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Is not the poet bound to write his own biography? Is there any other work for him but a good journal? We do not wish to know how his imaginary hero, but how he, the actual hero, lived from day to day.

Thoreau, October 21, 1857, Journal, [1906] 1962, 10:115

To note Thoreau's self-consciousness is only to place him among Romantics generally; what distinguishes Thoreau from other Transcendentalists of his neighborhood was how he engaged nature actively and, unlike Emerson, went forth into the wild, leaving the armchair for active engagement as a selfappointed hero in the American quest of the West. Thoreau's moral example falls into two categories: the first is this environmental ethic which he espoused so eloquently; the second is, in a sense, even more universal, namely, the basis of moral action as residing in a radically selfdetermined agent. In the end, we must ponder how these two moral elements relate to each other and what are their ethical consequences. Thoreau certainly saw them as of one piece, crucial to a grandiose, heroic selfimage.

It is perhaps a bit odd to think of his quiet, uneventful life as heroic, but Thoreau certainly considered himself engaged in some epic contest. From his early Journal, we glean a cardinal principle of Thoreau's life: “any age is a heroic age to the heroic individual” (Richardson 1986, p. 26). Thoreau's identification with the Greeks and Romans suggested to him how he might envision “a new heaven and a new earth for Greece” (Thoreau, February

16, 1838,Journal 1, 1881, p. 29). After all, “The past is only so heroic as we see it—it is the canvass on which our idea of heroism is painted—the dim prospectus of our future field. We are dreaming of what we are to do” (July 3, 1840, ibid., p. 148). So the quiet town of Concord was as fitting a battlefield as the plains of Troy.[15] Thoreau played out this drama in the “Bean Field” chapter of Walden, a venture important not just to illustrate economic austerity but, because he “was determined to know beans” (p. 161), to serve as a parable of a heroic battle:

A long war, not with cranes, but with weeds, those Trojans who had sun and rain and dews on their side. Daily the beans saw me come to their rescue armed with a hoe, and thin the ranks of their enemies, filling up trenches with weedy dead. Many a lusty crestwaving Hector, that towered a whole foot above his crowding comrades, fell before my weapon and rolled in the dust. (Pp. 161–62)

This is a humorous passage, sustained by a dose of ironic selfmockery, but nevertheless the moral lesson stands in relief. Thoreau cultivated himself: “my labor … yielded an instant and immeasurable crop” (ibid., p. 159). While he tabulates his expenses and yields, and calculates a profit, his profit can hardly be measured in dollars and cents:

The true harvest of my daily life is somewhat as intangible and indescribable as the tints of morning or evening. It is a little stardust caught, a segment of the rainbow which I have clutched. (Ibid., pp. 216–17)

Just as in the battle of the ants in “Brute Neighbors” (Walden, 1971, pp. 228–31), we are indeed in struggle, and the point is to choose our battle and engage fully. Are we to live some false materialism or commercialism to no end, or cultivate our own fields, vanquish the inner enemy of our own weaknesses, and become the best that we might be? How to enlist ourselves to better purpose is the basic theme of Walden, and Thoreau regarded that matter very seriously. Indeed, the metaphysical import of his business—to glimpse “a life unlived,” to “trust the remotest,” to “look under the lids of Time”—was “all that I have imagined of heroism” (January 30, 1841,Journal 1, 1981, p. 242).

We are repeatedly summoned to enlist and march in Thoreau's army, albeit in pace with our own drummer (Walden, 1971, p. 326). This military image portends a cosmic struggle, one witnessed by heavenly forces.[16] And so Thoreau ended Walden, imploring us to follow our dreams, by which he meant pursue a heroic contest. His own meanderings over the cultivated hills and through the manicured forests of Concord's suburbs was heroic in

his mind: “For every walk is a sort of crusade, preached by some Peter the Hermit in us, to go forth and reconquer this Holy Land from the hands of the infidels. It is true, we are but fainthearted crusaders” (Thoreau, “Walking,” 1980b, p. 94). Therefore Thoreau admonishes us to “go West” and, in seeing the sunset, to imagine the gardens of the Hesperides, as did Columbus when discovering the New World.

