Thoreau, Now More than Ever: A Conversation with Laura Dassow Walls and Daegan Miller

A small stretch of one of my personal bookshelves at home is dedicated to old books. I’ve inherited nearly all of the volumes that reside there, many of which nod to my New England heritage: Robert Frost’s oeuvre sits together, including two copies signed in his unmistakable and beautiful script; there’s an ornate edition of Leaves of Grass with a deep green cover; and there are some less rare but no less precious collections of Emily Dickinson and Edwin Arlington Robinson.

There are also two volumes by Henry David Thoreau: A Week on The Concord and Merrimack Rivers, and Walden. Both were printed in the early 1860s; both have embossed brown covers, their brittle pages bearing occasional pencil marks and smelling gloriously of age. My great grandfather was evidently a great fan of Thoreau, as he collected several editions of Walden over his lifetime. On a green slip of paper still stuck inside the jacket, I am reminded that this copy was given to him by his son, my grandfather, when he was a mere boy: Christmas 1932.

Today, Thoreau remains a shadowy kind of household name—a canonical figure of nineteenth century American letters, yoked always to Emerson, the one who had the cabin, right? Yet his perceived relevance as an author and thinker has no doubt waned. If he’s taught in college, it’s usually in “nature”-themed courses, or perhaps in American literature surveys. Few know, or care, what transcendentalism means (and truth be told, it’s always been a tricky term). Indeed, it is with sad infrequency that my own copies leave the shelf.

Two new books, however—Laura Dassow Walls’s Henry David Thoreau: A Life and Daegan Miller’s forthcoming This Radical Land: A Natural History of American Dissent—bring Thoreau’s questing, unabashed, frequently funny voice back into its proper place: at the center of our most important cultural and political discussions. Though he sometimes lived up to his crotchety, hermetic reputation, Thoreau was also deeply invested in questions of race, technology, industrial development, religion, education, identity, and of course, the natural world.

It was with great pleasure that I read Walls’s and Miller’s books, and with great gratitude that I was able to convene a conversation between them on January 19 at a studio on the University of Wisconsin–Madison campus, where we began to dig into some of these questions.

Stream or download our conversation here. Interview highlights, edited for clarity, follow.

Nathan Jandl: Laura, in the relatively early pages of your book you describe a “doubling of [Thoreau’s] personality” that emerged out of Walden. And it probably characterizes the two most commonly held perceptions about Thoreau that persist. I’m quoting you here: “one quiet, introspective, self-questioning, intensely private, occasionally depressed, and often in poor health; the other brash, boastful, self-certain, loud, and healthy as the rooster crowing to bring in the dawn.” How do each of your books seek to reconcile these characters?

Image of historian Laura Dassow Walls.

English literature professor, Laura Dassow Walls. Image courtesy of Laura Dassow Walls.

Laura Dassow Walls: It helps to remember that Thoreau was a writer. So you look at the personality he creates in Walden, and that is the brash boastful certain self. I think it is really important to understand that that voice is Thoreau’s deep self. It’s not that there is some kind of split, but that this questioning and uncertain person is because he questions so deeply and searches so profoundly, that he becomes the intellectual and the philosopher. So, the person that he imagines himself into being, who sort of carries his best self out into the public world, is the person that he creates in Walden.

Daegan Miller: For my chapter on Thoreau, I really dug heavily into the journals, and I think the journals are where you often see the depressed Thoreau, the Thoreau who is just totally wrenched by his complicated relationship with Emerson, the Thoreau who is trying to figure out his sexuality, as well as the Thoreau who is just completely elated with the world. And for me it was really intellectually exciting and personally important to read the Thoreau of the journals, and have that Thoreau to work with alongside the Thoreau of Walden or The Maine Woods.

NJ: Both of you have alluded to this new way of looking at the environment that I think Thoreau helped to initiate. In a sense, you both argue this, and you’ve talked about it as this recognition of otherness, and particularly thinking about the natural world as an active participant in our lives worthy of ethical concern. Daegan, you notice Thoreau’s receptiveness to the natural world, this kind of communication [such as] “the Concord River being sympathetic and alive” for Thoreau. I’m curious about the way Thoreau came to understand the environment as a new way of environmental thinking. As a side note for Laura, how did this viewpoint live in a productive but uneasy tension with his views of American Indians?

Landscape historian Daegan Miller. Image courtesy of Daegan Miller.

