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A Political Companion to Henry David Thoreau

A Political Companion to Henry David Thoreau

Edited by Jack Turner
Copyright Date: 2009
Pages: 496
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    A Political Companion to Henry David Thoreau
    Book Description:

    The writings of Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) have captivated scholars, activists, and ecologists for more than a century. Less attention has been paid, however, to the author's political philosophy and its influence on American public life. Although Thoreau's doctrine of civil disobedience has long since become a touchstone of world history, the greater part of his political legacy has been overlooked. With a resurgence of interest in recent years, A Political Companion to Henry David Thoreau is the first volume focused exclusively on Thoreau's ethical and political thought.

    Jack Turner illuminates the unexamined aspects of Thoreau's political life and writings. Combining both new and classic essays, this book offers a fresh and comprehensive understanding of Thoreau's politics, and includes discussions of subjects ranging from his democratic individualism to the political relevance of his intellectual eccentricity. The collection consists of works by sixteen prominent political theorists and includes an extended bibliography on Thoreau's politics. A Political Companion to Henry David Thoreau is a landmark reference for anyone seeking a better understanding of Thoreau's complex political philosophy.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-7287-3
    Subjects: Language & Literature, Political Science

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Series Foreword
    (pp. vii-viii)

    THOSE WHO UNDERTAKE A study of American political thought must attend to the great theorists, philosophers, and essayists. But such a study is incomplete, however, if it neglects American literature, one of the greatest repositories of the nation’s political thought and teachings.

    America’s literature is distinctive because it is, above all, intended for a democratic citizenry. In contrast to eras when an author would aim to inform or influence a select aristocratic audience, in democratic times, public influence and education must resonate with a more expansive, less leisured, and diverse audience to be effective. The great works of America’s literary...

  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  5. Introduction: Thoreau as a Political Thinker
    (pp. 1-12)
    Jack Turner

    WRITER, NATURALIST, THEORIST of civil disobedience, and anti-slavery activist, Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862) both inspired and irritated audiences in his time, and the words he left behind both inspire and irritate readers today. Thoreau’s inspiring quality derives from the eloquence of his call to live more intensely, to “suck out all the marrow of life … to put to rout all that [is] not life … to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it prove[s] to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it … or...


    • CHAPTER 1 Thoreau’s Democratic Individualism
      (pp. 15-38)
      Nancy L. Rosenblum

      THOREAU’S FAMOUS AVERSION to ordinary society and his heroic individualism are american variations on familiar romantic themes. Beginning in the late eighteenth century, poets, artists, and political thinkers from Wordsworth and Coleridge to Constant and Mill articulated a unique set of discontents with bourgeois society and with the political arrangements of emerging constitutional democracy. “Romanticism” ushered in the glorification of self-sacrificing militarism against arrant, selfish materialism; the ecstasy of beauty and creativity against mundane happiness; the law of the heart against arid legalism; and utopian visions—from apolitical quietude and withdrawal to hope for total revolution. Put simply, for romantic...

    • CHAPTER 2 Thoreau’s Alternative Economics: Work, Liberty, and Democratic Cultivation
      (pp. 39-67)
      Brian Walker

      THE CONSTANT CHOICES AND self-direction entailed in meaningful work enliven all our capacities. While strolling through the streets of New York’s Upper East Side as people catch their morning taxis, it is hard not to be impressed by their sleekness and fervor—the alert eyes, purposeful movements, and general liveliness of a caste of individuals with invigorating and demanding employment. one great advantage of the modern era is the array of stimulating occupations for those lucky enough to have the taste, capacity, and fortune of birth to find meaningful work. For so many others, work is of another sort: arduous...

    • CHAPTER 3 Thoreau’s Critique of Democracy
      (pp. 68-96)
      Leigh Kathryn Jenco

      Most recent scholarship on Henry David Thoreau’s political thought places him firmly within the liberal-democratic camp.¹ There are good reasons for this: Thoreau embodies more famously than any American writer the spirit of freedom and individualism that seems to animate liberal democracy, and his act of “civil disobedience” continues to inspire modern-day political activists to conscientious, public-spirited activity in an affirmation of the democratic way of life.² The problem with this interpretation, however, is that it fails to take seriously how deeply Thoreau’s numerous and overt criticisms of democracy, and his exhortations to transcend it, are grounded in a deontological...


