Shaping a Legacy: Thoreau, Harding, and Fluidity of the American Cultural Canon

Professor Harding hanging out with his buddy Henry David Thoreau
Professor Harding hanging out with his pal Henry David Thoreau.

“Have you ever heard of Henry David Thoreau?”

If you ask that question to any serious academic of English, it holds the same connotations as asking a historian if they are familiar with George Washington or a physicist if they’ve heard of Sir Isaac Newton. It would be considered one of those 100 dollar questions in the first round of a game of “American Lit Jeopardy,” one that a student in high school can answer with a certain degree of confidence. Thoreau has become so engrained in the canon of great American authors that he’s even transcended the bounds of literary greatness to be included on standardized U.S. History exams as a figure of profound influence on American ideology. Perhaps posing the question “Have you heard of Thoreau?” is kind of foolish for me to do, so let me try a question that you might not immediately know the answer to: “Why have you heard of Thoreau?”

That one is a little bit tougher. Why do you know him? I mean, you just do, right? He’s always been there at the top of American literary greatness, along with Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman, as one of the best. There’s no question about that…right? Well, actually, no. Believe it or not, Henry David Thoreau was not well known during his lifetime. According to Wendy McElroy in her article, “Henry David Thoreau and ‘Civil Disobedience,’” his most influential political theories were mainly reserved for small lectures or brief sections of relatively obscure periodicals. She also mentions that a eulogy penned by Emerson concludes with the line, “The country knows not yet, or in the least part, how great a son it has lost.” His obituary has no mention of Civil Disobedience, and only briefly mentions Life in the Woods, capitalizing instead on his “eccentric…habits” as a naturalist.

Not much love for a great American author, huh?
Not much love for a great American author, huh?

If that’s the case, and Thoreau was relatively unknown during his lifetime, then why is it that his name and works survive today as being such a cultural landmark for our national identity? The answer has not so much to do with the work of the man born in 1817, but rather to do with a man born 100 years later, and the work he did to make Thoreau an American great. That man’s name is Walter Harding (1917-1996), and it is because of him that students from California to the epicenter of his legacy in Geneseo, NY recognize Thoreau’s name and reputation for what they are today.

I, along with my incredible project teammates, got the chance to interview with Mr. Harding’s son Allen recently to gauge how his father’s impact has changed the canon of American literature from what it was fifty years ago, to what it is today. The entire interview can be found at and I seriously encourage you to visit the site to get the sense of how Walter Harding’s work has influenced us as a college, as Americans, and as literary scholars. But more precisely, I wanted to attention to two things we’ve come across as a group that, at least for me, has changed the way I perceive Thoreau as an author. Firstly, when asked to specify his father’s lasting legacy, Allen Harding specifically pointed to his father’s role in elevating Thoreau’s status within the American cultural canon, saying:

…he [Walter Harding] took an author who everyone ignored in the 1930s and 1940s, and made him into a star of American literature. If you ask anyone up at the Society or in Concord, they will say that Thoreau wasn’t considered that important. But after my father got a hold of him, that all changed.

That really registered with me as such an incredible testament to Walter Harding’s influence on the literary canon, and on a larger scale, his influence on American identity. Think about it: You can walk into any high school English or American History class across America and ask who Henry David Thoreau is, and I’m sure you’ll get a positive response…and that’s largely due to the lifetime work of one man, whom we’ve had the great privilege of hosting as a professor here at SUNY Geneseo from 1956-1983. Now if that’s not a point of pride as a Geneseo student majoring in English, then I’m not sure what is.

The second thing I wanted to call attention to was the way that Walter Harding expanded the influence of Thoreau’s teachings to validate his legacy and place in American history. Take a look at this except I extracted from the Cracking the AP U.S. History Exam 2012 textbook. It explains that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. acted on the principles of civil disobedience outlined by a certain literary figure by the name of Henry David Thoreau.

