Imagination and Environmental Political Thought: The Aftermath of Thoreau

HomeArticlesImagination and Environmental Political Thought: The Aftermath of Thoreau

Environmentalism can be seen as a very practical and passionate response to the many abuses leveled by humanity on the non-human world. Polluted water and air, species that are extinct or endangered, climate change, shortages of fresh water, habitat destruction – contemporary society confronts these challenges at every turn. While scientific research and scientists have long played a major role in environmentalism’s cultural and political influence, an awareness of environmental disorder predates modern understanding of many common problems – such as climate change and the costs of losing bio-diversity. Changes wrought by industrialization and population shifts provoked many, especially nineteenth century Americans, to respond well before a more scientific explanation was available. Clean air and water, vast forests, scenic beauty and fascinating animals and plants had been taken for granted. Now these things were threatened and apathy became less of a viable option.

A scientific understanding of these problems was not the only element lacking, however. In the mid-nineteenth century, there was a limited vocabulary and imagination for what the environment was, what humanity’s relationship to it looked like or what it was supposed to look like. The European romantics – especially Wordsworth and Coleridge – as well as figures such as Alexander von Humboldt and Thomas Jefferson, had been moving toward something akin to modern ecology and environmental thought, but their formulations lacked a critical accessibility needed to both popularize their reflections and make them part of the common cultural imagination.

Similar challenges can be seen in the emergence of liberalism and communism. While much of these traditions of political theory have centuries of precursors, it eventually required the intervention of figures like John Locke and Karl Marx to bring many disparate elements together and achieve a level of coherence and applicability. Their influence over liberalism and communism is decisive, and someone who claimed to understand either tradition without having considered these seminal figures would justifiably arouse suspicion.

Who, then, is the “John Locke” of environmental thought? Who can environmentalists turn to as a source of intellectual inspiration and common ground, providing both a sense of self-understanding and self-critique? This book is, in part, an attempt to identify that individual as Henry David Thoreau.

Henry David Thoreau is foundational to the history of environmental thought and his influence endures to this day. Such emphasis, however, can be overstated. Locke may have been foundational for liberalism, but this does not mean that figures such as John Stuart Mill, the American Framers and John Rawls did not offer something original and influential to the tradition. In the same way, Thoreau has become a necessary but insufficient source of environmentalism’s roots. While figures such as John Muir, Aldo Leopold, Rachel Carson, David Brower and Barry Commoner have all propelled environmental thought to become the formidable political and cultural force it is today, they all identify Thoreau as a major source of inspiration and insight.

John Locke, though, provided an explicit political philosophy in his Two Treatises. Thoreau left no such account and was openly disdainful of politics. What Thoreau did offer was a distinctive imagination that would become part of the mental “furniture” of environmental thought and politics. His way of imagining what is good, true, beautiful, right and wrong was inherited by his later environmental readers, and became part of the pre-rational framework from which environmental activism emerged and from which questions of environmental justice and order were asked. He is not the only voice in this tradition, however, and not all of his readers understood him correctly. Scholars often speak of “many Thoreaus,” and given his aphoristic style and love of paradox, the observation makes sense.

No book is likely to offer the definitive account of “which Thoreau” most accurately and comprehensively represents the man himself, but some accounts are better supported by the evidence than others. For the history of environmental political thought then there is a need to draw out what about Thoreau has had the greatest impact on its development. While the Thoreau that provided a muse for David Brower and Howard Zahniser may not be the same as the Thoreau provoking Wendell Berry and Wallace Stegner, elements of his vision have animated all of them. The goal of this book then is to observe, through a theory of imagination, precisely how the modern environmental thought and imagination can be read, in part, as Thoreau’s imagination writ large, and to consider the political consequences.

Misreading Thoreau

Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) has been analyzed at length by both admirers and critics, but he remains inadequately understood in the history of political thought. He is often employed as an inspiration for specific ideological or political persuasions by theorists who overlook many of his ideas. Thanks to standard interpretations of his most famous works, Walden (1854) and “Civil Disobedience” (1849), Thoreau has primarily acquired a reputation as the archetype of “rugged individualism,” withdrawal and wildness, and a fondness for anarchy. This same reputation has given rise to a number of different and partly contradictory interpretations of his politics. His writings and example are claimed as representative of an extraordinary diversity of perspectives – many of which contradict each other. He has been labeled an anarchist, abolitionist, democrat, liberal, republican, Marxist, misanthrope, prophet, mystic, socialist, humanist, hermit, escapist, romantic, transcendentalist, post-modernist, environmentalist, naturalist, as apolitical and more. The only non-controversial description his readers might agree upon is his unquestionable opposition to slavery and his love of nature.

