . . Drawing on a wide range of fresh sources, including letters and journals rarely noticed before, Sims makes us believe that we might finally understand what has never properly been understood: how this odd young boy became Henry David Thoreau, one of the most singular voices in the English language."

—Jay Parini, THE LITERARY REVIEW (Scotland)

"Henry David Thoreau was a founding father of American nationhood. His writings gave his countrymen—and the rest of us—new ways of thinking about our relationship with the natural world, and about our duty, when necessary, to disobey the law. . . . [Sims’s] fresh, engaging style conceals colossal reading. Thoreau’s own journals run to 47 volumes, and Sims has scoured, in addition, the memoirs and letters of virtually everyone Thoreau met in his formative years. His findings vividly resurrect daily life in Concord. . . .[A] beguiling book."

—John Carey, SUNDAY TIMES (London)

" ★ ★ ★ ★ Sims provides a way in to understanding Thoreau's times."

—Nicholas Blincoe, TELEGRAPH (England)

"The grave image of the bearded sage, the iconic marble bust of the lofty thinker, the inspiring ideal of the transcendentalist recluse of Concord, Massachusetts; these depict Thoreau at his apogee as a philosopher, environmentalist, political activist, writer and educator. But was he ever young? Did he sing? Did he dance? Yes, Michael Sims says: he sang in a choir and in 1842, aged 25, he was seen to enjoy a wild, ecstatic, pagan prance on ice with his mentor, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and his friend Nathaniel Hawthorne. Did he fall in love and write poetry? Yes, in 1839, with the beautiful Ellen Sewell, but unrequitedly. How young Henry became thoroughly Thoreau is the theme of this lovely, lively biography. Sims emphasises the development of Henry’s response to nature, from romantic and symbolic to ecological and scientific, and presents him growing into his natural outdoors habitat and habits as the man who would, wonderfully, write Walden."

—Iain Finlayson, TIMES (London)

"What author Michael Sims does in this new biography is look beyond the icon for the man himself. This is an origins story. . . . The book is crammed full of details of 19th-century life, ranging from how heated cannonballs kept students’ rooms warm to the production of satisfyingly non-gritty pencils. The author is brilliant at evoking the life and seasons of Concord. . . . He’s even better with capturing the natural world and his accounts of Thoreau’s expeditions beyond Concord and up the river and across the hills and valleys are bursting with colour."

—Michael Murray-Fennell, COUNTRY LIFE (England)

"Sims, author of several books on our ways of imagining nature, introduces his study as an effort to uncover the man behind the myth. . . . His principal sources, in addition to Thoreau’s voluminous journal, are the journals, letters and memoirs of people who knew the young Henry. . . . Offers intriguing sidelights and memorable details. . . . Provides engaging accounts of Thoreau’s fascination with Indians, his embrace of abolitionism (under the influence of his mother and sisters), his contributions to the family pencil business, his ungainly ice-skating, his devotion to natural history and his delight in the company of children. . . . Sims helps us to see Thoreau as a colorful, crotchety human being."

—Scott Russell Sanders, WASHINGTON POST

"Lively. . . . Sims proves himself a nimble storyteller. . . . Readers will happily gambol alongside this young Henry Thoreau, finding him a delightfully peculiar, utterly fascinating companion."


"The much-needed prequel that fills in the inspiration and stories behind [Thoreau's] most famous works, presenting not the roaming philosopher most students know, but the young man who struggled to find his place . . . and whose journey took him from local curiosity to miscreant, pariah, and luminary. This is Thoreau as the eternal oddity, and it serves as a wonderful complementary work to the collection of Thoreau’s personal letters that was released a few months ago. Michael Sims offers invaluable context to decisions and ideas that have probably stumped schoolchildren for decades, helping to add significant pieces to the puzzle that is Thoreau. I expect to see The Adventures of Henry Thoreau on school reading lists very soon."


