Thoreau’s White Masculinity

Thoreau’s Political Activism: The Construction of Unconventional Masculinity

Published in St. Lawrence Review in 2017. Pages 66-75.

In “Civil Disobedience,” Henry David Thoreau asks his audience: “How many men are there to a square thousand miles in this country? Hardly one” (70). This question forces us to ask in turn, what type of masculinity does Thoreau consider to be ideal? Since gender is a societal construct, people have equated different traits with “femininity” and “masculinity” depending on the time and place in which they lived. Since no characteristics are inherently feminine or masculine, Thoreau was able to construct his own unique unconventional ideal of masculinity throughout Walden and his political essays.

Thoreau’s constructed masculine ideal favors the politically active, independent, and virtuous man, which can be seen by analyzing Thoreau’s critique of conventionally masculine men and his idealization of John Brown. However, although Thoreau constructs this new ideal of masculinity in order to aid society in abolishing slavery, his texts reflect and perpetuate the racial biases that were held by society during his time.

Essentially, Thoreau’s constructed ideal of an unconventional masculinity is an ideal of “white masculinity.”

This is precisely why Thoreau constantly finds inspiration of his ideal of manliness in John Brown, yet he never finds examples of manhood in the slaves he so fiercely defends in his abolitionist essays or the Native Americans he admires throughout Walden. This exemplifies how within his construction of a new ideal of masculinity, Thoreau unintentionally excludes all of his non-white audience members. Thoreau’s constructed ideal of manhood was unattainable for non-white men, since they did not have the societal ability to conform to it. Essentially, Thoreau’s constructed ideal of an unconventional masculinity is an ideal of “white masculinity.”

Feminist analysis is often not the first critical methodology that comes to mind when analyzing Thoreau, simply due to the utter lack of female characters in throughout his texts. However, according to Hall in Literary and Cultural Theory, feminist analysis can also be applied by observing the ways in which gender is preformed throughout the text (199). In the case of Thoreau, although there are very few female characters throughout his writings, we can apply the feminist analysis in order to analyze the ways in which he constructs a new unconventional ideal of masculinity throughout Walden and his political essays. 

In order to avoid perpetuating the inherent racial blind spots within gender studies, it is important to apply the race and ethnicity analysis in combination with the feminist analysis while analyzing Thoreau’s texts.

However, feminist analysis should not be the sole critical methodology that is applied to a text. According to Hall, one of the major critiques of feminist analysis is the “inherent blind spots” in regards to racial oppression (200). Since implicit racial biases characterize the feminist analysis, Hall continues on to warn us that “social constructs of race and gender should not be analyzed in isolation from each other” (201). This is due to the concept of intersectionality: different people are oppressed to different extremes based on the intersection of their gender, race, class, and sexuality. In order to avoid perpetuating the inherent racial blind spots within gender studies, it is important to apply the race and ethnicity analysis in combination with the feminist analysis while analyzing Thoreau’s texts.

The race and ethnicity analysis is similar to the feminist analysis in that most critics often overlook this perspective when analyzing Thoreau’s texts. This is due to the fact that Thoreau was an avid abolitionist reformer who fiercely fought for the rights of the slaves, making him extremely politically progressive for his time. However, it is important to realize that racism and ethnocentrism have been “entrenched in language, literature art, and social institutions” (Hall 265). This means that although Thoreau was politically progressive and wrote numerous essays in defense of the slaves, his texts still hold the same implicit racial biases that were held by the rest of society at his time.

Rather than calling Thoreau a racist or a sexist, it is more useful to instead analyze the ways in which his texts both reflect and perpetuate the oppression of people based on race and gender.

According to the article “Implicit Bias: Scientific Foundations,” implicit biases are stereotypes or beliefs that people “do not always have conscious, intentional control over” (946). In contrast to the belief that people always make explicit decisions, the science behind implicit cognition suggests that people do not have control over their “social perception, impression formation, and judgment” (946). Therefore, the implicit racial biases throughout Thoreau’s texts tell us more about his social context, rather than his character. In other words, Thoreau was probably not even aware of the racial and gender biases he held. Rather than calling Thoreau a racist or a sexist, it is more useful to instead analyze the ways in which his texts both reflect and perpetuate the oppression of people based on race and gender.

Unfortunately, there is little scholarship analyzing Thoreau through the feminist analysis or the race and ethnicity lens, and the scholarship that does exist is often misguided. For example, through the feminist analysis, many scholars attempt to analyze Thoreau’s performance of gender. These articles debate over whether Thoreau is the epitome of a conventionally masculine man or if he is a gender-bending, feminist icon.

