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Woodsburner: A Novel

Pipkin, John

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ISBN 10: 0385528655 / ISBN 13: 9780385528658
Published by Nan A. Talese, 2009
Condition: Fine Hardcover
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Signed. First Edition. First edition. Signed by the author. Fine copy in fine dust jacket. Though not marked, from the collection of Mel Waggoner, host of the public radio program "Profiles" which interviewed authors. Bookseller Inventory # mon0000091429

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Bibliographic Details

Title: Woodsburner: A Novel

Publisher: Nan A. Talese

Publication Date: 2009

Binding: Hardcover

Book Condition:Fine

Dust Jacket Condition: fine

Signed: Signed by Author(s)

Edition: 1st Edition

About this title


Woodsburner springs from a little-known event in the life of one of America’s most iconic figures, Henry David Thoreau. On April 30, 1844, a year before he built his cabin on Walden Pond, Thoreau accidentally started a forest fire that destroyed three hundred acres of the Concord woods—an event that altered the landscape of American thought in a single day.

Against the background of Thoreau’s fire, Pipkin’s ambitious debut penetrates the mind of the young philosopher while also painting a panorama of the young nation at a formative moment. Pipkin’s Thoreau is a lost soul, plagued by indecision, resigned to a career designing pencils for his father’s factory while dreaming of better things. On the day of the fire, his path will intersect with three very different local citizens, each of whom also harbors a secret dream. Oddmund Hus, a lovable Norwegian farmhand, pines for the wife of his brutal employer. Elliott Calvert, a prosperous bookseller, is also a hilariously inept aspiring playwright. And Caleb Dowdy preaches fire and brimstone to his congregation through an opium haze. Each of their lives, like Thoreau’s, is changed forever by the fire.

Like Geraldine Brooks’s March and Colm Tóibín’s The Master, Woodsburner illuminates America’s literary and cultural past with insight, wit, and deep affection for its unforgettable characters, as it brings to vivid life the complex man whose writings have inspired generations


Best of the Month, May 2009: The early American tree-hugger and pioneering thinker Henry David Thoreau did a bad, bad thing back on April 30, 1844. A year before he settled into the “simple life” at Walden Pond, he struck a match to start a cooking fire in the dry woods around Concord, Massachusetts and accidentally ignited a forest fire that consumed 300 acres. The events of that chaotic day appear to have altered the course of Thoreau’s life and American history. More recently, this historical footnote sparked the creation of Woodsburner, a terrific debut novel from John Pipkin. Woodsburner offers a nuanced portrait of a young and less recognizable Thoreau, whose philosophy begins to materialize as the flames lay waste. The talented Pipkin simultaneously presents a vivid picture of mid-19th century New England on the cusp of unstoppable change through a cast of characters: a sadistic and misguided preacher, a desperate bookseller, and an isolated immigrant laborer harboring painful secrets. Their lives are forever changed by the fire which serves as a powerful metaphor for the destructive passions that consume us, as well as the eternal struggles between human society and the natural world. --Lauren Nemroff

Amazon Exclusive: A Q&A with John Pipkin

Question: How did the idea for Woodsburner come to you?
John Pipkin: Although I have always admired Thoreau’s insights, many of which I think are still just as relevant today as they were 150 years ago, I really had no intention of ever writing a novel about Thoreau. In fact, I was working on an outline for an entirely different book in the fall of 2003 when I came across a brief line in the Harper’s Index: Estimated acres of forest Henry David Thoreau burned down in 1844 trying to cook fish he had caught for dinner: 300. The irony was striking: to think that one of America’s iconic environmentalists might have been driven—at least in part—by his remorse over having brought about the destruction of the very thing he so loved. Thoreau’s biographies mention the incident, but no one has explored the influence that this fire may have had on Thoreau’s naturalist philosophy. The forest fire takes place at a time in Thoreau’s life when his professional ambitions seem to have come to a standstill. By the age of 26, he had been unable to support himself by teaching, writing, and working as a handyman of sorts, and he had not yet built his famous cabin at Walden Pond. At the start of 1844, Thoreau was relatively unknown, but after the fire he finally begins the work for which he would be remembered. So I began to wonder if it were possible that an accidental forest fire had somehow helped change the landscape of American literary history.

