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A Distaste for War at Walden Pond: Thoreau\u27s The Bean-Field, Theories of Personal Property, and the Mexican-American War

By Jesse Cross


Upon the tenth anniversary of their graduation from Harvard University, the members of the Harvard class of 1837 were sent a survey asking them to state, among other things, their current occupation. One member of this class, Henry David Thoreau, undoubtedly encountered this request while in a peculiar frame of mind. Thoreau responded to the survey on September 30, 1847, less than four weeks after he had left the small home he had occupied for two years at Walden Pond. Once again a \u22sojourner in civilized life,\u22 as he would put it in Walden, Thoreau responded to his alma mater by listing no less than thirteen different occupations. \u22I am a Schoolmaster,\u22 Thoreau explained, \u22a Private Tutor, a Surveyor - a Gardener, a Farmer - a Painter, I mean a House Painter, a Carpenter, a Mason, a Day-Laborer, a Pencil-Maker, a Glass-paper Maker, a Writer, and sometimes a Poetaster.\u22 Of these many alleged professions, the one that would actually provide much of Thoreau\u27s income over the years - his work as a surveyor - is also one of the least considered or analyzed aspects of Thoreau\u27s identity. As Patrick Chura observed in his recent book, Thoreau the Land Surveyor, \u22Thoreau\u27s literary stock has risen steadily in the twentieth century, but interest from literary researchers [in Thoreau\u27s work as a surveyor] has been intermittent at best.\u22 This neglect of Thoreau-as-surveyor is unfortunate for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that it has left incomplete the task of studying the interesting and complex relationship Thoreau bore to the property regimes and property theories of his day. Scholars frequently have been content to focus upon Thoreau\u27s famous critiques of contemporary property regimes in the opening chapter of Walden, where Thoreau describes ownership as part of a larger economic system that had engulfed New England and that he found detestable. As Thoreau\u27s long career as a surveyor reveals, however, the relationship must be more complex than this. His work as a surveyor made him into an agent of the existing property regime, yet the man we see in much of Thoreau\u27s writing is aloof and triumphant, a far cry from someone who understands himself to be an agent of a regime he detests. How can this be

Topics: Arts and Humanities, History, Law
Publisher: Yale Law School Legal Scholarship Repository
Year: 2013
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