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  • Rebecca Kneale Gould

Thoreau’s Religious Self: A Model for Our Moment?

Rebecca Kneale Gould

Alda Balthrop-Lewis is not the first to focus on Thoreau with attention to Thoreau’s religion. She is, however, the first to offer a book-length treatment that makes this argument in the way that she does, focusing not so much on Thoreau’s ecstatic experiences of nature, but by probing the ways in which Thoreau’s daily life (both at Walden and beyond) embodied a form of dissent that is as deeply political as Thoreau’s most explicitly political writings. In making this argument, Balthrop-Lewis achieves a reading of Walden that is compelling, convincing, and often beautifully wrought.

In the opening pages of her book, Balthrop-Lewis addresses the perennial “two Thoreaus” problem, a problem that persists both within and beyond scholarly circles, often rendered in a caricatured way: the celebration (or critique) of Thoreau as the proto-environmentalist, self-sufficient “Wilderness Boy” and the celebration (or critique) of Thoreau as radical abolitionist, social reformer and pacifist— all labels that demand further probing, or, in the case of pacifism, substantive revising. The “two Thoreaus” problem lies not merely in the caricatures themselves, but in the intractable ways in which celebrants (or critics) of one Thoreau seem entirely unwilling to acknowledge the other. Balthrop-Lewis tackles this problem head-on. “Walden is the book in which these two figures come together most vividly. . .” she writes, “I reinterpret the nature piety in Walden as the ground for Thoreau’s radical political commitments. This unified figure offers an image in which environmentalism and efforts for a just political community (including economic and racial justice) do not just happen to coincide but belong to one another, are integral, require one another.” In making her argument, Balthrop-Lewis also confronts the problematic extent to which the historiography of Transcendentalism has been dominated by the history of ideas.

By contrast, she argues, “my starting point, is rather, to situate Thoreau in US labor and social history, including, specifically, the history of working women, free black people, and those who defied enslavement.” Balthrop-Lewis wisely acknowledges that she is tapping into a broad tradition of American social history writing that has emerged over the last fifty years; building on the more recent Thoreau and antebellum New England scholarship of Laura Dassow Walls, Sandy Petrulionis and Elise Lemire; and participating in a “growing edge” of Thoreau scholarship that “insists that the material and economic context of Thoreau’s writing has been largely neglected and ought to be recovered.” I applaud Balthrop-Lewis in making this turn, but perhaps precisely because she made it, I found myself wanting more. The “more” that I found myself looking for was more explicit attention to the social history of Transcendentalism and, by extension, Unitarianism, that we already have to draw on.

Why? First, in answer to Balthrop-Lewis’s own concerns, because this is a history that, by definition, goes beyond that of the history of ideas, and readily engages the everyday practices and social experiments of New England’s antebellum reformers. Second, because, at times, it felt to me that Balthrop-Lewis was holding up Thoreau as a lone exemplar of the radical social vision that she finds to be both admirable and promising (as do I). In choosing to pay focused attention to both Thoreau and the text of Walden, Balthrop-Lewis most likely necessarily excludes a broader story, but this is a broader story that we need to hear, a story that would further bolster her argument rather than detract from it.

Alda Balthrop-Lewis, Thoreau’s Religion: Walden Woods, Social Justice, and the Politics of Asceticism. Cambridge University Press, 2021. Series: New Cambridge Studies in Religion and Critical Thought. ISBN 9781108891608. 256 pp. Hardcover: $99.99.

One of my best loved books on my Transcendentalist shelf, is Anne Rose’s Transcendentalism as a Social Movement, 1830-1850. In its opening pages, Rose notes that as distantly as 1888, Henry James, upon reading a strictly intellectual biography of Emerson, had called for a social history of Emerson’s world in order to better understand the intricacies of Emerson’s thought. Without a doubt, Balthrop-Lewis very explicitly attends to “the social” in her treatment of Thoreau. Through a close reading of Walden and a lovely extended conversation in her footnotes, Balthrop-Lewis eloquently articulates the “social goods” that Thoreau embodied (we might also say “symbolized’) and passionately advocated for: a thorough-going critique of private property and “the market,” the abolition of slavery and the related oppressions of the industrial North, a refusal of the emerging monetization of how humans spend their time and so on. “But Thoreau had so much company in this!” I found myself saying as I read along. To my mind, understanding the nature and extent of that company would give readers yet another way to see the degree to which Thoreau was no solitary hermit.

To the extent that the social and intellectual history of Transcendentalism is bound up in the social and intellectual history of Unitarianism, we would do well to hear more about both, to learn more about the people and places that indirectly, but influentially, gave rise to Thoreau’s Walden experiment. We can trace, for instance, Thoreau’s concern about the welfare of the laboring classes to both William Ellery Channing (the elder), his more radical nephew, William Henry Channing and a host of Unitarian ministers (the most liberal of whom were denounced with the label “Transcendentalist”). Like Thoreau, these ministers were deeply concerned about slavery, the oppressive conditions of the industrial North, and the ways in which each “institution” encouraged the exploitative growth of the other. Many were not willing to make as radical a critique of social structures as Thoreau would go on to do, but others, such as Henry Channing and Orestes Brownson, were among those who addressed the problem of “economy” in ways that are echoed in Thoreau’s opening chapter of Walden.