    • CHAPTER 4 Thoreau’s American Founding
      (pp. 99-123)
      Bob Pepperman Taylor

      IN HIS “DIVINITY SCHOOL Address,” Emerson declares, “The old is for slaves,”¹ and in a talk delivered at Dartmouth College a month later, he claims that the “perpetual admonition of nature to us, is, ‘The world is new, untried. Do not believe the past. I give you the universe a virgin today.’”² Emerson teaches us to turn away from what he sees as our confining traditions, customs, and histories; to make a clean break with the past; to invent a fresh, new, and free reality. This is the message of his first book,Nature, which concludes by encouraging the reader,...

    • CHAPTER 5 Thoreau, Prophecy, and Politics
      (pp. 124-150)
      George Shulman

      THE IMAGINATION AND practice of an “American nationhood” have been tightly bound both to ideas of democracy and to white supremacy, and political actors and theorists in American history have repeatedly used prophetic language to retie, or try to untie, this knot. On the one hand, racial domination and imperial power are still authorized in the name of redeeming a chosen people from a corruption linked to “alien” ways. But on the other hand, the great critical voices in American politics have used prophetic language to transform prevalent racial practices and enlarge the democratic imagination. My work treats prophecy as...

    • CHAPTER 6 Thoreau and John Brown
      (pp. 151-177)
      Jack Turner

      ON SUNDAY NIGHT, October 16, 1859, John Brown and eighteen of his followers invaded Harpers Ferry, Virginia, and seized control of the federal armory.¹ Hoping to ignite a slave insurrection that would spread throughout the South, Brown intended to use the arsenal’s weapons to arm both mutinous slaves and dissident whites in a guerrilla war of liberation. When it came time for the raid, however, Brown both overestimated the support he would receive from slaves in northern Virginia and underestimated the speed with which government authorities would mobilize against the insurrection. Local militia wrested control of the town from Brown...

    • CHAPTER 7 Thoreau and Lincoln
      (pp. 178-204)
      Harry V. Jaffa

      THOREAU IS THE PATRON saint of the American tradition of civil disobedience. I speak of an American tradition because this nation was born in virtue of what we all hold to be a legitimate rebellion against established authority—a rebellion legitimate according to the “laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.” “They only can force me,” writes Thoreau—referring to moral force as distinct from physical force—“who obey a higher law than I.” So saying, he invokes a tradition older even than the American, calling to mind the words of Socrates to the court of Athens in Plato’sApology...

    • CHAPTER 8 Thoreau’s Apolitical Legacy for American Environmentalism
      (pp. 205-226)
      William Chaloupka

      TO UNDERSTAND THOREAU’S impact on contemporary environmentalism, it helps to recognize that when the Earth Day greens found him, Thoreau’s reputation as a literary and political figure was still in flux. Other famous writers in the canon of American literature are sometimes understood in terms of their early, middle, or late periods—reflecting the detailed sense of a writer’s thought that emerges after decades or even centuries of examination. But with Thoreau, we find no important distinctions between his early and late writings. What we do find, however, are distinctive channels his influence traveled on its way to contemporary environmentalism....


    • CHAPTER 9 Thoreau on Body and Soul
      (pp. 229-255)
      Susan McWilliams

      HENRY DAVID THOREAU was plagued by bad teeth. They started falling out when he was twenty-one years old, and they occupy a considerable place in his journals. “Here I have swallowed an indispensable tooth,” he reports on August 27, 1838, “and so am no whole man, but a lame and halting piece of manhood.” Thoreau writes that the loss of the tooth has left him paralyzed—“I believe if I were called at this moment to rush into the thickest of the fight, I should halt for lack of so insignificant a piece of armor as a tooth”—and his...

    • CHAPTER 10 Thoreau’s Religion
      (pp. 256-293)
      Christopher A. Dustin

      “ENVIRONMENTAL SAINT,” “pastoral hermit,” “pantheistic philosopher and religious contemplative”—these are only a few of the labels applied to Thoreau that suggest he was a religious thinker. Among Thoreau’s contemporaries, Emerson was not alone in insisting that although he “used in his writings a certain petulance of remark in reference to churches and churchmen,” he was actually “a person of … absolute religion.”¹ More recent commentators have arrived at the same conclusion. Lawrence Buell describes “the religiocentric inquest into the correspondence between the natural and the spiritual” as central to Thoreau’s environmental projects.² For Buell and others, any understanding of...

