The Misfortune of Emerson and Thoreau Missing the 1960s

While reading both Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry David Thoreau, something became increasingly clear: both men would have thrived during the rise of the so-called “counterculture” of the 1960s. Begin to recall the writings of the two men, and their love of nature, the connection of souls both past and present, and staunch refusal to simply accept authority/the status quo. The counterculture embodied the spirit of the individual, and being different in ways that were not common for much of history. A new focus on civil rights, feminism, sexuality, and free thought exploded. Although their writings offered some basis of inspiration to members of the counterculture, Emerson and Thoreau would have thrived, and even been more prominent during the 1960s than they were during their lifetimes. I can say, with very little doubt, that both men would have been vehement supporters of drug experimentation, a very strong and unapologetic version of the Civil Rights Movement, and sharply opposed to most actions taken by the American government on an international stage throughout this time period.

A defining feature of the counterculture was the openness towards experimentation with drugs. An openness that was quite new, and created fear among members of the public favoring traditional “values.” But, this new attitude exemplifies much of what Emerson and Thoreau would love: exploring different modes of consciousness, and expanding the mind. There is no question that the two would have made wonderful friends with Ken Kesey, whose brand of rejecting conformity can be seen as a launching point for the movement. Emerson and Thoreau both believed deeply in experience as a form of education and self-fulfillment, and also believed in the necessity of being free to enhance individual consciousness and value. While they could never have foreseen a future that contained psychedelic drugs as a mode for exploration, many of the various claims offered by those who participated in the counterculture mirror the idea of becoming more in touch with the natural world, and with other people. Even beyond Kesey, The Beatles themselves possessed many ideas that would be seen as valuable to Emerson and Thoreau. After their extended period in India, members of the band (notably, George Harrison) became fascinated with Hinduism, much like Thoreau’s own experience while living at Walden Pond, where he brought the Bhagavad Gita for personal enlightenment. Imagine, for a moment, the transcendentalist message of Emerson and Thoreau, and the influence it likely could have provided to the counterculture movement had it been released in the midst of this cultural revolution of sorts.

For the purpose of discussing the Civil Rights Movement, and how both Emerson and Thoreau would have played an active role in the movement, I struggle with the question of which leader of the movement the two would have been most supportive. Would Thoreau, specifically, support the peaceful message of Dr. King, or the more militant message preached by Malcolm X during his earlier involvement. Although King absolutely drew some inspiration from Thoreau’s Resistance to Civil Government, I must take pause due to Thoreau’s impassioned defense of John Brown’s violent insurrection. Also, with this, I do not mean to paint Malcolm X as an inherently violent figure, because he offered measured, necessary rhetoric towards the Civil Rights Movement, which has often been seen as a critical response to the movement being led by Dr. King. During his speech, The Ballot or the Bullet, Malcolm X offered a message that seems to resonate with the message of Thoreau greatly, a message that questions the commitment of democrats to equal rights, much like the criticism Thoreau offered abolitionists for offering opposition to John Brown. But, overall, it is unimportant as to which Civil Rights leader Thoreau (and Emerson) would follow. The importance to the overarching argument is the clear platform this movement would have provided the two men. It was a platform for individual dignity in the eyes of the law, and ensuring the protection of equal rights.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, is the issue of American actions internationally during the 1960s. A defining characteristic of the counterculture was their absolute rejection of the Vietnam War, and the resistance to participating in it. Now, this is clearly an issue that can be most associated with Thoreau, and it is impossible to ignore how tragic it is that he did not live through this time period. Thoreau’s very critical language regarding the Mexican-American War in 1846, and his message’s relation to the abolition movement translate very well into the context of the Vietnam War. One can imagine his message of rejecting an unjust conflict, and his outrage regarding the desire of the American government to send African Americans to fight for the “freedom” they could not earn themselves. Ultimately, had he lived throughout this time period, Thoreau would have been given content on a silver platter to spread his message of resistance, and individual fulfillment to the greater public.

In totality, the message I have tried to explain with bringing Emerson and Thoreau, hypothetically, into the counterculture of the 1960s is an attempt to display how common their personal philosophies have been in American culture after they died. It is a message that they certainly would have taken advantage of during this period of time, and their popularity would have exploded with the ways in which people were beginning to accept being different. Many of the finer points I have tried to discuss are simply meant to open a meaningful discussion regarding the very notion of Thoreau and Emerson existing in the context of the tumultuous mid 2oth century, especially with regards to whether Thoreau would support the message of either Dr. King, or Malcolm X. Also, while willfully ignoring the overtones of elitism provided by the two, it is important to view their message as one of personal expression, the need to connect with the natural world, and the need to stand up for justice and human dignity in the face of intense adversity.

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One Response to The Misfortune of Emerson and Thoreau Missing the 1960s

  1. nshah210 says:

    I really like how you picked a specific time period as to when these thinkers and their writings would influence the thinking and would have created different outcomes. Do you think that these writings could be applied today and have be used in the same context, or would we see a different aspect and perspective than in the 60s?

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