DM: Thoreau loved to approach answers from the side, and I’m going to approach this question from the side.  Thoreau wrote so much, there are millions and millions of words that Thoreau has left, so any of us who write about Thoreau have to figure out a way in, too, because there are so many different angles. And my way in was through surveying, and not just his map-making, but I really think of his writing as sort of literary cartography. What is the job of a surveyor? A surveyor’s job is just to notice things and write them down. That’s also the job of a writer: to notice things and write them down. So, part of the answer for me is that Thoreau committed himself to noticing, and what he noticed both was that nature was like us and we are a part of nature, but also that nature is also irreducibly different. I think Thoreau is anticipating what I would say is pretty avant-garde environmental politics. How do you recognize and honor difference but also connect, not across but because of that difference? And I think part of the way that he answers that question is surveying and mapmaking.

How do you recognize and honor difference, but also connect– not across but because of that difference?

LDW: Contact, that is a key word that comes out of his first great encounter with the truly wild nature of the Maine woods. He calls near the top of Mt. Katahdin for “Contact! Contact! Who are we? Where are we?” That sense of contact is, I think, a real keyword for what you just said. One of the things that is buried in the etymology of that word—and of course Thoreau knew the etymology of all the words he used—is that it is “con-tact” that is: touching together. It isn’t somehow that we touch a passive world, like we’re the active one and we just put our hands out, but it’s touching together. When he touches the trunk of a tree, in a real sense, he imagines how the trunk of a tree is touching him.

There is much that can be said about Thoreau and his fascination with Native Americans, which goes back to childhood. When he is on his third trip, he meets Joe Polis who is himself a kind of Native philosopher and leader who has a very different cosmology than Thoreau’s. Thoreau is thinking about scientific questions as they move through the Maine woods together, but at a key point Thoreau finds foxfire, wood that is glowing from bacteria that create phosphorescence, and Thoreau’s never seen such a thing. He wants a scientific explanation, but Joe Polis gives him the Penobscot explanation. Thoreau, in an earlier mode, would have said “Oh, that’s just superstition,” but now he’s got enough respect for Polis’s wisdom and knowledge that he doesn’t. Instead he explains to other people, we must pay attention to the deep knowledge that native peoples of America have because, and I’m quoting, “nature must have made a thousand revelations to them which she still keeps secret to us.” He wants to have all of these modes of knowing together; he doesn’t want one to disqualify the other.

A display of surveyor's tools at the Concord Museum.

Surveying tools used by Henry David Thoreau now on display at the Concord Museum. Image courtesy of wikimedia commons.

NJ: Laura, I wonder if you could tell us a bit about how Thoreau’s political convictions butted up against his commitment to the natural world? For both of you, can we try to draw this towards the present: how can we allow ourselves to feel uplifted by the natural world, when humans are so flawed and terrible in many ways, and the planet is being so quickly degraded? Daegen, you get to that especially in the last part of your book, talking about the Anthropocene.

LDW: In “Slavery in Massachusetts” he has no hope. And then at the very end, he says “I walk towards one of our ponds.” It continues, “but why?”—why go to nature when this kind of political crisis is destroying our relationships with nature and with each other? And yet he does. He famously finds this white lily blooming, and uses it as a figure for grace even in a corrupt world. That is a very typical act for him. To say: it’s not that I walked to nature in order to escape politics, but I walked to nature first of all to create a space of freedom in which to reground myself in political action. If I don’t have that space of freedom, where I can truly ground myself in the real, then I’ll not get the political action right. Thoreau does not see, ultimately, a split between environmental and human social concerns.

Thoreau does not see, ultimately, a split between environmental and human social concerns.

DM: One of the things I take from Thoreau is that he is just not a univocal person. There is deep despair and anger in his writing, as well as a determination. I think what he is most often railing against is institutions. “Civil Disobedience” is just filled with what have become anarchist rallying cries, that “government is best which governs not at all.” One of the things I find so important in Thoreau is his ability to hold multiple ethics in his head at the same time, and to be angry but also overcome by beauty. When we talk about environmental politics today, I think one of the things we often don’t keep in mind is that being hopeless is often not the worst thing. There are a whole bunch of other ethics out there besides hope.

LDW: I think that is the key. I think when you speak of Thoreau walking right up to the brink of despair and even feeling despair, it is despair with institutions. It’s not that he is anti-institutional; he believes in education for instance as a precious institution. But his response would be to say: we together, here in this neighborhood, this town, need to band together and save this institution, whether it’s the lyceum lecture, or the public school, or the riverbanks.

DM: One of the common frustrations with Thoreau is that he never lays out a coherent social way forward—

LDW: He was suspicious about that!

DM: Exactly! And I think that’s where some of the discomfort with Thoreau comes from. He was such a brilliant critic but was so suspicious of authority, and it makes the question of how do we use Thoreau today a difficult one because Thoreau would be disgusted with that question.

