As this volume is being compiled, the devastating year of 2020 all too grimly fits the definition of a crisis. Not only are we enduring and ineptly dealing with a global health emergency with COVID-19, we’re reeling from a punch-to-the-gut social upheaval resulting from our persistent, collective failure to reckon with the darkness of our enslaved past and racist present. An Age of Crisis to be sure. Distressed and disheartened, we are also mindful that while thousands suffer and die, our privileged good fortune enables many of us to be relatively safe, even comfortable, during these extended months of isolation. That people of color disproportionately contract and die from this disease further substantiates the sustained inequities of U.S. society. Shamefully, we recognize ourselves in Thoreau’s pronouncement of his America in 1854: our “house [is] on fire.”1
The first crisis of Thoreau’s life was personal—the tragic death of his beloved brother, John, when Henry was 24 years old. A few weeks after this loss, Thoreau recalls the passing of time in words we now more fully appreciate: “I feel as if years had been crowded into the last month.”2 Thoreau also lived, as we do today, in an era of political crisis—a time when so-called radical extremists took to their streets demanding the abolition of slavery, the economic system on which America’s entire way of life depended. The urgency of our current moment calls out for Thoreau, not because he has all the answers but because in his own imperiled time, he asked the right questions: “What is any political organization worth—when it is in the service of the Devil?” “Must the citizen ever for a moment, or in the least degree, resign his conscience to the legislator?” “Will mankind never learn that policy is not morality—that it never secures any moral right, but considers merely what is expedient?” “How does it become a man to behave toward this American government to-day?” “Unjust laws exist: shall we be content to obey them, or shall we endeavor to amend them, and obey them until we have succeeded, or shall we transgress them at once?”3 These inquiries are the spokes to this central interrogating hub: “Do we call this the land of the free?” (“Resistance” 73-4, emphasis added).
Thoreau’s political writings drew limited response during his nineteenth century. By the early twentieth century, though, profound activists at home and abroad, such as Emma Goldman and Leo Tolstoy, were inspired by his questions of how an individual should effectively protest injustice. By the mid-twentieth century, civil disobedients in the US took courage from this example for their civil rights and anti-war protests at the same time that early environmentalists enshrined Thoreau as their patron saint. Today courageous young people, activated by Black Lives Matter protesters and allies, take up Thoreau’s queries again. How should they behave toward their government when it has become undeniably evident that we do not, in fact, live in the land of the free? In response, they are powerfully heeding Thoreau’s advice to “Let your life be a counter friction to stop the machine” (“Resistance” 73-4).
Generation Z and Millennials have spent nearly their entire lives in an America at war. They have always been aware of, if not direct victims of, structural racism, an education-to-prison pipeline, school shootings, and a militarized police-industrial complex. Not only are they assailing the overt racist policing that plagues our major cities and rural communities, they are also bringing to the fore the concomitant aggression of environmental injustice—pollution; failed urban infrastructures and crumbling schools; limited or no access to clean air and water; and unequal access to affordable, quality healthcare. Posing Thoreauvian questions about the moral integrity of their government, which they answer by putting their lives on the line, these smart and savvy protesters are of course profoundly angry. They have also become terribly aware that we have ceded to them the momentous responsibility for tackling the macro-alarm of climate change. Nevertheless, many descendants of the legislators whom Thoreau raged against patronize and demean these concerns while brazenly plundering the next generation’s future. Surely, we must admire—and this teacher, for one, is utterly proud of—these civil resistors’ Thoreauvian “action from principle,” as they face off with uniformed, armed thugs to defend the bedrock principles of equality and inclusion on which our nation was founded (“Resistance” 72). The youth of his time likewise impressed Thoreau. While characterizing the “dead institutions” like the prison that had jailed him for a night, he complimented “the crowd of this latest generation,” among whom “it has been unspeakably grateful & refreshing to make my way through” (Journal 2: 262).
In this, our age of crisis, we can best ensure Thoreau’s relevance for troubled times to come by insisting on the radicalism of his questions. Although this particular COVID-19 pandemic will, we anticipate, be alleviated with a widely accessible vaccination, other public health crises will surely follow. Moreover, the ills of our racist America will take more than shots in the arm to treat. The danger for those who venerate his words and his ideals lies in rendering Thoreau uncritically, in sanitizing him, in reading him in isolation, removed from the crises of his time. We abuse Thoreau by not arguing with him. Teaching Thoreau’s writings means encouraging students not to follow in his footsteps but to develop the critical skills and confidence to roadmap their own lives and protests on their own deliberate terms.
Thoreau believed “that the possibility of a future far exceeds the accomplishments of the past,” a progressive outlook that derived, not surprisingly, from his observations of Nature, whose transcendent water lilies emerge from river bottom muck. Similarly, he held that John Brown’s violent raid at Harpers Ferry had served as a “touchstone” that revealed the proslavery government as “a merely brute force.”4 Let us make use of this optimistic Thoreauvian metaphor. Let us work to ensure that the intersecting health and political crises of 2020 and beyond can be touchstones exposing our society’s fault lines in time for us to mend them.
Thoreau, Henry David. “Slavery in Massachusetts.” Reform Papers, edited by Wendell Glick, Princeton UP, 1973, pp. 91-109, p. 91.
Thoreau, Henry David. The Journal of Henry D. Thoreau. 8 vols. to date, Princeton UP, 1981-, vol. 1, p. 365. (Hereafter cited parenthetically by volume and page number as Journal.).
Journal 8: 185; “Resistance to Civil Government.” Reform Papers, edited by Wendell Glick, Princeton UP, 1973, pp. 63-90, p. 65; “Slavery in Massachusetts,” p. 104; “Resistance” pp. 67, 72-3; “Life without Principle.” Reform Papers, edited by Wendell Glick, Princeton UP, 1973, pp. 155-79, p. 174.
Thoreau, Henry David. “A Plea for Captain John Brown.” Reform Papers, edited by Wendell Glick, Princeton UP, 1973, pp. 111-138, p. 129.