Thoreau: A Sublime Life
This gorgeous hardcover graphic biography tells the life of a classic philosopher with an eye to modern concerns and context. Thoreau: A Sublime Life is written by Maximilien Le Roy with art by A. Dan. Le Roy’s Foreword establishes his perspective, to show the various aspects of Henry David Thoreau’s life as “the father figure of civil disobedience”: pacifist, abolitionist, philosopher, naturist, but one who sought to live his ideas “in concrete, everyday experience.”
By subsuming the reader in Thoreau’s day-to-day existence, his concerns come alive not as historical, in the years leading up to the Civil War, but as relevant to those seeking authenticity today. It’s a heady experience, being so caught up in another’s life so effectively.
The reader is positioned as an observer, watching Thoreau establish his homestead and interact with others — the blacksmith, to obtain supplies; the local police, when he’s jailed for a night for not paying taxes; an audience, when he states that he can’t be associated with a government that supports slavery; a Native American friend, who shows him their traditions; John Brown, who challenges his anti-violence attitudes when it comes to ending slavery. Thoreau desires to share his ideas but is distrustful of fame and popularity, which would sell more of his books. He’s a New England traditionalist, an individual supported by his family.
Because we’re primarily watching key events from his life play out, some of his choices are thus left mysterious or undetailed, although using his words as captions give some insight into his motives. A brief, ghostly sequence suggests a past broken heart.
The scenery is beautiful, capturing the appeal of the woods and the pond and the natural surroundings (although one doesn’t have to feel the temperature changes or snow). The quiet panels create a feeling of welcome solitude, joining in Thoreau’s experience. Later, the silence is used for a different purpose, as he helps smuggle slaves to freedom in an atmosphere of secrecy and danger.
Personally, all I knew about Thoreau was that he went to live in the woods. This book showed me why. I learned much about his political philosophy, particularly his anti-business, anti-industrial takes. I sometimes wonder if those that fetishize living off the land as the most pure form of existence regret their choices later, but if Thoreau ever got discouraged by the hard work or loneliness, it’s not on display here. Captions instead reinforce his happiness. In that way, Thoreau: A Sublime Life contributes to the myth of going back to nature as an ideal existence, which seems to reflect the opinions of its subject.
A six-page ending essay by Michel Granger, a professor specializing in Thoreau’s life and work, discusses his political positions and philosophies. Granger makes a case for Thoreau’s status as a rebel that goes beyond the catchphrase of “civil disobedience”. Overall, Thoreau: A Sublime Life is a lovely, informative work that teaches Thoreau’s life through visual experience. (The publisher provided a review copy and has posted preview pages.)