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Transcendental Legacy: Political Reform

Readings of Thoreau's "Resistance to Civil Government"

Wynn Yarborough, Virginia Commonwealth University (1995)

This essay, based primarily on Michael Meyer's Several More Lives to Live: Thoreau's Political Reputation In America, will show the changing trends of criticism of Thoreau's "Resistance to Civil Government," from the 1920s to the 1970's.

In the 1920's, an age of relative affluence, Thoreau was popularly seen as an anarchist, a rebel. In the critics' minds, but there were mixed opinions. Most of these reflect a reaction to the materialism of the time. Eliseo Vivas noted that Thoreau's "Resistance to Civil Government," in The New Student, was ". . . one of the first native attacks upon American Imperialism. . ." (Meyer, 34) Vivas was writing when the US was involved in many countries in South America and Central America. Vivas saw Thoreau's politics, especially his stance on resistance to government, as troubling, "Thoreau's ideals are inoperative in the real, everyday world, and because he will not compromise his ideals, at all, they have no effect upon the world: they are politically useless." (Meyer, 35) In the 1960's, we will see how useful Thoreau becomes.

Another critic, Vernon Parrington, would praise Thoreau as truly original and independent. "Parrington transforms what several of his contemporaries[such as Atkinson] considered to be Thoreau's selfish tenacity into a virtue. Thoreau's unwillingness to compromise was not a sign of perversity but of principle." (Meyer, 40) The political anarchist image of Thoreau does not disturb Parrington, who considered him American in political thought: "Parrington places Thoreau in the liberal tradition by tracing the political ideas in "Civil Disobedience" back to William Godwin's Political Justice (p. 409, Parrington), which helped inform Jefferson. . . ." (Meyer, 42)

The 1920's criticism also shows the one direction criticism of Thoreau would maintain, in some slight degree, throughout the century. Brooks Atkinson, a conservative critic, bashed Thoreau for his politics, calling him ". . . a self-contained, unsocial being, a troglodyte of sorts. . . ." (Meyer, 36) But it is not his personal attacks on Thoreau that emerge as important; in fact we could disregard his opinion except for the fact that underlying his charges against Thoreau's "feline" politicism is his great respect for Thoreau , the naturalist. This will reappear throughtout the century, the focus away from the political towards the naturalist. Here would be a good place to note why.

Thoreau's "Resistance to Civil Government" clashes with his defense of John Brown. In one he advocates non-violent resistance; in the other he defends the actions of violence. This is where critics find the clash of logic, and many simply ignore his politics, because they are considered inconsistent. I would argue that Thoreau is human, subject to emotion and became quite involved in the slavery question. Brown was an individual doing what he thought necessary, Thoreau opts for another course, one of nonviolence, although the implication in "Resistance to Civil Government," is that violence is prevalent throughout history. Here is where the student of Thoreau must make a decision, Should Thoreau be held to a philosohical tract he wrote in 1848 as compared to "A Plea for Captain John Brown," written in 1860 at a time of great tension about slavery? It must be remembered that Thoreau did not join a society for abolition, but rather vocalized his thoughts on injustice. He is political in thought, and as proven from his own action, a practitioner of non-violent resistance.

In the 1930's, James MacKaye would turn to the politics and denounce them. MacKaye saw Thoreau's politics showing no cooperation and devoid of reason. Meyer sees him as an extension of the twenties critics, "In this, MacKaye followed commentators of the twenties. It is one thing for a person to regulate his own economy and thereby free himself from want, but it is quite another to repudiate government." MacKaye continues in the tradition of Atkinson, whereas Blankenship, continues in the tradition of Parrington. The thirties marked a different era for America, the flirtation with communism, trying to find a solution for the Great Depression. ". . . [H]is radicalism was no longer considered to be so shocking by most commentators of the thirties. His radicalism was studied even within the academy." (Meyer, 58) It should be remembered that it was not academics who were doing the writing on "Resistance to Civil Government" but journalists and social critics. "Until the forties, the best criticism on Thoreau (using any critical standard for excellence) is to be found in journalistic pieces, or occasional chapters on Thoreau in books-most of them written by critics outside the academy." (Meyer, 59) Meyer goes further to state "There was not one American analysis of even article length on "Civil Disobedience" . . . prior to the 1940's. In the thirties there was a strong tendency to use Thoreau first and ask questions later."(Meyer, 74) There was an avoidance of the politics in this essay, although people used him and his simple economy to protest the effects of industry, especially in an age of the collapse of the American economy.

The 1940's show some of the universal appeal of Thoreau, in terms of his usefulness. Thoreau was used as guidance for those who opposed the war as "conscientious objectors". A society gearing up for war might have trouble appreciating Thoreau. Thomas Lyle Collins, one critic who was opposed to the war, ". . .uses Thoreau as a rationale for American isolationism and noninterventionsim." ( Meyer, 85) Max Cosman used Thoreau to justify WWII based on the differences between the Mexican War and WWII. Here we see a reconciling of "Resistance to Civil Government" and "A Plea for Captain John Brown." In "A Plea," Thoreau foresees cicumstances where he might have to "kill or be killed"; this applies to his attitude against slavery. Cosman sees the same attitude towards the Nazis. Cosman ". . . calls attention to this passage in order to conclude with the major point of his article, which is that Thoreau speaks to Americans in 1944. . . ." (Meyer, 86) Here we see the usefulness of Thoreau by dissenters and by consenters.

