Gathering the Wild Fruits of Scripture: Thoreau’s Philosophical Reading

Willie Young
Endicott College


The work of Henry David Thoreau occupies a unique position within the canon of American literature and philosophy. In a manner befitting the author of Walden and such essays as “Walking,” his writings call their readers to go outside: outside the bounds of established literary and philosophical genres, outside their traditional practices of reading, and outside of their conceptions of religiosity as well. By stepping outside our established patterns of reflection and action, we can reassess what our words and lives are saying. His readings of scripture call upon us to give an account of our own philosophical and religious commitments, and perhaps to revise these in light of his own philosophical mode of reading.

For a host of reasons, biblical scriptures would seem to be a marginal issue for the sage of Walden. First, Thoreau’s transcendentalism and marked anticlericalism distanced him from an ecclesial focus on scripture.  Further, the presence in Thoreau’s writings of Hindu scriptures such as the Bhagavad Gita often garners more scholarly attention. More provocatively, Stanley Cavell’s The Senses of Walden argues that Thoreau is creating a new scripture for America through his writing.[2] All of these points provide significant insight into Thoreau’s writings, and I shall reference them below. However, their prevalence and influence have overshadowed the presence of biblical scriptures within Thoreau’s writing and thereby have obscured the question of how and why Thoreau reads and cites biblical scripture when he does.  In my view, these readings of Thoreau help us to see just how puzzling it is when he does invoke biblical scripture.

As Alan Hodder has written, Thoreau notes in A Week on the Concord that if one really read the Bible once, it would change one’s life.[3] Furthermore, in several of Thoreau’s most striking essays—“Wild Apples,” “Slavery in Massachusetts,” and “Civil Disobedience”—scripture plays a central yet enigmatic role. In what follows, I will examine these essays closely, setting aside for the most part the relationship between biblical and non-biblical scriptures. As A Week on the Concord suggests, the question of what one reads is closely linked to the question of how one reads; when and how Thoreau invokes scripture can help to illuminate the hermeneutic that informs his sense of what it means to be a “noble reader,” in Walden’s terms.

By calling us outside of ecclesial hermeneutics and conventional readings, Thoreau’s work foregrounds the question of how to evaluate philosophical readings of scripture. To be sure, much as Walden Pond remains adjacent to Concord, one should not overstate his distance from the readings of his contemporaries. Despite this, I think that it would be uncharitable to evaluate Thoreau’s hermeneutic on more traditional terms—for example, on the basis of Augustinian figural reading. Given the specificity of his goals, evaluating his reading apart from the goals, arguments, and habits of reflection central to his mode of philosophical thinking would be a disservice. For both Thoreau and Augustine, as for much of American pragmatism, philosophy should be judged according to its fruits—the end toward which it is directed, most notably love of (God, for Augustine, and) neighbor. Yet Thoreau’s philosophical fruits are far from “glittering vices”; rather, they are fruits won from the bitter, dirt-covered terrain of life, death, evil, and our culpability therein. Like Augustine, he offers an incarnational form of reading, only he does so while locating humanity in the landscape and natural history from which we so often dissociate ourselves. His work may thereby even help to recover a “wild” reading of scripture within Christianity itself.[4] Therefore, I will assess Thoreau’s scriptural interpretation in light of his own philosophical viewpoint and its internal criteria. Assessing his own reading within the terms of his philosophy illuminates the separateness of his reading, and how the reading of scripture serves as a basis for public argument and communal transformation.

Bitter Joys: Joel 1

I would have my thoughts, like wild apples, to be food for walkers, and will not warrant them to be palatable, if tasted in the house. —Thoreau, “Wild Apples”

Thoreau’s invocation of Joel 1 at the end of “Wild Apples” exemplifies the enigmatic promise of his scriptural readings. The citation occurs after a lengthy excursus on the virtues of the wild fruit in comparison with its domesticated peers. As Thoreau argues, wild apples, in their bitterness and sharp taste, cannot be properly tasted indoors: “To appreciate the wild and sharp flavors of these October fruits, it is necessary that you be breathing the sharp October or November air. The out-door air and exercise which the walker gets give a different tone to his palate, and he craves a fruit which the sedentary would call harsh and crabbed” (“Wild Apples,” 302). One can only savor and thus enjoy these apples’ taste outdoors, while sauntering.[5] To learn to taste these apples appropriately is to accept the bitter and harsh facets of our experience, rather than selectively turning to the commodified, saccharine-sweet—or better, tasteless—domestic strains. It requires, in short, that we recover a wild sense of taste.

