Thoreau from across the pond


September 15, 2016

Julien Nègre / ENS de Lyon, France

International Symposium

October 19-20, 2017

École Normale Supérieure de Lyon, Lyon (France)


Thoreau from across the pond


Organized by Julien Nègre (ENS de Lyon)

François Specq (ENS de Lyon)

and Laura Dassow Walls (University of Notre Dame)


Guest speakers (confirmed):

–        Professor Branka Arsić (Columbia University)

–        Professor William Rossi (University of Oregon)


In honor of Henry David Thoreau’s 200th birthday in 2017, this conference would like to interrogate the multiplicity of viewpoints from which he is read today. In recent years, Thoreau’s writings have been approached from a variety of perspectives: he has been envisioned as a poet and a philosopher, but also as a political thinker, a scientist of sorts, a surveyor, a lover of nature and an environmentalist. While these different perspectives complement each other to a certain extent, they also reveal how multifaceted his writings are, and how elusive his figure remains. Something resists in his texts, which is probably the surest sign of his ongoing relevance today.

The purpose of this conference is to confront these different readings and explore the issue of how we perceive and understand Thoreau today. The geographical separation between Concord and Lyon invites us to question the distance–temporal, intellectual, theoretical perhaps–between Thoreau and us. What does it mean to read Thoreau from across the pond, that is to say, in this case, from across the Atlantic, but also from the 21st century and from the frame of reference of our own modernity? In a journal entry from June 7, 1851, Thoreau playfully warns: “Keep your distance, do not infringe on the interval between us, and I will pick pick [sic] up lime & lay real terrestrial eggs for you, & let you know by cackling when I have done it.” What is the right “distance” to read Thoreau, then? What sort of theoretical tools, historiographic work of contextualization or biographical sources do we need to find the right “interval”? Thinking about Thoreau from across the pond also invites us to consider his inscription in American culture, both in his own time (through the study of his reception by his contemporaries) and in the way he has been perceived by several different generations of readers.

In 2009, scholars from around the world gathered in Lyon for the “Thoreauvian Modernities” conference, the first Thoreau event ever organized on this side of the Atlantic. That gathering led to important debates on Thoreau’s “modernity,” as evidenced by the multiple and sometimes divergent approaches displayed in the Thoreauvian Modernities volume (University of Georgia Press, 2013). Following up on these debates, the organizers of the present conference are interested in papers that illustrate and confront the variety of theoretical approaches and perspectives on Thoreau’s texts and his life. Participants might consider, but not necessarily limit themselves to the following topics:

–        New approaches to Thoreau’s writings

–        Thoreau’s texts and their inscription within the fields of philosophy, politics, science, environmental studies, etc.

–        Thoreau’s life

–        Thoreau’s network: his friends, relatives, correspondents, etc. and their influence on his thinking;

–        Thoreau’s sources: the documents he used, read, owned, borrowed, annotated, etc.

–        Thoreau’s reception by his contemporaries and until today.


To submit a proposal, please send an abstract (250-300 words) and a short CV to by September 15, 2016