"Sims is a good storyteller. He introduces the non-specialist reader to much that is interesting and provocative in Thoreau’s life story. Sims is absolutely right, for example, to stress Thoreau’s ambitions and experiences as an educator (a profession that ran deep in Thoreau’s family). . . . The reader will find helpful treatments of the Thoreau family’s economic life, including his mother’s work running a boarding house, and his father’s eventual success (thanks in part to Henry) in the pencil business. Sims is sensitive to the influence of women in Thoreau’s family and the broader Concord community in shaping local abolitionist commitments. He focuses a fair amount of attention on the arrival of Hawthorne as a neighbour, both in terms of the relationship he developed with Thoreau and the way different family situations influenced both men’s literary careers. . . . Sims recognises Thoreau’s deep commitment to and love for his family, indeed, his disinclination to leave the family’s home or village."


"Fascinating stuff on why Thoreau was driven to his cabin."

—KATHARINE WHITTEMORE, BOSTON GLOBE, "Diving into Thoreau's Walden" (survey of essential recent books on Thoreau)

"Although Henry David Thoreau documented in detail his sojourn at Walden Pond, we don't really know the young man who will later become a canonical author, or so Michael Sims argues. . . .Mr. Sims gracefully captures what he calls Thoreau's 'ecstatic response to nature': Thoreau 'wanted not only to read the language of bird tracks imprinted in snow, which were like a cuneiform tablet of events waiting to be deciphered, but to try to understand the snow itself, its varieties and forms, its behavior. He loved water, river and stream and pond, rain and its colder manifestations.' . . . The Adventures of Henry Thoreau concludes in 1846. Thoreau is 29. . . . He has been living near town in a cabin at Walden Pond—he will stay there two years—on land borrowed from Emerson. He recently climbed Mount Ktaadn in Maine, where, according to Mr. Sims, 'he never felt more alone or less important.' Shaken by the discovery of his insignificance—and nature's majestic indifference—Thoreau returns to his cabin realizing that, as Mr. Sims puts it, 'he was just as much a product of and participant in the life of a social community—several, in fact, from Concord to the larger world of American literature.' The results of this discovery—Thoreau's unequivocal commitment to abolition, the defense of John Brown and to his life's work as writer and ecologist—will bear much fruit in the 16 years left of his life."


"Thoreau’s masterwork pervades so much of nineteenth- and twentieth-century literature and culture—not to mention ecology and politics—that its creator slips into the background. And despite evidence to the contrary, Thoreau is all too often remembered and written about as a hermit. . . . Michael Sims’s merry new biography seeks to correct that slight by focusing its energy on Thoreau's pre-Walden development as a writer and thinker. . . . Sims’s evocations . . . serve as a necessary reminder that it is only through communion with others that Thoreau stood to understand his own yearnings for solitude. . . . Sims’s book . . . makes flesh and bone of the man in the woods."

—Hillary Kelly, NEW REPUBLIC

"Refreshing. . . . Sims describes Thoreau's youthful progression in vivid, emotionally evocative language. . . . [A] colorful portrait."


"As he did with E.B. White in The Story of Charlotte's Web, Michael Sims has produced a well-researched and richly detailed portrait of a cherished American literary figure. . . . The Henry David Thoreau portrayed here is . . . restless, prickly and possessed of a relentless intellectual curiosity--a complex, fully realized human being. With this picture in mind, anyone who admires Thoreau's life and work will view him with fresh eyes."


"I confess I picked up this biography not because of a burning interest in Thoreau . . . but because I loved Michael Sims' previous book about E. B. White and the writing of Charlotte's Web. Sims made White's youthful world of 1920s New York come alive and he does the same thing here for Thoreau's Concord. . . . The Adventures of Henry Thoreau is a rich, entertaining testament to the triumph of a young man who never comfortably fit in, but who made a place for himself, nonetheless. . . . Sims tells a haunting story."


"Michael Sims’s stroll through the world of the great and peculiar American literary giant Henry David Thoreau is personal and idiosyncratic and goes its own way—rather like Thoreau himself. . . . Sims lets himself meander after American literature’s best meanderer. And wherever Sims stops for a spell, he’s engaged and engaging. . . . Sims is at his best when he’s writing about the topics that hamstrung Thoreau – topics such as friendship and romance. . . . Like a documentary filmmaker, Sims sometimes spends entire (short) chapters focused on other people and events in Concord, Mass., and I would object except that he handles them so excellently. . . . Sims’s recounting of the death of Thoreau’s brother, John, and Thoreau’s grief at that time is more touching than any other biographical account I’ve read. . . . Sims doesn’t try to remake Thoreau. He just shows us how to enjoy him."