Shamir attempts to weigh in on this argument with the claim that Thoreau continuously “traverses the gender boundaries instituted by his own culture” (182). In a critique of the other scholars who argue Thoreau was solely masculine or feminine, Shamir argues, “Such critics admire the untamed Thoreau…and forget about the Thoreau who dreamed of owning a home” (182). However, to argue that Thoreau was feminine simply because he wanted to take care of his home is lacking in that the argument only takes into account the societal constructions of gender. This argument simultaneously completely ignores his unique construction of an unconventional masculinity. Shamir’s argument is also flawed because it is not reasonable to argue that Thoreau was a feminist icon, since he never once fought for the right for women to vote, and he scarcely mentions females at all throughout his texts. 

It is more useful to instead analyze Thoreau’s attempt at creating a new ideal of masculinity that did not conform to, and at times directly contrasted with, the societal ideal of manliness.

Similarly, Walls also develops a flawed argument based on the conventional constructed ideals of gender in society. Walls argues that Thoreau’s philosophy throughout Walden “turns the basis for gender conventions into rubble” and that he was a gender-bending character (523). However, Walls fails to note that although Thoreau might have displayed conventionally masculine and feminine qualities, he was not thinking about gender in the same way that the rest of society does.

The debates over Thoreau’s performance of gender are flawed in that they are thinking about femininity and masculinity strictly within the societal conventions of gender. Rather than looking at the ways in which Thoreau is “feminine” or “masculine” by societal standards, it is more useful to instead analyze Thoreau’s attempt at creating a new ideal of masculinity that did not conform to, and at times directly contrasted with, the societal ideal of manliness.

Similarly to the feminist analysis, there is not much scholarship analyzing Thoreau’s abolitionist essays through the race and ethnicity analysis. Previous scholarship analyzing his abolitionist essays are often inherently flawed and carry the same racial biases that Thoreau himself held. For example, Nichols argued that while Thoreau’s new basis for society was “optimistic,” it was also “clear cut and practical” (20). What he failed to realize is that Thoreau’s vision for an ideal society was only practical for a certain group of people: white men.

Although on the surface Thoreau may seem politically progressive in relation to the abolitionist movement, he unintentionally perpetuates the oppression of non-white men throughout his political reform essays.

Likewise, most of the scholarship analyzing Thoreau’s texts through the race and ethnicity lens is also flawed as well. For example, Walls analyzes Thoreau’s racism against the Irish, since he holds cruel opinions of them. Walls argues that Thoreau’s immense disappointment with the Irish throughout Walden was not due to racism, but rather due to his tendency to identify with them. However, she does not take into account his construction of white masculinity, and the fact that his disappointment with the Irish resonates around the fact that although they have the societal ability to conform to his ideal, they choose to remain laborers instead of politically active men.

This explains why he is never disappointed with the Native Americans or the slaves; how could he be disappointed with them for not conforming to his ideal if they did not have the societal ability to? Therefore, it is important to analyze Thoreau’s abolitionist essays through a race and ethnicity lens. Although on the surface Thoreau may seem politically progressive in relation to the abolitionist movement, he unintentionally perpetuates the oppression of non-white men throughout his political reform essays.

In the article “Thoreau, Manhood, and Race,” Nelson summarizes my argument particularly elegantly. It is one of the only articles in which Thoreau’s texts are analyzed through a combination of a feminist analysis and race and ethnicity lens. In the article, Nelson argues, “Analyzing the institution of slavery helped Thoreau make arguments about reforming manhood. But talking about black people never seemed to provide Thoreau with useful examples of manhood” (78). This demonstrates how although Thoreau was creating a new ideal of masculinity in order to aid society in abolishing slavery, Thoreau unintentionally perpetuates inherent racial biases throughout his abolitionist essays. This argument is intelligent and convincing in that Nelson acknowledges the fact that Thoreau was constructing his own ideal of masculinity, rather than conforming to or rebelling against the societal ideal, and analyzes the ways in which Thoreau demonstrates his racial biases within his construction of masculinity. 

To argue that Thoreau conforms to the conventional masculine ideal would be to completely ignore his critique of the “manly” working men, as well as the significance of his critique in regards to the historical context of gender constructs in his time.

Not only did Thoreau’s ideal of masculinity simply challenge the conventional societal ideal, it also directly contrasts with it. When Andrew Jackson became the President of the United States, the most masculine man was considered to be the common, working man (Nelson 74). In contrast with this Jacksonian ideal of masculinity, Thoreau critiques the laboring men. In Walden, he writes that laboring men “cannot afford to sustain the manliest relations to men” (7). Thoreau could not be more explicit in his emasculation of the laboring men, which clearly exemplifies how Thoreau was thinking about manliness outside of the societal gender constructs. Thoreau continues to emasculate the working men when he tells us that “men have become tools of their tools” (29). Similarly, Thoreau writes that when a man is too busy working, “he has no time to be anything but a machine” (7). By comparing the working men to tools and machines, Thoreau is emasculating them to the point of dehumanizing them, therefore shattering the conventional masculine ideal of the working man. To argue that Thoreau conforms to the conventional masculine ideal would be to completely ignore his critique of the “manly” working men, as well as the significance of his critique in regards to the historical context of gender constructs in his time.

