Blick ins Buch Thoreau in an Age of Crisis reconsiders the relevance of 19th-century American naturalist, philosopher, and social reformer Henry David Thoreau to our troubled present. This new anthology collects the work of fourteen leading scholars from various disciplines. They consider Thoreau’s life and work in light of contemporary concerns regarding racism, climate change, environmental policy, and political strife. They review Thoreau’s trajectory as a scientist and literary artist, as well as his evolving attitudes toward Native American cultures. The essaysists also consider Thoreau’s acoustics, concepts of play, and impact on later writers. Most provocatively, they reveal a vulnerable and empathetic Thoreau, a far cry from the distanced and misanthropic critic often portrayed in popular culture.
Robert Sattelmeyer’s “The Evolutions of Thoreau’s Science” explores Thoreau’s scientific practice and its scholarly reception. Sattelmeyer examines the considerable body of scholarship that has developed surrounding Thoreau as a scientist and offers a overview of the gradual evolution of critical and scholarly appreciation for Thoreau’s scientific work, particularly as this developed during the last decade of his life. Sattelmeyer also argues that another vast but unfinished Thoreauvian project, collected in the so-called Indian Notebooks, had its lapse with the recognition of a fundamental impasse: “to attempt to understand the precontact culture of indigenous people by reading books by post-contact European explorers and missionaries is, at best, a tautology.” Thoreau’s broader interest, Sattelmeyer suggests, lay in the developing population patterns, by human communities as well as by plants and animals, of North America. Sattelmeyer then treats Thoreau’s hydrological study of the Musquetaquid watershed and Thoreau’s vast Kalendar project as defining his legitimate legacy as a scientist in his own right.
Rochelle L. Johnson’s “Grieving with the Kingfisher: Thoreau’s Mourning Work in an Age of Political and Environmental Violence” asks what use we might make of Thoreau in a time of geopolitical strife and climate crisis. Challenging Emerson’s 1862 contention that “the meaning of Nature was never attempted to be defined” by Thoreau, Johnson points to Thoreau’s receptivity as itself part of an attempt to make meaning. In exploring how Thoreau’s receptivity enables meaning, Johnson mines his published books and essays, substantial Journal, and manuscript materials, tracing Thoreau’s apprehension of a single bird—the kingfisher. As Johnson reveals, Thoreau remains alert to kingfishers even as he encounters scenes of destruction in Cape Cod; rages over repressions in “Slavery in Massachusetts”; and mourns the human developments destroying habitats along his local Concord River. She also uncovers Thoreau’s interest in the mythology associated with the kingfisher, whose Latin name of Alcedo recalls halcyon days. Johnson’s reading reveals how the kingfisher’s ancient connotation of nurturing presence informs Thoreau’s multifaceted concepts of both “the West” and “the Wild,” as well as the need for conditions and spaces of restoration and resilience that our age, no less than his, requires.
James S. Finley’s “Henry David Thoreau and the Creation of the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument” concerns itself with local specifics: how protection of land parcels in Maine has played out in recent decades. Finley begins by showing how Thoreau’s famous plea for federal land preservation in “Chesuncook” has been either deftly foregrounded or silently downplayed by political actors arguing for local and regional land protections in present-day Maine. Finley’s close reading of the August 2016 Presidential Proclamation in particular, which provided permanent protection to the Katahdin Woods & Waters National Monument (KWWNM), furnishes a credible framework for understanding why Thoreau is not cited among the conservationist luminaries of pertinence to the area. Cordoning the area off as a national park would not only preclude any use at all of its resources, but also bar present residents from continuing to live there. Finley points out that the eventual proclamation of the Katahdin Woods & Waters National Monument was welcome, precisely because it was not undertaken in the classic preservationist mode but, rather, according to a mixed-use model, which, he argues, is both more inclusive of local interests and more in line with the vision Thoreau articulates in The Maine Woods.
Brent Ranalli’s “Henry David Thoreau’s Lifelong Indian Play” explores a project Thoreau began in his childhood: cultivating “an interlinked set of personal qualities that he and his nineteenth-century audience recognized as stereotypically ‘Indian’ virtues.” Thoreau continued throughout his life “to imaginatively enter the world of the Indian, or to view the world through ersatz Indian eyes,” Ranalli argues. This quest would eventually coalesce around the virtue ethics at the core of his mature philosophy. In Ranalli’s reading, many of the most important virtues Thoreau sought to cultivate were recognizably “Indian” traits. Ranalli refers to Scottish common-sense philosopher Dugald Stewart and his Elements of the Philosophy of the Human Mind (1822) to explain the connection between imaginative play (such as Indian role-play) and character education that Thoreau and his nineteenth-century audience implicitly shared.