This enduring confusion also reveals something critical about the whole enterprise of reading and interpreting Thoreau: he matters. His footprint on the intellectual and imaginative history of the West – especially in the twentieth century – is consistently underestimated. Writers and thinkers still confront him, apply his ideas, quote his work and ask whether or not he is on “our side.”  Indeed, “according to a 1991 MLA survey of American professors” Walden remains “the single most important work to teach in nineteenth century literature courses”[i] Lawrence Buell notes that Thoreau “has been canonized as natural historian, pioneer ecologist and environmentalist, social activist, anarchist political theorist, creative artist, and memorable personality combining some or all of these roles.”[ii] And this fame can be found well beyond America; Thoreau claims “admirers and interpreters in Japan, Australia, India, South Africa, Russia, and eastern and western Europe, as well as in the United Kingdom.”[iii] In the United States, the cultural impact of Thoreau borders on the ridiculous. As Buell recalls at length:

“[F]rom the mid-sixties through the mid-seventies . . . Thoreau was acclaimed as the first hippie by a nudist magazine, recommended as a model for disturbed teenagers, cited by the Viet Cong in broadcasts urging American GI’s to desert, celebrated by environmental activists as ‘one of our first preservationists,’ and embraced by a contributor to the John Birch Society magazine as ‘our greatest reactionary.’ American astronauts named a moon site after Walden; a Thoreau button was sold in San Francisco; several housing developments were named after him; the Kimberley-Clark Corporation marketed a new grade of paper as ‘Thoreau vellum’; a rock opera and a black comedy were written about him, as well as the highly successful play The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail. A Boston paper considered it news when a Playboy girl of the month confessed her love for Thoreau, and the journal Medical Aspects of Human Sexuality printed a page of quotations entitled ‘Thoreau on Sex.’ Allen Ginsberg, Martin Luther King, Jr., B.F. Skinner, and Rod McKuen all paid homage to him.”[iv]

Despite the enormous and always growing literature on Thoreau, his larger political vision is susceptible to being used for purposes he knew nothing about or could not have anticipated, such as postmodernism and modern environmentalism. There are a number of reasons for this problem. Walden is easily his most popular work, but it is not sufficiently representative of his political thought as a whole. Many readers base nearly their entire reading of Thoreau on Walden and a few influential “Reform Papers.” Interpreters of his work may have been too eager to read him through the lens of a particular political camp or ideology. A more systematic examination of Thoreau’s ideas, including his neglected larger corpus, yields a much more complex thinker and a fuller understanding of his political thought.

The complexity and tension discovered in Thoreau’s writings has profound meaning for his political thought and legacy. If Thoreau’s political thought is to be appreciated as comprehensively and accurately as possible, a correspondingly thorough and intricate framework is necessary. Analyzing Thoreau’s thought through the framework of a theory of the imagination will help in this regard because it allows the tensions within his political thought to be understood and appreciated in a fuller sense. While little can be done to dissuade his critics – most of whom have interpreted him quite accurately – his own emphasis on imagination and his particular contribution to “environmental imagination,” is of considerable value.

Re-Reading Thoreau

There is a sense, when analyzing one’s imagination, in which all thought can be understood as systematic.[v] But this, by no means, guarantees that such a system will be well organized, easy to identify or to follow. “System,” in the sense employed here, is not the imposition of order but a recognition of the order and interconnectedness in which persons find themselves. It is a system and order that make knowledge of conceptual “wholes” possible. Thoreau, at times, demonstrates a recognition of this order, but he also frequently succumbs to the temptation to rebel against that order and occasionally assert his own. It is no easy task to systematically read a writer who resisted systematic thought as much as possible.

There is still considerable virtue in Thoreau’s aphoristic style that accommodates a preoccupation with the imagination. “Thought, like all human life,” Claes Ryn observes, “is continuous activity. Although it contains an element of oneness or identity, namely, that it aims at truth, thought never comes to rest in static ideas divorced from the flow of history. Knowledge is carried by concepts that can be forever improved.”[vi] There is a sense of restlessness, movement and openness animating Thoreau’s search for truth. This may be why he held poets and poetry in very high regard and believed, in a manner anticipating Heidegger,[vii] that poetry, rather than prose, more fully expressed the truth of lived experience. By striving for a more poetic and aphoristic expression, Thoreau makes explicit and transparent the quality of his imagination.

