Conference paper Open Access

Thoreau's Cabin: An Economy of Space, Sociality, and the Commons

Stein, Eric

“Economy,” the opening chapter of Thoreau’s Walden, is a lengthy exploration of the conditions of existence of the New England settler. Before encountering his famous wish to “live deliberately” (83), readers of Walden are confronted with Thoreau’s sardonic treatment of the so-called “serfs” of Concord, Massachusetts, and immersed in his economic theorizing (7). For one whose thought has influenced the likes of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., Thoreau’s repudiation of his community might come across as aloof and asocial, a privileged detachment from the concerns of ‘common’ or ‘everyday’ life. This paper argues, however, that far from being a disavowal of sociality, Thoreau’s economic theory operates within a different field of the social, one with roots in the oikonomia or “household management” of Aristotle’s Politics, an economy intimately concerned with care and provision. While modern political economy emphasizes entitlement and contract—which is to say, property—the economy that Thoreau depicts in Walden is one of the home, a shared practice of material space. By engaging with the discourse of his contemporaries and his culture, Thoreau is able to provide his readers with a model for resistance that does not reproduce the conditions he seeks to dismantle.

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