Another way in which Thoreau’s ideal of masculinity contrasts with the conventional ideal is in his critique of soldiers. By conventional standards, masculine ideals often correlate with physical strength and aggressiveness, which means that many consider soldiers to be extremely masculine. However, Thoreau strongly disagrees. In “Slavery in Massachusetts,” he writes of marines, “They are just as much tools and as little men” (103). His issue with the soldiers lies in the fact that they do not serve the government as “men,” but rather as “machines, with their bodies” (“Civil” 66). Thoreau’s emasculation of the soldiers is similar to his critique of the laboring men in that he compares both to tools and machines. His critique of the laboring men and the soldiers is based on the fact that these men are using their bodies only to perpetuate labor and war, yet they are not independently thinking against the system. In contrast with the conventional ideal of masculinity, Thoreau does not believe that strength alone is enough to be considered masculine by his standards. 

However, although Thoreau critiques the mindless, machine-like work that the laboring men and soldiers perform, Thoreau does not consider the intellectual to be masculine either. In Walden,Thoreau states, “The success of great scholars and thinkers is commonly a courtier-like success, not kingly, not manly” (13). This is because the scholars are not contributing much to society by solving problems “theoretically” but not “practically” (13). In his essay, “The Last Days of John Brown,” Thoreau asks his audience, “What avail all your scholarly accomplishments and learning, compared with wisdom and manhood?” (150). Again, Thoreau could not be more explicit in his critique of the intellectuals’ manliness. However, in contrast with the laboring men and soldiers who do not think enough, Thoreau is critiquing the intellectuals for thinking too much. The intellectuals are thinking independently, but they are not transforming these independent thoughts into practical political action. By critiquing the laboring men, soldiers, and intellectuals, Thoreau is constructing a masculine ideal in which a man is both thoughtful and active. According to Thoreau, the masculine man will think independently against the government and will implement action in order to fight for what he believes in.

Unlike the laboring men, soldiers, and intellectuals, John Brown combined action and thought in a rebellious act against slavery, making him the manifestation of Thoreau’s constructed unconventional ideal of manliness.

John Brown, the subject of many of Thoreau’s political essays, was the manifestation of Thoreau’s ideal of masculinity. Brown is famous for attempting to lead a violent slave revolt in an effort to advance the abolitionist movement. W.E.B Du Bois, a famous abolitionist who worked alongside Thoreau, considered John Brown to be “bloody, relentless, and cruel” (Petrulionis 199). Although many believe Thoreau was against violence altogether, Thoreau considers Brown to be a “man of great common sense,” a “firmer and higher principled man,” and a “hero” (“A Plea” 112-119). This forces us to question, what makes Brown different from the other soldiers?

In “A Plea For Captain John Brown,” Thoreau tells us the answer himself: “a man of ideas and principles…that was what distinguished him” (115). In a direct comparison to the laboring men and the soldiers, Thoreau tells us of Brown, “an intelligent and conscientious man is superior to a machine” (119). Thoreau considered John Brown’s violence to be masculine because Brown was fighting a “war for liberty” (112). Brown committed a violent act, but his was for a moral war “against the condemnation and vengeance of mankind” that characterized slavery in the United States (125). Brown’s violence was characterized by his independent thought against the government, in contrast to the soldiers, who blindly followed the government’s orders. Unlike the laboring men, soldiers, and intellectuals, John Brown combined action and thought in a rebellious act against slavery, making him the manifestation of Thoreau’s constructed unconventional ideal of manliness.

Thoreau’s ideal of manliness closely aligns with political citizenship.

Thoreau’s critique of conventionally masculine men, alongside his idealization of John Brown, gives us a better understanding of his constructed ideal of masculinity. In “Civil Disobedience,” it is clear that Thoreau’s construction of masculinity is characterized by “wisdom,” “honesty,” and “self-reliance” (70-71). He believes that Americans should be “men first” and “subjects afterwards” (65). Throughout the entire essay, Thoreau was constructing this ideal of masculinity by urging his listeners to think independently, question the government, and act out of principles and morality.