"Sims has crafted an affectionate and lively recreation of the world that surrounded [Thoreau]."


"[A] surpassingly vivid and vital chronicle of Thoreau’s formative years. Exceptionally smart, peculiar looking, imaginative, and upright, Thoreau, who craved both solitude and conversation, was surrounded by people, including his mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson, who, like him, chronicled their daily lives, providing Sims with a great bounty of primary sources. . . . We gain fresh understanding of Thoreau’s choices and convictions on his way to . . . turn himself into a world-altering writer who continues to enlighten and astonish us."


"An amiable and fresh take on the legendary sage of Walden Pond. . . . Whether unconsciously imitating the speech of his beloved mentor Emerson or grieving [a death], Thoreau was as capable of deep feeling for humans as he was of delighting in the mouse, the fox and the New England pole bean. . . . By focusing his book on the young Henry, Sims gives us an animated portrait of an uncertain writer and reluctant schoolmaster . . . questing, struggling, stubborn. . . . As in his well-received 2011 portrait of E.B. White, The Story of Charlotte’s Web, Sims has found another subject who brilliantly bridges the worlds of nature and thought. . . . Sims has once again proven himself to be a distinctive writer on the subjects of human nature and humans in nature."


"Delving into the observations of people around Thoreau, such as family, other transcendentalists and townspeople, as well as the famed writer's works, Sims aims to flesh out this uniquely American genius. An ecstatic observer of nature, an admirer of the Native American ways, practical builder and idiot savant, Thoreau was both a local boy schooled in the marvels of the natural scenery of the Concord River and a Harvard-educated scholar; he was erudite yet mocked for his homespun ways. . . . Building his chapters with deliberative, sometimes-tertiary detail, Sims creates a sensuous natural environment in which to appreciate his subject, as the 'quirky but talented young man named Henry evolve[d] into an original and insightful writer named Thoreau.' . . . Ably directs readers back to the primary works of Thoreau and his contemporaries."


"Focusing primarily on Thoreau's life before he earned renown with Walden, Sims depicts his subject as a spirited young man with a keen eye for observing nature; a devoted brother to his older sibling, John; a freethinker who defiantly rejected religious orthodoxy; and a teacher appreciated by his students because he refused to dole out corporal punishment. . . . Sims has culled scholarly sources to recreate the early 19th-century landscape of Concord, Mass., and its active social and literary scene."


"The closest you are ever going to get to going on a walk with Thoreau in his natural habitat is reading this book. Which means it is a beautifully evocative book one slips into, and in it all the people and places around him come to life, as does the young man himself, yearning, striving, rebelling, searching, wandering, and ultimately creating some of the founding documents of the American spirit at its best. A splendid piece of research and a superb introduction to the young writer, thinker, and insurrectionary."

—REBECCA SOLNIT, author of Wanderlust: A History of Walking and A Field Guide to Getting Lost

" 'We all have our own Thoreau,' " Michael Sims tells us. This appealing story succeeds beautifully in accomplishing Sims’s goal to 'find Henry' rather than 'applaud Thoreau.' We not only share the young man's quest for self and vocation as he meanders toward Walden Pond, we also inhabit his world—canoeing on Fair Haven Bay, scoffing at the antics of fellow Harvard undergrads, improving methods in the Thoreau pencil manufactory, and studying Native Americans. With attentive research that elaborates but never intrudes, Sims invites twenty-first century readers to discover their own Thoreau among his various identities: generous schoolteacher; cranky and inspiring author; sharp-eyed nature guide; and pensive sibling, son, and friend."

—SANDRA HARBERT PETRULIONIS, editor of Thoreau In His Own Time and author of To Set This World Right: The Antislavery Movement in Thoreau's Concord