Responses to Our Summer 2017 Issue

Retaliation or Restraint

Jeffrey Lewis (“Our Nuclear Future,” Summer), in his warning about escape through technology, concludes by saying that only changes in ourselves can save us. Not being a psychopath myself (on fairly good evidence), I have
always assumed that the president of the United States would not respond reflexively to a genocidal attack with equally massive retaliation—from a sane perspective, what would be the point? It would be interesting to know, however, how many Americans share this hopeful assumption, since the end of the world seems to be part of the belief system of many.

John S. Harris
St. Louis, Missouri

Thoreau for the Ages

As I read through William Howarth’s “Reading Thoreau at 200,” I recognized a valiant attempt to distill the essence of Thoreau, both the man and the writer. Like nearly all of us, Thoreau was somewhat inconsistent in the way he perceived and reacted to the social order of his day. Much of what we take away from his published works and his Journal depends upon what we as modern readers bring to them. Thoreau used the Journal to record his observations of the natural world and subsequent reflections on them; over the course of his adult life, readers can track his spiritual growth. Walden is his attempt to distill his inward journey from “alienation to insight.” That many modern readers are unable to come to grips with the text says more about their attention span and the hurriedness of 21st-century life than the quality of the poetic prose itself.

Brian T. Maurer
from our website

Howarth’s essay reawakens in me the dim but undeniable certainty that at some point Thoreau became personal to me. Walden is the gift that keeps on giving. Pardon the metaphor, but Thoreau is like a dog baying out of sight up ahead urging us forward into our true and free selves. With the knowledge of the hunt, we are born anew and all living tightens to the urgent suggestion that there are unseen dimensions to confront and measure. There is art to be made, the art of living.

Rob Dunlavey
from our website

As a fledgling English instructor in the 1960s, I sought to counter the notion of Thoreau as someone who retreated from the struggles of his time to contemplate birds and blossoms in isolation. I taught four of his works as a progression: Walden (personal contact with nature leads to enlightenment); “Civil Disobedience” (personal enlightenment leads to dissent from social evils and abstention from support of them, that abstention itself being a form of social action); “Slavery in Massachusetts” (individual dissent must become collective political protest); and “A Plea for Captain John Brown” (it may become necessary for protest to become violent rebellion). I wonder if any teachers are following this approach today.

Peter O’Connell
from our website

Wonderful reflections on Thoreau—thank you. As a long-time Thoreauvian, I find it surprising that scholarship on Thoreau is so limited. I agree that the  Journal is one of the great unmined treasures (at least what I’ve read, in those volumes published already by Princeton). As with Emerson, the Journal is the place where he recorded his greatest thoughts.

Kirk McElhearn
from our website

A Loss of Words

I am a lawyer who lost his partner in the law to primary progressive aphasia. Mary Jo Salter’s poem “Lost Words”—I mean, “Last Words”—captures beautifully the pain a person who loves words (lawyers and poets) must feel when afflicted with loss of this basic tool of their profession.

Edmund J. Sease
Des Moines, Iowa

Petrarch in Love?

Jeffrey Tayler’s engaging narrative of his trip to the source of the Sorgue (“Where the Waters Speak of Love,” Letter from Fontaine-de-Vaucluse) takes the reader to the place that inspired the Canzoniere, “Petrarch’s … rendition of his suffering in unrequited love for the enigmatic Laura.” His explanations of various verses as being inspired by Petrarch’s feelings for Laura are generally correct, with the exception of those in the final poem, which begins:

Lovely virgin, who, clothed in glory,
crowned with stars, so pleased
the high Sun, that he hid his light in you.
Love urges me to speak of you …
Commend me to your Son
a true man and the true God,
that he may receive my soul in peace.

I am neither a scholar nor a Catholic, but that sounds to me more like Petrarch’s prayer to the Virgin Mary to grant him peace from his own sufferings than “reverence for a quasi-saintly Madonna Laura,” as Tayler posits.

Charlie Adams
Fort Valley, Georgia

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