For Thoreau, to recover taste in this way is also to find our way back to a deeper sense of joy, immersing ourselves in the bitterness of the world so as to affirm it all the more fully. As the domesticated, grafted trees have spread across the landscape, both the wild fruit and its savor have nearly been lost. The final section of the essay raises the prospect that wild varieties of apples will disappear from New England: “Now that they have grafted trees, and pay a price for them, they collect them into a plate by their houses, and fence them in,—and the end of it all will be that we shall be compelled to look for our apples in a barrel.” (308) This is not only a loss of the fruit, but also of its pleasures—“knocking off” wild apples, eating apples while sauntering, and the associated way of life that does not reduce our taste to the confines of the (super)market.

If, as Cavell has argued, Walden can be read fruitfully as a reworking of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason,[6] then “Wild Apples” epitomizes Thoreau’s reworking of the Critique of Judgment. He shows Kant’s conception of taste to be far from universal—nay, even parochial in its domestication. Its limits are evident in Kant’s presumption of our agreement with regard to beauty, and even more in his constrained, harmonious sense of what is beautiful. In Kant’s aesthetic, there is no place for wild beauty, as wildness becomes purely a mark of the sublime. Wild apples, as Thoreau writes, condense in their colors the spectrum of landscapes and skies against which they sprang forth and under which they grew to fruition: “It will have some red stains, commemorating the mornings and evenings it has witnessed; some dark and rusty blotches, in memory of the clouds and foggy, mildew days that have passed over it; and a spacious field of green reflecting the general face of Nature—green even as the fields; or a yellow ground, which implies a milder flavor,—yellow as the harvest, or russet as the hills” (“Wild Apples,” 303-4). They manifest a sublime beauty, a beauty whose pungency and vibrancy overflow the rational, domestic limits of Kantian beauty. Mixing joy and bitterness, reconciling opposites, such wildness bursts the categories of Kantian judgment. This wild sense of beauty and taste allows Thoreau to judge anew, and Joel provides the language for this judgment. The harsh beauty of wild apples underwrites the harsh language of Joel’s prophecy.

“This is the word of the Lord that came to Joel the son of Pethuel.
“Hear this, ye old men, and give ear, all ye inhabitants of the land! Hath this been in your days, or even in the days of your fathers?…”
“That which the palmer-worm hath left hath the locust eaten; and that which the locust hath left hath the canker-worm eaten; and that which the canker-worm hath left the caterpillar eaten.”
“Awake, ye drunkards, and weep! And howl, all ye drinkers of wine, because of the new wine! For it is cut off from your mouth.”
“For a nation is come up upon my land, strong, and without number, whose teeth are the teeth of a lion, and he hath the cheek-teeth of a great lion.”
“He hath laid my vine waste, and barked my fig-tree; he hath made it clean bare, and cast it away; the branches thereof are made white…”
“Be ye ashamed, O ye husbandmen! Howl, O ye vine-dressers!…”
“The vine is dried up, and the fig-tree languisheth; the pomegranate-tree, the palm-tree also, and the apple-tree, even all the trees of the field, are withered: because joy is withered away from the sons of men.”
Joel 1, as quoted in “Wild Apples,” 308-9

