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Thoreau, Prometheus and the Universal Discourse of “Civil Disobedience”

by Rupendra Guha-Majumdar

A significant act of mythopoesis proffered by Thoreau in New England in the 1840’s is that of the Americanization of the Titan Prometheus, who, on behalf of a subdued humanity, had challenged the hegemony of Zeus and paid a heavy price with his protracted incarceration. Thoreau’s symbolic gesture of democratic empowerment was enhanced through his translation of Aeschylus’s tragedy, Prometheus Bound. During the Civil War the image of Prometheus often features poignantly in the discourse of abolition.  Thoreau’s act of mythopoesis is contextualized in a global trend of literary and artistic appropriation of the same iconic symbolism that upheld universal rather than totalitarian governance. Thoreau’s implicit references to rebels Prometheus and Antigone as truth-sayers bolster his philosophy of radical humanism not only within America but across a world eager to emerge from colonial repression. Yet, it is ironic that in the course of modern American history, the symbolic figure of Prometheus vanishes—within a hundred years of his arrival—at the end of WW-II. The precious fire gained by him to redeem mankind turns into a toxic cloud and the death knell of civilization in the hands of Oppenheimer, the “American Prometheus.”


I have never got over my surprise that I should have been born into the most estimable place in all the world, and in the very nick of time, too.”


Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this article do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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