Cover

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Title page/Copyright page

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pp. i-iv

Contents

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pp. v-vi

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Series Foreword

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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.

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Acknowledgments

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p. ix

I am grateful to Patrick J. Deneen and Stephen M. Wrinn for inviting me to edit this volume for the University Press of Kentucky’s Political Companions to Great American Authors series. Their counsel and encouragement have been indispensable. Thanks to the authors of the previously published essays for letting me reprint their work and for modifying it to fit ...

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Introduction: Thoreau as a Political Thinker

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pp. 1-12

Writer, naturalist, theorist of civil disobedience, and antislavery 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 ...

Part I

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Chapter 1: Thoreau’s Democratic Individualism

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pp. 15-38

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.

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Chapter 2: Thoreau’s Alternative Economics: Work, Liberty, and Democratic Cultivation

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pp. 39-67

...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 ...

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Chapter 3: Thoreau’s Critique of Democracy

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pp. 68-96

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 ...

Part II

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Chapter 4: Thoreau’s American Founding

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pp. 99-123

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 ...

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Chapter 5: Thoreau, Prophecy, and Politics

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pp. 124-150

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 ...

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Chapter 6: Thoreau and John Brown

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pp. 151-177

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.

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Chapter 7: Thoreau and Lincoln

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pp. 178-204

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 ...

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Chapter 8: Thoreau’s Apolitical Legacy for American Environmentalism

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pp. 205-226

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 ...

Part III

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Chapter 9: Thoreau on Body and Soul

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pp. 229-255

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 ...

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Chapter 10: Thoreau’s Religion

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pp. 256-293

“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

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Chapter 11: Thoreau’s Techniques of Self

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pp. 294-325

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 ...

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Chapter 12: Thoreau’s Solitude

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pp. 326-338

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.

Part IV

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Chapter 13: Thoreau and Rousseau: Nature as Utopia

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pp. 341-371

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 novel Julie, 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 ...

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Chapter 14: Thoreau, Gandhi, and Comparative Political Thought

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pp. 372-392

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 ...

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Chapter 15: Thoreau, Adorno, and the Critical Potential of Particularity

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pp. 393-422

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 of Minima 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 ...

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Chapter 16: Thoreau, Cavell, and the Foundations of True Political Expression

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pp. 423-446

The publication of Stanley Cavell’s The Senses of Walden in 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 ...

Selected Bibliography

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pp. 447-451

Contributors

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pp. 453-455

Index

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pp. 457-483