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Introduction: Thoreau as a Political Thinker  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 to rout all that [is] not life . . . to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it prove[s] to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it . . . or if it [is] sublime, to know it by experience, and . . . give a true account of it.”1 Thoreau’s irritating quality proceeds from his tendency to insult “the mass of men” and to appear hypocritical. In “Civil Disobedience” (1849), for example, Thoreau protests slavery vehemently and characterizes those who do not share his moral vehemence as “men of straw” and “lump[s] of dirt.”2 Yet just a few pages later he writes, “As for adopting the ways which the State has provided for remedying the evil, I know not of such ways. They take too much time, and a man’s life will be gone. I have other affairs to attend to.”3 Such statements provoked Vincent Buranelli—in a famous 1957 Ethics article—to dismiss Thoreau’s political thought as “false and bizarre.”4 Buranelli had trouble deciding which was worse—that Thoreau was so illogical or that he was so self-assured in that “illogicality.”5 “Thoreau is not merely often wrong, but wrong to an incredible degree. . . . He dogmatizes from nothing more solid than his own inspiration. . . . It is difficult not to feel exasperated with him.”6 Notwithstanding Buranelli’s exasperation, the past half century has seen a steady accumulation of scholarship that takes Thoreau seriously as a Jack Turner  Jack Turner political thinker. The roots of Thoreau’s resurgence in contemporary theory are more political than intellectual. An inspiration to Martin Luther King Jr. and the American civil rights movement, Thoreau’s theory of civil disobedience captured the attention of political theorists in the 1960s eager to evaluate the events swirling around them.7 Hannah Arendt and John Rawls engaged Thoreau in their own ruminations on civil disobedience, yet in the end, both denigrated his political significance. Reinterpreting Thoreau’s refusal to pay his poll tax in protest of the Mexican War as a private act of conscientious refusal aimed at preserving his integrity rather than as a public act of civil disobedience aimed at transforming public policy, Arendt and Rawls privatized the meaning of Thoreau’s resistance.8 While Rawls offered his reinterpretation as a friendly amendment, Arendt characterized Thoreau’s (so-called) politics as morally solipsistic: “[Thoreau] argued his case not on the ground of a citizen’s moral relation to the law, but on the ground of individual conscience and conscience’s moral obligation. . . . Thoreau did not pretend that a man’s washing his hands of [wrong] would make the world better. . . . Here, as elsewhere, conscience is unpolitical.”9 Left to Arendt and Rawls, Thoreau’s reemergence in contemporary political theory might have ended as abruptly as it started. Yet Thoreau found his reader in philosopher Stanley Cavell, whose 1972 Senses of Walden inaugurated a new era of appreciation of Thoreau as a political thinker. Refuting Arendt’s and Rawls’s characterization of Thoreauvian civil disobedience as privatistic, Cavell argued that the key to understanding Thoreau’s civil disobedience was recognizing “that the completion of the act was the writing of the essay which depicts it.”10 In the writing and publication of “Civil Disobedience,” Thoreau achieved the “public address”11 that—on Arendt’s and Rawls’s terms—distinguishes public acts of civil disobedience from private acts of conscientious refusal. Emphasizing the public purchase of writing itself, Cavell opened the way to exploring the political purchase of “words,” “sentences,” and “portions” in Thoreau’s works beyond “Civil Disobedience.”12 Moving Walden (1854) from the periphery to the center of political interpretation, Cavell read it as “a tract of political education, education for membership in the polis.”13 Walden is an expression of both “absolute hope” and “absolute defeat”—hope in freedom’s possibilities in postrevolutionary America, defeat in the face of the pleasure-seeking frivolity that masquerades as freedom in Thoreau’s United States.14 Walden, however, seeks to Introduction  snatch hope from defeat by making...


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