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FRANK SHUFFELTON From Jefferson to Thoreau: The Possibilities of Discourse The figures of jefferson and thoreau are not commonly juxtaposed beyond the occasional footnote pointing out that Thoreau 's motto for "Resistance to Civil Government" does not appear as such in Jefferson's writing, although there have been passing attempts from Vernon Parrington on to fit Thoreau into a somewhat loosely defined tradition of "Jeffersonian democracy."1 Bringing them together as explicitly as in the title of this essay presents several dangers, not least that of trivializing them in a catalog of factitious parallels. Both Jefferson and Thoreau became famous as architects of their own houses, for example; they shared large interests in natural history and the native Americans; each was fascinated with the prospect of walking or exploring westward; each distrusted the thrust of urban, capitalist culture, and so on. Pursuing such comparisons might be amusing, but in the face of their seemingly more important differences this kind of speculation merely risks its own powerlessness. Fortunately, there are larger possible rewards and greater dangers involved in such a juxtaposition. If literary criticism can control, select, and organize the production of discourse in order to avert its powers and dangers, criticism can also open the way for that discourse to extend our imaginative and moral comprehension of the world.2 Literary history always begins, at least in principle, with the selection of two writers or texts—we should note that the choice of either authorial subjects or objective texts as index projects different kinds of history—and the historian's discursive connection between these points extends an ordering line into the chaotic past. Thus, bringing Arizona Quarterly Volume 46 Number 1, Spring 1990 Copyright O 1990 by Arizona Board of Regents issn 004-1610 Frank Shuffelton together Jefferson and Thoreau might signify a genealogical intention, a desire to reconstruct lineaments of thought and action in order to establish what we might variously call a tradition, a main current, or, even more grandly, an American self. Such a proposal, however implicitly it may be set forward, inevitably summons up much of the previous and ongoing discourse about cultural continuity in America, and it immediately arouses those anxieties such discourse has always set into play. For whenever someone proposes to us a new version of literary history, we seem to ask ourselves who or whose interests are excluded this time, fearful that, depending upon who we are, it is either once again or at last us. The exclusions have been notorious: as this century has gone on, the list of those overlooked has lengthened, and the voices silenced in literary history have usually been an index to those who have been marginalized in our society. Annette Kolodny, for example, in welcoming the possibility of a literary history which would recognize our new awareness of American diversity, has remembered that "In too many instances, feminists, Blacks, gays and lesbians in the academy risked their careers to pursue this new awareness."3 Risking an academic career might seem relatively unimportant in the face of larger threats aimed at those on the margins of more terrifying forces than a tenure committee, but to be denied a voice is to be denied power to become oneself. It is no accident that the first amendment to our Constitution guarantees the freedom of speech: without a voice there is no self to enjoy the other protected rights, and Kolodny's list should include all those who have suffered much more grievous injuries because of class, gender, or ethnic difference. Literary history matters precisely because it is the authentication of possible human voices. Many people who feel marginalized by previous versions of literary history might thus be disturbed by the invocation once again of two white men as totemic figures for our literature, and they ought to be disturbed, given the history of their experience in our culture. By bringing together Jefferson and Thoreau, I would, however, wish not to deny or suppress that anxiety but to reconstruct it in a richer and more hopeful context. Rewriting our sense of literary history merely by adding new and separate chapters reinforces the isolation of the previously excluded by failing to...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1558-9595
Print ISSN
0004-1610
Pages
pp. 1-16
Launched on MUSE
2014-04-02
Open Access
No
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