Expect Great Things - A Review

Expect Great Things is a spiritual biography of Henry David Thoreau. It provides an in-depth exploration of the nuances of this celebrated individualistic naturalist. Kevin Dann does the dirty work of digging through Thoreau’s various writings, including his copious personal diaries and correspondence, and correlating those informal writings with his published works.

If Dann’s biography of Thoreau is taken seriously, the work that some have done to include Thoreau on the list of vaguely Christian environmentalists should be viewed skeptically. The image Dann presents is of a man who held both strong skepticism of Christian truth with credulous belief in some of the spiritualistic superstitions common in early America. Thoreau certain used language that resonated with Christianity in some of his writings, but his own beliefs were far afield from orthodoxy by any reasonable reading. Dann argues that Thoreau was fascinated with Christ but rejected Christianity. However, to love the man and hate his bride does not show much affection for the loved object.

In addition to presenting the meandering spirituality of Thoreau over the course of his life, Expect Great Things provides a window into the complex and often bizarre spiritual beliefs that were common in ante-bellum America. Dann surveys the rise in popularity of the Freemasons, with their uniquely American adaptations. He spends several pages covering the evolution of the Mormon cult, the various prophetic cults that arose in the early 19th century, and the perversions of Christianity that arose from the Millerites and other pseudo-Christian digressions.

Some of this supernaturalism apparently came from incomplete understanding of natural science. Just as pseudo-Christianity was common, so was pseudo-science. Meteor showers were described in periodicals as divine signs. Accounts of sea serpents were accepted as factual and often embellished. Final conclusions were published about natural phenomena based on partial observations. This led to supernatural explanations for natural events and misinformation about much that would be later clarified. According to Dann, Thoreau’s practice of careful observation was an improvement over many other naturalists of the day.

The structure of this book is weak. The story of Thoreau’s life meanders through chronologically. There are chapter breaks, but there is often little clear reason for the distinction in chapters. The volume has no introduction and thus the reader is left to try to figure out what Dann’s purpose is in writing the book; there is no clear thesis. The aimless wandering of the book may provide a suitable simile for the life of Henry David Thoreau, but that sort of literary experiment is more effective in essays than in book length biographies.

The concluding paragraphs transition with little warning from anecdotes of Thoreau to the moral that Dann appears to want to draw. Based on those few paragraphs, it appears that Thoreau’s life is supposed to reflect the good of radical individualism codified into law based on universally accepted facts that are epistemologically impossible. In short, this account (and perhaps the actual life of Thoreau) represents the impossible tension between the desire to express and the prohibition of contrary expression that we see in modern culture. As such, Dann may have uncovered the patron saint for some in our confused time, but what he highlights in the life of Thoreau provides little worth emulating for those committed to the possibility and importance of pursuing truth.

Despite its weaknesses in form, Expect Great Things has a place within contemporary discourse on Thoreau. Dann sets Thoreau in historical context quite well. He pushes against the idea of a Christian Thoreau and presents more thoroughly the Thoreau that many have seen in the pages of the man's work. Dann adds to the field of study by presenting a nuanced, robust, and realistic portrait of Thoreau's spiritualism. This is also an interesting look into the spiritual climate of the early nineteenth century. For individuals interested in a casual, entertaining read about Henry David Thoreau, this book may be a real treat. 

NOTE: I received a gratis copy of this volume with no expectation of a positive review.