Thoreauvian Modernities

Thoreauvian Modernities: Transatlantic Conversations on an American Icon

FRANÇOIS SPECQ
LAURA DASSOW WALLS
MICHEL GRANGER
Copyright Date: 2013
Pages: 296
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt46n604
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    Thoreauvian Modernities
    Book Description:

    Does Thoreau belong to the past or to the future? Instead of canonizing him as a celebrant of "pure" nature apart from the corruption of civilization, the essays in Thoreauvian Modernities reveal edgier facets of his work-how Thoreau is able to unsettle as well as inspire and how he is able to focus on both the timeless and the timely. Contributors from the United States and Europe explore Thoreau's modernity and give a much-needed reassessment of his work in a global context. The first of three sections, "Thoreau and (Non)Modernity," views Thoreau as a social thinker who set himself against the "modern" currents of his day even while contributing to the emergence of a new era. By questioning the place of humans in the social, economic, natural, and metaphysical order, he ushered in a rethinking of humanity's role in the natural world that nurtured the environmental movement. The second section, "Thoreau and Philosophy," examines Thoreau's writings in light of the philosophy of his time as well as current philosophical debates. Section three, "Thoreau, Language, and the Wild," centers on his relationship to wild nature in its philosophical, scientific, linguistic, and literary dimensions. Together, these sixteen essays reveal Thoreau's relevance to a number of fields, including science, philosophy, aesthetics, environmental ethics, political science, and animal studies. Thoreauvian Modernities posits that it is the germinating power of Thoreau's thought-the challenge it poses to our own thinking and its capacity to address pressing issues in a new way-that defines his enduring relevance and his modernity. Contributors: Kristen Case, Randall Conrad, David Dowling, Michel Granger, Michel Imbert, Michael Jonik, Christian Maul, Bruno Monfort, Henrik Otterberg, Tom Pughe, David M. Robinson, William Rossi, Dieter Schulz, François Specq, Joseph Urbas, Laura Dassow Walls.

    eISBN: 978-0-8203-4478-2
    Subjects: Language & Literature, Philosophy

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xii)
  5. List of Abbreviations
    (pp. xiii-xvi)
  6. Introduction: THE MANIFOLD MODERNITY OF HENRY D. THOREAU
    (pp. 1-18)
    FRANÇOIS SPECQ and LAURA DASSOW WALLS

    All the essays gathered in this volume offer, to some degree, scholarly meditations inspired by thinking about Thoreau. Here—in the continuing relevance of his writings to our time, as they were once relevant to his time—resides his essential modernity. His writings mean something different to us now, of course, but what remains central is their capacity to stimulate thought and to address pressing issues in a renewed way. As Laura Dassow Walls emphasizes in her essay in this volume, “Walking West, Gazing East,” “The text we read, if we are to read it at all, let alone read...

  7. PART ONE: THOREAU AND (NON)MODERNITY
    • Walking West, Gazing East: PLANETARITY ON THE SHORES OF CAPE COD
      (pp. 21-42)
      LAURA DASSOW WALLS

      Thoreau’s essay “walking” has become one of his most canonical texts, and its ringing declaration, “in Wildness is the preservation of the world” (Exc 202), is the founding motto of the American environmental movement. Cape Cod is much less well known, perhaps because where “Walking” rings with triumphal declarations, Cape Cod is uneasy and disquieting. One enters Thoreau’s last book through the scene of a shipwreck, and its pages are haunted by his morbid and graphic descriptions of dead bodies and living “wreckers” who see in corpses nothing beyond commodities. Yet these two works do not represent stages in a...

    • Antimodern Thoreau
      (pp. 43-55)
      MICHEL GRANGER

      Undoubtedly, in any discussion of “Thoreauvian modernities,” it is somewhat provocative to call Thoreau an “antimodern,” but provocation is not out of keeping with this eccentric writer.¹ The quotations to be discussed will reveal more than a simple opposition to what was modern in his time: Thoreau was a keen observer of the changes taking place in his society and a most perceptive critical thinker of antebellum America as the country became increasingly industrialized and urbanized. He was well aware of the new forces at work, and his criticism allowed him to free himself from the prevailing conventional notions of...

    • Thoreau’s Multiple Modernities
      (pp. 56-68)
      WILLIAM ROSSI

      A paradox attends the very timeliness of Walden, for, in a certain sense, the question of Thoreau and modernity is nothing new. If only implicitly, critics of every era since Thoreau began to publish have addressed his relation to what he described as “this restless, nervous, bustling . . . Nineteenth Century” and to ours (W 329). If there has been little consensus, this is in part because in our equally restless era of professional literary and cultural criticism, “one generation abandons the enterprises of another like stranded vessels” (W 11).