As a commonly read text, Thoreau’s readers would have found Joel 1 to be liturgically familiar while experientially unrecognizable. In the bountiful cornucopia of 19th-century New England agriculture, where would such a withered harvest and barren landscape be found? What lion has laid waste, or what insect has eaten the produce of the field? The crucial lines, in my view, are 11 and 12: “The vine is dried up, and the fig-tree languisheth; the pomegranate tree, the palm-tree also, and the apple-tree, even all the trees of the field, are withered: because joy is withered away from the sons of men.” By ending the essay with the quotation without any subsequent interpretation, Thoreau leaves the reader to read and ponder it. This opens a space for our judgment: in what ways has our landscape withered? The reader can understand this in conjunction with Thoreau’s prior description of the desiccation of taste. The withering of our fruit, in the tastelessness of our apples, embodies our diminished sense of joy, our constriction of life itself for the sake of our security. Life withers from the world, because we strangle it within ourselves. The text opens a new perception of the landscape around the reader: as farmers swarm across the fields like locusts, their very productivity destroys whatever wild growth remains. Joy withers within our seeming bounty. Straining against common appearances, Thoreau’s essay leaves a bitter taste in its reader’s mouth.

Thoreau’s reading, however, further strains the reader’s sense of judgment. The “nation” come upon the land is ourselves, and it is our withered taste that has wormed itself into our harvest. In our failure to sustain joy and wildness, we have “laid waste” to our own vineyards and fields—thus the shame of the husbandmen and vine-dressers, who have destroyed the fields and fruits that should have been in their (or, our) care. While mournful in its lament and forceful in its judgment, Thoreau’s quotation nonetheless leave space for readers to judge themselves.

One aspect of Thoreau’s reading for consideration is his practice of selective quotation. He leaves out verse 3, which says to tell one’s children; he also drops verses 8 and 9, which voice the lament of a young widow and say the harvest has been cut off, as well as part of verse 11 regarding how the “crops of the field are ruined.” The remainder of chapter one voices a call for repentance. Yet is he not, also, lamenting the loss of his beloved (fruit)? And why not voice the text’s call for repentance? For this reader, Thoreau’s removal of the references to repentance and lament may reinforce the aesthetic focus of the text. That is, “Wild Apples” is not directly focused on the moral dimensions of agriculture but, as discussed previously, on the loss of a quality of taste and judgment.[7] Repentance and its moralism may be too closely associated with those dimensions of religiosity and social mores that set Thoreau’s teeth on edge. The recovery of wild joy may itself be beyond good and evil, beyond obligation and repentance. A strident moralism, with its division of happiness and misery, of joy and suffering, would keep us from recovering the joy of wildness.

The other question with which one is left by this concluding citation is how wildness can be recovered. What I would suggest that Thoreau is proposing is a form of counter-grafting. That is, we must re-graft the wildness of apples, and of walking, into our practice so as to recover the sense of joy that has withered away. Since most grafting involves grafting commercial branches onto wild trees, Thoreau is here suggesting that the reverse might be a way to free ourselves from the tastelessness of pervasive commodification. As he writes of himself, he has “strayed into the woods from the cultivated stock,” and a similar straying of our senses may be what is required.

Yet grafting wildness obviously goes beyond the trees themselves. The fundamental problem is one of vision and reading. As Augustine argues in De Doctrina Christiana, the reading of scripture is meant to promote frui: the enjoyment or love of God for God’s sake alone, which thereby cultivates a deep love for one’s neighbors. Thoreau shows, however, that the fruits of our readings are as bland and tasteless as the pears that Augustine stole from the garden; we steal from ourselves the possibility of a truly fruitful reading. The withering of joy and the withering of reading go hand in hand, and it is only by rediscovering our wild reading that joy might be restored to the sons of men. What, then, would a wild reading look like? It is with this question in mind that we can turn to another scriptural reading from “Slavery in Massachusetts.”

“Slavery in Massachusetts”: Proverbs 26:11 

As Thoreau writes in “Walking,” all good things are wild and free. Much as our bounty of domestic apples conceals the poverty of taste, so too our constant pursuit of scientific, “useful” knowledge veils the deeper ignorance in which we live. Our reading not only keeps us from sauntering—sanctifying the land in which we live—but from realizing the wisdom that surrounds us. In “Slavery in Massachusetts,” Thoreau evokes Proverbs as an image of foolish reading—a foolishness that remains so stultifying as to make the same mistake over and over. As he excoriates his state for its deportation of a fugitive slave and condemns the enslaved mentality of his fellow citizens, it is clear that he takes the enslavement of our reading to be at the root of the problem.[8] Our daily reading of the newspaper encapsulates our common foolishness and servility. Thoreau’s disdain for the newspaper is well known from Walden, but his description of the foolishness of its readers deserves scrutiny.

