More Day to Dawn: Thoreau's Walden for the Twenty-first Century

Univ of Massachusetts Press
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Walden is one of the most frequently assigned texts in literature classes across the country, and it might seem that little new could be said about such a popular book. But these essays demonstrate that scholarship on Henry David Thoreau continues to break new ground. Emerging new voices join senior scholars in exploring a range of topics: Walden's climb to fame; modes of representation in the text; the relationship between fact and truth; Thoreau and violence; Thoreau and evolutionary theory; the working community created by Thoreau's reading and labor; how women read Walden; and the relationship between politics, nature writing, and the science of ecology. The volume closes with an afterword suggesting directions for future research.

Thoreau asserted that the leaves of the earth's strata were not page upon page to be studied by geologists and antiquaries chiefly, "but living poetry like the leaves of a tree." The continuing vitality of Walden shows that it, too, is not a fossil but a living book, still putting out green leaves of insight.

Each decade since Walden was published in 1854 has seen the world grow more crowded and less "simple." What, in our consumerist, speed-of-light, hypermediated world would Thoreau have found worth pursuing? How would he structure his life so as to shut out the phones ringing, the cars honking, the litter trashing his beloved haunts? Readers still seek answers to such questions by picking up their dog-eared copy of Walden and immersing themselves yet again in its pages. Students convince us that this book still holds the power to change lives. These essays are written with the expectation that Thoreau in the new century can help us realize that there are more lives to live and more day to dawn -- that "the sun is but a morning star."

Contributors include Nina Baym, Robert Cummings, Robert Oscar López, Lance Newman, H. Daniel Peck, Dana Phillips, Larry J. Reynolds, David M. Robinson, William Rossi, Robert Sattelmeyer, Sarah Ann Wider, and Michael G. Ziser.

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About the author

Sandra Harbert Petrulionis is associate professor of English at Pennsylvania State University, Altoona.

Laura Dassow Walls is John H. Bennett, Jr., Chair of Southern Letters at the University of South Carolina.

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Additional Information

Univ of Massachusetts Press
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Published on
Dec 31, 2007
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Literary Collections / Essays
Literary Criticism / General
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Thoreau was a poet, a naturalist, a major American writer. Was he also a scientist? He was, Laura Dassow Walls suggests. Her book, the first to consider Thoreau as a serious and committed scientist, will change the way we understand his accomplishment and the place of science in American culture.
Walls reveals that the scientific texts of Thoreau’s day deeply influenced his best work, from Walden to the Journal to the late natural history essays. Here we see how, just when literature and science were splitting into the “two cultures” we know now, Thoreau attempted to heal the growing rift. Walls shows how his commitment to Alexander von Humboldt’s scientific approach resulted in not only his “marriage” of poetry and science but also his distinctively patterned nature studies. In the first critical study of his “The Dispersion of Seeds” since its publication in 1993, she exposes evidence that Thoreau was using Darwinian modes of reasoning years before the appearance of Origin of Species.
This book offers a powerful argument against the critical tradition that opposes a dry, mechanistic science to a warm, “organic” Romanticism. Instead, Thoreau’s experience reveals the complex interaction between Romanticism and the dynamic, law-seeking science of its day. Drawing on recent work in the theory and philosophy of science as well as literary history and theory, Seeing New Worlds bridges today’s “two cultures” in hopes of stimulating a fuller consideration of representations of nature.
Explorer, scientist, writer, and humanist, Alexander von Humboldt was the most famous intellectual of the age that began with Napoleon and ended with Darwin. With Cosmos, the book that crowned his career, Humboldt offered to the world his vision of humans and nature as integrated halves of a single whole. In it, Humboldt espoused the idea that, while the universe of nature exists apart from human purpose, its beauty and order, the very idea of the whole it composes, are human achievements: cosmos comes into being in the dance of world and mind, subject and object, science and poetry.

Humboldt’s science laid the foundations for ecology and inspired the theories of his most important scientific disciple, Charles Darwin. In the United States, his ideas shaped the work of Emerson, Thoreau, Poe, and Whitman. They helped spark the American environmental movement through followers like John Muir and George Perkins Marsh. And they even bolstered efforts to free the slaves and honor the rights of Indians.

