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The Revolutionary Thoreau

The idea of our own private Walden is less a desire to be “in nature” than a desperate longing to get out of this awful place. Read in this way, Walden is not primarily a record of the so-called “natural” world but a social commentary.

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Newell Convers Wyeth: Walden Pond Revisited, 1932–1933

What most people know about Henry David Thoreau comes down to this:

In 1845, he retreated from civilized life for two years and two months and “lived alone, in the woods, a mile from any neighbor… on the shore of Walden Pond, in Concord, Massachusetts.” He was in his late twenties. The land was owned by his benefactor, the transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson. Several years after the experiment ended, he published a version of the journals he kept during this time. The book was called Walden.

People might also know that he did not, in fact, spend the entire year alone and that he had some occasional help sustaining himself. His mother, for example, did his laundry.

“Walden” has entered the American English vocabulary as a synonym either for voluntary isolation, self-sufficiency, and harmonious co-existence with Nature, or for hypocrisy and entitlement, depending upon whom you ask, but the popular use of the word has less to do with the book than is generally assumed. Of course, it is the record of voluntary isolation and relative self-sufficiency, but Thoreau also has much to say about things that are decidedly not a part of the nineteenth-century pastoral imagination.

Although it is a narrative of withdrawal, Walden is better understood as a reflection on industrial progress and how an individual inhabits a society increasingly defined by its economic relations. Writing in the middle of the nineteenth century, Thoreau was observing the ever-more complex entanglements of modern life even as he tried to imagine a way out. His later, more explicitly political writings have their origins in the thinking worked out in his account of his social seclusion.

His answer to the question of how to live in a world that demands unacceptable moral compromises and how a citizen should resist systemic oppression was decided, in large part, by the experiment in living that is Walden. And so, exhibiting all of the virtues and all of the problems of American liberalism, Thoreau came to encapsulate their central contradiction in this desire to solve structural social and economic problems through heroic individualism and moral rigor.

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When it became clear, back in March, that our habitual patterns of production and consumption would be severely constrained and that those of us with the means to do so would be spending a lot of time in our homes, many people started casting about for texts that might explain, or at least describe in even approximate terms, the physical, psychological, and political terrain of a quarantine. Among the myriad references to apocalypse movies and plague novels, Walden, too, began to appear in editorials and social media posts as a way to brighten the long stretch of isolation that lay ahead of us. These invocations were generally insipid, but Walden might not be as irrelevant as these self-help style citations made it seem. It certainly isn’t as sunny. Given that “Walden” is popularly reduced to the biographical conditions of its writing, it might also be noted that Thoreau may still have been in mourning when he embarked on his woodland adventure. His brother John had died, suddenly, of tetanus in 1842.

Thoreau understood that he was not so geographically remote. He received visitors (there is a chapter called “Visitors”) and took trips to the nearby village (there is also a chapter called “The Village”). He was, of course, interested in living off of the land and having a regular and intimate relationship with Nature. But he was equally interested in what he was leaving behind: the “fool’s life” of perpetual debt, in which men have “no time to be anything but a machine.” This other existence—this place where “a stereotyped but unconscious despair is concealed even under what are called the games and amusements”—is an indispensable, if negative, narrative and philosophical presence in the woods. Walden is not a summary rejection of quotidian reality: reminders of human society and industry do not violently intrude upon the landscape but comfortably inhabit the margins of his vision: “I have my horizon bounded by woods all to myself; a distant view of the railroad where it touches the pond on the one hand, and of the fence which skirts the woodland road on the other.”

