Waking Up in Concord, Praise for Two Great Lydias + a Response to Alex Beam

Illustration by Susan Coyne

This Week: the third in our series on Thoreau and the Transcendentalists, with David Bromwich, John Kaag, Lydia Moland and Pico Iyer. Listen today at 2 pm on WBUR or anytime on our website. And you can read a transcript of the show here.

MM: We were worried about doing a third consecutive show on Thoreau, but we decided that making a link between Walden World and the Wider World was important. I for one wasn’t aware of the extent of the constellation of thinkers living in and visting Concord in the 1830’s, 1840’s and 1850’s. There’s Thoreau and Emerson of course, but also Emily Dickinson, Margaret Fuller, the Alcotts — Louisa May and Bronson, Walt Whitman, Herman Melville, Nathanial Hawthorne and our new favorite, Lydia Maria Child (I included the wrong link to Lydia Moland’s piece about LMC in the Paris Review last week; here’s the correct one.) There’s also a bunch of others you’ve never heard of who were writing, talking and thinking hard about their world. It was a scene that rivaled Paris in the 20’s or Elizabethan England, and as the show demonstrated (we hope), what came from it was a kind of American Renaissance (Chris called it the Second American Revolution) with a distinctive literary and activist voice. The payoff was the discovery from our guests, gifted teachers all — David Bromwich, John Kaag and Lydia Moland — that they’re hearing from their students a yearning to break out of the oppressive political and cultural environment of 2017, and take up the message and cause of the transcendentalists. Case in point: read the missive below from Zach Goldhammer, our young producer and political agitator. Zach’s perceptions are always sharp; this one moved me.

Zach Goldhammer: As with many things Chris and Mary tell me, I reacted to the idea of producing three shows on Thoreau with a healthy amount of skepticism—who would want to listen to three hours about the 200 year old Concordian crank?

As is also often the case in working with Chris and Mary on this show, I eventually realized that I was wrong.

What I learned, after listening to all three transcendental hours, is that I’m often not really awake — as Thoreau might say — when I’m working. No matter how many articles I read for research, no matter how many times I re-listen or edit an interview in pre-production, I’m not really understanding or absorbing the information because I’m always worried about what comes next: when will the show be finished? What could go wrong in this segment or that? What are we missing? Will anyone listen?

It’s only after the show airs that I actually start to hear it — usually when I’m walking home from the studio on Thursdays around midnight, during my own Thoreauvian ritual — that’s when I wake up.

This week it was Lydia Moland who woke me, as she tracked Thoreau through his kindred spirit—the oft-forgotten Medford radical and transcendentalist fellow traveller in the Concord Circle, Lydia Maria Child.

Moland’s message was that the transcendentalists, particularly radical abolitionist like Thoreau and Child, were teaching us that it was not enough to stage internal rebellions. It’s not enough to fix your moral ideas internally, in your private life—so long as you live in a corrupted world and pay taxes to a corrupted government, you’re still complicit.

Thoreau is saying you can feel that something’s wrong here. I can tell you feel that I want to help diagnose that and I want to help you see how you are complicit in it so that you can change your life in a way that makes you know that you have not lived that life in vain.

This was a variation on the message that woke me up in the first show, when Lewis Hyde mentioned Thoreau’s rage over Northerners’s complicity in the Fugitive Slave Act. It connected with my own feelings about left-liberal complacency around the Immigration Ban today. Many of us feel disgust, but few of us recognize that we are complicit too.

For Moland, the key to understanding the heroism of these transcendental radicals — Child in particular, but also Thoreau in his own idiosyncratic style—is that they aren’t just thinkers, they are also doers. They aren’t just sitting around waiting for enlightenment. They’re philosophers who didn’t just want to interpret the world but to change it. As Moland says:

I think it’s that combination of a person who could speak to a national crisis and a national moral corruption that had endangered the very principles on which the country was founded with this very practical get out and go do something … If you’re Child, you know, go do your own laundry and then go and throw your body in front of an abolitionist to shield him from a mob.

To me, the lesson is that change cannot come internally, you have to recognize yourself as connected and embedded in a wider world. Thoreau and Child did so, in part, by befriending and defending radicals from outside their own circle—figures like Frederick Douglass and John Brown.

This last connection, between Thoreau and John Brown, was—for at least one of our listeners—a problematic subject.

The Boston Globe columnist Alex Beam recently wrote a broad critique of Thoreau that was inspired in part by listening to our series on the man he calls “Concord’s most famous sociopath.”

A big chunk of Beam’s argument comes from Kathryn Schulz’s two year old New Yorker polemic, “Pond Scum.” Beam cites some of Schulz’s many charges of hypocrisy in Walden; pointing out that the man who wished to live deliberately in the woods was still eating meals at his parent’s house twice a week —“lured by his mother’s cookies or the chance to dine with friends.”

These are cheap shots, as Beam admits, and there have been plenty of strong responses to Schulz’s piece since it was published (two from past OS guests, Jedediah Purdy and Lewis Hyde).