The West, of course, is “but another name for the Wild” (Thoreau, “Walking,” 1980b, p. 112). The West, the Wild, is the mythic source of civilization, for “the founders of every state which has risen to eminence have drawn their nourishment and vigor from a similar wild source” (ibid.). To experience “the Wild” renews and invigorates us in our epic struggle to free ourselves from the clutches of civilization. A bit overstated? Not at all, if one perceives this battle as one of life and death: “Life consists with wildness. The most alive is the wildest. Not yet subdued to man, its presence refreshes him” (ibid., p. 114); there is no substitute—no philosophy, no poetry (“the best poetry is tame” [ibid., p. 120])—although, not surprisingly as the discourse of the heroes, mythology comes nearest to adequately expressing this yearning for the wild, for life. For Thoreau, the struggle is a morality drama, for “all good things are wild and free” (ibid., p. 122). So not only must we protect nature, we must find our own goodness within our own wildness. To the extent that Thoreau regarded himself as fulfilling that search, he was a hero. Whether we recognize him as misguided or as prophetic, the integrity of his pursuit should not be denied.

Heroic leaders almost always earn this role by their own personal triumph in struggle. Like Jacob at Jabbok, Thoreau wrestled with himself;[17] again like Jacob, he took a new name, exchanging “David Henry” for “Henry David” shortly after he graduated from college (Harding 1965, p. 54). Scholars have since debated the psychological significance of this shift,[18] and I would suggest that he changed his name, at least in part, because he regarded his personal quest as heroic, one requiring a selfappointed name to signify his own selfwilled forging of a new identity. In assuming a “new” name, he also put on a mantle to lead his fellow Concordians upon the beckoning road to the West.Walden may be read as “scripture” (Cavell 1981, p. 14), and Thoreau himself may be seen, following a line beginning with Emerson's eulogy and continuing through Joseph Wood Krutch (1948) to Edward Abbey and the Sierra Club, as “prophet,”[19] or perhaps “heroprophet”—a mix of both types.

Thoreau's strong emphasis on individuality, on isolation, and on experience bind together the way he saw the world and how he led his life. To break out of his selfimposed confinement—real and potential—and speak

to his fellow men and women was truly a heroic effort for Thoreau, and given the quandary of the personal, we can appreciate why. When we regard Thoreau as “hero,” we most clearly appreciate how he regarded the moral dimensions of his struggle and what was at stake. The hero stands out from the crowd, steadfast, in clear sight for all to see and follow. There is no doubt about the self in this mode, presented with confidence and with the ability to inspire. No less a project did Thoreau set for himself, and he spoke with the authority of the Right.[20] Certainty is reasserted, and it is accomplished by the only authority we have—ourselves (as he famously proclaimed in “Resistance to Civil Government,” 1973b). While necessary, is this standard sufficient? Thoreau had ample opportunity to test his moral code, and he left us a rich record by which he could be judged.

Thoreau lived in turbulent political times, and counting himself a Transcendentalist, he was hardly noteworthy for being nonconformist. After all, the likes of Bronson Alcott, Orestes Brownson, Emerson, Theodore Parker, and Elizabeth Peabody took critical stances against church and state at times more radical than Thoreau's. But opinion has been sharply divided about the nature of Thoreau's political philosophy (Taylor 1996), ranging from Emerson's lament that Thoreau was content with leading a huckleberry party to Bob Taylor's recent assessment “that contrary to Emerson's evaluation … there has been no writer with more ambition for America than Henry Thoreau, nor one more deeply concerned with the future moral character of our political community” (1996, p. 13). To draw such a sympathetic portrait, Taylor reads A Week and Walden as political accounts, where the problem facing the nation “is not primarily moral error [so much as] moral fear and indifference” (ibid., p. 33). On this reading, Thoreau rejects simple moralism (“conscience really does not, and ought not to monopolize the whole of our lives, any more than the heart or head” [A Week, 1980a, p. 74]) and attempts to bring history and memory into moral action. Thus memory becomes a moral exercise (e.g., “When the Indians die, we do not even remember, or care to remember, where they are buried” [Taylor 1996, p. 21]). In constructing the past, we must make our own reckoning of our social inheritance. This understanding of history served as the theme of chapter 2. We might also regard Thoreau's natural history through a political prism, where the deeply humanistic link with nature, the respect for nature in all of its manifestations, has broad social and political ramifications.

