Henry David Thoreau – Grasping the Community of the World

Translated by Jean Ward

by Tadeusz Slawek (Author)
©2014 Monographs 316 Pages
Series: Dis/Continuities, Volume 7


This study takes up Thoreau’s work as an early and prophetic diagnosis of the modern crisis of relationships between the individual and society. Thus Adorno’s formulation of «a melancholy of science» finds its predecessor in Thoreau’s famous dictum from the early pages of Walden that we live our lives in quiet desperation. The author reads Thoreau’s Journal as an attempt to refute tendencies towards the narrowing of life to being understood merely in techno-economic categories which threaten the quality of the development of both the individual and the community. Thus in literary scholarship it is essential to find strategies which will critically contribute to understanding and transforming what Auerbach called «ways of life» and what Barthes referred to as «living-together».

Table Of Contents

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The works of Henry David Thoreau are cited from the following sources:



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His name was Eliot Alison… That was all there was on the yellow piece of lined paper torn out of a notebook and slipped inside the first volume of Thoreau’s Journal, bought in the spring of 1995 in a second-hand bookshop in Concord. “Books with a Past, Inc.”: an exceptionally well-chosen name, when you think that they deal in “used” books, books that have passed through the hands of many other users and owners before they come into ours. But it is a past, not the past, for these stories are not in themselves the object of interest; they do not unfold themselves in a single narrative form, nor do they find their way inside the covers of the book that is bought. Instead, they remain on the outside; they are weeds that have been pulled up from the fertile field of the story or the academic discourse. A past remains untold; it is one of many voices that gradually fall silent outside the closed doors of the cover, while inside is the bright light of some philosophical or literary salon, the light of the tale spun behind those closed doors: the past. In this way the books with which we spend our time are divested of any life other than the one that they supply to themselves. This study, which begins with a piece of yellowed paper and several thousand pages of a thinker’s journal, is concerned with what, to adapt Emerson’s term, we may call the “un-self-sufficingness” of literature1. ← 7 | 8 →

There is also another bookshop that informs us of one or two things concerning the person to whom the statement His name was Eliot Alison referred. “The Guy from Eagle Books called” (we don’t know whom, but we may guess that it was the author of the note on the lined yellow paper) with some information about the “former owner of HDT Journals”. He telephoned, no doubt, from among a thicket of tightly-packed shelves, from at least three rooms that must certainly have been filled with the characteristic smell of old books. These three rooms were: the one in which the person whose name was “Eliot Alison” kept his personal library, including the fourteen volumes of Henry David Thoreau’s journal, bound in green; Eagle Books (could it have been in Dublin, New Hampshire?), from which someone telephoned (was it to Concord, Massachusetts?) to tell the person who would note on the yellow paper what we were later to find between the leaves of the Journal… Perhaps the author of the note was connected with Books with a Past, the third in our relay-team of “bookish” places. If he was, then there really were three of these places; if he wasn’t, then a fourth place appears, in which the fourteen volumes of Thoreau’s journal were to be found, even if perhaps only for a little while, beside the notebook of yellow paper, before someone brought them (with no small labor) to Books with a Past.

Very little is known about the person whose “name was Eliot Alison”. He was a musician by training and a life time devotee of Thoreau (on the inside of the cover of volume 11 of the Journal, an unknown hand, perhaps that of Allison himself, has glued in a few photographs, evidently from a local magazine, in which the commentator on the Journal can be seen working – fittingly for a follower of Thoreau, an unknown journalist has added – in a bean field (“a good Thoreauvian, he grows beans, too”). He wrote articles for a local newspaper, Yankee Magazine, and published a book about the flowers and birds of Dublin, New Hampshire (we can find this in a second-hand internet bookshop, where it figures as Mondanock Sightings: Birds of Dublin 1909-1979, published in that year, 1979). He must have been interested in nature, for he had a collection of books by Edwin Teale, the outstanding naturalist and popularizer of knowledge of the natural world, who was a great friend of his. We also know that his third wife was English and that he married her during the war (“his 3rd wife was an English war bride”). He lived to a great age (“was in his 90’s when he died”), without ever occupying any permanent position, and on his own terms (he “was never really in step with the rest of the world. No real ‘job’”). In volume 11 of the Journal, mentioned above, we find a newspaper cutting with a photograph of an observation tower on Red Hill, from which, as the caption tells us, “Mr. And Mrs. Allison operate Red Hill‘s firefinder in the tower”. In the photograph, an oldish man and a woman who looks considerably younger are leaning over a round table with a piece of apparatus designed to establish the site of possible fires (the so-called “Osborne fire-finder”). ← 8 | 9 →

