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Academic Insights for the Thinking World

Thinking disobediently?

A person who “thinks disobediently” can be invigorating, maddening, or both. The life and writings of Henry David Thoreau have provoked just such mixed reactions over time, scorned by some; cherished by others. What seems bracingly invigorating can also seem an off-putting mannerism.

That’s also a significant reason why Thoreau lingered in provincial obscurity during his life but rose to iconic status after death to become one of the few figures in American literary history besides Mark Twain and Ernest Hemingway to achieve something like folk hero status—at least for many. Against-the-grain thinkers are often easier to take from a distance than upfront. Socrates, Nietzsche, and Gandhi are some others who come to mind.

Thoreau’s mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson observed that “first instinct upon hearing a proposition was to controvert it.” Emerson usually found this cantankerousness energizing, but he also wearied of it; and so, to a much greater extent, did more conventional-minded folk, especially if they’d never seen Thoreau’s sweeter and more vulnerable side, as Emerson had. His author-physician friend Oliver Wendell Holmes, who had little time for willful idiosyncrasy, dismissed Thoreau as an Emerson clone who “insisted in nibbling his asparagus at the wrong end.” In Thoreau’s writing as well, we often find him insisting on the importance of such gestures as rejecting the gift of a doormat for his Walden cabin because “it is best to avoid the beginnings of evil.”

This dogged staunchness repelled even some who were closer to him, like one neighbor who quipped that she would no more think of taking Thoreau’s arm than the arm of an elm tree. Never mind that still others who knew him more intimately disagreed, especially among the younger generation of Concord like Louisa May Alcott and Emerson’s son, who remembered him as a kindly playfellow and guide. Standoffish resistance, with a satirical bite, was the face he tended to present to the adult world.

This side of Thoreau, however, is also key to the special force and bite of his writing, which for many latter-day readers has made his writing seem more vibrant and provocative over time than Emerson’s more abstract prose. Judged by their writings alone, Thoreau emerges as the far more memorable flesh-and-blood figure, Emerson by contrast as a kind of recording consciousness. Even Thoreau’s cranky niggling can seem like lovable eccentricity. When I put the question, “Which of the two would you rather room with?” to students who’ve read them both extensively, their first impulse is to choose Thoreau, although, on second thought, they grant that Emerson would have been easier to get along with.

Thoreau scholars also face a version of this problem. Many of us, myself included, were first drawn to Thoreau in years past by his ringing idealistic denunciations of the social and political status quo (“Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the only place for a just man is also a prison,” etc.) In addition to their sheer charismatic vehemence, such pronouncements may ignite a feeling of special kinship in those who also feel themselves on the margins of society, as aspiring academics often do. The autobiographical persona in Thoreau’s writing evokes the sense of being invited into a select circle of intimacy above or apart from the ordinary herd, such as what e. e. cummings conjures up in the preface to an edition of his collected poems: These poems “are written for you and for me and are not for mostpeople [sic].” 

Only later does one realize that Thoreau might have scorned most who write articles and books about him as obtuse pedants. But that awakening may also have the salutary effect of making a scrupulous Thoreauvian less addicted to his or her pet theories about who the real Thoreau was, and more wary of making “authoritative” claims about the essence of his personhood or writing.

That said, the defining arenas of Thoreau’s disobedient thinking are unmistakable. Individual conscience is a higher authority than statute law or moral consensus. True wildness can be found at the edges of your hometown. Scientific investigation of natural phenomenon is formulaic without sensuous immersion in the field. Religious orthodoxies of one’s time or any time are tribalistic distortions of the animating energies whose epicenter lies, if anywhere, in untutored intuition or the natural world, not human institutions.

What gives these and other Thoreauvian heterodoxies their special bite is not so much how he lived but how he wrote. Many have practiced a more rigorous voluntary simplicity than Thoreau did during his two-plus years at Walden, often for far longer stretches of time and in places far more wild. Many have suffered for conscience’s sake far longer and far more agonizingly than his one-night incarceration for tax refusal. But no such heroes of nonconformity managed to write the likes of Walden and “Civil Disobedience,” which since Thoreau’s death have become classics of world literature and have helped inspire many more thoroughgoing acts of conscientious withdrawal, political resistance, and environmental activism.

In order to make sense of how these—and other—Thoreau works have had such impact, a good place to start is Thoreau’s talent for arresting assertions, often directed as much to himself as to others, that set you back, make you think, urge you on. Such as: “Any man more right than his neighbors constitutes a majority of one already”; “If I repent of anything, it is very likely to be my good behavior”; “For the most part, we are not what we are, but in a false position”; or “How vain it is to sit down to write when you have not stood up to live!” This, however, is only a starting point for a deeper understanding of the motions of this disobedient thinker’s mind. For that, there’s no substitute for a careful examination of the works themselves. That’s what I’ve striven to do in Henry David Thoreau: Thinking Disobediently.

Feature image by Chris Liu-Beers via Unsplash.

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