Therefore, Thoreau’s ideal of manliness closely aligns with political citizenship. The laborers were not masculine because they were too busy working to question the government; the soldiers were not masculine because they were “tools” of the government and they never questioned their actions; and the intellectuals were not masculine because they were thinking too much, therefore not performing any action at all. Many critics try to argue that Thoreau supports only the principle or thought behind Brown’s violence, but Thoreau tells us that Brown’s “behavior and words” were “heroic and noble” (“The Last Days” 147). Clearly, Thoreau considers Brown to be masculine because he was thinking against society and transforming his thought into political action, regardless of the violence that ensued because of it.

Even though Thoreau is politically progressive for his time, he unintentionally perpetuates the oppression of non-white men.

Since Thoreau’s constructed ideal of masculinity equates with political activism, only white men had the societal ability to conform to his ideal. This is why Thoreau could only find a manifestation of his ideal in John Brown: Brown had the privilege in society to be politically active and independent, in contrast to the non-white men, who were constrained by society and were therefore unable to attain to Thoreau’s masculine ideal. Ironically, although Thoreau uses John Brown as an icon for the abolitionist movement, his construction of an unconventional ideal of masculinity excludes the slaves he was defending. Although he fiercely fights for the rights of the slaves and admires the Native American way of life throughout his texts, he unintentionally reflects the strong implicit racial biases that were held by society at his time. Therefore, Thoreau’s constructed ideal of manliness essentially correlates with an ideal of “white masculinity.” Even though Thoreau is politically progressive for his time, he unintentionally perpetuates the oppression of non-white men.

Another irony in Thoreau’s ideal of politically active manliness is that although he refers to the State of Massachusetts as “her,” women could not even vote at the time, let alone be responsible for the institution of slavery. In “Slavery in Massachusetts,” Thoreau famously says, “My thoughts are murder to the states, and involuntarily go plotting against her” (108). Throughout the entire essay, the only feminine pronoun Thoreau uses is in reference to the State. He writes on the issue of slavery, “every moment she now hesitates to atone for her crime, she is convicted” (96). Throughout the entire essay, the “masculine active self” is in contrast with “the feminine and acted-upon other,” the State (Walls 521). For example, according to Thoreau, “it is men who have to make the law free,” meaning men have to fight against the State, “her” (“Slavery” 98). This is ironic, because men are the ones who created the law in the first place, not women. He continues to write, “Let each inhabitant of the State dissolve his union with her, as long as she delays her duty” (104). Clearly, Thoreau was attempting to create the “masculine active self” in juxtaposition to the female State, but in doing so he takes the blame off of the men in society for creating the institution of slavery. His gendered female State also perpetuates the oppression of women, since it creates the allusion that females were even partly responsible for the institution slavery. This is in complete disregard to the fact that they did not even have the right to vote at the time, let alone have the societal ability to control the State.

Rather than glamorizing the politically progressive Thoreau, we should instead analyze the ways in which his texts both reflect and perpetuate the oppression of people based on race and gender.

This gendered female State is widely ignored by previous critics while analyzing Thoreau. In “Walden as a Feminist Manifesto,” Walls argued that although Thoreau uses conventionally masculine gendered pronouns primarily, he is not misogynistic. Her evidence is from an entry in his journal, “I love Nature partly because she’s not a man” (524). However, Walls never acknowledges that Thoreau genders the State as feminine in a similar way to his gendering of the feminine Nature. After examining the ways in which Thoreau refers to the State, it is clear that he does not love the State in the same way that he loves Nature, meaning that her evidence from his journal is essentially insubstantial. Thoreau’s gendered female State illustrates his attempt at creating a divide between the institution of slavery and the politically active man, yet Thoreau fails to recognize that solely men were in charge of the State. Rather than blaming the men who were at fault, Thoreau writes that “the State was half-witted” and that “it was timid as a lone woman with her silver spoons” (“Civil” 80). A reader must wonder why the worst insult Thoreau had the ability to come up with was comparing the State to a “lone woman.” Gendering the State of Massachusetts contributes to Thoreau’s construction of an active, independent masculine ideal and contributes to his argument to free the slaves, but it also perpetuates the oppression of women in society. 

In “Slavery in Massachusetts,” Thoreau wrote, “They persist in being the servants to the worst of men, and not the servants of humanity” (103). But couldn’t we argue that Thoreau himself was a servant to the worst of men through his perpetuation of the oppression of people based on race and gender? Ironically, although he was attempting to aid in abolishing slavery, his political essays perpetuate racism by excluding non-white men. Similarly, although he was glamorizing the politically active John Brown, he never once mentions his mother or his sisters, who founded the Concord Antislavery Society (Petrulionis 19). How could he overlook the participation of his own mother and sister in the abolitionist movement, yet never fight for their rights at all? So, rather than glamorizing the politically progressive Thoreau, we should instead analyze the ways in which his texts both reflect and perpetuate the oppression of people based on race and gender.

Works Cited

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