A Wild & Disobedient Life

Henry David Thoreau, on his 200th birthday, is an American immortal who got there the hard way – against the grain of his town and his times.  By now he’s the heroic non-conformist who modeled his brief life on religious convictions: that every human being has an original relation with divine spirit, and that on earth a man must become a majority of one.  So he made a dissenting record living apart, and walking the woods more like a Native American, he felt, than a Yankee.  Never to church, never married, never voted and didn’t pay his taxes.  He talked to the trees as almost-people, and he caressed the fish in his stream like almost-children. Manly and able “but rarely tender,” he won Emerson’s obituary praise that flatters us, too: “no truer American existed,” Emerson said, than Henry Thoreau.  The prophet of Concord is our subject this hour on Open Source. 

We begin with Thoreau’s bicentennial biographer Laura Dassow Walls, visiting this week from the University of Notre Dame.  There’s news and insight in her book that’s drawing high praise already.  She shares with us how her life first intersected with Thoreau’s:

I was a teenager. I was learning girl culture of 1970 and conformity and trying to figure out how to get along and worried about future and what college to go to what kind of job I could have — what kind of a job could a woman have. And they were limited. So, for instance, secretarial work was still something we were encouraged to think about. We took home Ec classes and thought of ourselves as homemakers. And here was this voice who said maybe you could go to the woods, maybe you could confront life, maybe you could figure out what it is to be alive.



The polymath and writer Lewis Hyde is a thoroughly modern transcendentalist, author of a treasured book-length essay, titled The Gift, about the making of art in a commercial society.  In conversation this week we asked Lewis Hyde to speak of form and language—the almost King-James-Version Biblical rhythms in Walden—and whatever they tell the world about the scope of the project Thoreau set for himself:

So every time you can reduce your necessities you increase your freedom. And so, I think, it’s worth in any life to pause and think which of the things you feel you have to do you really have to do because to the degree that you can discard some of them you increase the range of your own freedoms.

Susan Gallagher helps us examine the ways in which the issue of slavery underlies everything Thoreau’s writing about: freedom, conscience and the crime inside the US Constitution.

Just as historians once underestimated the power of slavery in shaping American society, I think that they’ve underestimated the power of slavery in shaping Thoreau. He described slavery as an existential threat. He says ‘right we are now in hell. We are losing our lives. And then John Brown comes along in 1859 and he says this is the best news that America has ever heard. John Brown is the first man who ever lived. And how did he live? By dying. You die for a purpose and you die because you refuse to wrestle the plank from the drowning man. You refuse to make your survival depend on the extinction of the liberty of another. Liberty is more important than life.’

Susan Gallagher teaches history and political science at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell, and she edits a vital, earthy Thoreau website at mappingthoreaucountry.org.


Our final guest, a natural-born, walking, talking Thoreauvian named Kevin Dann came up with a brilliant answer to our question: who, in our day, has taken up Thoreau’s role?  Dann is the author of  Expect Great Things, a phrase and now a book that has the feel of the great man himself.  There will be a prize for any listener who can top Dann’s choice as the reincarnation of this fellow Thoreau.

This episode is the first in a 3-part series on Thoreau and American philosophy. Stay tuned for more transcendental radio and check in for updates on our Twitter page.

See a full transcript of this show on Medium.

Guest List
Laura Dassow Walls
Willliam P. and Hazel B. White Professor of English at the University of Notre Dame and author of the forthcoming Henry David Thoreau: A Life.
Lewis Hyde
poet, essayist, translator and author of The Gift
Susan E. Gallagher
associate professor of political science at UMass Lowell and editor of mappingthoreaucountry.org
Kevin Dann
historian, naturalist, troubadour and author of Expect Great Things: The Life and Search of Henry David Thoreau

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  • Vibha Pinglé

    So brilliant Chris! It’s very special. Thank you!

  • Phil In Blank

    Chris: I came to Thoreau later in life, not after a fine literary upbringing or a lit class at a high-brow university. My voyage brought me to Thoreau as a staff officer in the Pentagon. Yes, that place. A small group of us would meet midday under the tall elms and oaks in its courtyard. We sought out Thoreau in the middle of our duties that immersed in the fighting of two wars and planning for uncertain futures. In that place, Thoreau as American Prophet spoke to us in ways that helped us locate sanity, meaning, purpose, and stillness. On occasion, near the end of our sessions, we would sit. And, silently ponder then individually file away to our respective desks, offices, and vaults. I find I cannot do without Thoreau now in the same way I cannot do without Aurelius.
    Thank you for this podcast. I cannot wait for the other related episodes that will follow. Oh, one final point, should anyone advocate a return to the analysis of the present day, let us first still ourselves in conversation with Thoreau. In the end, if anything is to be made better in this train wreck of a domestic political landscape, it will be made thoroughly better, by listening to Thoreau and getting the questions right.
    Great job All!

