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Book Review: Historical Guide to Thoreau

William E. Cain, ed., A Historical Guide to Henry David Thoreau. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.
285 pp. $35.00 hardcover; $16.95 paperbound.

Reviewed by Randall Conrad. Reprinted by permission from Thoreau Society Bulletin no. 236, summer 2001, p. 14.

In this volume, the fourth in a series providing context for masterworks of the national literature, five notable Thoreauvians draw upon evolving fields such as material culture studies to illuminate the social environment that generated the later Journal, "Civil Disobedience," Walden, and the stereotyping of Thoreau himself into a Concord eccentric.

In the early spring of 1850, Thoreau chanced upon an abandoned, still-functioning toy water wheel that a child must have fashioned while playing in a Walden meadow. This discovery inspired several rich journal pages, never re-used in any published work (3:50-53, April 1850).

Using Thoreau's charming field observations as a starting point for her key essay, Laura Dassow Walls, an authority on Thoreau's science writing, elucidates the creative dynamic by which Thoreau transcended the limiting personae typically available to the midcentury science writer. Thoreau instead forged what Walls calls a "technology of inscription" enabling him to "braid together the physical facts of the natural world and the truths of transcendental 'higher law.'"

Walls mined this field in Seeing New Worlds (1995) and in her subsequent insightful studies of Thoreau the scientist; now she reaches a new level of synthesis, using a style as clear and fluid as the coursing meltwater that powers the model engine in Thoreau's meadow. Her essay is encyclopedic enough in its 20-plus pages to encompass a welter of objects and ideas - the water wheel, the notions of inscription and eduction, the Young-Ludwig kymograph, the dawn of technology (whether industrial, literary or symbolic), and the literary articulation of nature required to produce Thoreau's "facts flowering into truths."

With bold dexterity, Walls braids these seeming disparities together into a luminous vision of transcendental science that is at once rugged and delicate, and as "far-sounding" as the tinkling water wheel that inspires it. Well beyond the history of science writing in the nineteenth century, Walls believes that "seeing new worlds" is a present-day imperative: we can, and today we must, discover uses of Thoreau that will guide our paths through a cosmos increasingly driven by "modern" science.

Lawrence Rosenwald's chapter on "Civil Disobedience" is of comparable scope. A war tax resister as well as a scholar, Rosenwald examines "the complex relation between text and action" and clarifies the paradoxes in, and behind, Thoreau's famous essay.

Many readers of "Civil Disobedience" are aware that Thoreau's complex philosophy of conscientious objection - put to the test by increasingly violent struggles against slavery in Massachusetts and nationwide - progressed beyond nonviolent protest in the 1850s, eventually "siding with the light" as Frederick Douglass and masses of abolitionists had already done in breaking away from W. L. Garrison's pacifist movement. [More about this subject.]

Few, however, probably realize the extent to which "Civil Disobedience" itself was forged amid the growing pressures of the preceding decade. Rosenwald traces an important evolution between 1840 - Thoreau's first tax refusal - and 1849, the first publication of his essay under the significant title "Resistance to Civil Government."

Rosenwald establishes that the individual act of tax refusal that won Thoreau his night in jail is actually a blending, for dramatic purposes, of two distinct protests by the young Thoreau -- his "signing off" from the First Parish Church tax rolls in 1840 and his more significant refusal of the poll tax beginning in 1842. We then learn that Thoreau's history-making poll tax refusal is based on "a fiction":

His account of his tax resistance in the essay revises his tax resistance in the world, in the community of Concord. In the essay, Thoreau cites the Mexican War as a reason for refusing to pay the poll tax. In the world, Thoreau's action predated the war by four years. In the essay, Thoreau refuses the tax because, as he writes, 'I cannot for an instant recognize that political organization as my government which is the slave's government also.' In the world, he apparently began refusing taxes out of an unwillingness to recognize any political organization whatever.

Compounding the paradox is Thoreau's disingenuous presentation of the poll tax itself. As Rosenwald demonstrates, this was never a federal tax (the Mexican War was financed with other monies), and even during the one year when it was reckoned as a state tax (1845), Massachusetts law forbade using such revenue to pay for fugitive slave-catching. "Most of the time, then, Thoreau was refusing to pay tax to Middlesex County and the town of Concord, neither of which could plausibly be called the slave's government."

The ultimate paradox of "Civil Disobedience" is that although Thoreau misrepresented many particulars, he was "broadly and prophetically right" in the guiding vision he articulated. Rosenwald argues that it is Thoreau's unlikely synthesis of pacifism and support for political revolution - rather than a global rejection of government or violence - that inspired, famously, the particular successes of both Gandhi's first civil-rights campaign in South Africa and King's leadership of the Montgomery bus boycott.

It is "almost an accident," Rosenwald concludes, "that the essay depicts a nonviolent action," Thoreau's tax refusal of the 1840s. "Nonviolence is not a first principle for him; it is at most a practical preference." Since Thoreau, unlike philosophers of nonresistance, does not associate his action with a position on violence, he was able without contradiction to defend violent actions "on the same grounds as ... nonviolent action," during the escalating struggles over the Fugitive Slave Law and the public opinion wars over John Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry.

Dana Nelson, Cecelia Tichi, and Robert Gross respectively contribute innovative studies of the historical specificities of Thoreau's images of men, manhood, and race; a reading of Walden in the light of "decades-long feminist and material culture scholarship" in the field of nineteenth-century domesticity; and the stereotyping of the "hermit of Concord" during Thoreau's own lifetime, viewed as the effect of increased local social tension and stratification. Editor William Cain supplies a concise biographical introduction and an illustrated, well-assembled chronology.

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Updated Feb. 20, 2010