Henry David Thoreau: “Cape Cod” (1865)

It is generally supposed that they who have long been conversant with the Ocean can foretell, by certain indications, such as its roar and the notes of sea-fowl, when it will change from calm to storm; but probably no such ancient mariner as we dream of exists; they know no more, at least, than the older sailors do about this voyage of life on which we are all embarked. Nevertheless, we love to hear the sayings of old sailors, and their accounts of natural phenomena, which totally ignore, and are ignored by, science; and possibly they will not always looked over the gunwale so long in vain. (937)


The final work by Henry David Thoreau collected in this Library of America volume is the posthumously published Cape Cod. (For my thoughts on his essays, see my previous posts organized in the Index, linked above.) Cape Cod has some similarities with The Maine Woods. Both were published in the year or two after Thoreau’s death with the leadership of his sister. Both were based on three separate trips to a place in New England, explored over the course of a decade. Both, potentially, give a long view of historical and environmental change. Cape Cod, however, looks at a place that is fully “civilized,” while The Maine Woods considered a place that, in Thoreau’s mind at least, was still a wilderness. To find this wilderness that so attracted him, Thoreau had to look to the coast and the sea. This is his only work to take the ocean as a category of analysis. Water was a major theme in Walden, but as part of the local ecosystem. Here the ocean stands as a behemoth before Thoreau.

The sea has even power over the land. “Perhaps what the Ocean takes from one part of the Cape it gives to another,—robs Peter to pay Paul. On the eastern side the sea appears to be everywhere encroaching on the land. Not only the land is undermined, and its ruins carried off by currents, but the sand is blown from the beach directly up the steep bank where it is one hundred and fifty feet high.” (956) The sea was not something that Thoreau could quite get a handle on, but he was impressed by the sailors and fishermen who dwelled in Cape Cod for their intimate knowledge of the sea.

As a node of capitalism, the exploitation of the environment, and commerce, Cape Cod is the polar opposite of the self-sufficient world Thoreau tried to create near Walden Pond. Lighthouses, ship wrecks, and small towns lining the cape. Nevertheless, Thoreau notices signs of people living on the margins, making a living from the periphery. I am sure he saw in these self-sufficient fishermen the pursuit of the same type of life he tried to live in Walden. “It is remarkable what a serious business men make of getting their dinners, and how universally shiftlessness and a groveling taste take refuge in a merely ant-like industry.” (976) He defends this “shiftlessness” as merely a coastal version of the life he advocated.

The chapter called “The Wellfleet Oysterman” is an interesting window into a vibrant subculture of Cape Cod. I am struck that in his other works, Thoreau has little to say about other people’s labors. Often they are cast aside as wage slavery or rejected along with the rest of the emerging industrial civilization Thoreau saw around him. This chapter may be his most careful study of how other people live and work. For me this is a sign of maturity on Thoreau’s part and suggests an opening of his mind. If Walden is about he chose to live and pursue freedom, Cape Cod is interested in how others have done so. And in his honest moments, he must confess that they find their own space for freedom, even within the capitalist civilization. So those of you who think that Thoreau is an impractical lifestylist, I do suggest taking a look at Cape Cod as well as The Maine Woods for evidence that he did have a broader appreciate for the system, the damage it caused and the diversity of ways people could live within it. Well, I will keep it short and sweet today. That completes my study of Thoreau, the great American individualist and perhaps early anarchist thinker.



Olaudah Equiano: “Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano” (1789)

O, ye nominal Christians! Might not an African ask you, learned you this from your God, who says unto you, Do unto all men as you would men do unto you? Is it not enough that we are torn from our country and friends to toil for your luxury and lust of gain? Must every tender feeling be likewise sacrificed to your avarice? Are the dearest friends and relations, now rendered more dear by their separation from their kindred, still to be parted from each other, and thus prevented from cheering the gloom of slavery with the small comfort of being together and mingling their sufferings and sorrows? Why are parents to lose their children, brothers their sisters, or husbands their wives? Surely this is a new refinement in cruelty, which, while it has no advantage to atone for it, thus aggravates distress, and adds fresh horrors even to the wretchedness of slavery. (79)