In light of this, it would be tempting to read Thoreau’s incessant use of symbols, allegory, paradox and pictures as a form of esoteric writing. There is no evidence to suggest that Thoreau had any reason to write in this manner. He did not fear the repercussions of what he said, nor was he motivated, unlike some of his Transcendentalist neighbors, by any need to be deliberately obscure. Thoreau meant what he wrote and wrote what he meant. He could be brutally honest, impulsive, inconsistent and frustratingly paradoxical. He wrote as deliberately as he lived.

Re-reading Thoreau demonstrates that he supersedes existing categories of political thought and philosophy, but he is neither above criticism nor undeserving of admiration. By locating Thoreau’s political thought in a tension between the moral and idyllic imagination, and between the corresponding higher and lower will, one may better appreciate Thoreau’s complexity and his complicated legacy for environmental politics and thought. While, ultimately, the more idyllic side of his imagination triumphs most often, he will continue to elude classification. There is every reason to believe he would prefer it that way.

Thoreau on the Imagination

The explosion in scientific discoveries during Thoreau’s lifetime, the peculiar cast of literary characters in and around Concord, and his interest in travel literature and the natural world provided considerable provocation for the creative imagination. A thoughtful individual of his time and place would be unlikely to overlook and reflect on the imagination’s centrality. It is no surprise, then, that such a concern appears rather early, beginning with his days at Harvard.

In September of 1836, Thoreau composed an essay with the topic assigned as follows: “The Love of stories, real or fabulous, in young and old. Account for it, and show what good use it may serve.”[viii] His response, though only that of a nineteen-year-old and written for the purpose of a class, is quite telling. He writes of the mystery of life and the way in which the love of pleasure – especially that afforded by novelty – has considerable bearing on what human beings do and who they are. As Thoreau explains:

“But it by no means follows that those topics most replete with instruction will afford us the greatest pleasure. The love of novelty grows with our growth. Not satisfied with the world around us, we delight to revel in an imaginary one of our own creation. The ideas afforded by sensation and reflection are seized upon with avidity by the imagination, and so combined and arranged as to form new wholes of surpassing beauty, awfulness, or sublimity, as the case may be. It is in the exercise of this divine faculty that age finds its readiest solace, and youth its supreme delight. A mutual inter-change of imaginings serves not a little to enlarge the field of enjoyment.”[ix]

More than a mere college essay, this passage reveals a valuable amount of Thoreau’s understanding of the imagination, most of which he retains throughout his life. This “divine faculty” of imagination eschews didacticism and works to synthesize “sensation” and “reflection” into wholes. These wholes, functioning as networks of concepts, color the narratives or visions of life which inform how humans live. Significantly, Thoreau focuses on the imagination’s ability to give meaning to the novelty of life and to offer an escape or solace to both young and old. Indeed, it would seem the activity of the imagination is more important for pleasure than for virtue and character, though he would increasingly come to appreciate the ethical dimension of the imagination.

Finally, in this same essay, Thoreau describes “a mutual inter-changing of imaginings,” as the encounter one has with the imaginative expressions of others, shapes what one loves and their core identity. This interchange “reconciles us to the world – our friends – ourselves”[x] and contributes to the formation of individual character. These imaginings and subsequent expressions are deeply moral moments for Thoreau. “Whatever is said or done, seen or heard, is in any way taken cognizance of by the senses or the understanding,” he writes, “produces its effect – contributes its mite towards to the formation of the character. Every sentence that is framed, every word that is uttered, is framed or uttered for good or for evil, nothing is lost.”[xi]

Stories become major building blocks of our moral foundations. They are the “principles of our principles.”[xii] Thoreau puts tremendous responsibility and influence then, into the hands of authors and other artists whose expression necessarily evokes a vision of what is real, right, wrong, good, true and beautiful. The young Thoreau, however, seems less concerned with whether or not the imagination is rooted in reality. Escapism is not a problem and may even be a sign of maturity. Still, there is something about the love of stories that requires honesty, morality and even fosters community. “The Love of Stories and Story-telling,” he concludes the essay, “cherishes a purity of heart, a frankness and candor of disposition, a respect for what is generous and elevated, a contempt for what is mean and dishonorable, a proper regard for, and independence of, the petty trials of life, & tends to multiply merry companions and never-failing friends.”[xiii] There is something about the love of stories that evokes one’s moral compass and discernment. Yet Thoreau does not seem willing to discriminate between stories themselves as moral or immoral.

