In debut book, Ben Shattuck retraces Thoreau while finding himself

May 3, 2022

There’s a new addition to the “local-ish authors” section at Davoll’s General Store — one from co-owner Ben Shattuck.

Last month, the Dartmouth essayist and artist made his authorial debut with “Six Walks: In the Footsteps of Henry David Thoreau,” in which Shattuck retraces the steps of the New England naturalist's famous journeys while seeking to find his own peace and “try someone else’s habits for a few days.” 

The book also contains sketches Shattuck drew of the locations he visited, including Provincetown, marigolds, and the house of an oysterman that Thoreau once slept in.

“It’s a two-for-one deal,” Shattuck joked.

His wife, actress and comedian Jenny Slate, praised Shattuck’s debut book. She said one of the things she appreciated most about the book was her husband’s ability to “connect to literature” of the past.

“We depend a lot of times on older people to tell us what the lore is and what traditions are,” she said. “It’s really the young people that have to support that — [Shattuck] reaches back into the past to try to make a better present.”

According to Shattuck, he was not expecting these walks to become the subject of his first published book.

“I would have never written a book proposal to follow Thoreau’s walks,” he noted. “I had a bunch of notes that I thought could be an essay — all those observations and that record became an essay that somehow became a book.”

Shattuck said the inspiration to go on this journey came about in the spring of 2018 following a nightmare involving an ex-girlfriend. 

While showering in his Dartmouth home, Shattuck imagined a bearded man smiling in a lighthouse: Thoreau as pictured in his 1865 book “Cape Cod,” which Shattuck had been reading at the time.

Immediately, he filled a backpack with bread, cheese, and a copy of Thoreau’s book to recreate that same walk along the Cape and eventually other treks along Mount Katahdin, Wachusett Mountain, the Allagash, and South Dartmouth.

Shattuck said he also discovered just how inspiring a journey through nature can be.

“Walking is the answer for everything, I think,” Shattuck said. “People would be a lot happier if they walked.”

Shattuck noted when he returned to Cape Cod years after that first walk, he no longer needed to take in those landscapes to feel calm.

“When you’re at a more comfortable place in your life, you just want to go home,” he said.

According to Shattuck, the book also serves as a  “literary conversation” with someone whose works he so greatly admires. Although, that wasn’t always the case.

The Dartmouth resident noted that in high school and college, he actually did not care for Thoreau’s writing, saying that he found it to be very “hard to access” at the time.

“I think high school teachers should never assign ‘Civil Disobedience’ or ‘Walden,’” he said with a laugh.

After reading through a gifted copy of “The Journal of Henry David Thoreau, 1837-1861,” Shattuck said he was finally able to appreciate the acclaimed essayist's writing.

“The whole thing is a brick of gold,” he said. “He’s truly one of our best.”

What Shattuck said he especially appreciates about Thoreau’s work was his ability to capture nature both poetically and accurately, a lesson the Dartmouth author tried to use in his own book.

“He taught me to bring truthful originality — to really get to the heart of what is interesting,” he said. “His insight’s really unparalleled.”

The primary way Shattuck did this was focusing not only on the nature of the locations, but the people who live and walk that same landscape.

“I think that’s what you have to do when walking through New England from 2018 to 2022,” he said. “When Thoreau was standing on top of Wachusett Mountain, the most interesting thing to him was the huge forests for 100 miles. To me, the most interesting thing was a person who came every day to bird watch.”  

Shattuck also tried to give insight to his own personal relationships — something the Dartmouth author said Thoreau rarely did in his writings.

“There’s so much material, but I don’t know the inner workings of his mind,” he said. “The man was a hermit.”

While the journals provided little insight on Thoreau’s personality, Shattuck said he was thankful for the help they gave him on his journey of self-discovery.

“I was following dear advice from a friend of where to go and what to do,” he said with a smile.

“Six Walks: In the Footsteps of Henry David Thoreau'' is available at Barnes & Noble, Amazon, and Davoll’s General Store.