More accessible to political analysis are Thoreau's reform writings, which may be divided between more general statements that outline his political philosophy (e.g., the “Economy” chapter of Walden, 1971, and “Life without Principle,” in Reform Papers, 1973a) and those more specifically addressing

the moral challenge of slavery (e.g., “Herald of Freedom,” in Reform Papers, 1973a; “Slavery in Massachusetts,” 1973c; and “A Plea for Captain John Brown,” in Reform Papers, 1973a). While undoubtedly important in illustrating Thoreau's public ethics, I have paid scant attention to these reform papers or his activism more generally. Indeed, I regard these concerns as derivative of a deeper personal philosophy and thus of secondary interest for this study. But these papers do illustrate, very clearly, the egocentric focus of Thoreau's moral philosophy, which, like his nature writing and historiography, are dominated by his own individual concerns. It is, perhaps, ironic that in a fundamental sense Thoreau was at odds with democratic ideals, for while celebrating America, he almost exclusively placed the individual above or beyond the community. Therefore, instead of a detailed discussion of Thoreau's specific political views, I think it more appropriate to summarily situate his political philosophy within the context of his personal concerns and see how even in the political domain, Thoreau could not escape his preoccupation with himself.

Because of the tensions between his social maladroitness and his need to lead his fellow citizens in a radical moral reform, Thoreau moved along a privatetopublic continuum in the political writings. Various commentators have noted that Thoreau eschewed reform organizations as vigorously as churches, but despite this aversion, he did become actively involved with the abolition movement. Beyond his early lectures, Thoreau exhibited little overt activism, restricting himself to limited participation in the underground railroad and going to jail for a night (July 1846) as a result of refusing to pay the poll tax—an act of civil disobedience over the issue of the slave status of Texas and the resulting Mexican War. But Thoreau's political posture also embraced a more overt activism, for while he regarded personal reform, rugged moral selfreliance, and the assertion of individual virtue as constituting the bedrock of social responsibility (e.g., “The Service” and “Reform and the Reformers,” in Reform Papers, 1973a), he also asserted that the individual ultimately acts in a political context to effect his moral agency—either actively (e.g., “Wendell Phillips,” in Reform Papers, 1973a) or passively (e.g., “Resistance to Civil Government,” 1973b).[21]

We can see Thoreau's political philosophy unified if we understand that his underlying moral philosophy underwent no significant modulation but that his participatory politics did. Thus we can trace a progression of his activism from the mid-1840s to that reached with the fugitive slave issue revolving around Anthony Burns (“Slavery in Massachusetts,” 1973c). From passive noncompliance and selfremoval, Thoreau, by the time John Brown attacked Harper's Ferry in 1859, was fully, even passionately,

invested in personal action against the state. In a sense, his support for Brown reflects a complete outward turning of moral sentiment from personal outrage to public denunciation. It is as if Thoreau were no longer satisfied to reside in solitude or to resist government passively, so that by 1850, when the Fugitive Slave Law was enacted, his moral umbrage at the state's participation in the return of escaped slaves propelled the public participation that he had hitherto avoided. And by the end of the decade Thoreau came to regard John Brown as a true American hero, one he eulogized without restraint (“The Last Days of John Brown” and “Martyrdom of John Brown,” in Reform Papers, 1973a). Coupled with his admiration was, apparently, the realization that passive resistance was an inadequate response to state aggression. As Len Gougeon notes, “selfculture cannot be practiced in a society where freedom is either denied or actively threatened” (1995, p. 205). The philosophical position remained steadfast; the political expression had become radicalized.

Thoreau's political philosophy rested on one key principle, as famously declared in “Resistance to Civil Government”:

The authority of government, even as such as I am willing to submit to … is still an impure one: to be strictly just it must have the sanction and consent of the governed. It can have no pure right over my person or property but what I concede to it…. There will never be a really free and enlightened State, until the State comes to recognize the individual as a higher and independent power, from which all its own power and authority are derived, and treats him accordingly. (1973b, p. 89)

In short, for Thoreau, government, majority rule, and courts of law would never compromise sacrosanct individuality. The quiet militancy of nonviolent, passive resistance reflects a deep and uncompromising resoluteness, and Thoreau's later more overt activism hardly reflected a shift in his basic philosophy, for the essential lesson of “Resistance to Civil Government”— that government must protect the freedom of its citizens—was to be reiterated in later activist writings. Let us consider “Slavery in Massachusetts” (1973c) as illustrative of the themes I wish to emphasize.