We do not know whether the “guy from Eagle Books” kept his word and sent the “more info” referred to in the note. This short biographical sketch fails in all these ways to live up to its promise of accuracy. Even the very first sentence turns out to be deceptive: His name was Eliot Alison is not an unconditionally reliable piece of information. All fourteen volumes of Thoreau’s Journal bear inside the cover a hand-written inscription: “Elliott and Kathleen Allison, December 6th, 1949. Dublin, N.H.”. The date might be the date of their marriage or of their acquisition of the Journal; but now the attempt to identify the previous owner of Thoreau’s work comes up against a fundamental problem: he is announced as a different person, someone with a different surname, one that sounds the same but is spelt differently. Not a single, but a double “l” – a person of whom we might say: His name was not Eliot Alison. But might we not suppose that this mistake accompanied him throughout his life, that he made his modest entry into history bearing upon himself the blemish of error, the error of his uncertain surname, like a mark of sin?

The attempt to establish who the former owner of the Journal was comes to grief on an even more significant and insurmountable difficulty, however: at a certain moment this person disappears in the most literal sense from its volumes. Whereas the moment of his entrance into the world of the fourteen green-bound tomes seems to be clearly proclaimed (6 December, 1949), no date marks the moment when he left that world. To be sure, taking account of the remark on the yellow paper concerning the advanced age of “Eliot Alison”, we may presume that the two horizontal lines crossing out the name “Elliott” are a kind of graphic tombstone in the form of a signature. But the Journal is not simply an extended epitaph for Elliott Allison; the two lines that cut through his first name and make it possible to read it only silently, not aloud, do not remove the traces of him that remain in the volumes of the book. Although he has no name, although his name is now only an abstraction of a sound, the pages of the Journal still preserve the materiality of the life of Elliott Allison. The name that generalized and gathered together all the small separate moments of his existence has given way and collapsed, like a construction burdened by an annihilating weight, cut to pieces by a death-dealing tattoo; yet his life has survived the onslaught, being preserved now not in any generalizing synthesis, but in the very separateness of its individual moments, resistant as they are to any kind of re-casting. “Elliott” as a totalizing existential, ontological project that sets out aims and tasks for itself, has ceased to exist in the world of the Journal; but the individual actions carried out in a certain particular time have remained, unchanged within the Journal’s frame. The name gathers these actions together into a whole, drawing them out of the temporal niche assigned to them; but when the name no longer stands, they are ← 9 | 10 → liberated from its generalizing pressure. Once set free, they belong only to their time, a time without one single, “collective” owner.

We find a fulfilment here of Algirdas Greimas’s “dream”: “[…] and if instead of the totalizing ambition that strives to transfigure the whole of life and throws into the balance the whole road travelled by the subject, its designs could be parceled up, if the individual fragments of what has been ‘lived through’ could be appreciated, if the metonimic and sublime way of seeing tried to approach simple things seriously. Life laid bare in this way – let’s consider the Japanese gardener who arranges the stones and sand in his garden just a little differently every morning – might then be able to create the unexpected, almost imperceptibly, ‘almost from nothing’, heralding a new day”2. It is thus no longer a matter of “transfiguring the whole of life”; the perspective of “the whole road” disappears, while what remains is “appreciation of the individual fragments of what has been ‘lived through’”. We are now dealing with “a serious approach to simple things”, that is with the creation of the “unexpected”. But this “unexpected” is not an extraordinary or great event; on the contrary – it appears “almost from nothing”, as an ordinary announcement of another day.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2014 (August)
menschliche Gemeinschaft Individuum Solidarität Lebensraum
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2014. 316 pp.

Biographical notes

Tadeusz Slawek (Author)

Tadeusz Sławek is Professor of Comparative Literature at the University of Silesia in Katowice (Poland). His numerous works on history and theory of literature include discussions of William Blake, Robinson Jeffers, Georg Trakl, William Shakespeare, and Jacques Derrida. Jean Ward is an Associate Professor of the University of Gdańsk (Poland).


Title: Henry David Thoreau – Grasping the Community of the World