A second Harvard essay responds to the assigned prompt, “whether the cultivation of the Imagination conduce to the happiness of the individual.”[xiv] He begins by declaring that “man is an intellectual being”[xv] and that cultivation of this intellect is necessary both for the sake of honoring the Creator and of maintaining our free agency. Where then does imagination fit in this cultivation and what is its relationship to reason? He writes:

“If reason was given us for any one purpose more than any other, it was, that we might so regulate our conduct as to ensure our eternal happiness. The cultivation of the mind, then, is conducive to our happiness. But this cultivation consists in the cultivation of its several faculties. What we call the Imagination is one of these, hence does its culture, in a measure, conduce to the happiness of the individual.”[xvi]

Imagination is a faculty and a component of the intellect that is subordinate to reason. It is unclear here how sincere Thoreau’s formulation is. The previous essay on stories seems animated by a tone consistent with his later thoughts on the subject of art and imagination, while this subordination of imagination to reason seems more like pandering for a good grade. One can only speculate, of course, but Thoreau does maintain here and elsewhere that the imagination is neither passive nor a decaying sense. It participates in knowing and doing alongside the discriminating function of reason. It is, in keeping with the European Romantics’ reappraisal of the imagination, creative:

“Whatever the senses perceive, or the mind takes cognizance of, affords food for the Imagination. In whatever situation a man may be placed, to whatever straits he may be reduced, this faculty is ever busy. Its province is unbounded, its flights are not confined to space, the past and the future, time and eternity, all come within the sphere of its range. This power, almost coeval with reason itself, is a fruitful source of terror to the child. This it is that suggests to his mind the idea of an invisible monster lying in wait to carry him off in the obscurity of the night. Whether acquired or not, it is obviously susceptible of a high degree of cultivation.”[xvii]

The imagination is of great importance for Thoreau. He goes on to encourage persons to balance a cultivation of the mind, body and imagination, never attending to one and unduly neglecting the other. Such neglect would fail to cultivate the full human person, hindering one’s ability to realize his or her complexity, thereby frustrating the pursuit of happiness.  “Unlike most other pleasures” he explains, “those of the Imagination are not momentary and evanescent, its powers are rather increased than worn out by exercise; the old, no less than the young, find their supreme delight in the building of cob-houses and air castles out of the fragments of different conceptions. It is not so with the pleasures of sense.”[xviii] He again omits any criteria by which to evaluate that cultivation of imagination. Simply accumulating more “material” from experience and reflection, and from the imaginings of others, is not itself indicative of a moral or corrupt imagination. What does one do with the imaginative vision, and why prefer some visions over others? What role has the will in relation to the imagination?

The limitations and insights of the young Thoreau are instructive. First, Thoreau stands in the rather young (at the time) tradition of those building on and reformulating the pre-romantic and classical understanding of imagination as essentially passive, imitative or as merely a kind of mental mirror.[xix] While more primitive sources of aesthetic philosophy, such as those of Plato and Aristotle, were sympathetic to the sense of a whole, unified vision, they did not fully appreciate the creative and ethical side of this “power,” nor would they have necessarily understood an artistic expression as reflective of the character of the artist. Beginning with Rousseau and the romantics, as well as with figures such as Dugald Stewart – whom Thoreau had read for the Harvard essays discussed above – the imagination’s creative and illuminative nature emerged as central to knowledge. A number of great thinkers and leaders, particularly Wordsworth and Coleridge, began to acknowledge that man’s moral character had considerable bearing on his or her capacity to know and what one came to know and express.[xx] The imagination was now revealed to be more active, constructing wholes as well as experiencing them.

Thoreau does not provide a systematic theory of knowledge in the same sense as the theory animating this study. Still, beyond the Harvard essays, he did speak of imagination and was occasionally transparent as to how he understood its centrality.[xxi] The following summary explains of how this understanding of imagination emerges in Thoreau’s work following his days at Harvard. The theory of imagination presented in Chapter One overlaps significantly with Thoreau’s account.