I wouldn’t disagree with the idea that Thoreau lived a privileged life or that he could be self-indulgent in his writing. My issue is with this later claim that Beam sneaks into the middle of his op-ed:

Preaching one thing and doing another is Thoreauvian to the max. Historical icons such as Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King claim to have been inspired by Thoreau’s essay “On Civil Disobedience,” prompted by a one-might stay in the cushy Concord clink. But Thoreau also championed un-civil disobedience, in the person of the abolitionist firebrand John Brown. Under Thoreau’s pen, Brown became “a man of rare common-sense and directness of speech, as of action; a transcendentalist above all.”
Brown is best known for his 1859 attack on the federal armory at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, but Thoreau was well aware of his hero’s sanguinary escapades in antebellum Kansas. You might want to Google “Pottawatomie massacre” and see if cold-blooded killing fits into your definition of civil disobedience.

To me, this critique is deeply confused. For one thing, the flippant references to Gandhi and MLK paper over the ways in which both Indian independence and the Civil Rights Movement were dependent on armed resistance as well as non-violent civil disobedience. These philosophies and tactics were never mutually exclusive. The fact that MLK preached non-violence and also owned guns—as did many members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee—shouldn’t be seen as a contradiction.

The fact that Thoreau is the author of both “On Civil Disobedience” and “A Plea for John Brown” also shouldn’t boggle the mind too much. The former piece was motivated by Thoreau’s deep commitments to the abolitionist cause. The word “civil” was not necessarily intended as a synonym for polite or peaceful disobedience; it was a call for direct resistance to the state, i.e. “civil government”. By this definition, John Brown’s model of resistance was not “un-civil” as Beam suggests—that would only be true if he believed in the Axl Rose school of philosophy: “what’s so civil ‘bout war, anyway?”

“Civil Obedience” itself was intended, in part, as Thoreau’s formal break from the pacifists—or “non-resistants” —of his day. Their aversion to Brown’s violence struck him as the real hypocrisy given the violence meted about the state everyday—by slaveowners as well as by the police and the military.. As Thoreau writes in his journals:

It galls me to listen to the remarks of craven-hearted neighbors who speak disparagingly of Brown because he resorted to violence… They preserve the so-called peace of their community by deeds of petty violence every day. Look at the policeman’s billy & handcuffs! Look at the jail! Look at the gallows!…

Beam should acknowledge that his own media class was one of the primary targets of Thoreau’s “Plea”: his aim was chiefly to “correct the tone and the statements of the newspapers.” Thoreau wanted to put a stop to the moral hand-wringing of journalists who hadn’t been active in the abolitionist cause (“‘Misguided’! ‘Garrulous”! ‘Insane’! ‘Vindictive’! So ye write in your easy-chairs…”) By simply dismissing Brown for his “saguinary escapades,” Beam is reviving rhetoric that Thoreau squashed more than 150 year ago.

If we’re forced to just dump Thoreau because of his remarks about Brown, what are we supposed to do about what Frederick Douglass said: “If John Brown did not end the war that ended slavery, he did at least begin the war that ended slavery?” Or what about W.E.B. Du Bois’s praise for “the man who of all Americans has perhaps come nearest to touching the real souls of black folk”. What about Lyda Maria Child’s impassioned defense of Brown (“I believe that old hero to be no criminal, but a martyr to righteous principles”)? Or how about all those countless singing Union soldiers (“…but his soul goes marching on”)? Were they all sociopaths too?

This is not to say that Brown’s acts were uncomplicated—there are questions surrounding what happened in Pottawatomie that deserve something more than the perfunctory google search Beam suggests or the “needs citation” Wikipedia article he links too. But how well would other, more thoroughly canonized political icons hold up under the same sort of lazy scrutiny? Should we tell Massachusetts liberals to stop praising Ted Kennedy all the time and just google Chappaquiddick?

In another recent polemic, Beam writes about his dislike of the word “woke,” which he believes is being misused as a cudgel by the “hyper-socially aware, self-appointed gatekeepers of language and behavior.” Apparently Beam doesn’t see the irony in how this critique might apply to his own heavy-handed moralizing about Thoreau and Brown.

Beam also mocks, as an example of “woke” culture, those “who agree with some professors at the University of Virginia that president Teresa Sullivan should stop quoting UVA founder and slave owner Thomas Jefferson in her speeches.” (n.b. the actual story he links to notes that the professors objected to the specific use of a Jefferson quote sent out in a campus wide email after this year’s election, not in speeches generally). “You are so woke that you may never sleep again,” he writes disdainfully.

One might question why Beam is unsympathetic to those (nonviolent, civil) critiques of an iconic slaveowner but is quick to condemn radical abolitionists. One might also question why he’s so opposed to being “woke” in the first place.

On this last point, Beam and Thoreau might at least agree—for Thoreau, being truly awake sets up an impossible standard:

Millions are awake enough for physical labor; but only one in a million is awake enough for effective intellectual exertion; only one in a hundred million to a poetic or divine life. To be awake is to be alive. I have never met a man who was quite awake. How could I have looked him in the face?

But while Beam says we should just give up and settle for our corrupted world, Thoreau tells us to keep striving and keep trying to wake up. I know which side I would choose. How about you?

Thoreau For Today

Graphic by Frank Horton

MM: Thanks for your suggestions for modern day Henry David Thoreaus! T-shirts are on the way.

For one last tour of Walden, check out Becca’s interview with photographer S.B. Walker:

Alas, next week we move on from Concord and back to the cold hard reality of our troubled world — but with our consciousness raised!

Onward as Emerson says: Ever Onward.

Mary, Zach, Becca and the rest of the OS transcendentalists

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