Walden’s Utopian Legacies

In: Thoreau in an Age of Crisis
Michelle C. Neely
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Michelle C. Neely’sWalden’s Utopian Legacies” treats Thoreau’s reception as a writer of utopian literature, initially observing that critics who have lately mined Thoreau’s book for its utopian prospects have tended to dismiss it as concerned with private life tout court, with little or nothing to offer public policy. Neely points out that Walden will indeed fail to pass muster if “utopia” is narrowly conceived as a necessarily blueprinted model of form and content, and argues that Thoreau’s “refusal to commit to a specific, static, and replicable vision of the ideal society is precisely what makes [him] valuable as a utopian thinker for the twenty-first century.” Neely conducts an extended comparison between Walden and B.F. Skinner’s 1948 Walden Two, highlighting their shared experimental orientation but distinct conceptions of utopia. While we are familiar with Thoreau’s bent in Walden of personally trying and evaluating things at every turn, Walden Two’s Frazier—Skinner’s godlike community engineer—sees the evolving design of a basic social structure to suit everyone as a legitimate and desirable goal. Ultimately Neely invokes utopian theorist Ruth Levitas in order to emphasize that Thoreau’s open-ended and heuristic approaches to ideal outcomes present a quite viable form of utopianism.

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