Question: Without giving too much away from the novel, can you tell us a little about how Thoreau accidentally started such a huge forest fire?
John Pipkin: Well, it actually started with a simple act of carelessness, as I guess most forest fires do. On April 30, 1844, Thoreau went on a boating trip with a friend, Edward Sherman Hoar. After catching some fish, they decided to row ashore at Fair Haven Bay (a few miles south of the town of Concord) and build a fire to cook their fish into a chowder. There had been no rain for weeks, so the woods were exceptionally dry for springtime in New England, and, to make matters worse, the day was far too windy to build a fire safely. Thoreau proceeded to do so anyway, and as soon as he lit the kindling the wind blew the flames into the dry grass nearby. From there it spread into the Concord Woods and rapidly moved north toward the town before being extinguished by Concord’s residents, who beat back the flames and cut down trees to create firebreaks. Ironically, Thoreau and Hoar had initially forgotten to bring matches with them on their trip, but they met a shoemaker at the river’s edge who lent them some.

Question: What record do we have of the actual fire of 1844? Does Thoreau ever mention it in his writings?
John Pipkin: The main record of the fire is a newspaper article that appeared in the Concord Freeman on May 3, 1844. The article does not mention Thoreau or Hoar by name, but says that the fire “was communicated to the woods through the thoughtlessness of two of our citizens.” Thoreau writes about the fire at length in his journal, but he does not do so until six years later, in 1850. In his entry he appears both guilt-ridden and defensive, sometimes saying that he “had felt like a guilty person—nothing but shame and regret,” while at other times he insists that “I have set fire to the forest, but I have done no wrong therein... it was a glorious spectacle, and I was the only one there to enjoy it.” It is striking, I think, that Thoreau could not bring himself to record the event at the time it occurred, but six years later he evidently still felt moved enough by the experience to wrestle with his guilt in his journal.

Question: What were the implications of the fire? How was Thoreau regarded after the fact among fellow Concordians?
John Pipkin: One of the most interesting things, I think, about the article in the Concord Freeman is that it reflects how Americans in early-nineteenth century New England were already growing concerned over nature’s vulnerability to human recklessness. The article concludes: “It is to be hoped that this unfortunate result of sheer carelessness, will be borne in mind by those who may visit the woods in [the] future for recreation.” By the 1840’s this area of New England was already beginning to show signs of deforestation due to the spread of agriculture and the growth of Concord as a transportation hub. What many people don’t realize is that, thanks to reforestation efforts in the 20th century, there are actually more trees at Walden today than there were in Thoreau’s time. So you can imagine the outrage of the people of Concord (not to mention those who owned the burned property) when they discovered that some of the last portions of untouched woodland in the area had been reduced to ash. The owners of the property were prepared to take legal action against Thoreau, but Hoar’s father compensated them for their financial loss. Nevertheless, the people of Concord were angry at Thoreau for what he had done, and some continued to refer to him as the “woodsburner” for years afterward.

Question: With this novel, you pose the possibility that the fire was the catalyst that caused Thoreau to retreat to Walden Pond and begin his writings. How likely is this idea?
John Pipkin: I think it is entirely conceivable that had Thoreau not burned down 300 acres of woodland and evoked the anger of the residents of Concord, he might not have decided to live by himself and focus on his writing when and where he did. For some time before the fire, Thoreau had spoken of his wish to go off and live alone in the woods somewhere, to concentrate on his writing and observe the passing of the seasons, but by the spring of 1844 he still had no definite plans to fulfill this ambition. Similarly, although Ralph Waldo Emerson had often mentioned to Thoreau that he would like to buy some land at Walden to spare the trees from the woodsman’s ax, it is not until after the fire that Emerson finally buys a plot of land at the pond. And the following summer, at the encouragement of William Ellery Channing, Thoreau builds a cabin on Emerson’s plot and moves in for two years. I do think that the fire served as a catalyst for Thoreau in a number of ways. The tragedy underscored the fragility of the natural world at a time when people were just beginning to view the countryside as a place where they could escape from city life. From his journal entries, it seems that the guilt Thoreau felt may have driven him to seek recompense from nature. And if nothing else, the fire may have forced Thoreau to spend some time away from Concord, where he could not walk the streets without hearing whispers of “woodsburner” behind his back.