Thoreau asserts that one must be prepared for what they will see. Individuals see what they want to see, and they see it as they want to see it. Experience, desire, emotion, awareness of physical and historical context – all these things contribute to what humans perceive and how they interpret it. As Thoreau explained, “We cannot see anything unless we are possessed with the idea of it, and then we can hardly see anything else.”[xxii]  In the essay “Life Without Principle,” Thoreau writes that “Only the character of the hearer determines to which it shall be open, and to which closed.”[xxiii] Alfred Tauber observes that, for Thoreau, “Knowledge is selective. We know what we want to know, or at least seek knowledge in the particular context of self-interest. Each of us follows his or her unique train.”[xxiv] Not only is man prepared then, but he is potentially limited and/or enlarged by his subjectivity, which one cannot and need not escape. Thoreau writes in the Journal that:

“There is no such thing as pure objective observation. Your observation, to be interesting, i.e. to be significant, must be subjective. The sum of what the writer of what ever class has to report is simply some human experience, whether he be poet or philosopher or man of science. The man of most science is the man most alive, whose life is the greatest event . . . It matters not where or how far you travel, – the farther commonly the worse, – but how much alive you are. If it is possible to conceive of an event outside to humanity, it is not of the slightest significance, though it were the explosion of a planet.”[xxv]

Earlier he had written in the spirit of this subjectivity that “the question is not what you look at, but what you see.”[xxvi] And in a “Natural History of Massachusetts” he reminds his readers of the temporal or historical conditions for seeing: “We must look a long time before we can see.”[xxvii] One’s conscience is the only starting point and while that is a positive aspect for Thoreau and Emerson,[xxviii] it also means that one’s moral character is critical to what one sees, how they see it, and their ability to see in the first place. For Thoreau “there is no neat separation between knowing the world (epistemologically) and valuing that knowledge (a moral judgment).”[xxix] Leo Marx observed a similar aspect of Thoreau, explaining that:

Thoreau is clear, as Emerson seldom was, about the location of meaning and value. He is saying that it does not reside in the natural facts or in social institutions or in anything ‘out there,’ but in consciousness. It is a product of imaginative perception, of the analogy-perceiving, metaphor-making, mythopoetic power of the human mind.[xxx]

The inescapable centrality of the subject and one’s character means that one cannot separate the author or artist from the work of art. Understood another way, an artistic expression or writing is the fruit of the artist or author’s ethical-aesthetico disposition. A persons knows what he or she wills to know, but that will, and the activity the will begets, provides the substance for the intuition preceding the will/action. That action and the imagination/intuition informing it supply the content of one’s character.

Thoreau writes in his Journal, “Our feet must be imaginative, must know the earth in imagination only, as well as our heads.”[xxxi] Then, in one of his most explicit explanations of how he understands philosophy generally, he writes that:

There are nowadays professors of philosophy, but not philosophers. Yet it is admirable to profess because it was once admirable to live. To be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, nor even to found a school, but so to love wisdom as to live according to its dictates, a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust. It is to solve some of the problems of life, not only theoretically, but practically.[xxxii]

Building and dwelling at Walden Pond are just as important, and just as philosophical, as the writing of Walden itself. His trips to Maine and Cape Cod, excursions to nearby mountains and villages, his lectures and his assistance to runaway slaves and marginalized Irish immigrants were all as much a part of his philosophy as was the content of his works.

Writing about Thomas Carlyle, Thoreau asserts that “The philosopher’s conception of things will, above all, be truer than other men’s, and his philosophy will subordinate all the circumstances of life. To live like a philosopher is to live, not foolishly, like other men, but wisely and according to universal laws.”[xxxiii] On the one hand, the mention of “universal laws” risks moving the philosopher into ahistorical abstraction. On the other, Thoreau is bringing to the fore another significant element of his understanding of imagination, which he shares with Emerson: a belief in the unity of all knowledge.

The recognition of one’s subjectivity is not itself a blindness to the “common humanity and common world” in which the self participates.[xxxiv] Emerson writes, “There is one mind common to all individual men. Every man is an inlet to the same and to all of the same.”[xxxv] Thoreau, in the same spirit, observes “Go where we will, we discover infinite change in particulars only, not in generals”[xxxvi] And in his essay, “Walking,” Thoreau exclaims that “I walk out into a nature such as the old prophets and poets, Menu, Moses, Homer, Chaucer, walked in.”[xxxvii] The world of the Greeks and the Romans is his. As biographer Robert D. Richardson writes, “Thoreau’s conception of history, like Emerson’s, would not concede any superiority to the Greeks and Romans. If nature was the same and if men were the same – two constants in a world of change – then the modern writer stood in relation to his world in just the same way Homer stood in relation to his, and modern achievements could indeed rival the ancients.”[xxxviii] The great writers of history are great inasmuch as their particularity partakes of the same universal, timeless reality which Thoreau himself can access. The problem for Thoreau is that this particularity is viewed more as an obstacle in the realm of politics than it is in the world of poetry, literature and art.

