Walden, or Living Like a Proto-Vegan

Okay, stop me reading if you’ve heard this before:

A stack of modern graham crackers, courtesy Wikimedia
A stack of modern graham crackers, courtesy Wikimedia

In the mid-19th century, the Reverend Sylvester Graham founded the American Vegetarian Society and wrote extensively about the detrimental health effects of consuming meat, dairy, and alcohol. Maybe you know him as the guy who gave Graham crackers their name and millions of cheesecakes their delicious crust. Whether that’s brand-new information to you or not, Graham is probably super disappointed in all of us. Commercialism and sweet snacks of middling-to-no nutritional value are exactly what he didn’t want anyone indulging in!

Graham preached abstinence in almost all things, leading his devotees by example to new lives of regular bathing, no sex or masturbation, and a diet we’d call vegan these days. In doing so, Michelle Neely argues in “Embodied Politics: Antebellum Vegetarianism and the Dietary Economy of Walden“, Graham was constructing for his followers (and anyone else who would pay attention long enough to be converted) a means by which individual bodies and society at large would be cured of illnesses and dysfunctions both personal and systemic (35). The industrial age, and its shift away from a rural agrarian and natural lifestyle, was poisoning people and the governments they created. Maybe by setting aside modern conveniences and temptations, people could find their way back to a better-regulated life and society.

Though Graham’s mostly seen as a crackpot these days — then, too; celibacy tends to be a pretty hard sell, and no less than Thoreau’s buddy Ralph Waldo Emerson called Graham a loony, only in a lot more words — there are still people who seem to think there might be something to his theory, or several like it. That you can’t get right in the mind and soul without also being right in the body is a perennially popular idea, though usually not to the same extremes. Graham’s essential message to the individual, when stripped of the really restrictive tenets, is: Eat healthy foods, do things in moderation, and enjoy the benefits.

Sound familiar? One example among many: Michael Pollan’s built an empire just in the past decade or so on the same idea:

Michelle Neely also argues that Henry David Thoreau was testing Graham’s theory in his Walden Pond experiment. Walden isn’t just a model of the possibilities of an individual’s capacity for personal and civic scaling back and restructuring, and a favored unplug-and-drop-out staple in disaffected freshmen’s dorms nationwide. It’s also a part of a tradition in the industrial era of “domestic guidebooks” that promise that “by practicing frugality and home economy […] Americans could hoard enough capital to insulate themselves from the boom and bust cycles threatening self-determination”–some of those guidebooks having been written by Graham himself (Neely 36-39).

Suze Orman | Maserati DENIED
This lady knows what they’re talking about (Photo: CNBC, AndThenWeSaved.com)

But where the non-Graham guidebooks tended to push the reader toward financial frugality, Thoreau’s Walden is a study in the Grahamite “appetite management” that he models (Neely 43). Like Graham, Neely argues, Thoreau is interested in how the regulation of the individual body can yield gains in both the individual and the societal sphere: if everyone can discover their “ability to do without them altogether” then perhaps the greatest and most egregious excesses of an age can be defeated (Neely 51).

Thoreau puts his money where his mouth is, too. In addition to giving up all the comforts of home, he squats on land he doesn’t own or rent (with permission from the actual owner, of course), builds shelter from materials he basically scavenges, and keeps meticulous accounting of his finances. He bathes regularly, as Graham recommended, which is apparently uncommon enough that he has to tell us about it specifically; eats food that is gathered in the wild or produced by his own hands; and gives up pretty much everything but grains, vegetables, and the occasional but rare bit of meat or fish (Thoreau 1012).

In Walden, as Neely argues, Thoreau even quotes what she says is phrasing straight out of Graham’s Treatise and Lectures on the Science of Human Life: “‘good, sweet, wholesome, bread’, the staff of life” (Thoreau 1013). Though this is maybe a stretch, given that the words don’t appear together in the same phrase exactly, it’s possible that Thoreau was quoting someone who was misquoting Graham–maybe even his friend Bronson Alcott, who was a fan of Graham, had attended the reverend’s lectures, and even owned a copy of one of his books.

So, Neely says that Thoreau was not only a leading light of the Transcendentalist and Naturalist movements, but an early proselytizer for a vegetarian/vegan/farm-to-fork lifestyle as an essential ingredient for wider social change.

What do you think? Are you convinced by Neely’s connections between Graham’s philosophy and Thoreau’s experiment? Do you think that the dietary and behavioral choices Thoreau and Graham promoted can effect the kind of change they were hoping to see come to pass?

Works Cited

Thoreau, Henry David. “Walden, Or Life in the Woods.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Ed. Nina Paym. 8th ed. B Vol. New York: W.W. Norton, 2012. 981-1155. Print.

Neely, Michelle C. “Embodied Politics: Antebellum Vegetarianism and the Dietary Economy of Walden.” American Literature: A Journal of Literary History, Criticism, and Bibliography 85.1 (2013): 33-60. Print.

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