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Thoreauvian Modernities

Transatlantic Conversations on an American Icon

FranCois Specq

Publication Year: 2013

Does Thoreau belong to the past or to the future? Instead of canonizing him as a celebrant of “pure” nature apart from the corruption of civilization, the essays in Thoreauvian Modernities reveal edgier facets of his work—how Thoreau is able to unsettle as well as inspire and how he is able to focus on both the timeless and the timely. Contributors from the United States and Europe explore Thoreau’s modernity and give a much-needed reassessment of his work in a global context.

The first of three sections, “Thoreau and (Non)Modernity,” views Thoreau as a social thinker who set himself against the “modern” currents of his day even while contributing to the emergence of a new era. By questioning the place of humans in the social, economic, natural, and metaphysical order, he ushered in a rethinking of humanity’s role in the natural world that nurtured the environmental movement. The second section, “Thoreau and Philosophy,” examines Thoreau’s writings in light of the philosophy of his time as well as current philosophical debates. Section three, “Thoreau, Language, and the Wild,” centers on his relationship to wild nature in its philosophical, scientific, linguistic, and literary dimensions. Together, these sixteen essays reveal Thoreau’s relevance to a number of fields, including science, philosophy, aesthetics, environmental ethics, political science, and animal studies.

Thoreauvian Modernities posits that it is the germinating power of Thoreau’s thought—the challenge it poses to our own thinking and its capacity to address pressing issues in a new way—that defines his enduring relevance and his modernity.

Contributors: Kristen Case, Randall Conrad, David Dowling, Michel Granger, Michel Imbert, Michael Jonik, Christian Maul, Bruno Monfort, Henrik Otterberg, Tom Pughe, David M. Robinson, William Rossi, Dieter Schulz, François Specq, Joseph Urbas, Laura Dassow Walls.

Published by: University of Georgia Press

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. 2-5


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pp. v-vii

List of Illustrations

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pp. ix-11

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pp. xi-13

This book grew out of a May 2009 conference in Lyon, the first ever such meeting on European soil devoted to Thoreau. The editors would like to acknowledge the generous support of the different organizations, and the men and women who constitute them, that in various ways devoted time and expertise as well...

List of Abbreviations

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pp. xiii-xiv

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Introduction: The Manifold Modernity of Henry D. Thoreau

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pp. 1-17

All the essays gathered in this volume offer, to some degree, scholarly meditations inspired by thinking about Thoreau. Here—in the continuing relevance of his writings to our time, as they were once relevant to his time—resides his essential modernity. His writings mean something different to us now, of...


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pp. 19-37

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Walking West, Gazing East: Planetarity on the Shores of Cape Cod

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pp. 21-42

Thoreau’s essay “Walking” has become one of his most canonical texts, and its ringing declaration, “in Wildness is the preservation of the world” (Exc 202), is the founding motto of the American environmental movement. Cape Cod is much less well known, perhaps because where “Walking” rings with triumphal...

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Antimodern Thoreau

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pp. 43-55

Undoubtedly, in any discussion of “Thoreauvian modernities,” it is somewhat provocative to call Thoreau an “antimodern,” but provocation is not out of keeping with this eccentric writer.1 The quotations to be discussed will reveal more than a simple opposition to what was modern in his time: Thoreau was...

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Thoreau’s Multiple Modernities

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pp. 56-68

A paradox attends the very timeliness of Walden, for, in a certain sense, the question of Thoreau and modernity is nothing new. If only implicitly, critics of every era since Thoreau began to publish have addressed his relation to what he described as “this restless, nervous, bustling . . . Nineteenth Century” and to...

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Thoreau, Modernity, and Nature’s Seasons

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pp. 69-81

Although Thoreau was known to the larger public of his own day as a disciple and imitator of Emerson and a hermitlike writer on natural history, his stature has grown steadily over the past century and a half. He is now recognized as an environmental prophet and an early critic of the mania of excessive consumption...

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An Infinite Road to the Golden Age: A Close Reading of Thoreau’s “Road—that old Carlisle one” in the Late Journal (24 September 1859)

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pp. 82-101

Thoreau’s Journal entry for 24 September 1859 runs to eight and a half pages in the Torrey-Allen edition—pages and pages of natural history observations interspersed with a few passages of a much more eccentric construction. The “old Carlisle road” is the subject of these eccentric passages, particularly the...


