MLA - Thoreau and Biography

Friday, January 4, 2019 - 12:00pm
Modern Language Association, Chicago, IL
Thoreau Society

Thoreau and Biography

Chair: James S. Finley, Texas A&M University – San Antonio

Karah Mitchell, University of North Carolina

“‘I think I might learn some wisdom of him’: Post-Human Thoreau”

In her recent biography of Thoreau, Laura Dassow Walls reads the famous Contact! Contact!moment from Thoreau’s “Ktaadn” essay as “[t]he most pivotal and most emotional passage in all of [his] work” and as a moment in which “Thoreau found his truth. It was deep, even bottomless, yet deeply intimate and familiar—and utterly, unutterably wild.” Struck by “the actual world!” and “the common sense!,” Thoreau recognized his kinship with the non-human. Interestingly, Michelle C. Neely points out an important precursor to this passage, a moment in which “Thoreau suggestively implies that non-human animals have anticipated one of his most remarkable epiphanies” earlier in this text when he writes, “the tracks of moose . . . to speak literally, covered every square rod on the sides of the mountain.” Elsewhere across his oeuvre, Thoreau explores this “deeply . . . familiar” yet “unutterably wild” “truth” by placing the non-human at the center of his attention, whether that be in the form of animals, rocks, trees, seeds, the weather, or even, indeed, the materiality of his own body. In my paper, I wish to argue that animals operate as a key entry-point for Thoreau’s venturing into the non-human and as a central feature of his philosophy. Building off of Branka Arsić’s recent argument that birds remain “literal living relics” that deeply influenced Thoreau’s philosophy of vitalism, in my paper I will explore how more sustained investigations into Thoreau’s relationships with animals would necessitate a new method of biography for his life, one in which “Thoreau,” perhaps, emerges from the non-human entities so central to his work. If he could say of a woodchuck, “I think I might learn some wisdom of him” (April 16, 1852 journal entry), then how can such a belief reveal the ways in which Thoreau animates our current “Post-Human” moment?

Jacob Risinger, Ohio State University

“Reframing Thoreau’s Stoic Biography”

In her now-infamous hatchet job in the New Yorker, Kathryn Schulz aimed squarely at Thoreau’s Stoicism.  Dismissing the “cold-eyed man” who could witness a shipwreck “unmoved,” she classified his refusal to “waste any time in awe or pity” as a disqualifying moral myopia.  The tendency to play-up this Stoic misanthropy is often traced back to Emerson’s eulogy, where he described his friend as “hermit and stoic” with habits “a little chilling to the social affections.”  But the association was deeper and more pervasive.  For George Eliot, Thoreau was “a stoic of the woods”; for Ellery Channing, he was “a natural Stoic.”

Biography is at heart an act of sympathy.  As such, it has been particularly unsuited to capturing the nuance of Thoreau’s Stoicism, a broad philosophic commitment that I read as less a refusal of sympathy than an ambitious attempt to redefine its boundaries.  For Thoreau, to live deliberately was to live stoically—and yet in its emphasis on development and change, biography has also struggled to capture the daily significance of Thoreau’s Stoic habits and regimen.  In this paper, I will start with a brief discussion of Thoreau’s own encounters with biography, noting his tendency to approach life-writing—be it Plutarch or Goethe—in Stoic terms.  Next, I place Thoreau in a line of Romantic writers who approached Stoicism as radical position rather than a form of acquiescence.  Galvanized by its deployment in the American and French Revolutions, these writers held that Stoicism was not solipsistic, but decisively social.  This neglected genealogy will allow me reframe a central misperception that hovers around Thoreau’s popular biography.  In the process, it opens up his life to scholars and spiritual seekers in a new way: like Stoics ancient and modern, Thoreau understood that ordinary life had to be a realm of paradox.     

John Ronan, Kutztown University of Pennsylvania

Thoreau without Emerson?”

The works of Thoreau that have had the greatest impact upon scholars, students, and the general public—A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, “Civil Disobedience,” “Walking,” and Walden—are, fundamentally, rich testaments to his relationship with Ralph Waldo Emerson. In these texts, autobiography and philosophy are one and the same. As I have shown in earlier work, for instance, Thoreau’s terrible sense of indebtedness to Emerson shaped his meditations on friendship in A Week, debt in “The Departure” and Walden, and hospitality in “The Landlord” and Walden, which in turn guided Herman Melville’s depiction of Thoreau in The Confidence-Man—no doubt with some coaching by Nathaniel Hawthorne. From Melville to Sherman Paul to Stanley Cavell to Laura Dassow Walls, one finds the figure of Emerson lurking behind the major readings of Thoreau’s most famous works. What is Thoreau without Emerson? I conclude my paper with a look at the The Maine WoodsCape Cod, and other works that might give us a clue.

Stan Tag, Western Washington University

“Who Touches This: Thoreau and the (Auto)Biographical Imperative”

In May 1860, two years before Thoreau died, the third edition of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass was published. In the final poem “So Long!” Whitman says, “This is no book, / Who touches this, touches a man.” My paper explores this claim and the implications of it on the biographical enterprises we engage in as readers, scholars, teachers, and pilgrims. At the heart of my paper is Thoreau’s insistence—his imperative—that what he wants most from us is “a simple and sincere account” of our own lives, not merely what we have heard of others’ lives. Whitman puts it like this: “You shall no longer take things at second or third hand, nor look through the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the spectres in books, / You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me, / You shall listen to all sides and filter them from your self.” How do these (auto)biographical imperatives affect the nature of our biographical acts? Why do we write biographies, and read them, especially when, as Emily Dickinson once put it, “Biography first convinces us of the fleeing of the Biographied—.” Is it possible to “touch” the biographied? In what ways? What do our biographical acts—doing scholarship, research, writing; taking pilgrimages to specific places; examining objects that belonged to the biographied—reveal about us? How do our own autobiographical contexts shape the biographies we write? I use Richard White’s reflections on memory and history as a lens through which to examine a variety of recent biographical enterprises—including those exploring the lives of Cleopatra, Montaigne, Dickinson, Zora Neale Hurston, and others—in order to offer those of us engaged in biographical work on Thoreau to see other possibilities for how we may touch this man.

Response: Laura Dassow Walls, University of Notre Dame