The Thoreau Society was founded in 1941 by Walter Harding who saw Thoreau as being in both camps in the debate over the war. He saw Thoreau". . . [as] not a dangerous isolationist but an individual."( Meyer, 94) Harding does go further to see Thoreau as primarily a non-violent pacifist, ignoring his support of John Brown. Meyer seems to see Harding as doing what Thoreau himself would have loathed, "deification".

F. O. Matthiessen connects Thoreau with socialism in American Renaissance. Matthiessen was concerned with the text, the art itself, not the artist so much. Matthiessen said that Thoreau's individualism was inflated, that Thoreau believed in collective action. Meyers, while lauding the contribution of Matthiessen to study of Walden, saw Matthiessen as too political in his assessment of Thoreau, "Matthiessen allows his enthusiasm and appreciation for Thoreau's art to interfere with a view of politics that would be more in keeping with his own values, values which were highly suspicious of Transcendental individualism." (Meyer, 101) Please remember that Matthiessen is noted as changing the face of American criticism from the artist to the art.

The 1950's, the age of McCarthyism, reflected the ignorance of his politics again. The influence of Matthiessen is evident in how Thoreau's political thought diminished and literary art form increased, "Commentaries on Thoreau tended to be about how he expressed his ideas rather than about what his ideas were." (Meyer, 110) Stanley Hyman, chief critic during the fifties and one of the most respected scholars on Thoreau, cites style as more important that politics in Thoreau. He follows, of course, Matthiessen. Meyer traces this view of elevated artist as tied to Hymen's personal view, which once again shows us the "usefulness" of Thoreau. Hyman places Thoreau in the "compartmentalized functionaries" of Emerson; one is an artist and that is it.

Henry Eulaus, a political scientist, saw Thoreau as promoting his own version of the nation-state. Eulaus ". . . reasons that because liberals have convinced themselves that Thoreau was a liberal collectivist, they overlook his self-righteousness and fall into the same trap of "ethical absolution" that he did." ( Meyer, 124) Eulaus sees Thoreau as close-minded and concerned with ". . . the individual conscience as the bedrock of all action." ( Meyer, 124) Eulaus saw the dangers of both "enlightened liberalism" and McCarthyism and , more importantly, the need for compromise, so it is easy to see why he would have problems with someone like Thoreau. This is the first critical essay on the politics of Thoreau, according to Meyer.

In the 1960's, Thoreau became not only relevant but almost a popular icon. "He became important to the reform impulse of the 1960's, and as that impulse spread so too did Thoreau's political reputation."( Meyer, 152) Carried over from the fifties was the beginning of the civil rights movement. Martin Luther King would use Thoreau to show the path of noviolent resistance, but once again he was using Thoreau, not studying him. "Resistance to Civil Government" was used by everyone from the Beats to the Pacifists. Staughton Lynd, a New Left historian, claimed that Thoreau was both violent and nonviolent, which would seem to follow from the dichotomy of messages in "Resistance to Civil Government" and "A Plea for John Brown." Meyers claims that "Lynd does not make an issue of the means of reform, because he is interested in gathering "non-aligned individuals" of the new radicalism under one umbrella in order that they might discover what unites them-their insistence on direct action as a response to injustice." (Meyer, 165) Some attacks on Thoreau came out of this period that still focused on his isolationism and his ". . . estrange[ment] from collective action and the specific needs of the people." (Meyer 170)

But one of the most original perspectives to come out in the sixties was a psychological interpretation of Thoreau. This came out of Carl Bode's introduction to The Portable Thoreau, which he edited. Bode re-edited this edition in 1964 and drew on a Freudian approach to Thoreau, based on Raymond Gozzi's work. Bode claims that Thoreau was ". . . plagued by an 'incipient homosexuality'"(p. 111, Bode as quoted by Meyer p. 173) Bode saw John Brown as a mythological father-figure for Thoreau. The hatred of father is translated into a hatred of state, of the paternalistic powerful government, according to Bode. In the same psychoanalytical mode, C. Roland Wagner, writes ". . . that much of Thoreau's writing represents his unconscious struggle for a sexual identity. . . ." (Meyer 175)

The 1970's saw Thoreau as the forefather of protest to the Vietnam War. The Night Thoreau Spent In Jail by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee was a one-act play which centered on his protest of the Mexican War. It was quite successful and kept Thoreau alive in terms of the seventies, ushering in the Vietnam era. Meyer has the great last word by recalling Thoreau's sense of humor and disgust, "washing of hands" , in political matters: it ". . . is important and chastening to be learned from Thoreau's apolitical temperament, a temperament which resulted in his unwillingness to take politics seriously and his subsequent impulse to champion violence as a means of surgically removing evil from the world." (Meyer 192)

Meyer, Michael. Several more lives to live: Thoreau's Political Reputation in America. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1977.

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