Henry David Thoreau’s Politics of Standing Aloof


In the eulogy that Ralph Waldo Emerson delivered at Thoreau’s funeral in May 1862, Emerson notes that Thoreau once claimed to be able to look around the Walden environs and “tell by the plants what time of year it was within two days.” [1] This intimate familiarity with the cycles of local plants and animals reflects Thoreau’s deep knowledge of the local environment and the years of intensive study that produced it. Thoreau’s famed nature walks had made him an encyclopedia of environmental knowledge. But to Emerson, who had decided to focus on the social and political questions that preoccupied a nation on the brink of bloody Civil War, the implications of Thoreau’s career were as appalling as they were amazing. Thoreau was a serious person, but his life seemed somehow like the trivial tale of a village eccentric. As the society grappled with questions about human slavery and national union, what value did a life such as Thoreau’s have? How could it add to the common welfare? How could a life spent achieving intimacy with nature be more than simply self-in-dulgent and frivolous?