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A Political Companion to H.D. Thoreau


Edited by Jack Turner


Political Companions to Great American Authors

Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 2009

Hardcover. x-483 pp. ISBN 978-0813124780. $40.00


Reviewed by Yves Carlet

Université Paul-Valéry (Montpellier 3)



This bulky volume (482 pages) belongs to a series which deals with the political aspects of ‘great theorists, philosophers, and essayists’, but also, as the ‘Series Foreword’ reminds us, of ‘great authors in America’s literary and belletristic tradition’ who contributed to the shaping of democracy. Thoreau’s controversial position in the American canon lends itself particularly well to such a treatment. Jack Turner begins his introduction by emphasizing the ‘inspiring’ and ‘irritating’ quality of Thoreau’ activism, and justifies this quasi-oxymoron by contrasting the way Hannah Arendt and John Rawls ‘denigrated Thoreau’s political significance’ with Stanley Cavell’s, Nancy Rosenblum’s and George Kateb’s tributes to Thoreau’s political thought.  

Logically, the first part of the book, entitled ‘Thoreau and Democracy’, offers new arguments in favor of both readings of Thoreau’s political essays. In ‘Thoreau’s Democratic Individualism’, Nancy Rosenblum revises her previous interpretation, which hailed Thoreau as a prophet of Nietzschean power-lust, to describe in an enlightening chapter a ‘democratic individualist’ who tempers a Wordsworthian distrust of society with a deep faith in democracy. In ‘Thoreau’s Alternative Economics: Work, Liberty, and Democratic Cultivation’, Brian Walker goes even further in the defense of Thoreau’s legitimacy as a democratic thinker in reading Walden as a ‘democratic advice book’, which exalts individual freedom against the threat of market forces, individual self-cultivation against the pressure of business and conformity, and whose ‘alternative economics’ is based on an experimental approach to life problems. Conversely, Leigh Kathryn Jenco argues, following in Arendt’s footsteps, that Thoreau’s rejection of representation and majoritarianism disqualifies him as a political democrat. Her title, ‘Thoreau’s Critique of Democracy’, is aptly provocative.

Part II, ‘Conscience, Citizenship, and Politics’, broadens the scope of this interrogation: the question is no longer that of the forms of democracy, but that of Thoreau’s view of his nation, its origins, and of American citizenry. Thus, in ‘Thoreau’s American Founding’, Bob Pepperman Taylor argues convincingly that Thoreau’s first published work, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, can—should—be read as a political book, which tries to offer a non-conforming view of American history, regarding more particularly the white settlers’ relation to the Indians. In ‘Thoreau, Prophecy, and Politics’, George Shulman rightly emphasizes the prophetic dimension of Thoreau’s work, but his conclusion—that Thoreau is indebted to Puritanism for his use of the jeremiad, and to Romanticism for the ‘idiom of rebirth’ of Walden, is far from trailblazing. Jack Turner focuses on ‘Thoreau and John Brown’ to offer a new reading of the essays, emphasizing the centrality of revolutionary violence, the interplay of word and action, the public performance of conscience, to exalt Brown as an ethical model for the nation. Harry Jaffa also chooses (in a 1969 paper which is republished here, ‘Thoreau and Lincoln’) to connect two contemporary figures—Thoreau and Lincoln—; but Jaffa’s comparison is damning for Thoreau, whose radicalism ignores political realities, and who systematically pits justice against law, contrary to Lincoln. Lastly, William Chaloupka examines ‘Thoreau’s Apolitical Legacy for American Environmentalism’, and concludes that it has been deeply negative, if not politically fatal, in preventing them from fronting facts and encouraging them to choose gestural protests.

