Thoreau’s Religion is a book about Henry David Thoreau and environmental justice. But Stanley Cavell put the question well when he asked, in the preface to The Senses of Walden (Viking Press, 1972), “What hope is there in a book about a book?” In my most ambitious vision for the book, it will be viewed by careful readers of Walden alongside Cavell in its breadth and attention to the text, while expanding our reading of the book beyond Cavell’s. Cavell read Walden primarily within the context of European history and the American literature that developed out of that history. Cavell was interested in the place of scripture in Thoreau’s writing to the extent that it has been part of that history. My reading focuses on a different set of contexts for the writing of the book – especially the history of slavery in Concord and the politics of northern labor – and I focus to a greater extent on the diverse religious traditions that Thoreau was adapting.
The book argues that the nature piety of Walden should be read in concert with the political fervor of “Civil Disobedience.” Thoreau did not just happen to love nature and also be committed to justice, as though those were separate interests. Those two features of his work were part of one thing: a form of piety that entailed pursuing spiritual flourishing for all, including pine trees, frogs, enslaved persons, industrial workers, and literary elites. Sometimes – importantly – this piety required renouncing unjust privileges, but that renunciation was not ultimately self-sacrificing. It was transformed through practice into ecstatic delight in the goods achieved through renunciation. Walden is the book in which Thoreau’s nature piety and social justice come together most vividly, and yet it is often read as apolitical. My reading of Walden reinterprets its nature piety as the ground for Thoreau’s radical political commitments, drawing out the economic justice concerns that drive much of the text but are sometimes deemphasized in scholarly accounts. In the unified figure the book offers, environmentalism and efforts for just political community do not just happen to coincide but belong to one another.
This reinterpretation of Thoreau’s Walden can help scholars reintegrate concerns for the environment and for social justice. Environmental studies scholars insist that whereas environmentalism has often had an elitist image and has sometimes reestablished inequity along lines of race, class, and gender, contemporary environmental politics must refocus on environmental equity. Public discussions sometimes pit environmentalism against social justice – because environmental reform is seen to be costly to the poor, or because some forms of environmentalism are inattentive to racial injustice. This book argues that the apparent tension between environmentalism and social justice is itself a symptom of a deeper problem in political economy, the very problem that drove Thoreau into the woods. Thus, where Walden sometimes seems to portray a pie-in-the-sky vision of ‘living lightly on the earth’ that no one can actually achieve, Thoreau’s Religion uncovers Thoreau as an important figure for contemporary environmental justice.