Thoreau in Love – John Schuyler Bishop (CreateSpace)

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Buy it now from Amazon.com

I read the transcendentalists in college, finding Emerson
tedious. Henry Thoreau’s On Walden Pond was required reading, of course,
but it never grabbed me the way Nathaniel Hawthorne did. So when I received a
copy of John Schuyler Bishop’s Thoreau in Love, which fictionalizes a
missing part of Thoreau’s diary to include a couple of affairs with other men,
I eagerly awaited a chance to dive in. And the water was wonderful.

The period involved is 1843, when Thoreau left Concord for
New Jersey to tutor the children of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s brother, William.
William’s rather morose wife, Susan, fetches him, paying his passage on a
schooner. On that journey, Thoreau meets and falls in love with a sailor named
Ben Wickham. Their affair is torrid and brief, but its ramifications are
immense. Ben haunts Thoreau’s every moment. For his part, Ben eventually jumps
ship to be with Henry. Will they find happiness? Well, it is 1843.

Part of the trick of historical fiction is making a world
complete enough to draw the reader away from the present, and Bishop does so
with style and finesse. His characters are never anachronistic, and his
settings are brilliant. From cinder-clogged steamship trips to muddy, unpaved
Manhattan (complete with Broadway spelled Broad Way) as well as the rural
splendor of New Jersey, Bishop’s setting is one in which you can totally
immerse yourself.

But scenery is only a pretty picture without characters to
inhabit it, and Bishop satisfies on this score as well. Stern William Emerson
and his emotionally unstable wife are perfect foils for Thoreau’s nascent
distrust of authority and propriety. All are well-drawn and fully lifelike.
Ben, in particular, is a marvelous combination of liar and lover, and when he
and Thoreau are together, the plot fairly pops.

Even the minor characters are interesting: Ralph, the mock
minister every bit as gay as Thoreau despite his wife, Thoreau’s childhood
friend Stearns, as well as famous personages such as Henry James and James
Harper (the victim of a brilliant tirade from Thoreau when Harper rejects one
of his stories in favor of a new Dickens installment from London) all have
memorable parts to play.

Incredibly, even though we all know from history that Thoreau
did not end up the boyfriend of a sailor, Bishop manages to make the reader (or
this one, anyway) forget the fact and wonder up until the very last whether or
not he would take Ben up on his offer to run away on the Oregon Trail and live
together as pioneers.

I thoroughly enjoyed Thoreau in Love and would
recommend it to any fan of historical fiction, writers, or simply anyone who
enjoys a good love story. Because it’s about all of that and so much more. 

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©, 2013, Jerry Wheeler

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