The Abolitionist of Walden Pond

Two hundred years after his birth, Henry David Thoreau is as relevant as ever.

Dayton Martindale July 12, 2017

"While in Worcester this week I obtained the accompanying daguerreotype -- which my friends think is pretty good -- though better looking than I" -- Henry David Thoreau (Bettmann/Contributor via Getty Images)

Hen­ry Thore­au,” wrote Ralph Wal­do Emer­son, is like the wood god who solic­its the wan­der­ing poet. … Very seduc­tive are the first steps from the town to the woods, but the End is want & madness.”

If a law “requires you to be the agent of injustice to another,” he wrote, “break the law. Let your life be a counter friction to stop the machine.”

He meant this as a knock — Thoreau’s friend and men­tor was also a crit­ic. But 200 years after Thoreau’s birth on July 12, 1817, the wood god of Walden Pond con­tin­ues to seduce wan­der­ing poets, philoso­phers and rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies the world over. His syl­van siren song has beguiled some of history’s most influ­en­tial rebels, from Mahat­ma Gand­hi to Mar­tin Luther King Jr., Emma Gold­man to Edward Abbey. Their trans­for­ma­tive lega­cies sug­gest the want & mad­ness” found by Emer­son weren’t the end, but a beginning.

Notre Dame pro­fes­sor Lau­ra Das­sow Walls explores this endur­ing appeal in the new biog­ra­phy Hen­ry David Thore­au: A Life. Thore­au lived through years of tumult: The ear­ly gasps of indus­tri­al­iza­tion trans­formed the land, slave own­ers expand­ed their pow­er through the Mex­i­can-Amer­i­can War and the Fugi­tive Slave Act, and a com­mer­cial­iz­ing econ­o­my reshaped the way peo­ple lived and inter­act­ed. Thore­au met all three devel­op­ments with uncom­pro­mis­ing oppo­si­tion. With a res­olute indi­vid­u­al­ism and devo­tion to the pub­lic good, he com­mit­ted to a life of dis­sent, prod­ding and bad­ger­ing his neigh­bors into consciousness. 

One imag­ines how this behav­ior could be annoy­ing, and he was some­times crusty (“as for tak­ing T.’s arm,” wrote Emer­son, I should as soon take the arm of an elm tree”), but on the whole he was pop­u­lar with his neigh­bors — espe­cial­ly chil­dren and oth­er wild crea­tures, the lat­ter of whom were said to come at his call. Con­cord res­i­dents repeat­ed­ly elect­ed him to coor­di­nate the local lyceum, a speak­er series on the issues of the day. He used the pul­pit both to work­shop his own mate­r­i­al and, over the protests of con­ser­v­a­tive towns­folk, to show­case the North’s most ardent abolitionists.

Walls writes that, for Thore­au, slav­ery was … one symp­tom of a larg­er sick­ness prey­ing on a uni­verse of beings, not all of them human.” In his note­books, sup­port for abo­li­tion­ists like Fred­er­ick Dou­glass sits along­side sup­port for the fish dis­placed by a local dam (“armed only with inno­cence— and a just cause”). The dam and the slave patrol both served to con­strain those who should be free to live on their own terms.

Thore­au blames insti­tu­tions,” espe­cial­ly the state, for using oth­er­wise well-mean­ing peo­ple as jail­ers, sol­diers and oth­er instru­ments of oppres­sion. But the bulk of his frus­tra­tion was direct­ed toward cow­ard­ly, unprin­ci­pled indi­vid­u­als who let them­selves be used — or stood by in silence. In his Plea for Cap­tain John Brown,” Thore­au exco­ri­ates those who would con­demn Brown for his vio­lence against slave own­ers while remain­ing silent on the vio­lence of slav­ery itself — let alone the vio­lence of the army, or those who hunt Indians.” 

This cri­tique fits with Thoreau’s rad­i­cal approach to com­plic­i­ty. He quit his first job as a school­teacher, despite bad­ly need­ing the mon­ey, when the head­mas­ter demand­ed that he strike his pupils. Lat­er, Thore­au spent a night in jail for refus­ing to pay his poll tax in protest of slav­ery and the Mex­i­can-Amer­i­can War. If a law requires you to be the agent of injus­tice to anoth­er,” he wrote, break the law. Let your life be a counter fric­tion to stop the machine.”

This was too much for Emer­son, who saw it as an impos­si­ble stan­dard of puri­ty. And it’s true that the stan­dard Thore­au set was impos­si­ble — he was often vexed by his own fail­ure to meet it. I can­not fish with­out falling a lit­tle in self-respect,” wrote the spo­radic vegetarian.

Today’s pro­gres­sive may be inclined to dis­miss Thoreau’s obses­sion with puri­ty — an eth­i­cal lifestyle being impos­si­ble under cap­i­tal­ism — and while this atti­tude isn’t wrong, it does miss some­thing crucial.

While Thoreau’s refusal to pay the poll tax didn’t slow the oper­a­tion of the state, it was bril­liant pro­pa­gan­da. He forced his peers to exam­ine a machine they might have pre­ferred to ignore, and showed his neigh­bors — and, lat­er, his read­ers — that it was pos­si­ble to say no, even for a day. His attempts at puri­ty expand the imag­i­na­tion, show­ing us things need not be as they are. His for­ays into the wild form the oth­er side of this sto­ry, offer­ing a glimpse into the lives we could be liv­ing. Ulti­mate­ly, both his guilt over com­plic­i­ty and his sense of con­nec­tion to the out­doors seem to come from the same rad­i­cal empa­thy for all oth­er beings. 

Fol­low­ing the tri­al and re-enslave­ment of Antho­ny Burns, a fugi­tive slave arrest­ed in Boston in 1854, Thore­au wrote, We are whol­ly with­in hell. … My thoughts are mur­der to the State, and invol­un­tar­i­ly go plot­ting against her.”

But Thore­au wasn’t done: It chanced the oth­er day that I scent­ed a white water-lily,” he went on. The flower’s pleas­ant smell show[s] us what puri­ty and sweet­ness reside in, and can be extract­ed from, the slime and muck of earth.”

It’s a sim­ple metaphor, but one that gets at why Thore­au still res­onates. Unlike those gurus and saints who float above the mor­tal plane — and though at times he aspired to be like them — the spir­i­tu­al ful­fill­ment Thore­au sought was in the phys­i­cal: the for­est, the swamp, the fra­grant white water-lily. He shocks us by how much of-the-world he is, jolt­ing us into more direct expe­ri­ence, embed­ded and embod­ied in a liv­ing planet. 

Day­ton Mar­tin­dale is a free­lance writer and for­mer asso­ciate edi­tor at In These Times. His work has also appeared in Boston Review, Earth Island Jour­nal, Har­bin­ger and The Next Sys­tem Project. Fol­low him on Twit­ter: @DaytonRMartind.

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