For Work / Against Work
Debates on the centrality of work

"Embodied politics: Antebellum vegetarianism and the dietary economy of Walden"

by Neely, Michelle C (2013)


Near the beginning of Walden, Henry David Thoreau tells his readers that his “experiment in living” is dedicated to learning “what are the gross necessaries of life... the grossest groceries,” a choice of metaphor that might remind us just how much of his personal and political reform project in Walden hinges on diet and Thoreau's attitude toward literal “groceries.” Thoreau's interest in dietary practices has generally been read as apolitical or even antipolitical, primarily because his dietary and consumptive practices have never been adequately situated amid contemporary antebellum debates about diet and food commodity consumption. A turn to Sylvester Graham's vegetarian movement, however, shows that far from being divorced from civic concerns, the vegetarian dietary theory driving Thoreau's practices at Walden Pond plays a complicated role in the political design of Walden. Uniting private practices with public reform, Thoreau draws on Graham's theory of a universal physiological constitution that all human beings, and perhaps even animals, could be imagined to possess, in order to denominate the human body as a significant site of political reform. Ultimately, antebellum vegetarians such as Graham and Thoreau restricted appetite for animal foods and commodities in order to reform, reshape, and remake what they viewed as a flawed democratic body, reimagining the limits of citizenship and civic participation in the process.


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