This lecture was delivered in 1854 to an abolitionist audience shortly following the abortive attempt to free Anthony Burns, a fugitive slave, from being returned to Virginia (von Frank 1998, pp. 276–85).[22] The federal Fugitive Slave Law had superseded the state's Personal Liberty Laws, which were enacted to protect runaway slaves in the 1840s. Thoreau then, ironically in respect to the clash over states' rights resulting in the Civil War, argued heatedly against the loss of state sovereignty: “The whole military force of the State [Massachusetts] is at the service of a Mr. Suttle, a slaveholder from

Virginia, to enable him to catch a man whom he calls his property; but not a soldier is offered to save a citizen of Massachusetts from being kidnapped!” (Thoreau 1973c, p. 94). And consonant with “Resistance to Civil Government,” Thoreau proclaims a moral law higher than the Constitution, and, more pointedly, the right of the moral individual, in the face of an immoral majority, to assert and enact his own sense of probity (ibid., p. 104). Again, the themes of self-responsibility are clearly declared:

The fate of the country does not depend on how you vote at the polls— the worst man is as strong as the best at that game; it does not depend on what kind of paper you drop into the ballotbox once a year, but on what kind of man you drop from your chamber into the street every morning….

Let each inhabitant of the State dissolve his union with her, as long as she delays to do her duty…. Only they are guiltless, who commit the crime of contempt of such a Court. (Ibid., pp. 104–5)

There is a dark streak of elitism in Thoreau's confidence in knowing the Right, in his disdain of the democratic process, and in his lofty self-righteousness.

The key indictment against Thoreau's moral authority is how he casts Burns's rights in his own: Thoreau regards the return of Anthony Burns to enslavement as a critical infringement on his own freedom: “the State has fatally interfered with my lawful business” by interrupting “me and every man on his onward and upward path” (ibid., p. 107). And so the underlying rationale for protest rests on Thoreau's outrage that his own freedom had been compromised—not that of Burns! Here we come squarely to the moral implications of Thoreau's narcissism. I can offer no better critique than that offered by Orestes Brownson about Emerson's Divinity School Address (1838), but which could just as easily have been written about Thoreau:

“The highest good they recognise is an individual good, the realization of order in their own individual souls.” Can a person who adopts this moral rule really be called moral? “Does not morality always propose to us an end separate from our own, above our own, and to which our own good is subordinate?” It is indeed necessary to achieve harmony within the individual soul, but that is only a preliminary step. “Above the good of the individual, and paramount to it, is the good of the universe, the realization of good of creation, absolute good.” The man who forgets himself is “infinitely superior to the man who merely uses others as the means of promoting his own intellectual and spiritual growth.” (Cited and edited by Barbara Packer 1995, p. 437)

So, on the basis of Thoreau's own sense of personal infringement, action was now justified, and he lauded those who acted to free Burns.[23]


Thoreau, in this most public exhortation, cannot remain in the public sector, and instead returns to the private sphere as the ultimate source of action. How then would Thoreau proceed in his everyday life? Or, as he asks, How can one “be serene in a country where both the rulers and the ruled are without principle?” (Thoreau 1973c, p. 108). He quickly answers: in nature—as mediated by a sensitive soul. Thoreau turns, as he did in Walden, to the higher laws and the eternal truths he perceived in the natural world, and thus in the pursuit of his art he affirmed a moral order, as exemplified by natural beauty. Almost rhapsodically, Thoreau closed his tormented remarks by citing the simplest pleasure of observing flowers, in which he found solace for, if not specific answers to, the pressing political questions and moral laxity of his feverish time:

But it chanced the other day that I scented a white waterlily, and a season I had waited for had arrived. It is the emblem of purity. It bursts up so pure and fair to the eye, and so sweet to the scent, as if to show us what purity and sweetness reside in, and can be extracted from, the slime and muck of earth…. What confirmation of our hopes is in the fragrance of this flower! I shall not so soon despair of the world for it, notwithstanding slavery, and the cowardice and want of principle of Northern men. It suggests what kind of laws have prevailed longest and widest, and still prevail, and that the time may come when man's deeds will smell as sweet…. If nature can compound this fragrance still annually, I shall believe her still young and full of vigor, her integrity and genius unimpaired, and that there is virtue even in man, too, who is fitted to perceive and love it. It reminds me that Nature has been partner to no Missouri Compromise. I scent no compromise in the fragrance of the waterlily. (Ibid.)

