University of Vermont

The College of Arts and Sciences

Department of Political Science

TaylorInterview_UVM 2015

Drilling Down on 'Civil Disobedience'

Professor Bob Taylor guides readers through Thoreau’s classic


"The Thoreau we talk about," says Bob Pepperman Taylor, UVM professor of political science, "is a very carefully created character from his own pen.”

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From leaders of the early twentieth-century American Labor Party to Mohandas Gandhi, from Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. to countless Vietnam War protestors placed in handcuffs, Henry David Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience” has been inspiration for bold thought backed by brave action.

There’s some irony in that, notes Bob Pepperman Taylor, UVM professor of political science and author of the recently published Routledge Guidebook to Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience. Thoreau’s lone night in the Concord, Mass., jail, earned for his refusal to pay taxes that would support U.S. military action in Mexico and the potential spread of slavery, was largely under his own terms. The bare facts of his imprisonment are “almost comic,” Taylor says. That comedy wasn’t lost on Thoreau himself. “He was well aware that his heroic moment was decidedly small time compared to, say, John Brown.”

Taylor’s new book provides thorough context and, perhaps, lifts some veils to help readers of “Civil Disobedience” better understand the essay, the writer, and the times. Taylor suggests that Thoreau, no less than contemporaries Herman Melville or Nathaniel Hawthorne, was to some extent creating a fictive world, a character named Henry David Thoreau a megaphone for his thoughts about man, nature, politics, and society.

“I make the point in the book that the Thoreau we talk about is a very carefully created character from his own pen,” Taylor says. “Why do we read ‘Civil Disobedience’ but not Emerson’s essay on politics, which says pretty much the same thing? It is because Emerson didn’t do what Thoreau did in this essay, which was brilliantly tie the story into the act of an individual named Henry Thoreau and make it a literary invention that captured the imagination.”

When Routledge approached Taylor about writing the guide, he initially declined, bowing to an academic undercurrent that strongly suggests faculty really shouldn’t write for a student audience. But after giving it more thought, the professor signed on. “I spend my life teaching young people. Why shouldn’t I try to write something to help more students have access to a text that I teach routinely?”

This is Taylor’s second book on Thoreau. His 1996 publication, America’s Bachelor Uncle: Henry Thoreau and the American Polity (University Press of Kansas) examined the writer’s political thought.

While the takeaway message of “Civil Disobedience” may boil down to the moral responsibility implicit in Thoreau’s “demand that we live up to what we already claim to believe in,” Taylor suggests that was far from an original notion.   

Instead, Taylor believes Thoreau’s greatest contribution to American thought is as the founding figure in discussions about the relationship of democratic societies to the natural world. These ideas are merely hinted at in the essay’s close as Thoreau is sprung from the Concord jail. His next order of business: leading a huckleberry party, likely comprised of many children, to forest and fields far from town. “Henry would be in charge, the authority out there,” Taylor says. “Up on the hillsides with the State nowhere to be seen.”

Last modified February 19 2015 08:17 AM