Laura Dassow Walls here traces Humboldt’s ideas for Cosmos to his 1799 journey to the Americas, where he first experienced the diversity of nature and of the world’s peoples—and envisioned a new cosmopolitanism that would link ideas, disciplines, and nations into a global web of knowledge and cultures. In reclaiming Humboldt’s transcultural and transdisciplinary project, Walls situates America in a lively and contested field of ideas, actions, and interests, and reaches beyond to a new worldview that integrates the natural and social sciences, the arts, and the humanities.

To the end of his life, Humboldt called himself “half an American,” but ironically his legacy has largely faded in the United States. The Passage to Cosmos will reintroduce this seminal thinker to a new audience and return America to its rightful place in the story of his life, work, and enduring legacy.

Does Thoreau belong to the past or to the future? Instead of canonizing him as a celebrant of “pure” nature apart from the corruption of civilization, the essays in Thoreauvian Modernities reveal edgier facets of his work—how Thoreau is able to unsettle as well as inspire and how he is able to focus on both the timeless and the timely. Contributors from the United States and Europe explore Thoreau's modernity and give a much-needed reassessment of his work in a global context.

The first of three sections, “Thoreau and (Non)Modernity,” views Thoreau as a social thinker who set himself against the “modern” currents of his day even while contributing to the emergence of a new era. By questioning the place of humans in the social, economic, natural, and metaphysical order, he ushered in a rethinking of humanity's role in the natural world that nurtured the environmental movement. The second section, “Thoreau and Philosophy,” examines Thoreau's writings in light of the philosophy of his time as well as current philosophical debates. Section three, “Thoreau, Language, and the Wild,” centers on his relationship to wild nature in its philosophical, scientific, linguistic, and literary dimensions. Together, these sixteen essays reveal Thoreau's relevance to a number of fields, including science, philosophy, aesthetics, environmental ethics, political science, and animal studies.

Thoreauvian Modernities posits that it is the germinating power of Thoreau's thought—the challenge it poses to our own thinking and its capacity to address pressing issues in a new way—that defines his enduring relevance and his modernity.

Contributors: Kristen Case, Randall Conrad, David Dowling, Michel Granger, Michel Imbert, Michael Jonik, Christian Maul, Bruno Monfort, Henrik Otterberg, Tom Pughe, David M. Robinson, William Rossi, Dieter Schulz, François Specq, Joseph Urbas, Laura Dassow Walls.

More than any other Transcendentalist of his time, Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862) embodied the full complement of the movement’s ideals and vocations: author, advocate for self-reform, stern critic of society, abolitionist, philosopher, and naturalist. The Thoreau of our time—valorized anarchist, founding environmentalist, and fervid advocate of civil disobedience—did not exist in the nineteenth century. In this rich and appealing collection, Sandra Harbert Petrulionis untangles Thoreau’s multiple identities by offering a wide range of nineteenth-century commentary as the opinions of those who knew him evolved over time.

The forty-nine recollections gathered in Thoreau in His Own Time demonstrate that it was those who knew him personally, rather than his contemporary literati, who most prized Thoreau’s message, but even those who disparaged him respected his unabashed example of an unconventional life. Included are comments by Ralph Waldo Emerson—friend, mentor, Walden landlord, and progenitor of the spin on Thoreau’s posthumous reputation; Nathaniel Hawthorne, who could not compliment Thoreau without simultaneously denigrating him; and John Weiss, whose extended commentary on Thoreau’s spirituality reflects unusual tolerance. Selections from the correspondence of Caroline Healey Dall, Maria Thoreau, Sophia Hawthorne, Sarah Alden Bradford Ripley, and Amanda Mather amplify our understanding of the ways in which nineteenth-century women viewed Thoreau. An excerpt by John Burroughs, who alternately honored and condemned Thoreau, asserts his view that Thoreau was ever searching for the unattainable.

The dozens of primary sources in this crisply edited collection illustrate the complexity of Thoreau’s iconoclastic singularity in a way that no one biographer could. Each entry is introduced by a headnote that places the selection in historical and cultural context. Petrulionis’s comprehensive introduction and her detailed chronology of personal and literary events in Thoreau’s life provide a lively and informative gateway to the entries themselves. The collaborative biography that Petrulionis creates in Thoreau in His Own Time contextualizes the strikingly divergent views held by his contemporaries and highlights the reasons behind his profound legacy.

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