Olaudah Equiano’s narrative of his enslavement and his successful path toward freedom is one of the richest tests of the eighteenth century Atlantic, and by extension colonial America. He manages to describe the various conditions of slaves across the Atlantic at the height of the slave trade, while also putting together a powerful autobiography. Slave narratives are invariably stories of resistance. The very act of writing down their life story when the white ruling class depended on their silence for the sustaining of slavery is resistance enough, but when coupled with learning to write, escaping captivity, or—as many of them document doing—challenging the very assumption of racial slavery in their everyday lives we must look at these documents as evidence of the universal nature of resistance to slavery. These narratives come to us from men and women, plantation slaves and sailors, people who purchased their freedom and people who ran away. These are unique individuals who were part of that small group that could document their stories, but they are also representatives to humanity for the millions who were worked to death and beaten into silence.


The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano was published two years before Thomas Paine’s The Rights of Man. As any reader of these two texts knows, the West was engaged in a debate about the meaning, limits and political possibilities of freedom in the Atlantic world. Paine and Equiano stand on the same side of that debate. Yes, Ukawsaw Gronniosaw, was the first author of a slave narrative in English, but Equiano’s was the first that is clearly part of the libertarian tradition of the anti-slavery movement.

Equiano begins his narrative with a social history of the Igbo people, who he claimed to belong to. (This is controversial point and some have claimed Equiano was an African-American, making up his African birth, but I will set this aside as irrelevant for my reading.) In this chapter he does several things, most importantly establish clear moral differences between European civilization and the culture of his birth. Careful to present it as culturally and economically complex, Equiano also wants to point out that it was relatively egalitarian compared to Europe, despite being—like Europe—a society with slaves. Social distinctions do exist but they are not manifest in grotesque displays and wealth and power. “As our manners are simple, our luxuries are few. . . . Our manner of living is entirely plain.” (52–53) Equiano makes several comparisons between his people and the Jews, even suggesting some commonalities. This will evolve into an important dialog throughout African-American religious history.


Equiano then describes the process of his enslavement and his arrival in Barbados. Most of the narrative actually focuses on his labor on various ships, both in slavery and freedom. Like Gronniosaw’s narrative, we find that the line between slavery and freedom is very clear. Equiano sees a clear moral line between the two. Yet, he would acknowledge that exploitation existed at many levels. “Masters” means both the commanders of the ships that Equiano worked on as a freeman and the people who owned him. Since he was not a plantation slave, there was not as radical a change for Equiano from slavery to freedom as there would have been for someone escaping from enslavement in the sugar islands. This is part of the reason why Equiano focused so much of his most politically powerful prose for his empathetic descriptions of plantation slavery. Perhaps he knew that his sufferings as an enslaved sailor were not so far from the sufferings of the free sailors. For his work to become an anti-slavery tract, he needed to identity and expose the most brutal aspect of the system. If he did lie about his origins and enduring the Middle Passage, this was why.

There is a passage that clarifies how exploitation and violence was not reserved for enslaved men and women.

While we were at Gibraltar, I saw a soldier hanging by his heels, at one of the moles: I thought this a strange sight, as I had seen a man hanged in London by his neck. At another time I saw the master of a frigate towed to shore on a grating, by several of the men of war’s boats, and discharged the fleet, which I understood was a mark of disgrace for cowardice. On board the same ship there was also a sailor hung up at the yard-arm. (97)

In this fashion, Equiano suggests that being a free man working on a ship contained its own brutalities and degrees of unfreedom. However, at the same time, working first as a slave and then a freedman on various naval and merchant ships provided Equiano with some space to secure his eventual freedom. Most importantly he was able to make money on the side, which he used to purchase his freedom. He was also given a degree of responsibility, to the chagrin of some of the more racist elements on board the ship.