It is difficult to overstate the importance of imagination for Thoreau. He was deeply concerned with how one sees and understands, and what that meant for how one lives. “The Imagination,” Tauber writes, is “as close to a vital center as we might find in Thoreau’s moral cosmos, [and it] is more than our faculty by which to understand nature, or create art, for it serves as the means by which the self might grow according to its own telos.”[xxxix] The imagination is where human identity develops and where humans recognize the experience of freedom. It also means that seeing and knowing are deeply moral activities.

Thoreau’s understanding of imagination was ultimately under-developed, especially as it pertained to the role of imagination in the ethical life and vice versa. Imagination was a powerful and creative, but morally neutral, faculty of perception, learning and pleasure. Neglecting the criteria necessary for evaluating the quality of one’s imagination, though, leaves the individual vulnerable to a veritable minefield of misleading and dangerous visions. Indeed, Thoreau was rather cavalier about the possibility of a disordered imagination. “I do not think much of the actual,” he wrote in his Journal in July of 1850, “it is something that we have long since done [away] with. It is [a] sort of vomit in which the unclean love to wallow.”[xl] And in a letter to his friend H.G.O. Blake the following month, Thoreau writes, “I find that actual events, notwithstanding the singular prominence which we all allow them, are far less real than the creations of my imagination.”[xli]

The criteria by which the quality of one’s imagination is evaluated is its attunement to reality in the most comprehensive sense of the word. That is, the concrete, historical reality as well as the moral and spiritual reality of the present. Thoreau would likely reject this criteria or simply emphasize the subjectivity of such a formulation. Yet this disposition is precisely why later environmentalists would benefit from revisiting his work. In many instances, they have inherited Thoreau’s ambivalence toward evaluating the quality of one’s imagination. But the consequences of such a disposition manifest themselves in the misdiagnosis or oversimplification of environmental problems and solutions. Neglecting the imagination opens the door to more ideological and misanthropic streams of environmentalism while also overlooking a critical tool for cultivating ecologically sensitive individuals and cultures. In Thoreau, then, environmentalism not only finds the resources for reform and self-understanding but also for self-critique.

The criticism of Thoreau and his environmental heirs offered herein is meant to be primarily constructive. An imagination of a poor quality will beget ineffective or irresponsible behavior in environmental politics or otherwise. But an admirable imagination offers much to the reform and endurance of all that environmentalism seeks to achieve. There is simply too much at stake in the realm of environmental politics to confront such complex ecological problems with an under-developed or immoral imagination.



[i]. Lawrence Buell. The Environmental Imagination: Thoreau, Nature Writing, and the Formation of American Culture. (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard Univ. Press, 1995) p. 9.

[ii]. Buell (1995) p. 315.

[iii]. Buell (1995) p. 315.

[iv]. Buell (1995) p. 313-314.

[v]. Claes G. Ryn. Will, Imagination, and Reason: Irving Babbitt and the Problem or Reality. Originally published in 1986. (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 1997) p. xxiv.

[vi]. Ryn. (1997) p. 120.

[vii]. For more on comparing Thoreau and Heidegger, see Stanley Cavell, “Night and Day: Heidegger and Thoreau.” in Appropriating Heidegger. Ed. by James E. Faulconer. (New York: Cambridge Univ., 2000).

[viii]. Henry David Thoreau. Early Essays and Miscellanies. Edited by Joseph J. Moldenhauer and Edwin Moser, with Alexander C. Kern. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ., 1975) p. 45.

[ix]. Thoreau. Early Essays. p. 45-46.

[x]. Thoreau. Early Essays. p. 46.

[xi]. Thoreau. Early Essays. p. 46-47.

[xii]. Thoreau. Early Essays. p. 47.

[xiii]. Thoreau. Early Essays p. 47.

[xiv]. Thoreau. Early Essays. p. 47.

[xv]. Thoreau. Early Essays. p. 47.

