restricted access Chapter 8: Thoreau’s Apolitical Legacy for American Environmentalism
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Thoreau’s Apolitical Legacy for American Environmentalism 205 As for taking Thoreau’s arm, I should as soon take the arm of an elm tree. —Ralph Waldo Emerson, Journals 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 examination. But with Thoreau, we find no important distinctions between his early and late writings. What we do find, however, are distinctive channels his influence traveled on its way to contemporary environmentalism. This is not Thoreau’s fault; it is an artifact of the historical path his legacy took. There have been several Thoreaus—a shifting cast of characters made multiple not by any error or indecision on Thoreau’s part or by a discernible maturation of his thought but by the historically contingent way those several Thoreaus emerged. It would be erroneous to say that he anticipated an environmental movement; he was more than a little ambivalent about “movements.” Still, contemporary American environmentalism constitutes one of Thoreau’s most important recent audiences, both in the sense that the greens renewed interest in Thoreau and in terms of the remarkable influence his work had on the movement. Environmentalism emerged in the context of the proliferation of movements that followed the civil rights and anti–Vietnam War efforts. Chapter 8 William Chaloupka 206 William Chaloupka Environmentalism was as distinct from its conservationist roots as feminism was from the suffragettes. The green mixture was unprecedented—at one moment radical, then conservative; indebted to science and nature but also capable of a particular spiritualism; deeply engaged in the public world but ambivalent about politics. In each of these ways, the Thoreau the environmentalists discovered seemed to speak directly to them. What the greens found in Thoreau was an ethical gesture and a romanticism that deeply satisfied them. The Earth Day generation was drawn to Thoreau by his wilderness values and a spiritualism propelled by landscapes. As Earth Day greens responded to Thoreau’s integrity, independence, and attentiveness to nature, they were also willing to embrace a predecessor who had rejected the American polity and whose political views were often immature and even contradictory. Several choices and conditions eventually blocked environmentalism from the explicit conversation about politics that, in retrospect, dearly needed to happen. Whereas green commitments could be expressed by gestural protests, conscientious consumerism, and a fairly narrow approach to lobbying and litigating, larger questions of the movement’s position toward long-term and large-scale structural change seemed beyond its grasp. In this respect, among others, the movement reflected Thoreau’s influence when it should have worked to overcome it. This chapter first examines the several Thoreaus available to the Earth Day generation and then analyzes the fateful symbolic and political choices the greens made at the outset of their movement. Later sections examine the consequences of the greens’ appropriation of Thoreau—consequences that have often worked to the movement’s disadvantage. The Several Thoreaus Thoreau’s work had little impact during his lifetime. As influential as his mentor Emerson became, the transcendentalists hardly constituted a nationally significant intellectual or political movement. Despite sponsors such as Emerson, Hawthorne, and Greeley, Thoreau’s career as a speaker and writer remained on a surprisingly small scale, and it sustained him only because his need for money was legendarily slim. Emerson understood the lack of ambition or even social skills in his protégé: “Thoreau wants a little ambition in his mixture. . . . Instead of being the head of American engineers, he is captain of a huckleberry party.”1 Thoreau’s Apolitical Legacy for American Environmentalism 207 Thoreau’s reputation waned after his death. In Thoreau’s Ecstatic Witness, Alan Hodder traces the trajectory of that reputation.2 Although Thoreau’s death was widely reported, the demise of his legacy began immediately , with Emerson’s eulogy, which was published in the Atlantic Monthly in August 1862. While acknowledging Thoreau’s great gifts, Emerson stressed his friend’s apparent eccentricities. A couple of years later, the influential critic James Russell Lowell characterized Thoreau “as a man with so high a conceit of himself that he accepted . . . his defects and weaknesses of character as virtues and powers peculiar...