NJ: You have both been talking about him as essentially anti-institutions but not anti-commons. But that is a tricky balance to strike. That may be why he doesn’t leave us with a new governmental or social contract blueprint. I’m curious to have you think about those words: disobedience, dissent, radicalism. I wonder how those actions embedded in those words are a necessity for a democratic political sphere where consensus is also important? How does Thoreau help us both see the necessity for things like the Resist movement or Black Lives Matter but also bring us back together to a common space?

LDW: Thoreau inhabits a New England town with a tradition of town meetings and town governance as the core of the commons. So, you think about that as the site for when Thoreau learns of John Brown’s failed insurrection and learns that everyone thinks that John Brown is a criminal and a madman, which Thoreau thinks is wrong. His approach is to call a town meeting. He writes that eloquent plea for Captain John Brown, and stands up before the town and delivers it, knowing and trusting that people will come respectfully into the meeting and listen respectfully. He doesn’t expect them to agree, but he does expect them to listen and to talk it through. He has a powerful effect not only because he delivers this extremely eloquent address and his reasoning is very persuasive, but because they do listen and many of them are persuaded. And this goes national. So, there is that element of dissent within a principled democracy. The other example I think of is “Walking,” which he gave in the wake of the Fugitive Slave Act, which is the context for that essay about walking into nature. He opens it with “I wish to speak a word for nature.” It’s the same kind of thing. If you create a space for debate, somebody has to step into that space and speak for those who are not there to speak. And Thoreau takes that upon himself and identifies with the silenced and othered, and in that case, creating a public address about speaking a word for nature. This became his most popular lecture. Which tells you again about public response to this approach that he had.

It’s about everyone getting to speak their mind. And then you can disagree.

DM: It seems to me, that your angle into Thoreau is this notion of freedom, and you just quoted “Walking.” The second part of that line, “I wish to speak a word for nature,” is “for absolute freedom.” When I think about Thoreau and politics, this is one of the great frustrations that I think Thoreau has, and one of the tensions that I think he holds in his life and never resolves. This question of what is the proper scale of politics. I would argue that Thoreau is a classical anarchist. He is often seen as the founder of the American anarchist tradition. He is always small-scale. It’s about these small town meetings. It’s about absolute freedom. It’s about everyone getting to speak their mind. And then you can disagree. I’m not sure how much he’s into consensus, actually. I think for him, part of the goal is to never have to change ones’ principles.

LDW: I think he is suspicious of consensus. It’s like the least common denominator that was able to emerge—so-called “consensus.” I think he just figures it’s like the next moment in the beginning of “Walking,” when he says: “as for civilization, all of you will speak for civilization.” As for consensus, all of you want to speak for consensus. I’m going to speak for principled dissent. I want to be one of those few.

NJ: I’m so grateful to both of you for speaking with me and each other. There are, of course, many more things we would like to ask you about, like witness trees and photography, more about this incredible intellectual community in Concord, but it will have to be saved for another conversation.

Featured image: Portrait of Henry David Thoreau, 1856. Image courtesy of wikimedia commons.

Podcast music: “Gloves” by Julian Lynch. Used with permission.

Laura Dassow Walls is the author of Henry David Thoreau: A Life (University of Chicago Press, 2017). She works in the field of literature and science, with a special concentration on Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and on American Transcendentalism more generally. Her previous work includes The Passage to Cosmos: Alexander von Humboldt and the Shaping of America (University of Chicago Press, 2009), Seeing New Worlds: Henry David Thoreau and Nineteenth-Century Natural Science (University of Wisconsin Press, 1995), Emerson’s Life in Science: The Culture of Truth (Cornell University Press, 2003), and a volume coedited with Joel Myerson and Sandra Harbert Petrulionis, The Oxford Handbook of Transcendentalism (Oxford University Press, 2010). Website. Contact.

Daegan Miller is a writer and landscape historian. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in a variety of venues, including the American Historical ReviewAeon, Bookforum, Los Angeles Review of Books, and 3:AM Magazine. His first book, This Radical Land: A Natural History of American Dissent will be published by the University of Chicago Press in March 2018. His last contribution to Edge Effects was “On Care in Dark Times” (April 2016).  WebsiteTwitterContact.

Nathan Jandl is a former Managing Editor of Edge Effects. He earned his PhD in English from UW-Madison in 2016, where he now serves as Communications Director for the Office of Sustainability. His creative and critical writing has appeared in The BelieverKenyon Review Online, Modern Philology, Ninth Letter, and elsewhere. Website. Contact

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