The Bicentennial of Henry David Thoreau, pt. 1
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.
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.
associate professor of political science at UMass Lowell and editor of mappingthoreaucountry.org
historian, naturalist, troubadour and author of Expect Great Things: The Life and Search of Henry David Thoreau