This passage is noteworthy in three respects: The first is that Thoreau's moral direction is selfdetermined, selfperceived, and ultimately selfcentered as he uses his intercourse with nature as the foundation for his political action. It is evident, then, that he uses no corrective external standard—political or moral principles—and relies entirely on his own sensibility, which to our ears appears precious and even drunk with rapturous delight. Second, given the egocentric character of this essay, Thoreau still is able to move beyond himself and offers his ultimately optimistic prediction about the political process for social justice. Indeed, the reformer, in the very act of arguing his case, must, at some basic level, believe that he might effect change for the better. In Thoreau's case, given that natural laws are the oldest and ultimately the dominant ones, man must—if he only sees what nature provides, that is, if properly attuned to her lessons—achieve the same

kind of social harmony that Thoreau witnesses in the lily. In other words, the transcendental principles sought for the individual may also be applied to man in the collective. This, in short, is his basic political philosophy. Finally, social reform rests on the moral reform of the self, because political action is not determined by a particular crisis but reverberates to the very foundations of the moral agent himself. There can be no retreat from the world's challenges, and Thoreau does not offer some naive gloss in this passage but rather enunciates the key insight first expressed in “Paradise to Be Regained” (in Reform Papers, 1973a), namely, that man must “reform himself” before effecting social reform. As Sherman Paul noted, the central task was “selfreform, which was Thoreau's way of reforming the outward life” (1958, p. 153), and reform here is expressed as the appreciation of nature and the attestation of values consonant with that purpose. Accordingly, before attempting to reform the world, Thoreau's turn to nature was the primary “political” act, albeit personal and private. In the process of truly seeing the beauty and order of nature, Thoreau believed he was provided with the values which would guide his worldly endeavors.

By this reading, the perfectibility of the collective and the reform of the individual each stem from the same crucial source: selfexamination. Thus, whether regarded from the perspective of the political arena of social choice or from that of a particular person's ethics, Thoreau's reform writings derive from his central celebration of individuality, one he achieved through his unique manner of communing with nature. As the intensity of debate surrounding slavery increased, Thoreau's own rhetoric also heightened in intensity, but the basic political themes were already clearly articulated in the moral philosophy of Walden's first draft—the assertion of the individual's sanctity, the willed pursuit of selfimprovement, the denial of false social values at the expense of the attainment of meaningful personal ones, and the centrality of man's relation to nature and the discovery thereby of his own divine character. Thus, we may understand the basic structure of “Resistance to Civil Government” (written during this same period) as an applied civics lesson from the Walden experience. When Thoreau asserts that “the only obligation which I have a right to assume, is to do at any time what I think right” (1973b, p. 65), he does so fully confident that he has been inspired by the “higher laws” of nature and that he indeed perceives them correctly because “through the exercise of an active conscience a person maintains a transcendent spiritual life” (Gougeon 1995, p. 202). Thoreau's movement from passive resistance to a more rigorous activism is of secondary concern to the underlying moral precept: each individual is responsible for his or her own actions, and the sense of right is not to be found in

the world of social intercourse (i.e., conventional morality or majority rule) but in the private domain of conscience and selfrealized personhood. The structure of moral agency was thus based on individuality—the choice of fulfilling one's own agenda—and the willing of that personal identity along a continuum of perfection.

Thoreau's selfimage of hero, prophet, and political conscience rested on an assured sense of personal identity. But our age is wary of heroes, selfproclaimed or otherwise. And the banner of the self—under which a hero, if there is one, must appear—has been tattered. We are unsettled by the suspicion that the self is but an interpretative scheme, an almost discarded remnant of an eclipsed sociohistorical period. Our very identities seem all too plastic and contingent. And guidelines vanish as mysteriously as they appear. Philosophically, the very notion of selfhood was a problem bequeathed to Thoreau by his own era. What we glean, putting aside the vexing psychological issues, in studying the quest for his personhood is the assertion of the self's reality, and a powerful affirmation at that. From our vantage, this posturing may seem a “conceit” (Cavell 1981, p. 19), but such a judgment says as much about ourselves as about Thoreau. We are deaf to prophets, and we mistrust leaders. In Thoreau's selfcreative effort of making himself into a political voice, we see the moral boundaries of his personhood in highlight. On this note, which addresses the particularly vexing modern conundrum of the self, we most clearly hear Thoreau's trumpet. Is his song a rhapsodic melody or the cacophony of postmodern atonality? In the concluding chapter, we consider Thoreau's basis of moral agency, the putative “triumph of the self.”

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