University of South Carolina

English professor awarded Guggenheim Fellowship

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 University of South Carolina English professor will be able to achieve her goal.

Walls 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. I’m tremendously honored to be awarded this fellowship,” said Walls.

The John H. Bennett Jr. Chair of Southern Letters, Walls joined the university’s faculty in 2004, wanting to help revitalize the field of Thoreau studies and deepen the understanding of American Romanticism.

She will spend her Guggenheim Fellowship year working with the Thomas Cooper Library’s extensive holdings in 19th-century American literature, particularly the Joel Myerson collection in the new Ernest F. Hollings Special Collections Library, as well as visiting Thoreau collections in Charlottesville, Va., Washington D.C., at the New York and Concord Public Libraries, at Harvard University and elsewhere in the Boston area.

“We really live in a different era now, and we bring different questions to Thoreau and see him in new ways,” she said. “He continues to be so important, an icon of American culture and a kind of ambassador of American culture abroad.”

Walls, whose interest in Thoreau was sparked as a high school student growing up in the Pacific Northwest, 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, responsibility and civic engagement.

She said the classic misunderstanding about Thoreau is that he was a hermit who disappeared into the wilderness and wrote “Walden.” In actuality, Walden Pond was a mile and a half mile from his home, a bustling boarding house and pencil factory. After spending a couple of years meditating and writing, he returned to a busy and active life as a surveyor and civil engineer who pursued many interests, she said.

“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,” said Walls. “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.”

Walls was born in the small fishing village of Ketchikan, Alaska, and was raised on a forested, ravine-riven island east of Seattle. She taught at Lafayette College for 12 years before coming to USC.

Much of her scholarly work has looked at the relationship between literature and science. She has written three books, including ones on Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Alexander von Humboldt, a pioneer environmentalist in the 18th and 19th centuries. Her 2009 book, “The Passage to Cosmos: Alexander von Humboldt and the Shaping of America” earned a Merle Curti Award from the Organization of American Historians.

Earlier this month, Walls received a Russell Research Award for the Humanities and Social Sciences from the University of South Carolina. The Russell Award is the university’s most prestigious prize for faculty research.

The Guggenheim Fellowship was established in 1925 by former U.S. Senator Simon Guggenheim and his wife, Olga, in memory of their oldest son.

By Office of Media Relations

Posted: 05/19/10 @ 12:00 AM | Updated: 05/19/10 @ 2:06 PM | Permalink