“Six Walks: In the Footsteps of Henry David Thoreau” is a memoir about relationships, history and nature. Author Ben Shattuck begins his story on a beach in Massachusetts where he reflects on a painful breakup with a girlfriend. During the course of the memoir, he meets a new girlfriend, gets married and moves to Los Angeles with his wife.
Throughout the memoir, Shattuck takes long hikes inspired by the writings of Henry David Thoreau. Most famous for living in a cabin next to Walden Pond in Massachusetts, Thoreau is also known for writing “Walden; or, Life in the Woods” in 1854 and, in 1849, the essay “On the Duty of Civil Disobedience.”
Shattuck’s first walk is along a Cape Cod beach that Thoreau had hiked in 1849. Shattuck hopes the walk will ease his grief after the recent breakup. “Isn’t this always the hope, heading out for a long walk? That in your aloneness the landscape will relieve you? That your mind will be renewed, calmed?” Finding solace in nature is one of Shattuck’s most relatable themes.
The six walks are also a way for Shattuck to explore his own fascination with history. “Years earlier, I’d been a Civil War reenactor, and had gotten to think quite a lot about inhabiting the past — about when the past is easy to access and feel, and when it’s hard.” As he walks, Shattuck looks for places Thoreau had written about. When he visits the famous cabin next to Walden Pond, someone mistakes him for a Thoreau reenactor, and he considers playing the part. “I briefly considered if I should try to drum up a line about growing beans or civil disobedience.”
Instead, Shattuck walks away.
Shattuck reflects on Thoreau’s many interests. Thoreau’s precise observations on botany have helped researchers studying climate change: “Rising global temperatures recently placed Henry’s journals into popular view: a few Massachusetts biologists used his records of wildflowers’ nineteenth-century bloom dates to compare to present-day bloom dates.”
Another important thread in Thoreau’s writing was his opposition to slavery. He detailed the hypocrisy of Northern states benefiting economically from slavery in the South in his 1854 essay “Slavery in Massachusetts.”
Shattuck brings a critical eye to Thoreau’s attitude towards race. Thoreau’s journals reveal that he opposed slavery while being racist in his depiction of an Indigenous guide named Joe Polis. “For a man who hated roads and industry and wanted to live outside of his time, [Thoreau] was surprisingly of his time here in his descriptions of Joe, of the blandly cruel racism and stereotyping that informed environmental, political, and many levels of decision-making in the nineteenth century.”
I was startled to read Thoreau’s openly imperialist perspective. In his 1862 essay “Walking,” Thoreau wrote: “Where on the globe can there be found an area of equal extent with that occupied by the bulk of our States, so fertile and so rich and varied in its productions, and at the same time so habitable by the European, as this is?”
There are layers of privilege in this memoir, some belonging to Thoreau and some to Shattuck himself. Shattuck understands that not everyone has the freedom to hike anywhere and sleep wherever he decides to stop. “Free movement through spaces — in a forest, along a beach, among a community — depended on the fact that I’d likely not be seen as threatening — as white — and likely not be threatened — as a man. Whom I got to talk to, and why they talked to me, depended on having this body.” As a woman, I would not feel the same sense of ease walking alone for days or sleeping in the house of people I met during a hike, as Shattuck does.
Other markers of privilege are also jarring. Shattuck manages a family-owned art gallery. He wrote his first will at age 25 after inheriting a dance hall that had been built by his great-grandfather. “A last will and testament makes you stop dreaming, I think … It made me think of the building more than I had before, of what I was inheriting.”
I doubt many readers will be able to relate to Shattuck’s experiences after his story moves abruptly from solitary rambles to a new relationship with actress Jenny Slate. Shattuck describes Slate getting approached by fans in New York and on Cape Cod. When a friend asks how he feels about Slate’s celebrity, Shattuck replies: “‘Having strangers randomly come up to the person you love and say they love her, too,’ I said, ‘is really nice.’” As chronicled on Instagram, the couple get engaged in the south of France. They marry on New Year’s Eve in 2021, and their wedding photos appear in People.
By the end of the memoir, domesticity has replaced the impetus to walk. Shattuck writes: “I didn’t want to walk anymore. … I only wanted to have dinner with Jenny, tell her about the seals I’d seen, ask her what she thought they might have been foraging, and then light a few lanterns and read in bed beside her before we both fell asleep.”
Those who enjoy a happy ending will find one here.
For me, Shattuck’s memoir is most compelling when he focuses on Thoreau. Shattuck’s book gave me a new perspective on a flawed 19th-century abolitionist. Before reading Shattuck’s memoir, “Walden” was the only Thoreau book I’d read. “Six Walks” made me curious to read more of Thoreau’s writing and maybe even visit the most famous pond in America.
Jennifer Astion is a freelance writer and yoga teacher who lives in Seattle.
Read more of the July 27-Aug. 2, 2022 issue.