Thoreau: Words as Deeds

Michael T. Gilmore

in The War on Words

Published by University of Chicago Press

Published in print July 2010 | ISBN: 9780226294131
Published online February 2013 | e-ISBN: 9780226294155 | DOI:
Thoreau: Words as Deeds

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Henry David Thoreau, who went to jail for his beliefs, is an invaluable witness from the 1840s. Thoreau's belief in the power of oratory to move multitudes preceded and came after the publication of Walden, but the greatest of his writings does not share that confidence. The account of his life at the Pond self-consciously narrows its appeal from the imperfect but educable audience of 1849 to the handful still capable of understanding him in the early 1850s. This chapter proposes reasons that the inevitable overlapping of the political with the aesthetic at a time when words, the lifeblood of literature, were under extreme duress from institutional and consensual forces. Parallels with Abraham Lincoln's career suggest that Thoreau's avoidance or withdrawal from civic issues in Walden, mostly written in these years, was implicated in the republic's political impasse. He recoiled from his country, and the possibility of awakening it, because the country seemed to have subsided into quiescence over slavery. Thoreau did not give up during this period, any more than Lincoln did, and the dormant social dimension of his thought surged back to prominence just at the moment he completed his masterpiece.

Keywords: Henry David Thoreau; Walden; Abraham Lincoln; American public; slavery

Chapter.  6722 words. 

Subjects: Literary Studies (19th Century)

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