Abstracts for The Thoreau Society’s Panel at MLA 2016

Wednesday, January 6, 2016 (All day) to Sunday, January 10, 2016 (All day)
Austin, TX
The Thoreau Society

 Abstracts for The Thoreau Society’s Panel at MLA 2016

(Jan. 6-10, 29016; Austin, Texas) 

Anticipating Thoreau at 200 (The Thoreau Society)

Rochelle Johnson, Coll. of Idaho, Chair

 "Beyond all men of his day": T. W. Higginson and Thoreau's Legacy in Postbellum America
Sandy Petrulionis (Penn State Univ. Altoona)

Critics have long noted that activist editor and author Thomas Wentworth Higginson (1823-1911) played a crucial part in launching Henry Thoreau’s reputation. It was a limited and sedate figure Higginson extolled, however. Although both men were committed to radical abolitionist politics during the antebellum era, including their mutual admiration for John Brown; and although by the end of the nineteenth century, Thoreau’s critical standing had come to encompass his more provocative political writings, Higginson rarely mentioned these works over a lifetime of published commentary on Thoreau. Instead, Higginson was one of the earliest practitioners of what would become a trend over the next hundred and fifty years—of brandishing Thoreau selectively in service to one’s own causes. Building on Lawrence Buell’s claim that Higginson was “Thoreau’s first literary disciple of any importance,”1 this essay advances the argument that Higginson also modeled himself personally on Thoreau—as a writer and budding naturalist. Consequently, during the post-war decades, with his own radical politics tucked in the past, he largely ignores Thoreau’s political writings and identity.

In writings spanning over forty years, but particularly in his reviews of Thoreau’s first three posthumous books in the mid-1860s, Higginson constructed a de-politicized, reductive portrait of Thoreau as an original American author-explorer whose stoic resilience and nobility served as a model of the ideal of authorship and moral manhood to which Higginson himself aspired. Complicating this project was the competitive tension created as Higginson confronted others, especially Sophia Thoreau, James Russell Lowell, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and H. G. O. Blake, whose protective hands, vindictive words, and editorial willfulness also left their indelible marks on Thoreau’s postbellum reputation.

1.  Lawrence Buell, The Environmental Imagination: Thoreau, Nature Writing, and the Formation of American Culture (Cambridge, MA: Belknap P of Harvard UP, 1995), 413.

 Thoreau’s Materialism and Environmental Justice
Lance Newman (Westminster Coll.)

Henry David Thoreau has too often been read in ways that disconnect his political and environmental concerns. Accounts of his political thought tend to ignore his engagement with the land, while environmentally-inflected readings tend to represent him as a solitary and single-minded avatar of wildness. But for Thoreau, who evolved steadily from a Transcendental idealist into a materialist natural historian, social justice and nature’s well-being could not be separated. He increasingly applied a natural historian’s habits of mind—empirical observation and materialist analysis—to the social and political life of Concord, and by extension, to the antebellum United States as a whole. As a result, he saw that capitalism actively managed the relationship between humans and nature by organizing labor according to the economic forms of property and profit. The exploitation of labor (both wage and slave) and the appropriation of nature were thus twin features of an intensely destructive modernity. Accordingly, Thoreau acknowledged the need, not just for individual self-reform, but for collective action in pursuit of wholesale social change. In short, Thoreau was a materialist, not just in the philosophical sense, but also in the political sense. He believed that not just our ideas, but the socio-economic relationships that shape our lives on the land, must be changed if we are to achieve a just society in a healthy environment.

Seen in these terms, Thoreau can serve as an important literary touchstone for an environmental justice movement that recognizes the material connections between the exploitation of labor, racial and sexual oppression, and environmental destruction. He can also inform the recent turn toward a new materialism in the environmental humanities. In Walden, Thoreau redevelops the ancient idea that higher human functions are impossible if basic needs have not been fulfilled, and in doing so, he suggested that bodily and mental being are tightly interwoven. At the same time, he repurposes the ideas of Arnold Guyot and other mid-nineteenth-century geographers, who applied materialist and empiricist ways of thinking to questions about the relations between humans and their environments. In contrast with their environmental determinism, which functioned as a racist apology for colonialism, Thoreau offers a possibilistic theory of the relationships between societies and their geographical settings; that is, he emphasizes the human capacity to adapt creatively to varying material conditions. Walden demonstrates that the processes by which we fulfill our basic bodily needs, as well as the lives of the mind and spirit that our bodies make possible, are both constrained and activated by the ecosocial environments that we create and within which we live. As Emerson put it, Thoreau “insists on facts, on history, on the force of circumstances, and the animal wants of man.”

Thoreau’s materialism is central to his continuing relevance in a world threatened by increasingly global ecosocial stresses, for it was not merely an abstract philosophical stance. His integrative sense of global political and economic interconnection inspired him to oppose slavery not only as a violation of human rights, but also as an environmental disaster. In a word, Thoreau’s materialism, in both his life and works, reminds us that a vibrant life of the mind and spirit requires bodily well-being which in turn requires a just social order on a healthy planet.

 Thoreau and the New American Spirituality
Alan Hodder (Hampshire C.)

Since Thoreau’s death in 1862, critics have conceived his contributions in strikingly disparate and sometimes dissonant ways. As a result, readers have been presented with widely varying images of Thoreau: as poet-naturalist, cracker-barrel philosopher, abolitionist and social prophet, critic of capitalism, consummate literary craftsman, ecologist and proto-environmentalist, and so on. To this gallery of familiar portraits, another has been added more recently, which for the purposes of this essay I will simply call “the spiritual Thoreau.” It is a conception that has become increasingly evident in both scholarly and popular treatments since the turn of the twenty-first century, and it deserves more critical attention. My purpose in this essay is to consider more carefully this new portrayal of Thoreau—where it manifests itself, what changing religious and cultural circumstances it reflects, how it arose, and whether and to what extent it corresponds to what we actually know of the man and his ideas through his own writings and the reflections of his friends.

Respondent: Kristen Case (Univ. of Maine, Farmington)