Sure, you might say that this is an indirect consequence of Walter Harding’s work, and that it is more of a retrospective pairing of Henry David Thoreau and Martin Luther King’s similar messages. But take a look at this correspondence from the King Center (also available on between Dr. Martin Luther King Jr and Professor Harding:

That brief letter, all ten lines of typewritten text, tells a story of a well-respected literary academic’s subtle yet profound impact on American history. Walter Harding and Martin Luther King discussing Thoreau with respect to contemporary American society. King’s legacy and Harding’s legacy coming together in a cross of mutual respect for an author that, just a few decades earlier, was relatively unknown. It is thanks to Walter Harding, Thoreau continues to enjoy new life 150 years after his quiet death, and it is thanks to digitalization efforts such as the Thoreau-Harding Project here on campus that we can continue Professor Harding’s legacy and actively shape our cultural canon for many years to come.


So next time you come across the name “Henry David Thoreau” while reading a textbook or some academic paper discussing his legacy, try not to forget that it was Professor Walter Harding’s legacy that allowed you to recognize that name in the first place.


The Art of the Vine

Wednesday’s class discussion on the nature of social media platforms as news outlets and the strategic advantages and detriments of the electronic delivery of news led me to think about the relationship between more traditional forms of media (i.e. film, television, etc.) and the integration of social media into our daily lives. I also considered the way we consume social media and other forms of online publications in that there is a trend which favors brevity and instant gratification. Following this train of thought, I found myself reflecting on a particular app which I feel bears more discussion and perhaps respect than it has garnered in its first year of existence. I am referring to the Twitter-based video sharing app known as Vine.

For those of you unfamiliar with Vine, it is a feed created by you and the people you follow, not unlike Twitter, which features videos up to six seconds in length. In addition to their short duration, the videos are also unique in that they all have a looping feature that allows the video to play continuously until it is scrolled past on your phone or laptop. These parameters surrounding Vines breed a unique creativity, ingenuity and wit that would not found on other mediums. A good Viner is not only aware of the limitations that the app sets, but welcomes their restrictions and utilizes them in an artistic sense. The trick to flourishing creativity on Vine is not to break the rules, but to follow them. Creating a good Vine is not for the timid, the unambitious or the impatient. It is for those who are willing to go out of their way to put thought and labor into six seconds of film that will, at best, generate a quick smirk on a user before they scroll down for more.

The reason I made this connection to Twitter and other social media as a new primary source for our news and information as opposed to the antiquated newspaper or even the TV news is because Vine operates much differently. Vine is a medium of entertainment like television, but is also categorized as a social media platform. It is both, yet neither. Vine is not quite a form of televisual entertainment, not quite a platform for social media and interacting with friends, but floats in a sort of purgatory between the two. It is this refusal of traditional definition which has given the app its own cult following; I like to think of Vine as the underground newspaper for the digital age. It has its own celebrities and cultural cannon, though popularity on Vine does not translate well into more traditional forms of media (In fact, one star with over 650 thousand followers on the app is often seen in his work attire for his job at Target). Popular Viners are content with their self-contained success within the app, perhaps because they know that their celebrity in more traditional mediums would probably last about as long as the Vines which made them famous in the first place.

For me, the idea behind Vine is brilliant, but also raises important issues that were discussed when we were covering “Is Google Making Us Stupider?” The brevity of Vine videos speaks to the instant-gratification mindset of the digital age. We want to be entertained, but we don’t want to commit 22 minutes for a sitcom, 43 minutes for a drama, or god forbid 90+ minutes for a feature film. In the words of Lisa Simpson in 1993, “[We’ve] fallen through the cracks of our quick-fix, one-hour photo, instant oatmeal society.” If feature-length films are a fine glass of Bordeaux that you casually sip at an upscale restaurant, Vine videos are shots of 12 dollar vodka that you’re pounding back on your way to a nightclub. They are fillers of entertainment between the events of your day, functioning in the same way that a comic strip might in a newspaper. (Coincidentally, Vines and comics inspire the same amount of embarrassment for me when I am caught viewing them.) So while Google might make me stupider and Vines might be detracting from my ability to appreciate film and television, I am perfectly content to sit on my phone and watch a six second video of a dog in a pool on loop.