J. William T. Youngs -- Talk Proposal and Brief Biography

2012 Thoreau Society Annual Gathering
"Celebrating 150 Years of Thoreau's Life, Works, and Legacy"

Topic: Henry David Thoreau as Environmentalist and Preservationist

J.William T. "Bill" Youngs, Professor of History, Eastern Washington University

Synopsis: I propose to give a talk on Henry David Thoreau as environmentalist and preservationist. In some ways this may seem like an obvious point. After all Thoreau is known far and wide as the person who wrote, "In wildness is the preservation of the world." But two schools of thought challenge Thoreau's environmentalist credentials. One, represented best by Roderick Nash inWilderness and the American Mind, argues that Thoreau was never comfortable with wilderness beyond the safe confines of Walden Pond, an easy walk from Concord and home. Nash contends that when Thoreau came face to face with genuinely wild nature at Mount Katahdin in Maine, he was frightened and repulsed. According to Nash, Thoreau was most comfortable with a blended atmosphere of "wildness and refinement." Since he was not really comfortable with raw nature, how could he be a preservationist?

A second critique of Thoreau as environmentalist-preservationist was set forth recently in an article by Kent Curtis in Environmental History (January, 2010) titled, "The Virtue of Thoreau: Biography, Geography, and History in Walden Woods." Curtis finds much to admire in Thoreau's appreciatory writings about nature, but finds nothing in his writing to support the notion that Thoreau was a preservationist. As this argument provides an important contrast to my own, I'll quote here Curtis's key passage on this subject:

"Thoreau nowhere suggested nature's frailty or a loss of natural balance at the hands of human society. More often than not, Thoreau concerned himself with aesthetics or with the tenacity of living things, decrying a civilization that would be constructed without a general celebration of the wild tendencies they encountered. There were no crimes against nature in Thoreau's pages."

Certainly, there are places in Thoreau's writings where he apparently regards the destruction of nature as inevitable; but I find many passages that lament these changes and call quite explicitly for the preservation of large amounts of wilderness. Thoreau's critique of "crimes against nature" appears throughout his writings. He anticipates, in fact, this key phrase from the National Parks Organic Act (1916): the parks will "conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein...unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations."

Thoreau was not like John Muir the spiritual guardian of wild places such as Yosemite, nor like Muir was he the founder of a great wilderness preservation society, the Sierra Club. These political movements came later in American history. But they built on the foundations laid by Henry David Thoreau. (During John Muir's first summer in the Sierra, he counted among a handful of books he brought with him Thoreau's Maine Woods, and many of Muir's notable paeans to wild nature echo passages in Thoreau.)

In offering this topic for consideration for the Thoreau Society Annual Gathering, I am mindful of the 2012 theme, "Celebrating 150 Years of Thoreau's Life, Works, and Legacy," and of Edward O. Wilson's statement quoted in the conference materials. Wilson remarks that in view of contemporary interest in environmentalism, ecology, and biodiversity studies, "the study of the Concord Master naturalist and preservation of his memory in history becomes all the more important." My paper can contribute to this appreciation by revealing fully Henry David Thoreau's contribution to preservationist thought.

My Background: What I can bring to this presentation:

-- I teach two history courses at Eastern Washington University that draw extensively on Thoreau's writings: The History of the American Wilderness and The History of the American National Parks.
-- I have written on environmental topics including a book entitled The Fair and the Falls: Spokane's Expo '74--Transforming an American Environment,which won a Washington State Governor's Writers Award.
-- I am a long-time student and fan of Thoreau. In college, a half century ago, when the pond was less regulated, I used to take breaks from Harvard by riding out to the pond on my scooter and camping for the night near Thoreau's cabin site--where I would read Walden by lantern light! I am currently a member of the Thoreau Society, and during the past decade I have made it back to Walden on an average of at least once a year from my home near Spokane, Washington. I might add that as I write, I am at Cape Cod, exploring by RV, motor scooter, and hiking boots some of the places visited by Thoreau during his trips here.
-- During the past two years I have delivered two papers on Thoreau at regional conferences of early American historians. One is on Thoreau as historian, and the other, delivered earlier this fall, was a preliminary version of the paper proposed here.
-- I might add that while I can bring to my topic all the mental equipment of a formally trained historian (Harvard B.A, Berkeley Ph.D.), I like to keep my presentations entertaining as well as informative and, hopefully thought-provoking. I'm very comfortable with taking part in a gathering that includes "hikes and other events." My approach to history is summarized in a kind of motto I wrote for myself some years ago and include now beneath my email signature: "I want to tell the stories of American history as though I were among friends seated beside a fire."


J. William T. Youngs
Professor of History
Eastern Washington University

RRL 129H, Eastern Washington University, Cheney, WA 99004
Phone: (509)359-6944, Fax (509)359-4275
E-Mail: jyoungs@ewu.edu

Education: Harvard (B.A., 1963), Berkeley (Ph. D., 1970)

Kenyon College: Assistant Professor 1970-1972
Eastern Washington University: Assistant, Associate, and Full Professor, 1972-present

Youngs has taught United States history courses in a variety of fields including colonial America, American environmental history, history of disease, historical writing and editing, the Pacific Northwest, and World War I.

Major Publications:

God's Messengers: Religious Leadership in Colonial New England, 1700-1750 (Baltimore: John's Hopkins, 1976 - winner, American Society of Church History's Brewer Prize)
American Realities: Historical Episodes from the First Settlements to the Present (two volumes -- Boston: Little, Brown, 1981; Japanese translation, 1984; Eighth Edition: Pearson, 2010)
Eleanor Roosevelt: A Personal and Public Life (Boston: Little, Brown, 1985, now published by Pearson, Third Edition, 2005. Also large print and Books-on-Tape editions; Romanian translation, 1997, Chinese translation forthcoming)
The Congregationalists (Stanford, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1990)
The Fair and the Falls: Spokane's Expo '74, Transforming and American Environment. (Cheney: Eastern Washington University Press, 1996 -- Washington State Governor's Writers Award)
Timeline author for world history timeline for Microsoft's multimedia encyclopedia, Encarta (1993 and subsequent editions).

Youngs has received research grants from the American Philosophical Society and the National Endowment for the Humanities, and he is a recipient of the Trustees Award at Eastern Washington University and the Burlington Northern Award from Eastern for excellence in teaching and research.

He was president of the Faculty Organization at Eastern Washington (2006-07) and Chair of the History Department (2007-2011) and Co-Chair of the Strategic Planning Council (2006-2009) at Eastern.

He has recently delivered papers relating to a book he is writing on Henry David Thoreau:

-- "Henry David Thoreau as Historian," paper presented in 2010 at meetings of the Bay Area Seminar (Oakland), the Pacific Northwest Early Americanists (Seattle), and the Front Range Early American Consortium (Boise)

-- "Was Henry David Thoreau a Preservationist?" paper presented in 2011 at the Front Range Early American Consortium (Cheney)