A Political Companion to Henry David Thoreau

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The writings of Henry David Thoreau (1817 -- 1862) have captivated scholars, activists, and ecologists for more than a century. Less attention, however, has been paid to the author's political philosophy and its influence on American public life. Although Thoreau's doctrine of civil disobedience has become a touchstone in world history, the greater part of his political legacy is often overlooked.

A Political Companion to Henry David Thoreau is the first comprehensive volume focused exclusively on Thoreau's political thought.In sixteen incisive essays, editor Jack Turner and other noted scholars illuminate the unexamined aspects of Thoreau's life and writings. Turner's introduction surveys the scholarship that first explored Thoreau's politics, and the book's opening essays examine the complex relationship between Thoreau's work and both classical and modern elements of democratic theory. The contributors show that Thoreau espoused democratic ideals of equality and individual liberty while questioning the authority of majoritarian, representative governments.

A Political Companion to Henry David Thoreau also places Thoreau's work within the context of American history and politics. Here, Thoreau emerges as an unflinching, prophetic voice against the horrors of slavery and the subjugation of Native Americans. Thoreau's mistrust of the constitutional rule of law, however, puts him in opposition to Abraham Lincoln and other acclaimed defenders of the American democratic experiment. Thoreau's reluctance to engage with governmental systems also influenced twentieth-century environmentalists in ways sometimes perceived as detrimental to the goals of conservation and responsible stewardship.

Other essays examine the metaphysical and ethical concerns animating Thoreau's politics. Thoreau's example shows that solitary quests for connection to nature and the spiritual realm, and the insights that emerge as a result, are politically consequential because they set the stage for critical awareness and civil disobedience. The book concludes with essays that compare Thoreau to Rousseau, Adorno, Gandhi, and other philosophers, situating Thoreau within the canon of classical and contemporary political theory.

Combining both new and classic essays, this book examines the far-reaching political significance of a great American thinker. A Political Companion to Henry David Thoreau is a landmark reference, exploring Thoreau's political philosophy more thoroughly than ever before as well as demonstrating the continuing relevance of his ideas to the American political landscape.Jack Turner, assistant professor of political science at the University of Washington, has published articles on Tocqueville, Emerson, Thoreau, and Ellison in such journals as Political Theory, Raritan, and Polity.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"Over a dozen authors write a chapter that explores Thoreau's political activism, and through this gain an glimpse of the political discourse that led to the start of the American Civil War." -- Naval District of Washington Waterline

"The first comprehensive collection focused exclusively on Thoreau as a political thinker." -- UWnews.org

"A Political Companion to Henry David Thoreau sheds new light on Thoreau's literary repertoire.... The collection also serves Thoreau well by setting him apart from his literary contemporaries.... [It] lift[s] Thoreau out of the American literary canon and recontextualize his work within the traditions of political theory. As such, researchers working beyond the confines of nineteenth-century literature will benefit greatly from this collection." -- The Year's Work in English Studies

"The world knows Thoreau as a transcendentalist and literary naturalist, but less as a political thinker. Turner moves us in a fresh direction with this provocative new collection of essays by leading scholars in political science, philosophy, and ethics." -- William L. Howarth, Princeton University, former editor in chief of The Writings of Henry D. Thoreau

"A first-rate collection of essays, exploring Thoreau's contributions to the study of politics on issues ranging from freedom and democracy to individuality, self-cultivation, and the political imagination. Demonstrates persuasively that Thoreau continues to illuminate questions at the center of political theory today." -- Sharon R. Krause, director of graduate studies and associate professor of political science, Brown University

"Promises to reinvigorate debates about a whole range of under explored themes in Walden and in the political thought of nineteenth-century America." -- Bryan Garsten, associate professor of political science, Yale University

"An excellent starting point for the study of Thoreau as a political thinker.... This necessary companion for any serious student or scholar comprises Turner's informative overview of Thoreau's reemergence in contemporary political theory; eight reprinted essays published in the last 15 years by such established scholars as Nancy Rosenblum, Bob Pepperman Taylor, Jane Bennett, and Turner himself; eight new essays; a judiciously selected bibliography of commentary since 1950; and a substantive index. Critically and conceptually the collection covers a lot of ground." -- William Rossi, American Literary Scholarship

"Critically and conceptually the collection covers a lot of ground, with essays arranged in four broad topics, ranging from debating Thoreau's identity as a democrat; analyzing his reception in post-1060s politics; his contributions to political theory, classical as well as contemporary; and the meteaphysical and ethical dimensions of his politics." -- American Literary Scholarship

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780813124780
  • Publisher: University Press of Kentucky
  • Publication date: 6/11/2009
  • Series: Political Companions to Great American Authors
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 496
  • Product dimensions: 6.40 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.50 (d)

Meet the Author

Jack Turner is assistant professor of political science at the University of Washington. His articles have appeared in Political Theory, Raritan, and Polity.

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