The reason, perhaps, that Thoreau is not put off by the proximity of trains and farms is that he was not seeking solitude for solitude’s sake. He was attempting to extract himself from a society that he found deeply troubling. Thoreau does not begin his record of life alone with the naturalist observations that we have come to associate with him (and at which he excelled). Instead, Walden begins with trenchant critique of “progress.” Thoreau’s aversion to the rapid technological changes brought about by industrialization did not issue from a Romantic attachment to unspoiled Nature. In fact, he quite likes the sound of the trains, or is, at the very least, resigned to their permanent integration into the landscape. In the chapter on “Sounds,” he describes train whistles as well as birdcalls. “I watch,” he writes “the passage of the morning cars with the same feeling that I do the rising of the sun.”

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Nature, for Thoreau, was never an abstract or idealized entity. It was concrete, material, specific. In its nineteenth-century manifestation, therefore, it always appears circumscribed by culture, and this seems to have been acceptable, not objectionable, to the author. What mattered was not his literal, physical distance from civilization or the purity of the landscape. What Thoreau wanted was a spiritual or philosophical distance from society—and the retreat to Walden facilitated a modicum of non-participation.

Generations of critics and readers have chosen to emphasize the spiritual communion with Nature described by Thoreau and, of course, this was important to him. But we would do better to shift our attention to what Thoreau was withdrawing from. In this alternate light, one senses that Nature’s value lies primarily in this contrast to the social world—that its true value to him is as a means of retreat. Read in this way, Walden is not primarily a record of the so-called “natural” world but a social commentary.

There are, to be sure, birdcalls as well as disquisitions on the pointlessness of telegraphs, but the beginning of Walden is taken up with an all-too-familiar, particularly modern form of discomfort that we have, a hundred and fifty years on, learned to live with but have yet to fully dispel: the knowledge that we are trapped in a social and economic system that was not of our making, that we have in no real way chosen to inhabit, and that we cannot hope to escape from. Or, put another way, a system that we often fantasize about quitting for good. This is, I suspect, the appeal of apocalypse narratives—wishes disguised as fears. It is also a more plausible or at least interesting explanation for the perennial return to Walden. The idea of our own private Walden is less a desire to be “in nature” than a desperate longing to get out of this awful place. We don’t want to live serenely by a pond rather than a city park so much as we want to stop contributing to a system that requires others suffer so that we might enjoy what we suspect are merely compensatory amusements.

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Thoreau delivered his famous essay Resistance to Civil Government as a lyceum lecture in January of 1848. It was published roughly a year later. The title by which it is most often referred to, “Civil Disobedience,” was bestowed by Thoreau’s sister Sophia, who also oversaw the publication of a posthumous 1866 edition of his reform papers and anti-slavery writings. Given the current use of the word “civil,” the 1866 title is slightly misleading. The main argument advanced in Resistance was that a person had not only a right but also a moral obligation to flout the authority of an unjust government. This resistance may have been passive, in the sense that Thoreau did not advocate armed rebellion—though he came close to doing so—but it was not simply the nonviolent protest of our understanding. He went further than suggesting that a citizen should disobey unjust laws. The very legitimacy and authority of civil government as a whole was at issue here. Thoreau did not, he announced, recognize the United States government as fit to govern him. For, in 1848, the United States was a country where, by Thoreau’s estimate, four million people were held as slaves.

Resistance begins with uninspiring libertarian boilerplate; its opening passages are cantankerous and suspect in their invocation of individual moral agency. But the argument Thoreau develops becomes both more satisfying and more challenging. He was not adopting a conventional “small government” position. He differentiates himself from “those who call themselves no-government men.” What he wants, and what he wants his fellow abolitionists to demand, is “at once a better government.” It is not government in general that fails to command legitimacy but unjust government, and a government that legally sanctions slavery is rotten at its core:

If one were to tell me that this was a bad government because it taxed certain foreign commodities brought to its ports, it is most probable that I should not make an ado about it, for I can do without them. All machines have their friction.

