Podcast #417: Expect Great Things — The Mystical Life of Henry David Thoreau

Henry David Thoreau is one of America’s most influential thinkers and writers. 164 years after it was published, Walden continues to inspire readers to get out into nature and march to the beat of their own drummer. 

But what was the worldview of the man who wrote those immortal words? 

Well, for one thing, Thoreau believed in the existence of fairies. 

That’s one of the insights my guest mined as he explored the intellectual and spiritual life of Henry David Thoreau. His name is Kevin Dann and in his book, Expect Great Things: The Life and Search of Henry David Thoreauhe takes readers on a tour of the inner life of a uniquely American philosopher. 

Today on the show I talk to Kevin about the mystical life of Henry David Thoreau, and why Kevin would actually say that mystical isn’t quite the right word to describe Thoreau. And yes, we dig into Thoreau’s belief in fairies and how, despite his magical outlook on life, he was also a keen scientific observer. 

You’re never going to read Walden the same way after listening to this episode.

Show Highlights

  • How Dann studied Thoreau in the way that Thoreau studied the world 
  • Why Dann takes issue with the word “mystic” 
  • Thoreau the phenomenologist
  • Why our modern sensibilities have a hard time understanding the “supernatural” beliefs of the past 
  • Did Thoreau’s childhood portend his future work?
  • The role and compatibility of folk magic/religious beliefs in early American and New England 
  • The porous self, and the role of irony in our modern culture 
  • What a century of biographies have missed about Thoreau 
  • What JK Rowling gets wrong about magic 
  • Why it’s okay to be idealistic and Romantic 
  • What did Thoreau do to gain the insights he did about the natural world? 
  • Thoreau’s epic and habitual walks, and how that habit has changed Dann’s life 
  • How Thoreau was different from the other Transcendentalists of his time 
  • Can us moderns infuse some of Thoreau’s enchantment into our own lives?

Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast

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