As Benedict Anderson has argued, the newspaper was—as it may no longer be—one of the central mediums in the formation of nationalism.[9] Thoreau seems prescient here, as it is America as a nation that reads the newspaper. The problem that Thoreau locates is that, via the newspaper, people in Concord are deeply concerned with the issue of slavery in Nebraska; however, there is no discussion or protest regarding Massachusetts’ support for the fugitive slave law that led to the arrest and deportation of Anthony Burns in the weeks before this essay’s composition. The newspapers’ abstraction from the local, their juxtaposition and reduction of disparate events, dislocates our ability to read: their “servility” and base appeal to the lowest elements of society, most notably in the newspapers’ support for the Fugitive Slave Law. As the newspaper regurgitates the same stories and views over and over, our reading displaces us and prevents us from knowing or locating ourselves, thus deepening and confirming our folly. The foolishness of newspaper readers is in their repeated return to the newspaper, which circumscribes their sense of the political, prevents them from recognizing their own slavery, and sustains their complicity in the slavery of the South.

We are not a religious people, but we are a nation of politicians. We do not care for the Bible, but we do care for the newspaper. At any meeting of politicians, —like that at Concord the other evening, for instance,—how impertinent it would be to quote from the Bible! How pertinent to quote from a newspaper or from the Constitution! The newspaper is a Bible which we read every morning and every afternoon, standing and sitting, riding and walking. It is a bible which everyman carries in his pocket, which lies on every table and counter, and which the mail, and thousands of missionaries, are continually dispensing. It is, in short, the only book which America has printed, and which America reads. The editor is a preacher whom you voluntarily support. Your tax is commonly one cent daily, and it costs nothing for pew hire. But how many of these preachers preach the truth? I repeat the testimony of many an intelligent foreigner, as well as my own convictions, when I say, that probably no country was ever ruled by so mean a class of tyrants as, with a few noble exceptions, are the editors of the periodical press in this country. . And as they live and rule only by their servility, and appealing to the worst, and not the better nature of man, the people who read them are in the condition of the dog that returns to his vomit.”
Thoreau, “Slavery in Massachusetts,” 253 (Proverbs citation in italics).

There are multiple levels of foolishness at work here. First, as indicated in the quote above, there is the foolishness of reading the newspaper instead of the Bible or another scriptural text. Unlike other essays, in “Slavery in Massachusetts” Thoreau is relatively complimentary towards churches. The “preaching” of the newspaper, as a common text that creates editorial tyranny, is his primary, explicit target. A second form of foolishness, however, exists not only in what America and Concord read, but how. The newspaper has routinized our misreading of texts, including the scriptures themselves. In “A Week on the Merrimac River,” Thoreau says that the New Testament has become a “stumbling-block” to Christians, again evoking one of Paul’s images while reversing its common sense. Such reading, the everyday cursory glance at the headlines, precludes the metanoia that a deeper reflection could inspire. These two forms of foolishness lead to a third, readers’ ignorance of their own servility: Massachusetts’ servility before the Fugitive Slave law, Concord’s silence on this servility, and citizens’ refusal either to acknowledge their consent to such laws or recognize their ability to withdraw it. Their silent acquiescence shows, in Thoreau’s eyes, that like the newspapers’ publishers, readers worship Mammon and not God (“Slavery in Massachusetts,” 256, quoting Luke 16:13).

The way out of such foolish servility lies in a reform of one’s reading practices. Rather than the daily skimming of the broadsheet, reading should be deliberate. As Thoreau writes in Walden:

To read well, that is, to read true books in a true spirit, is a noble exercise, and one that will task the reader more than any exercise which the customs of the day esteem. It requires a training such as the athletes underwent, the steady intention almost of the whole life to this object. Books should be read as deliberately and reservedly as they were written.” (Walden, “Reading,” 73)

Like the reading of the newspaper, such reading is a daily exercise. However, its character as a discipline—an intellectual, quasi-athletic asceticism—points us toward the contrast. For reading to be “the steady intention almost of the whole life to this object” suggests a focus, a plumbing for depth that seeks to go further into the text.