Slavery, by contrast, is a machine designed wholly for the production of “friction.” This makes any strategic, limited refusal to participate impossible. Most citizens, he argued, were simply bodies in the service of this machine whose main function seemed to be the expansion of slavery. “There are thousands,” he writes, “who are in opinion opposed to slavery and to the war [in Mexico], who yet in effect do nothing to put an end to them.” In fact, most people do much worse than nothing: they actively “postpone the question of freedom to the question of free trade… They hesitate, and they regret, and sometimes they petition,” but they are too invested in the notion of reform through a legal structure that is broken and, more to the point, too deeply invested in a slave economy, to do anything about it. Living in the North or even belonging to abolitionist societies did not exonerate one:

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Practically speaking, the opponents to a reform in Massachusetts are not a hundred thousand politicians at the South but a hundred thousand merchants and farmers here, who are more interested in commerce and agriculture than they are in humanity and are not prepared to do justice to the slave and to Mexico cost what it may.

The “the question of freedom and the question of free trade” and the abdication of freedom for the false freedom of social “progress” were fundamental and pervasive social problems that found their most reprehensible expression in support for slavery and imperial expansion.

This was why Walden was important. Progress required that citizens yoke themselves to an immoral economy in ever more complex ways. Progress could enlist well-meaning people in any number of unethical enterprises by the subtle blandishments of daily practices and basic comforts. Thoreau, however, does not believe that we can have our cake and eat it too. The more dependent we are on the fruits of economic progress the less likely we are to think, let alone act, against the political and moral system that such an economy has created.

This stakes out what would become an unpopular position—involving too much emphasis on lifestyle for the marxisant left and too little room for redemption for liberals seeking to rehabilitate capitalism. But I don’t think Thoreau’s point can be so easily dismissed. Ideology, after all, is not a system of beliefs but a set of practices. It is not politics but the daily, barely noticeable, conditions that make a certain set of beliefs about the world possible. Walden implicitly recognized this.

Thoreau’s more explicitly political writings inherit the insights produced at Walden; they are of a piece with them. And along with these insights, these works instantiate an irresolvable tension between Thoreau’s quasi-sociological worldview and his transcendentalist preoccupation with the individual. In 1849, he wrote in his journal that he “learned this by my experiments in the woods, of more value perhaps than all the rest—that if one will advance confidently in the direction of his dreams… he shall walk securely, perfect success will attend him.” Thoreau believed that an escape from the system was possible if only we would exercise sufficient moral and intellectual rigor.

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So what is to be done? It is all well and good to suggest that white men of means might get their head on straight by taking a principled vacation from the snares of consumption, but placing the real burden of social change on an individual—locating the mechanism of structural reforms in individual attitudes or even individual actions—is at best problematic and at worst dangerous. The demands made of individual men by the argument in Resistance verge on absurd. This is not because Thoreau could not account for power but because of where he located it. He sincerely believed, in a manner that was transparently Christian and messianic, that purity of belief and access to higher laws would allow a man to become, in his formulation, “a majority of one.”

Setting aside the obvious critique of the radical independence and individualism championed by the transcendentalists—that it structurally excludes, women, African Americans, the poor, and anyone else in a subordinate position—heroism as social solution doesn’t bear much scrutiny. If the machine “requires you to be the agent of injustice,” Thoreau writes, then you must “let your life be a counter friction to stop the machine.” It is paramount “that [one doesn’t] lend [themselves] to the wrong which [they] condemn.” For anyone with a conscience, this is a familiar fantasy, but it is difficult to see how it might be fulfilled by anything short of one’s civic or physical annihilation. How else could anyone take themselves out?

Enter John Brown.

In 1859, the abolitionist John Brown and twenty-two followers raided a federal armory at Harpers Ferry, Virginia. This was supposed to be the first act in a general revolt against slavery across the South, but Brown and his small band were easily defeated by a contingent of US Marines. Brown was swiftly sentenced to death. Within a week of the raid, Thoreau announced that he would be giving a lecture in Brown’s defense. When Thoreau’s fellow abolitionists advised him that this was premature and ill-considered, he responded that he had not sent for advice but simply to announce that he would be speaking. In Brown’s “peculiar doctrine that a man has a perfect right to interfere by force with the slaveholder, in order to rescue the slave,” Thoreau recognized the “majority of one” that seemed lacking in polite society.

