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Thoreau’s Democratic Withdrawal

Alienation, Participation, and Modernity

Shannon L. Mariotti

Publication Year: 2010

Best known for his two-year sojourn at Walden Pond in Massachusetts, Henry David Thoreau is often considered a recluse who emerged from solitude only occasionally to take a stand on the issues of his day. In Thoreau’s Democratic Withdrawal, Shannon L. Mariotti explores Thoreau’s nature writings to offer a new way of understanding the unique politics of the so-called hermit of Walden Pond. Drawing imaginatively from the twentieth-century German social theorist Theodor W. Adorno, she shows how withdrawal from the public sphere can paradoxically be a valuable part of democratic politics.
    Separated by time, space, and context, Thoreau and Adorno share a common belief that critical inquiry is essential to democracy but threatened by modern society. While walking, huckleberrying, and picking wild apples, Thoreau tries to recover the capacities for independent perception and thought that are blunted by “Main Street,” conventional society, and the rapidly industrializing world that surrounded him. Adorno’s thoughts on particularity and the microscopic gaze he employs to work against the alienated experience of modernity help us better understand the value of Thoreau’s excursions into nature. Reading Thoreau with Adorno, we see how periodic withdrawals from public spaces are not necessarily apolitical or apathetic but can revitalize our capacity for the critical thought that truly defines democracy.
    In graceful, readable prose, Mariotti reintroduces us to a celebrated American thinker, offers new insights on Adorno, and highlights the striking common ground they share. Their provocative and challenging ideas, she shows, still hold lessons on how we can be responsible citizens in a society that often discourages original, critical analysis of public issues.

Published by: University of Wisconsin Press


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pp. ix-x

I am very happy to have this opportunity to publicly acknowledge those who have helped bring this project to fruition. First, I would like to thank the community of people in Ithaca, New York, at Cornell University, who supported this project in its initial stages. My advisors, Anna Marie Smith, Susan Buck-Morss, Jason Frank, and Isaac Kramnick, had early faith in my sense that there were important sympathies ...

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Preface: Reclaiming Spaces of Withdrawal for Democratic Politics

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pp. xi-xviii

Theodor W. Adorno was a German intellectual, one of the chief architects of the critical social theory of the Frankfurt School, as the thinkers associated with the Institute for Social Research were called. He was also part Jewish, escaping“by accident” from his homeland during the Nazi years.1 Adorno left Germany for England in 1934, moved to New York in 1938, then Los Angeles in 1941. He ...

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Introduction: Reading Thoreau with Adorno

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pp. 3-30

Historically, Henry David Thoreau has been a problematic figure for students of politics.1 At best, he has been read as a marginal member of the political theory canon known for the stinging critiques of American politics we see in his essay on civil disobedience. At worst, Thoreau has been maligned as a misanthropic and excessively withdrawn hermit ...

Part 1 - Two Interlocutors for Thoreau: Adorno and Emerson

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1 Damaged Life, the Microscopic Gaze, and Adorno’s Practice of Negative Dialectics

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pp. 33-57

In Negative Dialectics, Adorno tells us to let our thought yield to the object, to focus our attention on the object, not on its category.1 If we would focus on particular objects and try to hear their dissonant speech, they would help us develop a critique of the illusory harmonies of the logics of modern capitalist society. If we could see in this way, new critical possibilities ...

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2 Alienated Existence, Focal Distancing, and Emerson’s Transcendental Idealism

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pp. 58-81

The passages above portray Thoreau as a somewhat annoying younger brother, struggling in vain to keep up with Emerson, fingers probing into the older “mystagogue’s” pockets to steal his ideas.1 Thoreau has often been interpreted as a poor imitation of his older, more worldly Concord neighbor: younger, more outdoorsy, perhaps, but cut from the same basic mold. Thoreau’s writings are ...

Part 2 - Thoreau’s Democratic Withdrawal

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3 Man as Machine: Thoreau and Modern Alienation

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pp. 85-116

When Emerson and Thoreau are compared, Emerson is typically described as a pillar of society who took an active part in the political and social issues of his era while Thoreau is most remembered for his solitary sojourn in a cabin on the shores of Walden Pond. In his own time and even today, Thoreau has been criticized for not being worldly ...

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4 Huckleberrying toward Democracy: Thoreau’s Practices of Withdrawal

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pp. 117-144

In his book The Senses of Walden, Stanley Cavell reads Walden word by word, sentence by sentence. His goal is to unravel the layers of meaning and decipher some of the mysteries of Thoreau’s excursionary, metaphorical, and allegorical style: “My opening hypothesis is that this book is perfectly complete, that it means in every word it says, and that it is fully sensible of its mysteries and fully open about them.” In parsing the words ...

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5 Traveling Away from Home: Thoreau’s Spaces of Withdrawal

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pp. 145-165

Robert Frost’s poem “The Death of a Hired Man” poignantly captures an enduring image of the way we typically imagine home.1 Here, Silas, a former employee with a less than stellar track record as a worker returns to the farm of Warren and Mary, where he is found “Huddled against the barn-door fast asleep / A miserable sight, and frightening, too.”2 Mary says that Silas has “come home to die,” which raises the question ...

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Conclusion: Alienation and the Anti-Foundationalist Foundation of the Self

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pp. 167-171

Writing independently, separated by time and space, Thoreau and Adorno enter into a kind of fellowship in exploring the experience of alienation in modernity and the politics of withdrawal we might enact to work against that alienation. In this way, Thoreau becomes the kind of friend Adorno would have especially valued. As Susan Buck-Morss notes, Adorno loved to discover sympathetic criticisms with writers in other spaces and times and thought ...


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pp. 173-200


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pp. 201-210


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pp. 211-222

E-ISBN-13: 9780299233938
Print-ISBN-13: 9780299233945

Page Count: 222
Publication Year: 2010

OCLC Number: 550642814
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Thoreau’s Democratic Withdrawal

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Subject Headings

  • Thoreau, Henry David, -- 1817-1862 -- Political and social views.
  • Solitude -- Political aspects.
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