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Stars of Courage: Henry David Thoreau

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For people advanced enough on intellectual matters to be reading this website, Henry David Thoreau needs no introduction. He was a consummate intellectual right at one of the cusps of America's defining moment - the Civil War. His book, Walden, was a book on "simple living in natural surroundings" that helped define much of the self-made living that is still very common in America's rural areas.

I was taught Thoreau's book Walden in a college course along with The Machine in the Garden, a book about the pastoral ideal written by author Leo Marx in the 1960s. Marx writes in that book several times of a frequent trope in American literature that depicts the interruption of American scenery by the whiz and blur of industrialization, which moved west with Americans as they settled amongst the continent. He illustrates Thoreau's writing of the sound of a passing steam locomotive near Walden Pond, interrupting an otherwise tranquil landscape.

Walden documents the experience of two years living in a cabin Thoreau built near Walden Pond, seeking to gain a more adept understanding of society through personal introspection and "self-sufficiency." Thoreau embodies American fantasies - that men can be islands unto themselves, going against the flow of the world and, in fact, somehow creating a world of their own.

Americans are not the only people to have such ideas. Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, in his classic novel Don Quixote, depicts a man who loses touch with reality and goes about seeking to restore knighthood and chivalry. Saavedra's classic is meant to be absurd, however, whereas figures from Thomas Jefferson to Thoreau to Ayn Rand and many others encourage individualism on varying levels of extremes, facilitated by the ample natural resources in relation to population that America started out with.

There was a blowback against such ideas even in Thoreau's time. As one anonymous lumber merchant in 1871 was quoted as saying in a history of the time, "The habitual weakness of the American people is to assume they have made themselves great, whereas their greatness has in large measure been thrust upon them b...y a bountiful providence which has given them forests, mines, fertile soil, and a variety of climate to enable them to sustain themselves aplenty."
Many Americans aspire to have their own Walden Pond - my uncle built a home for himself and his family a generation ago in Duvall, Washington and did an impressive job with it. I had a roommate who, periodically, lived in the woods in solitude, quite happy with it, on what resources he allocated himself while boasting of being a "sovereign man." Communes and shared living actually populate rural areas in many parts of the world, such as Central Asia or Europe, whereas in the United States, rural areas are still spread out with neighbors who barely know one another and sometimes don't care to know one another.

However fantastical, Thoreau's individualism did not intend to lead to antisocial behavior. He saw independent living as an expression of individual human rights and was an outspoken abolitionist during the time in which the abolition of slavery was a violent topic in the United States. He was legendary and he helped forge the image of the American intellectual.


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About Radical Second Things

Michael Orion is a blogger, writer, artist and photographer based in the Bay Area. Besides his maintenance and promotion of Radical Second Things, he contributes to the San Francisco newspaper SF Western Edition, where he writes about local non-profit organizations.

Mark Cappetta is a practicing Catholic and active LGBT activist. He has been instrumental in keeping Radical Second Things and updates the Facebook account almost daily.

Eva Gnostiquette is an artist, programmer, "future scientist," bi-trans girl and graphic designer. She voluntarily helped to create the first print issue Radical Second Things and designed our beautiful banners. Thanks so much, Eva!

Jordan Denato is a professional artist based out of Iowa. He took the initiative to illustrate both Jennifer Reimer's story and Michael Orion's Oscar Romero work. He has his own art studio, Tar and Feather Studios, and is a critical part of Radical Second Things.

Radical Second Things is a liberation theology themed blog that has clear cut goals - we see the structural decline of the United States and much of the west and hope to present alternatives that will offer "a preferential option for the poor" as more become vulnerable.

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