[xvi]. Thoreau. Early Essay p. 48.

[xvii]. Thoreau. Early Essays p. 49.

[xviii]. Thoreau. Early Essays p. 49.

[xix]. See M.H. Abrams. The Mirror and the Lamp: Romantic Theory and the Critical Tradition. (New York: Oxford Univ., 1953).

[xx]. This distinction between the pre-romantic and Romantic conceptions of imagination is indebted to Abrams (1953).

[xxi]. Alfred Tauber notes, for example that: “Imagination is the Romantic faculty par excellence. It is to imagination that Thoreau turns again and again as the cognitive apparatus upon which he builds his history, his science, his poetry. In the Journal, the vision of Walden Pond, first appearing to him as a child, remains scored in Thoreau’s imagination, actively working and directing him. The memory is no longer of the past, but resides firmly in his active present. His entire life is devoted to the emancipation of that imagination, the free expression of all that this muse might hold for him, whether expressed by him as a naturalist, a historian, a philosopher, or a poet.” Alfred I Tauber. Henry David Thoreau and the Moral Agency of Knowing. (Los Angeles: Univ. of California, 2001) p. 62.

[xxii]. Henry David Thoreau. The Journal of Henry D. Thoreau: In Fourteen Volumes Bound as Two. 2 Vols. Edited by Bradford Torrey and F. H. Allen. (Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 1962). Unless otherwise noted, all quotations from Thoreau’s Journal are from these volumes, and references will indicate the volume, chapter, date and page number of the 1906 edition. Vol. XI, Ch. 5, November 4th, 1858. p. 285.

[xxiii]. Henry David Thoreau. “Life Without Principle.” in The Higher Law: Thoreau on Civil Disobedience and Reform. Ed. by Wendell Glick (Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ., 2004) p. 172-173.

[xxiv]. Tauber (2001) p. 2.

[xxv]. Thoreau. Journal, Vol. VI, Ch. 6, May 6th, 1854. p. 236-237.

[xxvi]. Thoreau. Journal, Vol. II, Ch. 7 August 5th, 1851 p. 373.

[xxvii].Henry David Thoreau. “Natural History of Massachusetts” in The Writings of Henry D. David Thoreau: Excursions. ed. by Joseph J. Moldenhauer. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ., 2007) p. 28.

[xxviii]. Robert D. Richardson Jr., Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind. Berkeley, CA: Univ. of California, 1986. p. 49.

[xxix]. Tauber. (2001) p. 6.

[xxx]. Leo Mark. The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America. 1964 Reprint. (New York: Oxford Univ., 2000) p. 264.

[xxxi]. Thoreau. Journal Vol. II, Ch. VI, July 11th , 1851. p. 300.

[xxxii]. Henry David Thoreau. Walden and Civil Disobedience. Intro by Michael Myer. (New York: Penguin Books, 1986) p. 57.

[xxxiii]. Thoreau. “Thomas Carlyle and His Works.” in Early Essays and Miscellanies (1975) p. 256.

[xxxiv]. Ryn (1997) p. 185.

[xxxv]. Ralph Waldo Emerson. “History.” in Nature and Selected Essays. Ed by Larzer Ziff. (New York: Penguin, 1982) p. 149.

[xxxvi]. Thoreau. Journal. Vol. I, Ch. 4, July 5th, 1840. p. 162, and in Henry David Thoreau.“Monday” in A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. Originally published 1849. (Mineola, NY: Dover  Publications, 2001)  p.77. From here on, referred to simply as A Week.

[xxxvii]. Henry David Thoreau. “Walking” in The Writings of Henry D. David Thoreau: Excursions. ed. by Joseph J. Moldenhauer. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ., 2007) p. 192.

[xxxviii]. Richardson (1986) p. 25-26.

[xxxix]. Tauber (2001) p. 172.

[xl]. Thoreau, Journal. Vol. II, Ch. 1, July 1850 p. 44.

[xli]. Henry David Thoreau, “Letter to H.G.O. Blake, 9 August 1850” in Letters to a Spiritual Seeker. Ed. by Bradley P. Dean. (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2004) p. 60.


This excerpt is from Imagination and Environmental Political Thought: The Aftermath of Thoreau (Lexington Books, 2017) with our book review here.

Joshua Bowman

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Joshua Bowman is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Heidelberg University in Ohio. He is author of Imagination and Environmental Political Thought: The Aftermath of Thoreau (Lexington Books, 2018).