Henry Thoreau and the punk rock aesthetic
HEnry David Thoreau played many roles as an American writer and philosopher – environmentalist, abolitionist, progressive, libertarian and punk rock poet. Although the punk label is less known, if not recognized, it is equally valid and worth discussing. Thoreau’s punk, the transcendental punk whose lineage runs through American history, is not the stereotypical punk of spiky hair, tattered clothes, symbols of anarchy sprayed on leather jackets, mosh pits, loud, fast and captivating slam dance and guitar rock. It’s the punk of individual freedom, authenticity in a sense of self, and the rejection of conformity within a dumb society.
These ideas from “The Punk Manifesto” by Bad Religion frontman Greg Graffin remind me of Thoreau’s essays on individuality and self-reliance. Likewise, Thoreau’s philosophy resonates with countless punk rock songs and tenets of the punk subculture. So, since I teach transcendentalism in my English classes, I have always introduced the ideas of Henry David Thoreau through the philosophy of punk.
Years ago, while teaching high school in southern Illinois, I spoke with a colleague and former punk musician from the ’80s St. Louis scene about punk, punk rock, and various punks from our school. Some kids he tutored were always in trouble, drinking, fighting, and cutting school. He tried to help by explaining what Punk meant to him. “I tell them,” he said, “it was never about the music or the clothes or the clubs or the fights or anything like that.” It’s always been about attitude – the sense of self within a society that seeks to conform and crush it.
For an English teacher and fringe 80s punk fan, this concept sounded oddly familiar to one of my American Literature units. While many identify Thoreau as a naturalist, nature writer, and even America’s first conservationist, his legacy is equally important in his challenge to institutional authority, a goal also well exemplified by the punk aesthetic. Thoreau was an original original in the world of American letters, and in my opinion he was punk before he even had a name.
Punk has always had a DIY ethic, and the punk movement was independent before indie was even a thing. This quality and standard of individual integrity outside of societal expectations was also integral to Thoreau’s identity and work. Despite the hype of the Sex Pistols in 1976, the punk movement began with local, independent “pub rock”, and the early anchor of the American punk scene is the now iconic but defunct CBGB in New York’s Bowery. , where owner Hilly Kristal insisted on original music. With the firm belief that anyone can be a musician, and with music reduced to three chords, punk bands did not wait for an agent or a record company to declare them ready. They just made their music and did their thing – just like Thoreau.
During the early New England Renaissance, Henry embarked on his path of writing and publishing even when no one was buying or reading his work. In a rather poetic statement that has long survived most people familiar with the source, Thoreau defined and justified his path by writing, “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, it may be because he hears a different drummer. Let him walk to the music he hears, even measured or distant. The mantra of marching to a different drummer transcended Thoreau’s writing in the 19th century to become an almost schmaltzy slogan of American respect for self-determination, innovation and even entrepreneurship. That said, the wisdom of his metaphor remains relevant, and the musical reference of Thoreau’s quip aligns perfectly with punk rock music, the punk scene, and the very nature of punk.
An anti-establishment, authority-defying approach is fundamental to both Thoreau and the punk aesthetic and perhaps the most obvious connection between the two. In a scholarly sequel to his punk manifesto, Greg Graffin developed the punk ideal with Anarchy Evolution (2011). Graffin explains punk’s challenge to the tyranny of institutional authority by warning that “if people unquestionably yield to the massive force wielded by the oppressive institution of government, they will empower the people in power.” This criticism mirrors Thoreau’s assertion in his 1849 essay, “On the Duty of Civil Disobedience”, about the relatively few who bent government to their will during the Mexican War. Before the publication of Graffin’s Anarchy Evolution, The Bad Religion song “You Are (The Government)”, (Suffer, 1988) decreed, “when people bend, the moral fabric dies”. This concern is the very essence of Thoreau’s uncompromising abolitionist position and of the development of his most important and enduring political work in the art of “The Duty of Civil Disobedience”.
While scholars and historians widely acknowledge the lineage of Thoreau’s ideas that run through the anti-colonialist revolution led by Mohandas Gandhi and the American civil rights protests led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., provocative beliefs can easily be expand into the 70s and 80s with the rise of punk. For when Graffin “warns against blind acceptance of government directives and blind conformity to their ideals,” he is channeling transcendentalist concepts of autonomy and civil disobedience.
Thoreau writes that he “came into this world, not primarily to make it a good place to live, but to live in it, whether good or bad.” Its beliefs and practices of individual freedom logically extend to a sense of almost primitive savagery, which is certainly evident in punk music, concerts and culture. In his essay “In Wildness Is Thoreau”, English scholar Lewis Leary explains Thoreau’s unrestrained individuality beyond simply living outside the comforts of society. In a description that could be just as representative of any punk, Leary describes how “Thoreau…was a wild man, who let his hair grow long, who dressed how he wanted and did exactly what he wanted. “. Thoreau would agree, having noted the same idea when he wrote, “All good things are wild and free.
A similar savagery and independent spirit is an integral and natural part of the punk movement. John Robb, whose Punk Rock: An Oral History (2012) is a definitive record of punk’s origins, validates this primitive instinct by writing, “Where does punk rock begin? It has always been with us, this wild spirit, this outsider cry. Similarly, in The Adventures of Henry David Thoreau (2014), Sims notes the almost aloof independence of Thoreau, who “never strove to be popular and seemed not only resigned to not fitting in, but to enjoy it sometimes”. For example, he even dressed as a punk in the 1830s, because while black was the standard dress for church, he could show up dressed in green.
Punk and Thoreau promote a belief in the individual mind to survive and thrive. In Understanding Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience”(2010), Andrew Kirk describes Thoreau’s push for individual integrity as “a hymn to the power of righteous individuals against the force of the unthinking majority.” … Thoreau is interested in the inalienability of individual consciousness. Thus, Thoreau’s preference for “no government”, which he said we will have “when the people are ready”, depends entirely on individual ethics, morality and character – key elements of the punk aesthetic. Finally, in a preview reminiscent of my former colleague’s advice to his students, Black Flag frontman Henry Rollins explains, “Punk isn’t about mohawks or studded leather, it’s about toughness. to tyranny in all its forms. Nothing could better describe America’s first punk, Henry David Thoreau.
Graffin, Greg. Anarchy Evolution: Faith, science and bad religion in a world without God. Perennial Harper. 2011.
Graffin, Greg. “Punk Manifesto”. PunxInSolidarity. posted on October 22, 2013
Kirk, Andrew. Understanding Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience”“. (Words that changed the world). Rosen. 2010.
Leary, Lewis. “In the desert is Thoreau”. [forthcoming]
Robb, John. Punk Rock: An Oral History. PM press. 2012.
Sims, Michael. The Adventures of Henri Thoreau: A young man’s unlikely path to Walden Pond. Bloomsbury. 2014.
Thoreau, Henry David. “Duty of civil disobedience“. 1849. Gutenburg.org