Thoreau's Democratic Withdrawal: Alienation, Participation, and Modernity

By Smith, Corinne H. | Historical Journal of Massachusetts, Summer 2011 | Go to article overview

Thoreau's Democratic Withdrawal: Alienation, Participation, and Modernity


Smith, Corinne H., Historical Journal of Massachusetts


Mariotti, Shannon L. Thoreau's Democratic Withdrawal: Alienation, Participation, and Modernity. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2010. 222 pages. $29.95 (paperback).

Almost 150 years have passed since the author of Waiden took his last breath of Concord air. Yet each year brings with it the release of at least a dozen new Thoreaurelated volumes. Many of the entries are mere quotation compilations, but a few others dare to offer fresh interpretations of the man and his writings. With this book, Mariotti (a political scientist at Southwestern University) expands upon a thesis that she first voiced in an essay in The Political Companion to Henry David Thoreau (Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 2009). Her approach should raise more than a few "Thoreauvian" eyebrows.

Mariotti chooses to examine selected writings of American Transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) "through the lens" of the critical theories posed by German intellectual Theodor W. Adorno (1903-1969). Adorno participated in the Frankfurt School movement, and his philosophic study, Negative Dialectics, was published in 1966. By analyzing Thoreau's work through the viewfinder provided by Adorno and Negative Dialectics, Mariotti outlines the positive effects that alienation and democratic withdrawal can have on an individual and, as a result, on society as a whole. She maintains that these practices are best illustrated in several of Thoreau's nature-based writings, and not among his political essays or lectures. Thoreau's frequent forays into the woods and surrounding countryside are therefore considered not as thoughtful launches into Nature, but as intentional and useful retreats away from the town, from politics and from democracy.

Her concept is a logical one, but it creates a sometimes challenging thread to follow. Devoted scholars are apt to find a few holes in her hypothesis. For example, it was only after Henry Thoreau left the shoreline that he claimed that his goals at the Waiden Pond house had been "to live deliberately" and "to front only the essential facts of life" ("Where I Lived, and What I Lived for," Waiden). His more tangible assignment had been to find a time and place to write a manuscript about the two-week boating trip he took with his brother John in 1839. Mariotti ignores that well-documented objective and never once mentions it, the excursion, John Thoreau, or the resulting book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. Instead she considers Thoreau's move solely as a departure from the town's business district. …

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