      But another reason, of course, is that Thoreau’s own...

    • Thoreau, Modernity, and Nature’s Seasons
      (pp. 69-81)
      DAVID M. ROBINSON

      Although Thoreau was known to the larger public of his own day as a disciple and imitator of Emerson and a hermitlike writer on natural history, his stature has grown steadily over the past century and a half. He is now recognized as an environmental prophet and an early critic of the mania of excessive consumption in the emerging American market economy, and his place in the international pantheon of influential modern authors seems secure. A wisdom source for Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. as well as for the Sierra Club and green sensibility generally, Thoreau appears to be...

    • An Infinite Road to the Golden Age: A CLOSE READING OF THOREAU’S “ROAD—THAT OLD CARLISLE ONE” IN THE LATE JOURNAL (24 SEPTEMBER 1859)
      (pp. 82-102)
      RANDALL CONRAD

      Thoreau’s journal entry for 24 September 1859 runs to eight and a half pages in the Torrey-Allen edition—pages and pages of natural history observations interspersed with a few passages of a much more eccentric construction. The “old Carlisle road” is the subject of these eccentric passages, particularly the baffling 330-word sequence we are examining in this essay.¹

      Thoreau’s homage to the old Carlisle road is one of the most difficult passages to be found in the Journal, but I hope to show that we can decipher it with the help of science, mythology, theology, psychology, folklore, and women’s fashion...

  8. PART TWO: THOREAU AND PHILOSOPHY
    • “Being Is the Great Explainer”: THOREAU AND THE ONTOLOGICAL TURN IN AMERICAN THOUGHT
      (pp. 105-125)
      JOSEPH URBAS

      I borrow my title from Thoreau’s Journal for 26 February 1841 (PJ 1: 273). The bold assertion of the explanatory power of being would itself seem to require a bit of explanation, for—strictly speaking—how can being explain anything? Isn’t explanation, after all, a properly discursive activity, performed by a human subject? Isn’t Thoreau confusing two distinct orders of reality (or kinds of relations)—the natural, on the one hand, and the linguistic, rational, or intellectual, on the other?

      To try to make sense of the assertion, I shall adopt an approach that combines the perspectives of then and...

    • Character and Nature: TOWARD AN ARISTOTELIAN UNDERSTANDING OF THOREAU’S LITERARY PORTRAITS AND ENVIRONMENTAL POETICS
      (pp. 126-136)
      HENRIK OTTERBERG

      Representation is a rich concept when it comes to Thoreau, regarding both his own work as a writer and his judgments of others. It not only pertains naturally to political and communal matters but also touches on fundamental rhetorical and aesthetic concepts of ethos and mimesis. My basic contention, which I will flesh out in the following, is that a comprehensive reading of Thoreau suggests that he can be characterized as a reader and environmental writer of Aristotelian bent. In his abiding emphasis on consistency and probability and in his search for law rather than stochastic variation in literature as...

    • Thoreau’s Work on Myth: THE MODERN AND THE PRIMITIVE
      (pp. 137-156)
      BRUNO MONFORT

      This essay is not a systematic study of mythological references in Thoreau’s works, though I will discuss quite a number of them; instead, the point I wish to make is that, in handling the thorny question of the relevance of ancient myths and mythology for modern times, Thoreau was taking his cue from a number of prior texts at a time when the notion of myth as vehicle of access to transcendence was becoming increasingly reified in middle-class culture and literary circles. The first and longest of these texts is likely to have been the discussion of the origins of...

    • “A Sort of Hybrid Product”: THOREAU’S INDIVIDUALISM BETWEEN LIBERALISM AND COMMUNITARIANISM
      (pp. 157-170)
      CHRISTIAN MAUL

      While spending time in Concord doing research at the Free Public Library, I entered a small bookshop owned by an elderly lady. As I was rummaging through the books, she asked me if I was looking for something specific. I answered that I was writing a thesis on Thoreau and that I was absorbing the atmosphere of the town to which he was so devoted. Her reply surprised me. “Oh,” she said, “good old Henry. If every American owned a copy of Walden and read it carefully, our society would be a better one.” Despite the fact that this Concordian...

  9. PART THREE: THOREAU, LANGUAGE, AND THE WILD
    • Nature, Knowledge, and the Method of Thoreau’s Excursions
      (pp. 173-186)
      DIETER SCHULZ

      In the opening section of “Autumnal Tints,” one of his late natural history essays, Thoreau explains that he will be offering the reader extracts from notes he had compiled for a book he never managed to complete. The book would have consisted of colored reproductions of “a specimen leaf from each changing tree, shrub and herbaceous plant, when it had acquired its brightest characteristic color, in its transition from the green to the brown state. . . . What a memento such a book would be! You would need only to turn over its leaves to take a ramble through...

