University of South Carolina

English professor wins Guggenheim award


Dr. Laura Dassow Walls has long wanted to write a biography of Henry David Thoreau that introduces him to a new generation and connects him to the 21st century. With the recent award of a prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship, the English professor will be able to achieve her goal.

Walls said the classic misunderstanding about Thoreau is that he was a hermit who disappeared into the wilderness and wrote Walden.

Truth is, Walden Pond was just a half mile from his home, a bustling boarding house, and a pencil factory, she said. After spending a couple of years meditating and writing, Thoreau returned to a busy and active life as a surveyor and civil engineer who pursued many interests.

Henry David Thoreau
Henry David Thoreau

"This notion that Thoreau was a hermit doesn't connect with the actual reality of his life. That makes him more accessible to us today," Walls said. "He was trying to find a way to live a full, engaged life and to do so in connection and contact with nature. He seems to have succeeded, which is worth exploring."


Much of Walls' scholarly work has looked at the relationship between literature and science. She joins a group of 180 artists, scholars, and scientists, each considered innovators and leaders in their respective fields, from the United States and Canada who have been named a 2010 Fellow by the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. Each was chosen from a field of 3,000 applicants.

"The Guggenheim is the highest award in general academic fields," said Walls, who joined the University faculty in 2004. "I'm tremendously honored to be awarded this."

She will spend her Guggenheim Fellowship year working with the University's extensive holdings in 19th-century American literature at Thomas Cooper Library. She also will look closely at the Joel Myerson collection in the University's new Hollings Special Collections Library. And she will visit Thoreau collections in Charlottesville, Virginia, Washington D.C., at the New York and Concord Public Libraries, at Harvard University, and elsewhere in the Boston area. She expects it to take several years to complete the biography.

Walls first became interested in Thoreau when she was a high school student growing up in the Pacific Northwest. 

Ralph Waldo Emerson
Ralph Waldo Emerson

She finds it remarkable that a full-length biography of Thoreau hasn't been written since the early 1960s. She wants her biography to reintroduce Thoreau to a 21st century audience, debunk popular myths about him, and convey the relevance of his ideas concerning nature and self-discovery to the modern conversation about sustainability, social responsibility, and civic engagement.

Alexander von Humboldt
Alexander von Humboldt

Walls' first book, Seeing New Worlds: Henry David Thoreau and Nineteenth-Century Natural Science, was published in 1995 and was the first to suggest that Thoreau was a serious and committed scientist. She wrote a companion volume for Ralph Waldo Emerson, which was published in 2003 and titled, Emerson's Life in Science: The Culture of Truth

Her third and latest book, The Passage to Cosmos: Alexander von Humboldt and the Shaping of America, was published last fall. It focuses on Humboldt, a pioneer environmentalist in the 18th and 19th centuries. In April, the book earned the 2010 Merle Curti Award for the best book in American intellectual history from the Organization of American Historians.

Also this spring, Walls received a Russell Research Award for the Humanities and Social Sciences from the University. The award is the University's most prestigious prize for faculty research.

By Web Communications

Posted: 05/12/10 @ 12:00 AM | Updated: 05/19/10 @ 2:43 PM | Permalink