Part III, ‘Reverence, Ethics, and the Self’, broadens the field of inquiry even further, so far indeed that one wonders if we are still dealing with politics; but the quality of the contributions to this part of the book (or to be more accurate of two of the four contributions) more than makes up for this flaw. In ‘Thoreau’s Religion’, Christopher Dustin is not content to throw light on one aspect of Thoreau’s work: he asks the more fundamental question of the nature of Thoreau’s inspiration, and unambiguously answers that it is religious, thus developing a minority view of his work (we have read much more over the last forty years about Thoreau the activist, the environmentalist, the poet, than about Thoreau the mystic). Without trying to ignore Thoreau’s love of Nature, his emphasis on conscience or his rebelliousness against social norms, Dustin puts them into perspective, by showing that in his writings, religion preempts morality or the environment, hence a ‘redemptive vision’ of nature, a ‘reflective transcendence’, and even a ‘horizontal eschatology’. The title of Jane Bennett’s chapter, ‘Thoreau’s Techniques of Self’, seems to sum up a more modest project, but the interest of her analysis is that, like Dustin’s, it deals with the Thoreau-ness of Thoreau’s work instead of confining it to a specific angle. Bennett focuses on eight ‘techniques’ : moving inward, idealizing a friend, keeping quiet, going outside, microvisioning, living doubly, hoeing beans, and eating with care. This list does not do justice to the sharpness of Ms Bennett’s reading. The great virtue of her chapter is that it avoids abstractions and generalities, by showing how these exercises build a bridge between every day activities and religious practices. The other two papers of part III deal with important aspects of Thoreau’s vision, but do not offer a substantially new reading of his work. In ‘Thoreau on Body and Soul’, Susan McWilliams analyzes the complex interconnections of the material and the spiritual in Thoreau’s work, and does make a number of interesting points about the ‘doubleness’ of Thoreau’s world-view, but unlike Dustin and Bennett she does not come up with a consistent picture. Lastly, Thomas L. Dumm’s ‘Thoreau’s Solitude’ tries to connect two themes of Walden, solitude and insanity, without really showing how and why there is reason in this madness and connectedness in this solitude.

Part IV is rather oddly entitled ‘Thoreau and Political Theory’. An apter title would be ‘Thoreau and Others’. Melissa Lane, in ‘Thoreau and Rousseau: Nature as Utopia’, compares two diverging utopian visions of Nature, and concludes that Rousseau is closer to the utopian tradition of world-reform, since his goal is to improve society, while Thoreau in Walden rejects reform in favor of individual self-reform. Lane also compares the later writings of the two authors, and notes that for Rousseau, nature’s function is primarily consolatory, whereas in Thoreau the landscape has a deeply regenerative role. The two analyses are not without interest, but they fail to add up to a coherent whole. The title of Anthony J. Parel’s chapter, ‘Thoreau, Gandhi, and Comparative Political Thought’, lets the reader expect a detailed parallel, but merely follows Gandhi’s discovery of Thoreau, in a purely factual perspective. Shannon L. Mariotti’s ‘Thoreau, Adorno, and the Critical Potential of Particularity’, is more original, as it proceeds retroactively, in showing how Thoreau adopts Adorno’s method of the ‘microscopic gaze’ to throw light on the limitations of an alienating society. In the sixteenth and last chapter of the book, Andrew Norris focuses on ‘Thoreau, Cavell, and the Foundations of True Political Expression’, and amplifies the illuminating, or irritating qualities of Cavell’s reading, by approaching Thoreau, as it were, at a second remove, very much in the same way as Sandra Laugier. The analysis is subtle, the writing elegant, but the end-result is a new view of Cavell’s reading of Thoreau, rather than a new view on Thoreau.

This is clearly a rich, varied collection of essays, which however shows once more how difficult it is to propose a ‘political’ Thoreau. The paradox of the book is that its most innovating part (part III) is that which no longer deals with politics, whereas parts I and II offer contrasting views of a limited part of the writer’s work, often neglecting to take into account the literariness of this work, and part IV fails to measure Thoreau’s influence as a political ‘theorist’. All things considered, the only paper which does deal with politics without turning expression into ‘thought’ or ‘theory’ is Bob Pepperman Taylor’s delicate unraveling of the many threads of a minor work, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers.


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