Chapter five is the core of his anti-slavery writings, and the least autobiographical. Here is explores the nature of plantation slavery in the Caribbean sugar islands. There is no need for a full recounting (even Equiano shy away from descriptions after a while to avoid excess), but he does show that the violence of the system was developed in concert with efforts by slaves to secure some liberty. Power also develops and refines itself in the face of resistance. Without resistance power rarely needs to innovate, defend itself, or exert much effort to sustain itself. This alone suggests the moral necessity of resistance, even if futile, for it makes oppression dearly purchased.


Equiano devotes a chapter to his conversion to Christianity and another to his growing political activities. We suspect that these are connected. Equiano enjoyed framing slaveholders as false Christians (or “nominal Christians”). His conversion was important as well, because although it involved some acceptance of his master’s culture, it is arrived at after through the logic of his life in the international Atlantic world, not forced upon him. Like Gronniosaw, Equiano came to Christianity as a free moral agent. And for Equiano at least, Christianity was a springboard for political action, not a surrender of earthly paradise for a fantastical heavenly one.

Equiano’s book is one of the most important documents speaking to eighteenth century Atlantic slavery and the emergence of commercial capitalism. For those who borrow from the pro-slavery apologists of the Old South the belief that slavery was some projection of feudalism into the modern world, Equaino’s narrative will reveal that in fact slavery and capitalism were joined at the hip. The abolitionist movement that Equiano helped formed after he settled in England was on the first stage in the struggle against the exploitations, violence, and criminality of capitalism. In fact, if you take slavery out of the Equiano’s story, we are left with a long list of abuses inflicted on free people. Equiano’s struggle may have been morally more urgent, but it was only the start.

Herman Melville, “Pierre” (1852): Part Two. Pierre in Revolt

“If a frontier man be seized by wild Indians, and carried far and deep into the wilderness, and there held a captive, with no slightest probability of eventual deliverance; then the wisest thing for that man is to exclude from his memory by every possible method, the least images of those beloved objects now forever reft from him. For the most delicious they were to him in the now departed possession, so much the more agonizing shall the be in the present recalling” (357)

I included this from Pierre only because of my inability to take Melville’s advice here, and I suffer daily from it.

As I left things at the mid-way point in Herman Melville’s Pierre, or The Ambiguities, Pierre Glendinning learned of his long-lost half-sister and married her after learning of her past. In the process, he alienated his mother, the woman who has hitherto dominated his life and controlled his future. He also left his fiancé, Lucy. Not insignificantly, at this point Pierre began a series of revolts that would dramatically change the course of his life. If Isabel, his sister, truly reflects the more primal and democratic and free America (leaving Pierre to symbolize the old aristocratic culture), then we can read the novel as the triumph of the democratic over the aristocratic. This may seem to be fighting old battles, but we must remember that the United States did not fully free itself from aristocratic influences with the Revolution. The aristocrat remained in the landed elite, in the slaveholder, and in the various anti-democratic forces not so easily undone.


The largest revolt Pierre pursues is his entrance into the city. He sees evidence everywhere of the more democratic and diverse climate. In a humorous exchange with a coach driver, he finds that his aristocratic bellowings have little impact on the driver, mocking his dictatorial pretentions with “though to be sure, I don’t know nothing of the city where I was born and bred all my life—no I know nothing at all about it.” (271) But it went beyond the attitude of a single cab driver. Pierre feels he is surrounded by the dregs of society, none of whom respected his name and station. “Day-dozers and sluggards on their lazy boxes in the sunlight, and felinely wakeful and cat-eyed in the dark; most habituated to midnight streets, only trod by sneaking burglars, wantons, and debauchees; often in actual pandering league with the most abhorrent stinks. . . this hideous tribe of ogres.” (271)