Reading in this “high” sense opens us to scripture—the written language that transcends the transience and brutish sounds of our “mother tongue” toward the “father tongue” that is noble and good. It unites us with the highest thoughts and ideas of humanity, and it lets us participate in the “natural aristocracy” of the authors.[10] Whereas our reading most often stays at the brute and childish level, Thoreau thinks that this higher reading not only raises us to nobility, but is the uncommon education that lets us build “noble villages” (Walden, 78).

This takes us into one of the central questions that Thoreau raises for this project: what are the scriptures that we can truly read? In the essays discussed here, we see him reading the texts that are said to be scripture—but, for most readers, not really read as scripture—and reading them in a higher sense, which then opens him and his readers to a broader understanding of where scripture can be found. Part of the provinciality of Concord is in its treating the Bible or newspaper as the only scripture, which may also be why we misread them. My sense is that, for Thoreau, by reading scripture in the high sense, we learn to read everything as scripture. It is through such higher reading that Thoreau opens the scriptural canon to Hinduism and other traditions. I would therefore offer the following provisional definition: scripture is that which, when truly read, allows us to see the eternal within the transitory, the divine within the human, the spirit in the letter. For Thoreau, reading transcends the everyday, but it also leads us to find the infinite within our lives. For after one discovers the divine within the human, how can one allow either one’s own or another’s slavery to stand? In a village of ignoble readers, perhaps the only place for a noble reader is in prison, which brings us to Thoreau’s famous essay, “Civil Disobedience.”

 “Civil Disobedience”: Matthew 22

In “Civil Disobedience,” Thoreau references scripture on several occasions. What is most notable, however, is the creative and critical spirit of his reading. Here, I will focus on his reading of Matthew 22, which I think displays vividly the distance of his hermeneutics from normative Christian readings. This is a text that frequently (e.g., by Luther and Calvin, as well as others) has been read as establishing a sphere of governmental authority to which citizens and subjects owe obedience. In his focus on the “Herodians,” however, Thoreau emphasizes the passage’s critique of those who conform themselves to the majority and to the state’s exercise of power—those who are “men of the State.” He also takes such support for government to be primarily economic: those who are “Caesar’s” are those who use and profit from money, which Caesar has made “current and valuable.” If one profits from the state’s coinage, then one owes tribute to the state when tribute is demanded. To serve the state is, once again, to serve Mammon.

After offering this conditional reading, Thoreau then questions its premise: are we, or should we be, men of the state? If one is, this is because he does not want to know what belongs to Caesar and what belongs to God. However, if one undertakes the “schemes” of poverty—including such schemes as his sojourn at Walden Pond—then one need not be a man of the state. The askesis of poverty withdraws one’s consent to and support for the government. The indirection of the last line—“leaving them no wiser” as to which was which—hints at the idea that, for Thoreau, everything is God’s, even if the “Herodians” would take the tax to mean that the money does, in fact, belong to the state. To think that one can distinguish what belongs to Caesar and what belongs to God not only betrays an ignorance of what the real value and commitment of one’s life should be; it is also to “not wish to know” of the possibility of a higher calling.[11] Thoreau’s reading thereby opens up the question for the reader: to whom does your money—and thus, to whom do you—belong? Along with his refusal to pay the poll tax, his answer indicates that his wealth and heart belong with God, even if they are buried in the confines of the prison. Thoreau phrases this, however, so as to repeat what he sees as Jesus’ own indirection, which deconstructs the Herodians’ opposition from within its own terms. Are Thoreau’s readers any wiser at the end than those to whom Jesus spoke?

The argument of “Civil Disobedience” works through an analysis of the divisions that constitute American political subjectivity. The “machine” of the state runs by dividing the polis into machine-like bodies and disembodied speakers. Legislators, who speak and write without putting their bodies on the line, “serving with their heads,” make and follow the laws. Their focus on the law, as defined within the parameters of the constitution, finds its limits in “prudence,” as embodied by Daniel Webster’s limited opposition to slavery (“Civil Disobedience,” 244). The majority thus creates the force that defines the “right” as the laws that the minority have made, serving their interests and the interests of slaveholders (“Civil Disobedience,” 230-31). Both the mental silence of those who march to war and the bodily submission of those who say that they oppose slavery without doing anything create the force that ensures its perpetuation.

