Thoreau Society MLA Panel

Thursday, January 4, 2018 - 3:30pm to 4:45pm
Sheraton - Riverside Ballroom, New York City, Time Square

Thoreau Society Panel at Modern Language Association Annual Convention, January 4, 2018

MLA Page

“Thoreau and Material Culture”

Kristen Case & Rochelle Johnson, Organizers and Co-chairs

1.  Reed Gochberg, Harvard University: "Reading Thoreau’s Specimens"

To what extent can specimens represent nature, and what kinds of information do they offer to naturalists? And how does the process of transforming nature into an object of study—whether experienced in the killing of wildlife or in the freezing of a pond into ice for commercial sale—inflect the kinds of knowledge that an observer might gain about his local environment? This paper takes up these questions by examining Henry David Thoreau’s participation in the material practices of scientific collecting, particularly the turtles that he donated to the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard and the Boston Society of Natural History. Building on studies of Thoreau’s scientific pursuits by Laura Dassow Walls, Robert Thorson, and Branka Arsic, this paper explores how material specimens forced him to evaluate the relationship between a live turtle and its fragmented shell, the “froggy thought” and the “pickled specimen,” the meadow and the museum, as alternate models for understanding the durability and continued value of methods for recording natural phenomena. By considering Thoreau’s vexed attitudes about the process of transforming live turtles—whose behavior he records in his journals throughout the 1850s—into dead specimens, I show how his writings reflect his sustained preoccupation with the best methods for representing nature’s variety and change against the predominant practice of attempting to fix it materially in time. 

2.  John Elder, Middlebury College: “Listening for Thoreau’s Flute”

Upon the death of his beloved brother John, Henry Thoreau inherited a beautiful flute.  This instrument, made of fumed boxwood and with ivory bindings that join the four sections and circle the end of the foot piece, now resides in the collection of the Concord Museum. A close investigation of its history and form illuminates the role of music in the Thoreau family as well as linking the evolution of woodwinds to broader currents of thought in the mid-nineteenth century. It also heightens the interest and concreteness of certain entries in Thoreau’s journals about playing his flute out of doors.

As Laurel Thatcher Ulrich and her colleagues propose in their book Tangible Things, an historical object may be a “portal,” conveying “viewers to another world or state of being.” Thoreau’s flute amplifies the fusion of grief and receptivity to nature in his writing. A musical instrument is of course distinctive in being an object that can be played and heard as well as viewed. As part of this presentation I will thus perform “Tom Bowling,” one of his favorite airs, on a boxwood flute nearly identical to Thoreau’s and constructed like it in New York State during the 1820s. In playing such tunes over the water at night, he delighted in entering into duets with his own echoes. In this aspect of his musical life, the flute was for Thoreau himself a portal—into communion both with his brother and with the deepest reality of nature. His language in the pertinent entries brings even more resonance to an intriguing affinity that has increasingly been recognized between Thoreau’s writing and the music and thought of John Cage. 

3.  Henrik Otterberg, Kagaku Analys AB/Independent Scholar: “The Thoreau Pencil: A New Look at Sources and Composition”

During nearly three decades, from the mid-1820’s to early 1850’s, Thoreau pencils earned a reputation as among the finest in quality produced in America. With Henry Thoreau’s creative engagement in the business, beginning in earnest upon his graduation from Harvard college, there were bursts of innovation to the manufacture: Henry devised a refined plumbago (or graphite) grinder, and pored over available literature in search of a better filler to bind the pencils shafts to a desired delivery. The Thoreau firm remained secretive of its findings, however, as patent protection then as now was expensive, and the danger of losing one’s market to prying local competitors a constant.

The present study combines archival research and spectroscopy analysis in search of the Thoreau formula. The technical, physical and chemical literature Henry is known to have read, which may have had bearing on the manufacture, has been consulted. Also, a number of authenticated Thoreau pencil-graphite samples – generously provided by the Concord Free Public Library, Concord Museum, Thoreau Institute and Thoreau Society – have been examined by way of Raman-spectroscopy apparatus at the Ångström Laboratory of the University of Uppsala in Sweden. Prior testimonies have indicated the introduction of Bavarian clay as the key ingredient to the success of the Thoreau pencils. The present investigations, while not ruling this option out, also indicate another ingredient consistently found in samples pertaining to Henry Thoreau’s tenure at the firm.