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pp. 103-121

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“Being Is the Great Explainer”: Thoreau and the Ontological Turn in American Thought

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pp. 105-125

I borrow my title from Thoreau’s Journal for 26 February 1841 (PJ 1: 273). The bold assertion of the explanatory power of being would itself seem to require a bit of explanation, for—strictly speaking—how can being explain anything? Isn’t explanation, aft er all, a properly discursive activity, performed by a human...

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Character and Nature: Toward an Aristotelian Understanding of Thoreau’s Literary Portraits and Environmental Poetics

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pp. 126-136

Representation is a rich concept when it comes to Thoreau, regarding both his own work as a writer and his judgments of others. It not only pertains naturally to political and communal matters but also touches on fundamental rhetorical and aesthetic concepts of ethos and mimesis. My basic contention, which...

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Thoreau’s Work on Myth: The Modern and the Primitive

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pp. 137-156

This essay is not a systematic study of mythological references in Thoreau’s works, though I will discuss quite a number of them; instead, the point I wish to make is that, in handling the thorny question of the relevance of ancient myths and mythology for modern times, Thoreau was taking his cue from a number...

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“A Sort of Hybrid Product”: Thoreau’s Individualism between Liberalism and Communitarianism

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pp. 157-170

While spending time in Concord doing research at the Free Public Library, I entered a small bookshop owned by an elderly lady. As I was rummaging through the books, she asked me if I was looking for something specific. I answered that I was writing a thesis on Thoreau and that I was absorbing the...


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pp. 171-189

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Nature, Knowledge, and the Method of Thoreau’s Excursions

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pp. 173-186

In the opening section of “Autumnal Tints,” one of his late natural history essays, Thoreau explains that he will be offering the reader extracts from notes he had compiled for a book he never managed to complete. The book would have consisted of colored reproductions of “a specimen leaf from each changing...

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Thoreau’s Radical Empiricism: The Kalendar, Pragmatism, and Science

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pp. 187-199

Thoreau scholar Perry Miller once famously dismissed Thoreau’s late Journal as “the tedious recordings of mere observations, of measurements, of statistics” attesting to “the dwindling of [Thoreau’s] vitality” and the “exhaustion of the theory on which he commenced to be an author in the first place”...

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“The Maze of Phenomena”: Perception and Particular Knowledge in Thoreau’s Journal

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pp. 200-218

A footnote from Kant’s Critique of Judgment can serve as a provisional entry point to the set of questions concerning perception and particular scientific knowledge that Henry David Thoreau explores in his later Journal. While Kant’s sarcasm is certainly pointed at Linnaeus, he also gives a warning to those who...

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Poetics of Thoreau’s Journal and Postmodern Aesthetics

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pp. 219-233

Henry David Thoreau’s Journal, with its huge dimensions and sustained dedication to recording nature over the entire span of his adult life (it ranges from 22 October 1837 to 3 November 1861), was perhaps his most uncompromising enterprise. Mostly consisting of daily entries recording the protean sweep of...

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Fraught Ecstasy: Contemporary Encounters with Thoreau’s Postpristine Nature

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pp. 234-248

Contemporary Canadian graphic design artist and experimental novelist Douglas Coupland shares grave concerns with Henry Thoreau for the devastating collision between the environment and the development of industrial capitalism—but not without an abundance of satirical irony exposing the dizzying...

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Brute Neighbors: The Modernity of a Metaphor

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pp. 249-264

The aim of this essay is to study the implications of Thoreau’s metaphor of neighborhood with animals in Walden. What does this anthropomorphic trope tell us about Thoreau’s views on animality and on human- animal relations? Does the choice of “brute” rather than “animal” in “Brute Neighbors” express...

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“Tawny Grammar”: Words in the Wild

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pp. 265-273

Thoreau’s call in “Walking” for the regeneration of European culture in the New World by regrounding it in wild nature can be interpreted within the context of contemporary discourse on America’s Manifest Destiny. However, if Thoreau’s call for a new ecology in this essay is decidedly “modern,” it cannot,...


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pp. 275-291


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pp. 293-296


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pp. 297-310

E-ISBN-13: 9780820344782
E-ISBN-10: 0820344281
Print-ISBN-13: 9780820344287
Print-ISBN-10: 0820344281

Page Count: 296
Illustrations: 4 b&w photos
Publication Year: 2013

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Subject Headings

  • Thoreau, Henry David, -- 1817-1862 -- Criticism and interpretation.
  • Civilization, Modern, in literature.
  • Transcendentalism (New England).
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