Thoreau’s resistance, which is meant to gum up the works of this machine, also serves a more directly ethical and religious purpose: to restore the individual’s integrity by uniting one’s thoughts, beliefs, and actions. For Thoreau, such unity can be found only through the notion of a higher calling. While he frequently emphasizes the diversity of goods toward which human life can be directed, he also clearly envisages a virtuous life as one in which, whatever the higher purpose to which one aspires may be, one’s virtues become united in the pursuit of Truth—which is, as he puts it, “always in harmony with herself”(“Civil Disobedience,” 244).  This integrity of truth undercuts readings that would distinguish religious and political spheres from one another, such as Luther’s two kingdoms or prominent forms of secularism. It is precisely so as to challenge our sense that our lives should be divided into separate spheres, or that we could devote ourselves to different goods at the same time, that Thoreau invokes Jesus’ teachings on Caesar’s coin. To paraphrase Lincoln, a political unity that is based upon the division of individuals against themselves cannot long stand.[12]

Thoreau closes the essay with a discussion of the “lack of genius” in American political and legal thought. This involves a failure to learn from the New Testament, though such a failure results from the failure to recognize “purer sources of truth” higher than the Bible and the Constitution. The higher calling of genius inspires deeper, truthful readings, so that one may “avail himself of the light” that scripture shines on political problems. Once again, the problem of reading scripture wisely surfaces here. Thoreau clearly takes scripture to be a source of wisdom—though only to those with ears to hear it.


Having shown the centrality of biblical scripture to these particular essays, I would like to return to the question posed at the beginning: why does Thoreau turn to the scriptures in these particular essays, and why these scriptures? However central scripture is to these essays, it remains marginal within the broader scope of Thoreau’s work. Indeed, the emphasis in these particular essays on these scriptures, along with the absence of Hindu and Buddhist references, sets these writings at some distance from his journal, Walden, and other writings. Thus, the question of how Thoreau reads scripture is closely tied to the questions of when and why he reads it.

I would argue that Thoreau reads biblical scripture as a form of public and political argument. Joel, Matthew, and Luke play central roles in these essays because they are central texts for his audience. The texts provide him with a language in which he can speak to those in Concord and Massachusetts who might otherwise fail to hear him. He invokes and interprets scripture as a figure through which philosophical wisdom can be taught to others. One could say that these are not really his own language, given their absence from so much of his writing; Thoreau himself says he came to them rather late. Still, his readings are meant to help his readers to build up their own love of neighbors, and they are also exercises of neighbor-love: speaking to his neighbors on their own terms and within their own conceptual frameworks. It is worth noting that this approach sets Thoreau at some distance from a Rawlsian politics, where religious discourse would need to be set aside for the purpose of public discussion. Rather, Thoreau takes up scripture so as to bring philosophy into the political realm.

Understanding Thoreau’s scriptural interpretation in this way helps in making sense of how he reads scripture within these texts. In The Senses of Walden, Cavell emphasizes how Thoreau’s writings echo Jeremiah and Ezekiel—prophetic screeds lamenting the corruption of the people while standing at some distance from them.[13] While this is unquestionably one dimension of the essays being examined here, the actual use of scripture shows something else. The indirect quality of Thoreau’s writing—his risk of leaving the reader “none the wiser”—both identifies more closely with his readers and opens a space for their own practice of reading than a more direct jeremiad could. His citations are fruitfully read as moments of deliberation: Thoreau’s discourse inflects and thereby disrupts the familiarity of these texts,[14] pulling the reader up short and calling for further reflection. Thoreau’s reading lets the voice crying in the wilderness echo through the texts often heard solely within the walls of the church. Yet this is a resonance that Thoreau’s readers must learn to hear for themselves.