Thoreau should be commended for his principled position in the face of a hypocritical pacifism that refused to recognize what we might today call “structural violence”—in A Plea for Captain John Brown, Thoreau pointed out that “we preserve the so called ‘peace’ of our community by deeds of petty violence every day.” But Brown, though seen by many as “on the right side of history,” is a problematic character. The logic of his willingness to use personal violence to oppose structural violence led him to some dark places. In 1856, during the guerrilla fighting of the pre-Civil War conflict known as “Bloody Kansas,” Brown led what has become known as the Pottawatomie Massacre. Along with four of his sons, a son-in-law, and two other followers, Brown descended on a small pro-slavery settlement in Kansas and murdered and mutilated five men. And Brown’s certitude about the rightness of his actions was underwritten by a fanatical religious faith: as with the raid on Harper’s Ferry, these killings were decreed by Almighty God.

Though Thoreau chose to defend it, Brown’s armed insurrection was by no means the only form of resistance to slave power in the 1850s: the country saw real and effective collective action against slavery in many Northern and border states that went beyond genteel legal petitioning. In 1850, Congress had passed the Fugitive Slave Act as part of the Missouri Compromise, a law that in effect demanded that citizens and governments of non-slave states actively participate in the capture and extradition of escaped slaves. Furthermore, the act stipulated that the national treasury was responsible for the entire cost of rendition, thus implicitly enlisting all taxpayers in the project of slavery. The reaction to the Fugitive Slave Law was widespread and intense; opposition to it ranged from legal challenges to its constitutionality in state courts to forcible resistance against slave-owners and slave catchers. Well-organized, armed vigilance committees were formed by free blacks with and without the assistance of white supporters.

These organizations, too, thus fulfilled Thoreau’s call to defy the law and they succeeded in preventing slave catchers from operating in certain towns and even entire counties. John Brown himself contributed to the formation of a number of these committees. But unlike the raid on Harpers Ferry, the work of these committees formed a larger, organized, and far more effective movement to check the extension of slave power—without requiring any single hero or individual figurehead.

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John Steuart Curry: John Brown, 1939

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In our own, present period of relative isolation, it did seem for several weeks as though something had shaken loose. In the wake of George Floyd’s murder, the scale and scope of the nationwide uprising against racist policing made a relationship between a Walden-like social dislocation and a new political radicalism seem plausible. The partial collapse of society’s business-as-usual has surely made even the more comfortable citizens think differently about its purported progress. And this, as Thoreau surmised, has had an effect on the willingness of citizens to take principled action against an unjust government.

We might also see, in the calls for defunding the police and prison abolition, something similar to his idea that gradualist, piecemeal reform is inadequate. And we can certainly see, in vandalized police stations, looted luxury stores, and toppled statues, an echo of Thoreau’s disdain for mere petitioning. But his championing of John Brown, dismissed as either insane or criminal by much of polite society, suggests a tension that was present in his work and in the development of his ideas. On the one hand, it showed how a distance from the day-to-day operations of economic progress can produce a salutary radicalism. On the other, it indicates the grave limitations of a political and philosophical investment in individual heroism—the danger inherent in the voluntarism of identifying political efficacy with moral purity and deeply held convictions.

Belief systems and abstract commitments are, of course, indispensable to social change. But when this isolated interiority becomes the sovereign justification for political action, there are only two possible conclusions: either a quietist withdrawal for endless self-reflection or a dangerous willingness to achieve political ends through violent means.

The desire to confront political problems with personal integrity runs deep, but the writer of both Walden and A Plea can only take us so far: for all the self-reflection and political conviction in the world, the individual conscience doesn’t necessarily translate into the collective action and the political demands needed to challenge an unjust system.

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