Chicago, Walden & Civil Disobedience

Henry Claridge looks back to Chicago in 1970 to highlight the ongoing influence of the works of Henry David Thoreau.

As a graduate student in Chicago for the academic year 1969-1970 I earned my keep (and paid my tuition fees) by working as a teaching assistant and a research assistant.  The former usually involved being attached to a senior professor teaching a course in the area of the graduate student’s own expertise and performing various menial duties such as checking class attendance or tidying up materials (and the room used) at the end of the session.  But we were also offered work that was designed to help us in our future careers, if we stayed in academia, such as marking papers (short essays) proctoring (invigilating) in-class tests and final examinations, and, very occasionally, the chance to instruct a few classes.  In the spring quarter of the year I was attached to one of the senior professors in the department.  The course was a 200-level, that is sophomore or second year, introduction to American Literature, this one dealing with the period 1810-1865, where I had particular interest since I was preparing to write my year-end dissertation on Herman Melville.  The professor (to whom I owe perhaps more than I care to admit) very kindly offered me the opportunity to lead a whole week of classes towards the end of the course.  I taught three classes, each fifty minutes long, in the first month of May 1970.  At the end of April of that year President Richard Nixon, then in the second year of his presidency, announced that the United States army and air-force had extended the Vietnam War into neighbouring Cambodia.  Opposition to the war, especially among the student generation, was still very fervent and frequently fierce, and shortly after noon on Monday May 4th an anti-war rally at Kent State University in Ohio led to the shooting dead of four students and the wounding of nine others by the Ohio National Guard who later claimed that they, too, were under fire.  The upshot was one of the most dramatic weeks of student protest in American history with colleges and universities across the United States shut down by student action or closed by their administrations.  And Chicago, of course, which had seen rioting connected both with Vietnam and the continuing problems of race relations, was very much at the epicentre of these disturbances.  The Wednesday of that week I dutifully went off to teach my American Literature class, aware that parts of the university were already closed and that there were plans afoot, largely organized by the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), to shut the campus entirely.  My class was about halfway complete when a fellow student (she too was from England), teaching a Victorian literature class down the corridor, came into my classroom to tell me that I should dismiss my class, as she had done hers, and that SDS members would soon be ‘visiting’ to ensure we all complied.  And, indeed, a few minutes later three young men, one of whom I recognized as a local SDS recruit, came, unannounced, into my class.  Nearly half of my students were African-American and they stared either with suspicion or bewilderment at the intruders.  The local student knew my name (or my colleague had given it him): ‘Henry, stop your class.  We’re closing the campus down.  There’s a protest outside the library [often the site of these actions on colleges campuses] at 1.00.  What are they being taught, by the way?’  Nineteenth-century American Literature, I explained, and the SDS student came up to the podium from which I was teaching and looked at the text we were studying. I was using what has become known as ‘The Norton Anthology’, then in its first incarnation as The American Tradition in Literature.  My copy was open to the pages devoted to Henry David Thoreau and to the essay ‘Civil Disobedience’ (‘Resistance to Civil Government’).  ‘You can carry on’, I was told.

       The student generation of the 1960s, eager to end the war in Vietnam and solve, once and for all, the problems of racial conflict in the United States, had discovered Thoreau as the spokesman for anti-war sentiment and the use of passive, nonviolent resistance as a way of confronting the iniquities of governments and states.  Thoreau’s refusal to pay the Massachusetts poll-tax (a tax on those registered to vote) on the grounds that to do so indirectly supported the United States’ prosecution of its war with Mexico, prompted by the American annexation of Texas, was compared to United States involvement in Vietnam: both were undeclared wars and both were construed as wars of ‘imperialist’ expansionism.  Student protests frequently adopted Thoreau’s tactics of refusal, such as sitting down in front of police lines or occupying college and university buildings, notably at Columbia University in New York City during April and May 1968.  Equally, the counter-culture, most visibly in its ‘Hippie’ manifestation, appropriated Thoreau as the spokesman for non-conformist stances, the writer who, above all others, told Americans that there was another United States from the one they commonly associated with business culture.  By the 1970s and 1980s another Thoreau had emerged, now one speaking for the increasingly influential environmental and ecology movements, the ‘poetic’ Thoreau who, in Walden, reminded his readers of the sacredness of American space.  And, perhaps surprisingly, he is still exerting his influence over those various groupings, on the political left and political right, that resist government and the state through tax rebellions or other forms of non-cooperation.

         Given the BBC’s recent successful dramatization of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace it is timely to remind ourselves how much these two authors had in common.  Tolstoy, who had read Thoreau, shared with his American contemporary a fundamental concern with how we should live our lives and how we might go about constructing a better world.  Both men distrusted the ability of governments or political organisations to make our lives better and both questioned the degree to which scientific and technological progress were thought to contribute to moral and spiritual improvement.  Both believed that power corrupts and that humankind finds the way to truth and the good life if left to its own devices.  Tolstoy was more concerned with finding the ‘Kingdom of God’ than was Thoreau but both are, in their own ways, religious and spiritual voices.

By Henry Claridge, Senior Lecturer, School of English, University of Kent at Canterbury.

Interested and hungry for more? Our double volume edition of Walden and Civil Disobedience is available now.

Previous/Next Posts