The World Not Through With Thoreau



There was a strange view expressed about the worldwide status of Henry David Thoreau in the New York Review of Books on August 17:

“Thoreau hardly makes it onto the list of notable American authors outside of his home country.”

That was followed by the assertion that “his peculiar brand of American nativism has little international appeal.” In fact, we can squeal loud and proud from U.S. shores that Thoreau’s international reception is both broad and deep following the celebration of his bicentennial.

Tolstoy appreciated what he saw as Thoreau’s back-to-the-land ethics of simplicity, while — later — Gandhi and Martin Luther King, and representatives of several emancipatory movements, including the Spanish opponents of fascism during the civil war and the Danish resistance to Nazi occupation during WWII, found value and inspiration in Thoreau’s brand of civil disobedience.

Thoreau’s Walden was published in England in the late nineteenth century, aided by the promotion offered  by the famous proponent of vegetarianism Henry S. Salt. During the early-to-mid decades of the twentieth century, the book was also given a look via translations into German, French, Spanish, Russian, Italian, several Nordic languages, Chinese and Japanese; I can tell you from personal experience that Thoreau was extremely popular among my students in Osaka, Kobe and Tokyo in the eighties.

By all accounts it has been a decided success, seeing new translations and editions surface regularly — among them a very recent one in Farsi in Iran. And in 1971 Thoreau’s international reception had reached a point where it received due attention in the anthology Thoreau Abroad, containing a dozen essays by American and international Thoreau scholars covering different regions.

While it is certainly true that Thoreau research remains overwhelmingly American, it seems erroneous in the extreme to claim that Thoreau is too idiosyncratically American to appeal to foreign readers. One of my Japanese students noted thirty years ago, “Thoreau provokes and inspires readers near and far for the interpretative choices and responsibilities his writings prompt.” Working beside his environmentalism and abolitionism,Thoreau’s never-failing penchant for proud paradox and plural entendre, along with his ever-rich veins of humor, continually prod his readers to self-inquiry and action both private and civic.

In 2009 European and American Thoreau scholars gathered for an ambitious conference in Lyon, France to discuss his writings and their legacy. Bouncing off of that rendezvous, Thoreavuian Modernities:Transatlantic Conversations on an American Icon was published by the University of Georgia Press in 2013. The anthology was well-received, another conference in Lyon followed, and there’s a symposium scheduled for next spring in Gothenburg, Sweden.

While Thoreau cannot compete for attention with best-selling crime authors, recipe-book writers, and other peddlers to the popular moment, his impact has remained distinct and steadily growing over time. And I submit that he has several more lives to live beyond his native Concord.

There is no question whatsoever in my mind that the thrust of his work and life can serve as the basis for great concord among people worldwide.

Annapurna Tosca Sriramarcel can be reached at [email protected]

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