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Essays: A Fully Annotated Edition
Essays: A Fully Annotated Edition
Henry D. Thoreau
Yale University Press, 2013
480 pp., $35.00

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Science in Focus: Douglas Casson


The Crank Within

Thoreau on nature, techno-utopianism, and politics.

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In a delightfully cantankerous essay included in this collection of essays, Henry David Thoreau takes aim at the utopian visions of a certain J. A. Etzler. For Thoreau, Etzler's proposal to solve every social and political problem through technology—to satisfy every human need by "a short turn of some crank"—is a typical modern delusion. What techno-utopians like Etzler forget is that each crank must be turned by another crank, and the source of all this motion is "a certain divine energy in every man … which may be called the crank within."

This single-minded attentiveness to "the crank within" unites the diverse essays in this volume. Whether observing squirrels or questioning democracy or quoting Darwin, Thoreau is focused on a single project: uncovering a "divine energy" by chipping away at the sham of social conformity and technological progress. Along the way, he establishes his credentials as one of the great cranks of American letters.

In this beautifully arranged and carefully annotated collection, Jeffrey Cramer provides readers with a generous sampling of Thoreau's insightful crankiness. We witness Thoreau castigating his readers for paying too much attention to the news: "The mind can be permanently profaned by the habit of attending to trivial things." He declares, "Read not the Times. Read the Eternities." We find him mocking his contemporaries' desire for continuous interaction: "In proportion as our inward life fails, we go more constantly and desperately to the post-office." Just imagine what he would say about Facebook! We see him reject fashionable notions of productivity and insist instead that the "really important work" takes place alone in the woods. Are these simply the grumblings of a bachelor uncle who never quite figured out how to fit in?

Yes. Yet this is precisely the point. From his early "Natural History of Massachusetts" to his posthumously published "Life without Principle," Thoreau displays an unwillingness to fit into the cultured, civilized world. In "Walking," he makes his famous pronouncement, "In wildness is the preservation of the world." This passage, as Jeffrey Cramer helpfully points out, is often misunderstood. Thoreau is not talking about wilderness here, but wildness. He wants to call our attention to the wildness of the individual soul, the soul free from the confines of a "culture merely civil." Our encounters with nature draw out and reflect that part in us that is wild, untamed, and self-willed.

The political essays included in this volume stem from a horror of the slavery and coercion promoted by the modern state. Here again Thoreau's main objective is to protect the wildness of the individual soul. In his essay on "Civil Disobedience," originally published as "Resistance to Civil Government," Thoreau argues that unjust laws should not be obeyed. At times his emphasis on individual conscience can sound like anarchy, yet Thoreau does not want an absence of government but rather better government, that is, a government that recognizes "the individual as a higher and independent power." The most unsettling application of this approach is found in his essays on John Brown, in which he portrays the radical abolitionist as an inspired and noble figure and defends his use of violence. What Thoreau cherishes in Brown is his resolute character, his refusal to accept the prevailing attitudes of his day. A defense of freedom—a defense of wildness—requires resistance to the machinery of the state. For Thoreau, the only way to resist the inhumanity of modern society is to maintain "the crank within": "Would that we might get our hands on its handle!"

Douglas Casson is associate professor of political science at St. Olaf College.

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