Moving from the Unitarian and Transcendentalist ministers, we can shift to the realm of ex-ministers (Emerson), non-ministers (Alcott) and never-allowed-to-be ministers (Fuller), which is to say, the realm of the “classic” Transcendentalists. Of the three, Bronson Alcott stands out as particularly relevant for Balthrop-Lewis’s analysis, for, like Thoreau, Alcott firmly believed that embodied ascetic practices (such as fasting and refusing flesh-eating) were not simply private acts of self-restraint and purification, but a public demonstrations of (and advocacy for) a different way of living in the world, one that rejected private property ownership and resisted as much as possible engagement with trade, which was entangled with slavery and unjust labor conditions.

My point here is not simply to underscore the value of “attending to social context” in an abstract sense, but also of attending to the deep personal relationships within which Thoreau came to understand himself, these include relationships with the Channings and the Alcotts, both the elders and the younger generation. The deepest of these relationships, of course, were those cultivated in Thoreau’s own household. No doubt, the relentless “reform energy” in the Thoreau household is part of what drove desperate Henry into the woods for a quiet place to write. I would hazard a guess, however, that Thoreau’s remarkable (for his time) attentiveness to the black history of Walden Woods would never have made it into the text of Walden were it not for the fervent abolitionism of Thoreau’s mother, Cynthia and sisters, Helen and Sophia.

There is a second area where Balthrop-Lewis might have given us a bit more to chew on. She could remind us that while Thoreau may well be modeling a new way of being in the world, he is standing on some broad theological shoulders. What we need to keep in mind in this regard is that Thoreau’s religiosity was multi-stranded and dynamic. Like most people’s spiritual journeys, it also evolved over time, involving messy processes of both rebellions against and reappropriations of the religious contexts into which he was born. Thoreau’s religion was, indeed, a form of “nature religion” in the sense that Catherine Albanese originally described it. At the same time, it was not neo-paganism, but quite recognizably a form of religiosity (originally explicitly Christian) in which the natural world is closely attended to and “read” as a kind of book— the Book of Nature— to be read side by side with scripture. While this “reading” tradition goes back to early Christianity, the New England forms of that practice can be traced from traditional Puritan forms of typology, to Emersonian idealism (in which the language of “types” persists), and finally to a Thoreauvian, naturalist form that is more pragmatic and scientifically accurate.

Another strand of Thoreau’s religion is the one that pays intellectual and spiritual debts to the “Eastern traditions” of Hinduism and Buddhism, as Thoreau learned about them through Western, often Orientalized, translations. Thoreau’s interests here, too, belong to a broader legacy: first of Unitarian openness to non-Western traditions (sometimes begrudged) and later to an active pursuit of self-education among Transcendentalists, best represented, perhaps, by Margaret Fuller’s enthusiasm for publishing what she called “Ethnical Scriptures” in The Dial. As with his pursuit of political asceticism, Thoreau’s religious self-fashioning belongs to a broader tradition of Puritan, Unitarian and Transcendentalist influences, all of which could be further probed.

A third gentle critique I would offer is that Balthrop-Lewis sometimes understates Thoreau’s ambivalence toward actively participating in public political life. In July 1854, for instance, just when Walden was first published, Thoreau publicly denounced Massachusetts’s complicity in the Fugitive Slave Law, delivering a fiery speech that later appeared in the leading abolitionist newspaper, The Liberator, as “Slavery in Massachusetts.” Yet only a month later, Thoreau wrote as follows to his friend H. G. O. Blake: “Methinks I have spent a rather unprofitable summer thus far. I have been too much with the world, as the poet might say. . . . I find it, as ever, very unprofitable to have much to do with men.” What Thoreau wanted most after the tumultuous July of 1854 was the silent company of nature.

While Balthrop-Lewis both faithfully documents and convincingly interprets the “political asceticism” at work in Walden, she seems correspondingly hesitant to confront Thoreau’s ambivalence toward public political action. Despite some blazing moments of courageously public political work, Thoreau’s religio-political activism was (as Balthrop-Lewis’s argument itself makes clear) more often a private affair, albeit made public through the political acts of writing and publishing. In my view, more attention to Thoreau’s deep internal struggles concerning the nature and scope of his political activity would have enriched the texture of Balthrop-Lewis’s discussion.

Every author, of course, must set boundaries to her work, and in fairness to Balthrop-Lewis, I must acknowledge that she writes primarily as an ethicist, not as a historian. It would take another review altogether to do full justice to the more “constructive” aspects of her work as a creative and compassionate ethicist. Suffice it to say: reading this book is a sheer delight. While pursuing her scholarly agenda, Balthrop-Lewis strengthens her portrait of Thoreau by weaving into it her own history, experience and ethical struggles. Effectively striking this balance is a difficult task, and Balthrop-Lewis manages it deftly. Her writing is at once intellectually complex and thoroughly accessible. In essence, she invites us to join her as she walks through both Thoreau’s world and our own, attending to the socio-political wounds of both and cogently articulating a compassionate, ethical response. Without question, this is a walk worth taking.


Rebecca Kneale Gould is a scholar, writer, and environmental advocate. She is an Associate Professor in Environmental Studies at Middlebury College, where she teaches and writes about Thoreau and Thoreauvians. She is the author of At Home in Nature: Modern Homesteading and Spiritual Practice in America (University of California Press) and most recently authored “The Whiteness of Walden: Reading Thoreau with Attention to Black Lives” which appears as a chapter in Thoreau in an Age of Crises: Uses and Abuses of an American Icon (Leiden: Brill/ Wilhelm Fink 2021). She is the co-creator with Phil Walker (Small Circle Films) of the 2012 documentary film, The Fire Inside: Place, Passion and the Primacy of Nature. Her current book project is entitled Spacious.


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