Culture of Eloquence: Oratory and Reform in Antebellum America

By James Perrin Warren | Go to book overview
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Henry Thoreau's Tawny Grammar


The acuteness of Thoreau's sensitivity to sounds is matched -- perhaps surpassed-only by his sense of silence and the power that silence wields. As early as December 1838, the twenty-one-year-old teacher and lecturer drafted "some scraps from an essay on 'Sound and Silence'" ( Journal 1:60), scraps that would eventually form the concluding movement of A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, published in 1849. During the eleven-year "silence" between the initial draft and the polished publication, Thoreau built the cabin at Walden Pond, kept his journal as a kind of "literary workbook" ( Journal 2:447), drafted the only two books he would publish during his short life, and wrote the lecture that would become known most popularly as "Civil Disobedience." 1 These familiar biographical facts often suggest a renowned retreat to Walden Pond and to the monumental book Walden, but the familiarity obscures Thoreau's less renowned commitment to the reform of nineteenth-century American culture.

Thoreau already sees layered complexities of sound and silence, society and solitude, in the "scraps" of 1838, and his vision remains essentially unchanged

The most succinct account of these years is in Richard J. Schneider, Henry David Thoreau ( Boston: Twayne, 1987), 1-18. See the two modern biographies: Walter Harding, The Days of Henry Thoreau ( New York: Knopf, 1965); Robert D. Richardson, Jr., Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind ( Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1986). An important recent discussion of Thoreau's career is by Steven Fink, Prophet in the Marketplace: Thoreau's Development as a Professional Writer ( Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992.

Thoreau Journal is being edited by Princeton University Press. At this time, four volumes have appeared: vol. 1: 1837-1844, ed. John C. Broderick et al. ( 1971); vol. 2: 1842-1848, ed. Robert Sattelmeyer ( 1984); vol. 3: 1848-1851, ed. Robert Sattelmeyer et al. ( 1990); vol. 4: 1851-1852, ed. Leonard N. Neufeldt and Nancy Craig Simmons ( 1992). Unless otherwise noted, references to the Journal are to this edition and are cited parenthetically in my text.


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Culture of Eloquence: Oratory and Reform in Antebellum America


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