Mark Gallagher’s “Live Deliberately, Stay Woke: Thoreau’s Influence on William Melvin Kelley” discusses the work of a twentieth-century Black writer who is only now gaining the recognition he deserves. Gallagher conveys how Kelley’s novel A Different Drummer (1962) engages Thoreauvian themes. While a graduate student at Harvard, Kelley became conversant with the overwhelmingly white American literary canon, including the critical discourses enveloping it, while fully aware of their limitations and blinkers when it came to the experiences and perspectives of people of color. In A Different Drummer, the eponymous Thoreau quotation is printed on a frontispiece page, but so also—above this—is the one from Walden clarifying that the better part of what Thoreau’s neighbors call good, he believes to be bad. Gallagher proposes that Kelley reappropriates Thoreau as he is found in R.W.B. Lewis’s classic of the myth-and-symbol school of criticism, The American Adam: Innocence, Tragedy, and Tradition in the Nineteenth Century (1955), in devising his at-once reticent and proud protagonist. Kelley’s identification with Thoreau in A Different Drummer betokens an ironic and iconoclastic refashioning of the myth of American individualism in the African-American literary imagination.
Bergur Þorgeirsson’s “Notes on Thoreau, Carlyle and Nordic Echoes” explores the influences of Icelandic literature on Thoreau, focusing on how he found inspiration in the thirteenth-century works of Icelandic writer Snorri Sturlusson (1179-1241 CE). Þorgeirsson contextualizes why Old Norse literature and history held such sway over the likes of Emerson, Thoreau and Carlyle: it offered captivating accounts from what until recently had been the periphery of the world. Leif Eriksson’s landing in Vinland also provided somewhat of a quasi-Protestant counterpoint to the later Columbus landing, widely celebrated by Catholics as preceding the Puritan exodus out of England. More generally, Old Norse literature and especially the works of Snorri offered accounts of the virtues of freedom-loving, self-reliant, courageous and roaming characters, in many ways reflecting how Thoreau and many of his Transcendentalist friends wished to see themselves.
Andrew McMurry’s personal essay “Standing Up to Trump, with Thoreau” offers a creative and defiant response to our uniquely troubled time. Serving up humor and self-deprecating confessions by turns, McMurry juxtaposes the joys of his newly embraced hobby (stand-up paddle boarding) and the endurance of Thoreauvian virtues as set against the moral morass and corrupting influences of the Trump presidency. McMurry begins by describing his two novel obsessions during the summer of 2016: “the traveling medicine show that was the Donald Trump presidential campaign, and stand-up paddle boarding.” McMurry at length attests to the liberating power of bearing witness and of shedding his professorial garbs in favor of keeping to as frank and honest a journal as he can, the better to keep inner and outer forces in balance while he focuses on a viable horizon. Fittingly, McMurry makes “use” of Thoreau in a time of social and political “abuse.”
In “Thoreau and the Desynchronization of Time,” Mark Luccarelli considers Thoreau’s engagements with various configurations of time. Luccarelli shows how Thoreau early on resisted what he calls a synchronization of time, whereby a “progressive, evolutionary understanding of history and nature” imposed a “temporal subordination of all places and peoples to a larger global pattern.” Giving his first examples from A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, Luccarelli identifies Thoreau’s essential problem with modernity: it created, to his view, a crisis of national character, bolstered as this was by vaunted means toward unimproved ends. Yet at the same time, Thoreau was not immune to the dominant discourses of the day and allowed that some of the aspects of progress they promoted were worthy (exploration, bravery, diligence). Perhaps above all, Thoreau’s becoming aware of industrial development and other human activities in his beloved Maine wilderness left him ambivalent. In Luccarelli’s provocative telling, Thoreau “was caught among colliding time scales” and can be recognized as our contemporary, as we continue to struggle to understand temporality, as well as ourselves as beings, in the complex continuum that we experience as time.
In “Thoreau’s Extra-vagant Sublime and the Milder Majesty of Nature,” Ronald Wesley Hoag revisits Thoreau’s Ktaadn epiphany, which remains a Gordian knot to many scholars and readers. Hoag broadens and deepens insights first presented in his landmark 1982 essay on Thoreau’s peak experience on the high tablelands of Mount Ktaadn, “The Mark on the Wilderness: Thoreau’s Contact with Ktaadn.” Here, Hoag’s intent is to contextualize Thoreau’s understanding of the sublime in wider arcs, to include not only rugged mountain plateaus but also cultural and pastoral landscapes such as those of Thoreau’s native Concord. Marshalling evidence from the full spectrum of Thoreau’s writings, including his correspondence, college essays, and Journal, Hoag argues that Thoreau’s evocations of a harsher and unsettling sublime were always tempered by milder understandings of the concept—that, to Thoreau, not only distant peaks but familiar gardens, when properly perceived, generate awe and astonishment.