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Monday, July 10, 2017

July 10, 2017: Thoreau’s Bicentennial: Civil Disobedience

[July 12th marks Henry David Thoreau’s 200th birthday! So this week I’ll AmericanStudy five texts and contexts for Thoreau, leading up to a weekend post on three ways we can remember and celebrate this unique and influential American on his 200th.]
Three lesser-known facts about Thoreau’s seminal essay “Civil Disobedience” (1849).
1)      Origins in Oratory: Thoreau’s friend and mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson tends to be more closely associated with lectures and oratory than the more iconoclastic and antisocial Henry. But Thoreau was of course part of the same Transcendental community and circles, and in February 1848 delivered a lecture at the Concord Lyceum entitled “The Rights and Duties of the Individual in Relation to Government.” As far as I can tell we don’t have a transcript or written version of that lecture, so it’s impossible to know how much Thoreau altered or added before publishing his essay the following year. But just as Emerson’s published lectures (such as “The American Scholar”) utilize a different structure and style than do his solely written texts (such as “Nature”), so too would we have to think in any case about how Thoreau’s oratorical origins for “Civil Disobedience” informed those kinds of formal elements, as well as the essay’s engagement with audience. To cite one small example of that latter aspect, Thoreau’s first-paragraph instruction to “Witness the present Mexican war” as an illustration of the abuse of government reads far differently if we think about him making such a controversial request of a live audience.
2)      The Original Title: Even when Thoreau published the print version of the essay in 1849 (as part of the collected Aesthetic Papers), it was distinct in a key way from the version that many future audiences have read. The essay’s 1849 title was “Resistance to Civil Government”; when it was reprinted in a posthumous 1866 collection, it was retitled “Civil Disobedience” (and in some subsequent reprintings has been called “On the Duty of Civil Disobedience”). It’s my understanding that the text of the essay has remained unchanged in each case, but of course a title provides a significant first frame for any piece, and I would argue that both the distinction between “resistance” and “disobedience” and the different uses of “civil” (as modifying the government in the initial version and the disobedience in the latter ones) are titular changes that could guide readers in divergent ways as they begin Thoreau’s essay. (The resistance-disobedience distinction would be especially interesting to parse further in 2017, when resistance has become a focal concept of social and political protests.) And at the very least, I think we should refer to a text by the author’s intended title if and when we have a clear sense of that choice, as we certainly do with this text. So “Resistance to Civil Government” it is!
3)      An International Inspiration: Much has been made, and rightly so, of the emphasis that both Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. placed on Thoreau’s essay and philosophy as inspirations for their own acts of civil disobedience and non-violent resistance. But prior to either of those responses, the Russian novelist and peace activist Leo Tolstoy highlighted Thoreau as one of his own chief inspirations. In a turn of the 20th century “Letter to the American People” that frames this anthology of Tolstoy’s writings on civil disobedience, the author notes that “thinking over at night, it came to me that, if I had to address the American people, I would like to thank them for writers who flourished about the [1850s].” Among other things, this less well-known international connection helps us recognize the role that Thoreau’s ideas have played in the anti-war and peace movements, somewhat different causes of course from the independence and civil rights struggles of Gandhi and King but certainly another longstanding legacy of Thoreau’s influential essay.
Next Thoreau post tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other Thoreau responses you’d share?

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