“Simplify, simplify”–Henry David Thoreau and Material Culture

Abolitionist Thomas Wentworth Higginson declared Thoreau’s Walden; Or Life in the Woods (1854) to be “the only book yet written in America, to my thinking, that bears an annual perusal.” This seminar will conduct a close reading of Walden. Appealing also to his other writings, the seminar will focus on Thoreau’s engagement with material culture. Many associate Thoreau with the renunciation of material possessions, but he considered “Food, Shelter, Clothing, and Fuel” essential for human thriving. Pursuing a practical philosophy, he also discusses tools, artworks, Native American artifacts, and a variety of natural phenomena. His herbarium, minerals, and Indigenous stone items entered museums, as did many of his personal possessions, including his surveying equipment. The topography of Thoreau’s hometown of Concord, Massachusetts, known through maps and Thoreau’s own land surveys, is essential to understanding his local explorations. Thoreau’s friendships with Black fellow townspeople, his sheltering of escaped slaves, his statements against slavery, and his recollections of earlier Black Concordians, helped shape his views on material culture. Yet to characterize these as simply a call to “simplify, simplify” is misleading. Paradoxically, Thoreau’s simplification is a complex matter, and this seminar will explore the challenges resulting from refusing to oversimplify. 3 credits.