He attempts to make his living by writing, maintaining faith in his earlier aptitudes. He did not quite understand how little his talent for poetry would fetch him in the urban American city. The “fine social position and noble patrimony of Pierre” was worth less than nothing on the streets of the city. In an interesting passage, Pierre finds himself contemplating what it will take to survive and the requirement that he learns a trade. His arrogance and overblown self-esteem convinces him that he could learn and adapt to any useful trade. He even makes the mistake that the mind and body are essentially detachable in the workplace. This is a common capitalist ploy, to pretend that they work regimens they impose on workers is less odious than it is. “But not only could Pierre in some sort, do that; he could do the other; and letting his body stay lazily at home, send off his soul to labor, and his soul would come faithfully back and pay his body her wages.” As if to strike home his point Melville adds. “So, some unprofessional gentlemen of the aristocratic South, who happen to own slaves, give those slaves liberty to go and seek work, and every night return with their wages, which constitute those idle gentlemen’s labor.” (304) This just goes to show that a simple relocation is not enough to create a democratic spirit in the individual. In any case, his pondering about manual labor are not that important as he settles in for a life of writing.

New York in the 1850s

New York in the 1850s

Another point of Melville’s, it seems, is the utter violence of such breaks. They are perhaps necessary for liberty, but they do often cause harm. This is seen in the return of Lucy to the story in the final acts. But rather than resist her fate, she seems to accept it, but in the process is pulled along with Pierre into his dramatic transition to urban, democratic life. The result, although not lurid, was perhaps scandalous. A menage-a-tois results, with the three dwelling together in the city. Pierre is unable to produce for the low-brow marketplace of the city. His book is rejected by publishers. He is sued for the advances he received because the pages he was sending the publisher were not seen as suitable for the market. His publishers call him a “swindler.” (I wonder if Melville ever heard those very words?) Driven beyond the bend he murders the new heir to his estate (and Lucy’s new finance), is taken to jail. Lucy dies when unable to come to terms with the reality of his relationship with Isabel (wife and sister).

It is difficult to get beyond the silliness of the plot and even as a Melville admirer I found the book to be a bit of a burden. Of course, the book is a mess and not Melville’s finest. I do think there is something powerful in the story about the changing American scenery. Pierre certainly moved from the aristocracy to where he would need to assert himself by his own merits, but that environment he entered was dominated by capitalist print culture. In a sense, he merely found out that in democratic culture, he is required to service another master: the market. How freedom can exist in the market has never been fully explained to me by the capitalist apologists.

Henry David Thoreau, “Selected Essays, Part Three” (1852-1862)

We come to the final essays of Thoreau’s short life, which focus on his abolitionism, his resistance to the Fugitive Slave Law, and his defense of John Brown.

We start with two essays written for Thoreau’s friend Harrison G. O. Blake in 1852, “Love” and “Chastity and Sensuality.”  My impression in these two short essays is that Thoreau sentimentalizes and idealizes love over what he would call more base sensuality.  With marriage, “all lusts or base pleasures must give place to loftier delights.  They who meets as superior beings cannot perform the deeds of inferior ones.”  (329)  Later, “Love and lust are far asunder.  The one is good and the other bad.” (330)  I suppose his belief in a perfect marriage or an ideal love (not corrupted by base lust) is akin to his quest for perfect goodness or bravery.  Perhaps Thoreau is defending his bachelorhood and (likely) virginity.  I found these essays tedious and judgmental.  Love, for him, exists in a transcendent realm and we who dwell in the the more vulgar acts of lust and unfortunately deluded.  He even slips in a near eugenicist argument. “The only excuse for reproduction is improvement.  Nature abhors repetition.  Beasts merely propagate their kind, but the offspring of noble men & women will be superior to themselves, as their aspirations are.  By their fruits ye shall know them.” (332)  He does not define superiority as genetic, of course, yet he comes off as a quite unconventional mid-19th century American intellectual in his idealization of romantic love and his condemnation of sexual pleasure (particularly among the working poor who so many reformers targeted for improvement).