    • Thoreau’s Radical Empiricism: THE KALENDAR, PRAGMATISM, AND SCIENCE
      (pp. 187-199)
      KRISTEN CASE

      Thoreau scholar perry miller once famously dismissed Thoreau’s late Journal as “the tedious recordings of mere observations, of measurements, of statistics” attesting to “the dwindling of [Thoreau’s] vitality” and the “exhaustion of the theory on which he commenced to be an author in the first place” (“Thoreau” 158–59). The theory Miller refers to here is the Transcendental idea that there is a discernible relation between natural phenomena and moral or spiritual laws. In Miller’s view, Thoreau’s statement “Let us not underrate the value of a fact; it will one day flower in a truth” is “a portent of his...

    • “The Maze of Phenomena”: PERCEPTION AND PARTICULAR KNOWLEDGE IN THOREAU’S JOURNAL
      (pp. 200-218)
      MICHAEL JONIK

      A footnote from Kant’s Critique of Judgment can serve as a provisional entry point to the set of questions concerning perception and particular scientific knowledge that Henry David Thoreau explores in his later Journal. While Kant’s sarcasm is certainly pointed at Linnaeus, he also gives a warning to those who would systematize nature on the basis of particulars: “One may wonder whether Linnaeus could have hoped to design a system of nature if he had to worry that a stone which he found, and which he called granite, might differ in its inner character from any other stone even if...

    • Poetics of Thoreau’s Journal and Postmodern Aesthetics
      (pp. 219-233)
      FRANÇOIS SPECQ

      Henry david thoreau’s journal, with its huge dimensions and sustained dedication to recording nature over the entire span of his adult life (it ranges from 22 October 1837 to 3 November 1861), was perhaps his most uncompromising enterprise. Mostly consisting of daily entries recording the protean sweep of nature in his hometown of Concord, Massachusetts, the Journal at first sight appears comparatively straightforward: much of it seems to have an obvious quality, indisputably part of a “natural” order, thus defying explanation. Many readers also feel challenged by their experience of this work as an open totality that can never achieve...

    • Fraught Ecstasy: CONTEMPORARY ENCOUNTERS WITH THOREAU’S POSTPRISTINE NATURE
      (pp. 234-248)
      DAVID DOWLING

      Contemporary canadian graphic design artist and experimental novelist Douglas Coupland shares grave concerns with Henry Thoreau for the devastating collision between the environment and the development of industrial capitalism—but not without an abundance of satirical irony exposing the dizzying contradictions within the culture that caused it. The ripple effects of this collision Coupland traces include social behaviors, consumption patterns, and attitudes toward nature in our postmodern culture, all of which he laments with arch irony and Thoreauvian skepticism, calling attention to the wasteful absurdities of the empty rituals that have become fixtures of daily life. In particular, Coupland sharply...

    • Brute Neighbors: THE MODERNITY OF A METAPHOR
      (pp. 249-264)
      THOMAS PUGHE

      The aim of this essay is to study the implications of Thoreau’s metaphor of neighborhood with animals in Walden. What does this anthropomorphic trope tell us about Thoreau’s views on animality and on human-animal relations? Does the choice of “brute” rather than “animal” in “Brute Neighbors” express Thoreau’s sense of human superiority or, on the contrary, his awareness that he, too, is animal? Though “brute” can simply be read as a synonym for “animal,” it does bring out, by contrast, the anthropomorphism of “neighbors”—as if Thoreau wanted to make sure the reader would not miss the trope. It is...

    • “Tawny Grammar”: WORDS IN THE WILD
      (pp. 265-274)
      MICHEL IMBERT

      Thoreau’s call in “Walking” for the regeneration of European culture in the New World by regrounding it in wild nature can be interpreted within the context of contemporary discourse on America’s Manifest Destiny. However, if Thoreau’s call for a new ecology in this essay is decidedly “modern,” it cannot, as nature, be reduced to the “nation’s nature,” in Perry Miller’s words; on the contrary, it must be acknowledged as the unnameable nonhuman. Writing on wildness no longer meant reading through the Book of Nature and reinterpreting it in spiritual terms, as in Emerson’s Nature (1836), but instead recognizing its significant...

  10. Bibliography
    (pp. 275-292)
  11. Contributors
    (pp. 293-296)
  12. Index
    (pp. 297-310)