Question: What are some interesting things you learned about Thoreau in your research?
John Pipkin: There are many curiosities about Thoreau’s life that have not become part of the mythology that now surrounds him. For example, he was actually christened David Henry Thoreau, but later switched his first and middle names. To this day, some people credit him with having “invented” raisin bread, and he was locally famous for growing the largest, sweetest melons in Concord and for throwing popular melon parties. And more seriously, when Thoreau was thirty-three he underwent anesthesia in the form of ether (a relatively new technique at the time) and had all of his teeth pulled. Apparently he was very satisfied with the set of false teeth his dentist fashioned for him afterward. But probably the most interesting, and most significant fact I learned was that Thoreau’s father, John, ran a pencil making business in the sheds behind their home, and Thoreau Pencils were regarded at the time as the best pencils made in America. The quality of the pencils was due largely to Henry David Thoreau’s rediscovery of an old formula for blending graphite with Bavarian clay to produce pencil leads of varying hardness. The old method for making pencils involved the tedious process of splitting the wood lengthwise, cutting a groove, filling it with a lead paste, and gluing the halves together again. But Henry David Thoreau’s reformulated lead was hard enough to withstand being cut into thin rods, so the pencil wood could be drilled and the lead rods tapped in. He invented new machines for cutting the lead into thin rods and for drilling holes into the pencil wood. He also built a spring-driven tabletop mill for grinding the lead into a fine powder, resulting in more consistent pencils. On the day of the fire, Thoreau was taking a break from his work at the pencil factory, which was his main occupation at the time.

Question: The novel is full of several characters aside from Thoreau. They are funny, eccentric, surprising, and completely original. How did you develop these characters and their subplots?
John Pipkin: Thoreau is not the only character in the book in need of some catalyst to move his life in a new direction. All of the characters are leading lives of “quiet desperation” on the day of the fire, and through each I tried to approach some aspect of the American experience in order to explore what the New World represented to the many different people who came here in search of a new life. In the period stretching between the Revolutionary War and the Civil War, even America itself seemed to be searching for its identity—for its sense of self as a nation. At the same time that people continued to arrive on America’s shores in pursuit of the American Dream, there was already a sense in the young nation that something had been lost, some sense of promise unfulfilled. It is no surprise that during this period, Emerson delivered his “American Scholar” address in which he calls for America to develop its own literature, its own art, its own philosophy. It was a fertile, exciting, and transformative period in American history, and I eventually decided that I wanted the fictional characters in Woodsburner to reflect the promises of the New World, the seemingly unlimited resources of early America, and the sense of possibility and uncertainty present in a young country that—for all its potential—could not yet lay claim to a cultural or intellectual tradition of its own.

Question: What was the most challenging part of writing this novel? Most fun?
John Pipkin: Well, probably the most challenging part of writing this historical novel was walking the tightrope between fiction and history. Woodsburner is a novel first, so the book’s first responsibility is to engage its reader with fictional stories. In any historical novel, careful research is a necessity, but in the end it’s the made-up stuff that is really the most important: the characters, their fears and desires and hopes, and the interweaving plots that constitute their lives. At the same time, I wanted to make sure that these invented stories did not contradict known historical facts. I wanted the fictional stories, as much as possible, to encourage readers to look at the history they feel they already know and reconsider it in a different light. At times, there was a real temptation to include historical anecdotes that seemed interesting for their own sake—at the risk of overwhelming the fictional narrative—so the biggest challenge was to use historical research to support the story, while not allowing the research itself to become the story. The real story here is about the individual characters, and that was the most enjoyable part of the writing the novel, developing the lives and personalities of the characters who populate it.

(Photo © Kenneth Gall)

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