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“So far heathen”: Thoreau, the Missionary Memoir, and Walden’s Cosmic Modernity
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American Woman Missionary with Students in India. 1873. Courtesy of Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division. LC-USZC4-12000.

In July 1852, Henry David Thoreau wrote to his sister Sophia that “Concord is just as idiotic as ever in relation to the spirits and their knockings. … Where are the heathen? Was there ever any superstition before? And yet I suppose there may be a vessel this very moment setting sail from the coast of North America to that of Africa with a missionary on board!” The letter’s ironic juxtaposition of Spiritualist superstition in Concord with evangelical zeal to convert distant heathens registers the immense visibility of popular religious cultures in Thoreau’s New England and encapsulates one of his most characteristic modes of cultural critique: demanding local reform by inverting discourses typically used to criticize distant others. Even as Thoreau implies the absurdity of the Protestant foreign missionary enterprise, his exasperated questions appropriate the terms of missionary discourse, inverting the spiritual geography that sends missionaries across the globe to redeem the heathen. This ambivalent engagement with missionary culture structures the literary form of Walden (1854), a book that asks, “Under what latitudes reside the heathen to whom we would send light?” In the chapter on “Economy,” Thoreau’s speaker declares, “Even in our New England towns the accidental possession of wealth, and its manifestation in dress and equipage alone, obtain for the possessor almost universal respect. But they who yield such respect, numerous as they are, are so far heathen, and need to have a missionary sent to them” (W, 23). In the midst of a polemic that challenges just such conventional notions of respectability, the speaker assumes the ironic persona of a missionary to New England’s white heathen.

This essay accepts Thoreau’s wry invitation to read Walden through the lens of Protestant missionary discourse. By attending to a neglected facet of the book’s literary ecology, I unsettle familiar understandings of Walden as a localist and individualist text, address the absence of antebellum popular religion in recent accounts of the American Renaissance, and revise secular accounts of global modernity by developing a concept of “cosmic modernity.” In this reading, Thoreau’s first-person account of his efforts to awaken a group of heathens—“to wake my neighbors up” (W, 84)—becomes an ironic retelling of the Protestant missionary memoir, a popular genre circulating on both sides of the Atlantic in the early nineteenth century that portrayed idealistic young men and (especially) women as they searched for callings, left their homes and families to spread the Gospel in foreign lands, and—more often than not—perished there. By exploring Thoreau’s engagement with the missionary memoir, the essay continues a tradition of reading Walden as a sophisticated mosaic of literary genres and modes including the georgic, the spiritual autobiography, and the novel; but it extends and reframes that tradition by turning to one of several popular religious genres that have only recently drawn critical attention as part of what Michael Warner calls the “evangelical public sphere.” My analysis focuses on a group of some 60 Protestant missionary memoirs published in the United States in the four decades between 1814—when Harriet Newell’s memoir set the standard for the genre—and 1854, when Ticknor and Fields published the memoir of Henrietta A.L. Hamlin, the same year the firm published Walden. Although biographical evidence suggests that Thoreau had some exposure to Protestant missionary culture through his family, my claim is not that he read any particular memoir, or even necessarily that he consciously drew on the genre as he crafted Walden. Rather, I argue that Thoreau’s writing registers the genre’s presence at the level of content and form and that recognizing this can add a new dimension to our reading of his work. Specifically, reading Walden as a satirical missionary memoir sharpens our understanding of two familiar aspects of Thoreau’s text that often seem to be unrelated or at cross-purposes: the astringent social critique of “Economy” and the subsequent focus on individual solitude and self-exploration in nature. Moreover, reading Walden in the context of an “evangelical print...



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