  • The most important thing to understand is how an expanded vocabulary opens up the world to one’s perception.
    Thoreau got that.
    What Thoreau didn’t get was what that dynamic could mean to humanity if it was shared in an empathic way.
    He used that power of perception as a tool to negate humanity in the same way Marcel Duchamp used his perception to negate art. Both are a touch stone for the rebellious youth – those who have not reached the maturity to understand that they are part of all they negate – that the dynamic of that negation is to ultimately negate them.
    Listen to Thoreau’s word choices here: the Canadian woodcutter ….. “that there might be men of genius in the lowest grades of life, however permanently humble and illiterate.”
    He could have said ‘working class’ and left out the damning word ‘permanently.’ His optimism is vain and bitter – that there might be genius elsewhere, but never to be realized at his level.

    I would put forth Alan Watts – a flawed individual who selflessly shared his perceptions with all, as a way to better humanity. But that would make Watts the anti-Theroux.

    It was difficult for me to understand how Philippe Petit is Theroux-like. I guess it is because he stands atop what society has built and simplistically looks down upon it. In Thoreau’s case, to shun and shame it. (Not sure Philippe Petit has that depth of insight to consider.)

    • Potter

      “Pond Scum” Kathryn Schulz’ essay in the New Yorker (linked above) goes on about what Thoreau did not get as well. But as you indicate, he did not reach maturity before he left. But he left a lot.

      • In his maturity he would have had to vote, for reasons Jedediah Purdy states:
        “…the fact remains that Thoreau’s radicalism and social wariness were, at times, closely bound to misanthropy and self-righteousness, while his more world-embracing passages could also make room for the political violence and inequality that he denounced elsewhere…”
        Thoreau would have had to prioritize his scattershot ideology. Would he have then voted for Trump?
        And this…
        Note the date: October 11, 1988.
        What ever happened to the writer, Aline Brosh (McKenna)?
        She wears Prada now…lol
        So the question…
        Is neoliberalism a separate parasitic organism that has grasped onto Transcendentalism or was Transcendentalism a flawed ideology to begin with?
        Or, asked another way:
        Was the railroad a good thing?

        • Potter

          No he would not have voted for Trump..(channeling Thoreau)… not unless he wanted to desperately awaken us to the slow destruction he intuited.

          The point I think is that Trancendentalism was what some folks had come to as a reaction of their time to industrialization.. necessary and admirable. Obviously Transcendentalism has it’s reverberations. I can’t connect with neoliberalism, or I don’t understand what you are getting at.

          The railroad, good or bad, was part of the march of civilization, i.e. globalization, which has been going on since forever. I think Thoreau was trying to come to terms with “what is” in the Buddhist sense… acceptance, equanimity and doing what one can to preserve and honor wildness.

          • A vote for Trump would have been his way to interject chaos as a way to slow the economic growth that is decimating the natural world.
            The economic criticism of a nativist ideology is that it will slow growth even as it achieves full employment of the natives.
            “can’t connect with neoliberalism, or I don’t understand what you are getting at.”
            Neoliberalism is a reliance on individual choice – the individual is equipped to make rational choices.
            e.g. privatization provides more choice by breaking down government sanctioned monopolies
            The UBU ad campaign was, I thought, a good example of how Transcendentalism was extended to consumer culture.

  • Cathline Marshall

    What a great conversation. I LOVED finally be able to hear the vibrant voice of Kevin Dann! I have read his book, “Expect Great Things: The Life and Search of Henry David Thoreau” and that same celebratory voice sings from every page.

  • Potter

    Thoreau, only 44 when he passed, and what he left from a life fully and meaningfully lived. Consumption took so many. What Thoreau sees is not only about what it seems it about but prophetic, the layers, and so philosophical. I have felt that Emerson was about the heights of mind, while Thoreau was about the heart. But Thoreau is also mind, mind connected to heart and with that beyond, the spiritual, different from Emerson, but not incompatible.

    Remembering our own ignorance for growth is harder when there is so much ignorance surrounding us that we are feeling, especially these days. Indeed Thoreau seems very modern here, a man of this particular day with wisdom for it. We are slaves, not completely free. Think of the ways. And so back to the beginning, feeling our connection to nature for at least some solace, but surely more than that, for wisdom on how to live.

    This is a beautiful beautiful tribute to Thoreau, exquisitely put together, musically, voice, verbal images scholarship and feeling!

  • guest

    Would Thoreau really have said China is here, instead of India today? I doubt it. Thoreau was astoundingly well read in and profoundly influenced by Hindu spiritual texts, especially the Bhagawad Gita and the Upanishads among others. He read the Dharma Shashtras at the age of 24 and the Gita at the age of 28 which he kept with him during his stay by Walden pond. Of the Gita he says ‘In the morning I bathe my intellect in the stupendous and cosmogonal philosophy of the Bhagavad Gita.’

    Disappointed that the podcast does not explore the aspect of the influence of Hindu philosophy on transcendentalism in general and on Thoreau in particular. The ideas of frugalism, detatchment, panpsychism are core Hindu ideas that formed the core of transcendentalism.