    • CHAPTER 11 Thoreau’s Techniques of Self
      (pp. 294-325)
      Jane Bennett

      IN THIS CHAPTER I examine Thoreau’s project of self-fashioning, a project designed to weaken the voice of the They within him. Thoreau admits to an initial attraction to this voice, which announces what is normal, though he considers this an ignoble attraction and works hard to overcome it. The first step in this process is to become alienated from this internalized voice and to make it an object of suspicion; the second step is to mark the specific occasions during which one’s susceptibility to it is greatest. For Thoreau, these occasions are political ones, times when he is called on...

    • CHAPTER 12 Thoreau’s Solitude
      (pp. 326-338)
      Thomas L. Dumm

      THE DISTINCTION BETWEEN loneliness and solitude, it is said, turns on the state of mind of the person who is alone. In loneliness, we feel a sense of isolation, that we are cut off from others in a way that makes us bereaved, lost, without a proper bearing in the world. Isolation leads to desolation, a sense that the world itself has been abandoned. The aloneness of loneliness is destructive to our souls. But in solitude, we are alone in a sane sense, Thoreau says, able to console and counsel ourselves. Yet the difference between these two states of existence...


    • CHAPTER 13 Thoreau and Rousseau: Nature as Utopia
      (pp. 341-371)
      Melissa Lane

      BOTH ROUSSEAU AND THOREAU understand freedom as independence, and both these quasi-romantic thinkers are preoccupied by the question of the human and social relation to nature.¹ Rousseau’s major constructive works—Emile(1762),Social Contract(1762), and the novelJulie, or the New Héloise(1761)—explore the ways in which education, politics, and the family could variously reshape the self to achieve a social analogue of the standard of natural independence and freedom identified in hisDiscourse on the Origin and the Foundations of Inequality among Men(1754). One hundred years later, Thoreau’s major constructive work,Walden(1854), rejects the claim...

    • CHAPTER 14 Thoreau, Gandhi, and Comparative Political Thought
      (pp. 372-392)
      Anthony J. Parel

      THOREAU PLAYED a significant role in Mahatma Gandhi’s intellectual life from 1907 to about 1920. He was one of five who had a lasting impact on Gandhi. Writing to a disciple in 1931, Gandhi stated: “‘Hero’ means one worthy of reverence, a god, so to say. In the political field, Gokhale [1866–1915] holds that place for me. The persons who have influenced my life, as whole and in a general way, are Tolstoy [1828–1910], Ruskin [1819–1900], Thoreau [1817–1862] and Rajchandbhai [1868–1901].”¹ He first read Thoreau in 1907 in South Africa, when an unidentified friend sent...

    • CHAPTER 15 Thoreau, Adorno, and the Critical Potential of Particularity
      (pp. 393-422)
      Shannon L. Mariotti

      DESPITE VAST DIFFERENCES of time, space, and context, Henry David Thoreau and Theodor W. Adorno similarly identify a critically valuable quality in particular things. As he shows especially in the aphorisms ofMinima Moralia, Adorno thinks particular objects contain dissonant “nonidentical” qualities that can be drawn out to highlight the illusory harmonies of late modern society.¹ Adorno’s aphorisms enact the practice of negative dialectics: he focuses on seemingly insignificant things (the taboo on “talking shop,” hobbies, ideals of beauty) and shows how they, like monads, contain an image of the contradictions and antagonisms of modern society. Thoreau enacts a more...

    • CHAPTER 16 Thoreau, Cavell, and the Foundations of True Political Expression
      (pp. 423-446)
      Andrew Norris

      THE PUBLICATION OF Stanley Cavell’sThe Senses of Waldenin 1972 was an extraordinary event in Thoreau scholarship. Thoreau’s reputation had waxed and waned, but by the early 1970s the obscurity to which he had seemed fated at his death was well past. The author and hero of “Civil Disobedience” had achieved lasting fame and considerable status as a political thinker via his influence on Tolstoy, Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and the Dutch anti-Nazi resistance in the Second World War, andWaldenwas widely acknowledged to be his masterpiece. Although this acknowledgment was reflected in significant work in fields...

  10. Selected Bibliography
    (pp. 447-452)
  11. List of Contributors
    (pp. 453-456)
  12. Index
    (pp. 457-484)