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Thoreau and the American Idyll

Duration:
45 minutes
First broadcast:
Thursday 15 January 2009

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the 19th century American writer and philosopher, Henry David Thoreau. Anti-slavery activist and passionate environmentalist, Thoreau was above all a champion of self-reliance and individualism. He was also a champion of the simple life, a lover of nature and an enemy of the modern who lived alone in a log cabin in the woods away from society. In his seminal work, Walden, published in 1854, he wrote:

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life.”

Thoreau has become emblematic of one version of American values and his work has been an inspiration to politicians and writers alike, from Martin Luther King to Gandhi, Yeats and Tolstoy. Yet in many ways Thoreau remains a mystery, a man of contradictions who advocated self-sufficiency but was happy to let his mother do his washing and cook his meals.

With Kathleen Burk, Professor of American History at University College London; Tim Morris, Lecturer in American Literature at the University of Dundee; Stephen Fender, Honorary Professor in English Literature at University College London.

  • American Idyll

    American Idyll

  • Further Reading

    Henry David Thoreau, edited by Stephen Allen Fender, Walden (Paperback, Oxford World’s Classics, Oxford Paperbacks, 2008)

    Edited by Joel Myerson, Emerson and Thoreau: The Contemporary Reviews (American Critical Archives) (Cambridge University Press, 1992)

    Lawrence Buell, The Environmental Imagination: Thoreau, Nature Writing, and the Formation of American Culture (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995)

    Stanley Cavell, The Senses of Walden: An Expanded Edition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981)

    Robert Gross, "The Great Bean Field Hoax: Thoreau and the Agricultural Reformers" in Joel Myerson, ed., Critical Essays on Henry David Thoreau's Walden (Boston, G.K. Hall, 1988)

    James McIntosh, Thoreau as Romantic Naturalist: His Shifting Stance Towards Nature (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1974)

    Joel Porte, Emerson and Thoreau: Transcendentalism in Conflict (Middletown, CONN: Wesleyan University Press, 1966)

    Adam Smith, The American Civil War (Palgrave MacMillan, 2007)

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