Bob Pepperman Taylor, author of Lessons from Walden: Thoreau and the Crisis of American Democracy, kindly agreed to answer a few questions about his writing process and how this book was created out of the idea for another one. His previous books include The Routledge Guidebook to Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience and America’s Bachelor Uncle: Henry Thoreau and the American Polity.
In what way is the book you wrote different from the book you set out to write?
In the fall of 2017, I went on sabbatical leave to write a book about a problem that had haunted most of my writing throughout my career: how the American political tradition responded to the problem of producing responsible democratic citizens. This is an ancient problem, as old as the practice of democracy itself. As soon as democracy appeared in ancient Greece, objections to the irresponsibility of democrats were raised. These objections have been relentlessly repeated and developed in the Western political tradition from the time Socrates first articulated them to our own (as I write, young citizens in the United States appear to be less committed to democracy than any generation of Americans in memory). It is not surprising, of course, that democracy’s opponents have held democratic citizens in contempt; that is to be expected. But it has always sobered me to notice that many of democracy’s greatest friends are as nervous about the character of the democratic many as are democracy’s enemies. Who worried more about cultivating responsible democratic citizens than Rousseau or Dewey?
The book I intended to write had a working title, “Democracy and Restraint,” and was to focus on the American traditions contending with this problem. My intention was to write a chapter on each of the key proposals I had identified in our tradition for moderating the passions and narrow self-interest of citizens and cultivating at least a modicum of civic responsibility. My chapter themes were religion, publicly sponsored education, and the experience and appreciation of nature. These, as well as an occasional populist faith in the natural virtue of “the people” (often with a racialized understanding of who the people actually are) seemed to me to be the primary tools American political thinkers and activists have wielded with the goal of cultivating “democratic restraint.”
When did you first get the idea to write Lessons from Walden? Why did you feel compelled to write it?
Sitting down to write the first substantive chapter of this project, on how American’s have thought of nature as a moral force in our civic development, I realized early on that the theme was much too big for a single chapter in one book. In fact, the material expanded to the point where I realized that using Walden as an organizing text would leave me with material sufficient for its own book. Over the course of the next few months, into the spring and summer of 2018, this became increasingly clear as the first draft of Lessons from Walden took shape.
What book are you working on next?
It is still my hope and intention to work on the broader project out of which this book grew. My future focus will likely be on the role of (secular) education in the promotion of civic responsibility. Although I have a few shorter projects to attend to in the immediate future, I hope my return to the project which gave birth to Lessons will build on some of my previous work on Horace Mann and John Dewey. Looking down the road even further, the same set of concerns could lead to an evaluation of the civic purposes of religion in American society, and, likewise, the civic claims of American populism.
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