“Slavery in Massachusetts” (1854) makes the case that the state of Massachusetts was complicit in the spread of slavery through its acceptance and defense of the Fugitive Slave Law, which required that run-away slaves be returned to their “owners.”  More troubling was that it seemed to put a burden of proof on kidnapped free people to prove that they are not slaves.  In some cases, at least, free men and women were enslaved through the workings of the courts.  Thoreau points out that state agents, judges, proved to be unwilling to stand on the side of justice in interest of defending their position.  It makes Massachusetts a potential state of slaves.  Thoreau is desperately searching for a polity that can deserve his loyalty.  Certainly the Constitution and brazen majority rule will not do.  Neither will the worship of “Mammon” embraced by the institutions (religious, secular, and educational) in the state.  “Show me a free State, and a court of justice, and I will fight for them, if need be.” (344)  As for Massachusetts, Thoreau states that their is enough injustice to warrant revolutionary change.  “My thoughts are murder to the State, and involuntarily go plotting against her.” (346)  What this essay gives us is a practical application of “Civil Disobedience”

“Life Without Principle” explores the question of work.  How is it possible to be free, happy, fulfilled, or proud if one works for money or survival.  He fears the revolution has been incomplete.  “Even if we grant that the American had freed himself from a political tyrant, he is still a slave of an economical and moral tyrant.  . . . Do we call this the land of the free?  What is it to be free from King George and continue to be slaves of King Prejudice?  What is it to be born free and not to live free?  What is the value of any political freedom, but as a means to moral freedom?” (363)  We start with the problem that most of the ways that exist of making a living are unsatisfying for most.  Working for others invariably results in a form of theft.  “If the laborers gets no more than his wages which his employer pays him, he is cheated, he cheats himself.” (350)  Thoreau, with his radical individualism, likely finds the man cheating himself worse than the employers theft.  In this situation, good work can only come from a type of bribing.   His solution may be utopian, but I think we need this Utopian approach again.  “The aim of the laborer should be, not to get his living, to get ‘a good job,’ but to perform well a certain work; and, even in a pecuniary sense, it would be economy for a town to pay its laborers so well that they would not feel that they were working for low ends, as for a livelihood merely, but for scientific, or even moral ends.  Do not hire a man who does your work for money, but him who does it for the love of it.” (351)  Ah, but even this is a half-revolution.  Countless employment websites make the same types of claims today.  Finding work one loves to do, without a fundamental restructuring of the economic system of exploitation simply makes that exploitation more palatable to the workers.  I have no doubt that many workers have found work that they love.  Even work that reflects tasks they would engage in even if they were not paid.  Thoreau assumes that these tasks will still be “work.”  We can read “Life Without Principle” as a good diagnosis of the problem, but an incomplete treatment – we need a society that can encourage people to pursue their talents and interests and make it possible to pursue those talents and interests without exploitation.

Thoreau wrote three essays on John Brown in 1859 and 1860: “A Plea for Captain John Brown,” “Martyrdom of John Brown,” and “The Last Days of John Brown.”  It seems that Thoreau may have found his great hero in John Brown, a man capable of transcending social convention in pursuit of moral perfection.  He aptly dispenses with the nonsense about John Brown’s insanity or religious zealotry.  This nonsense still finds its way into writings on John Brown, unfortunately.  While, Thoreau says, the attack on Harper’s Ferry and the hope of starting a slave revolt may have been foolish, it cannot be called insane.  First, the government and slave aristocracy would not have feared him had he been insane.  Second, had it been successful it would not have been deemed the work of a madman.  Third, how could an insane man have attracted such a significant following for his action of “civil disobedience”?  Finally, and most importantly, he was merely pursuing the logical consequences of his perfectly rational moral positions.  More important than the life of John Brown (irredeemably lost anyway) to Thoreau was how he would be remembered.  And Thoreau was certain that Brown would be remembered as being on the right side of history.  On this point, Thoreau was prophetic.  “It seemed to me that John Brown was the only one who had not died.  I never hear of a man named Brown now,–and I hear of them pretty often,–I never head of any particularly brave and earnest man, bu tmy first thought of of John Brown, and what relation he may be to him.  I meet him at every turn.  He is more alive than ever he was.  He has earned immortality.  He is not confined to North Elba nor to Kansas.  He is no longer working in secret.  He works in public, and in the clearest light that shines on the land.” (428)