If philosophy is the love of wisdom, and wisdom is only found through wildness, then reading becomes philosophical when it acknowledges the wildness of life. Thoreau’s reading is therefore philosophical to the degree that it enacts his own acknowledgement, while opening this possibility for his readers. What is especially clear in these essays, however, is that the primary tension for Thoreau is not between philosophy and scripture. These, ultimately, converge in the agreement of truth with itself. Rather, the tension is between scripture and philosophy and America. For Thoreau, the unity of America comes from conformity—a conformity enacted through the newspaper, its deficient reading, and the divorce of Americans from any sense of higher calling. America, as it stood for Thoreau (and perhaps as it stands today), could neither practice philosophy nor really read scripture.

Therefore, for Thoreau, the discovery of American philosophy and scripture center on reshaping our reading. To paraphrase Joel, our reading has dried up and withered, and in losing its sense it has also lost its depth. Such withered reading is at once why we can’t tell what belongs to Caesar and what belongs to God, and why we lap up the newspaper every morning. As the passage from Walden quoted above suggests, reading in its proper sense is a challenging task, deliberately assessing the limits of how we use words. Acknowledging words’ obscurity, such deliberation helps us to recognize the wildness of language, its escape of our domesticating grasp. From such wise reading, both scripture and philosophy may flow.


[1] My reflections on Thoreau have been extensively shaped by participation in a session of the Scriptural Reasoning Academic Network on the topic of “Philosophers Reading Scripture” in November 2014 at Goucher College, Towson, Maryland. My thanks to all those present for that session and their input on this topic. Errors remain my own.
[2] Stanley Cavell, The Senses of Walden, expanded edition, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992),14-15.
[3] Alan D. Hodder, Thoreau’s Ecstatic Witness, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001), 146.
[4] I take the idea of “wild” reading from Jim Fodor, who draws this from early Christian monasticism; see “Scriptural Reasoning as a Desert Practice: Learning to Read in Uncharted Territory,” Journal of Scriptural Reasoning 9:1 (2010), . Accessed May 20th, 2015.
[5] To “saunter” is taken by Thoreau to derive from “saint-terre”—sanctifying the land—but also sans terre—being without place or at home everywhere. See “Walking,” 260. All citations for Thoreau’s texts will be parenthetical, and are from Walden, Civil Disobedience, and Other Writings, ed. William Rossi, (New York: W.W. Norton, 2008).
[6] Stanley Cavell, The Senses of Walden, 96-7.
[7] For similar reasons, I would also argue that this is not primarily an agricultural or environmental text. There are vivid resonances between his discussion of the domestication of agriculture and the destruction of its sustainability, as notably in Wendell Berry’s The Unsettling of America. Yet my sense is that while such issues are germane for Thoreau, they are not the primary problem or focus here.
[8] While I think there is something radical in how Thoreau describes how newspapers enslave their readers, the notion that white, northern readers would themselves be enslaved by enslavery was far from unique to Thoreau. As Ed Baptist has demonstrated, much of the opposition to slavery during this period was more because of how it dominated American politics—depriving white citizens of their liberty—than concern for the African-American victims of slavery. See The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism, (New York: Basic Books, 2014).
[9] Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, (New York: Verso, 2006), 32-36. Anderson notes how for Hegel, in ways that strikingly echo Thoreau’s description, the newspaper served “as a substitute for morning prayers,” a collectively private religiosity.
[10] This gendered division of reading and authority should be noted as one of the limits internal to Thoreau’s own mode of thinking.
[11] See Philip Cafaro, Thoreau’s Living Ethics: Walden and the Pursuit of Virtue, (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2006), 34-8.
[12] Of course, this also recalls Thoreau’s critique of the division of labor in Walden, which as he says may culminate in people not even thinking for themselves.
[13] Cavell, The Senses of Walden, 17-20.  Cafaro has argued that Thoreau takes a more sympathetic stance to his neighbors than Cavell allows, and I am sympathetic to his argument. See Cafaro, Thoreau’s Living Ethics, 88-9.
[14] Jane Bennett takes inflection to be a central aspect of Thoreau’s philosophical practice; see Bennett, Thoreau’s Nature: Ethics, Politics, and the Wild, (New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 2002), 61.

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