Henry David Thoreau has played many roles as an American writer and philosopher – environmentalist, abolitionist, progressive, libertarian, and punk rock poet. While the punk label is less well known, if acknowledged at all, it’s every bit as valid and worthy of discussion. The punk of Thoreau, the transcendental punk whose lineage runs throughout American history, is not the stereotyped punk of spiked hair, tattered clothes, anarchy symbols spayed across leather jackets, mosh pits, slam dancing, and loud, fast, riveting guitar rock. It’s the punk of individual liberty, authenticity in the sense of self, and the rejection of conformity amidst a mindless society.
Those ideas from “The Punk Manifesto” by Bad Religion frontman Greg Graffin remind me of Thoreau’s essays on individuality and self-reliance. Similarly, Thoreau’s philosophy resonates with countless punk rock songs and tenets of punk subculture. Thus, for as long as I’ve been teaching transcendentalism in my English classes, I have always introduced Henry David Thoreau’s ideas through Punk’s philosophy.
Years ago, while teaching high school in southern Illinois, I spoke with a colleague and former punk musician in the ’80s St. Louis scene about Punk, punk rock, and various punks at our school. Some kids he mentored were always in trouble, drinking, fighting, and cutting class. He tried to help by explaining what Punk meant to him. “I tell them,” he said, “It’s never been about the music or the clothing or the clubs or the fighting or anything like that.” It’s always been about the attitude – the sense of self amidst a society that seeks to conform and crush it.
To an English teacher and fringe punk fan from the ’80s, that concept sounded strangely familiar to one of my units in American literature. While many identify Thoreau as a naturalist, nature writer, and even the first American environmentalist, his legacy is equally significant in his challenge to institutional authority, a focus equally well-exemplified through the punk aesthetic. Thoreau was an original’s original in the world of American Letters, and in my view, he was Punk before it even had a name.
Punk has always had a DIY ethic, and the punk movement was indie before indie was even a thing. That quality and standard of individual integrity outside society’s expectations was also integral to Thoreau’s identity and work. Despite the hype of the Sex Pistols in 1976, the punk movement started with local and independent “pub rock”, and the earliest foothold for the American punk scene is the now iconic but defunct CBGB in the Bowery of New York, where owner Hilly Kristal insisted on original music. With a firm conviction that anyone can be a musician, and with the music boiled down to three chords, punk bands were not waiting for an agent or record company to declare them ready. They simply made their music and did their thing – just like Thoreau.
In the early days of the New England Renaissance, Henry committed himself to his path of writing and publishing even when no one was buying or reading his work. In a rather poetic declaration that has long outlived most people knowing the source, Thoreau defined and justified his path by writing, “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured, or far away.” The march-to-a-different drummer mantra has transcended Thoreau’s 19th-century writing to become an almost schmaltzy slogan of the American respect for self-determination, innovation, and even entrepreneurship. That said, the wisdom of his metaphor remains apt, and the musical reference of Thoreau’s quip aligns perfectly with punk rock music, the punk scene, and the very nature of Punk.
An anti-establishment and authority-defiant approach is fundamental to both Thoreau and the punk aesthetic and perhaps the most obvious connection between the two. In a scholarly follow-up to his punk manifesto, Greg Graffin expanded on the punk ideal with Anarchy Evolution (2011). Graffin explains punk’s challenge to the tyranny of institutional authority warning that “If people unquestionably give in to the massive force exercised by the oppressive institution that is the government, they will enable the people in power.” This criticism mirrors Thoreau’s assertion in his 1849 essay, “On the Duty of Civil Disobedience”, about the relatively few bending the government to their will during the Mexican War. Prior to the publication of Graffin’s Anarchy Evolution, Bad Religion’s song “You Are (The Government)”, (Suffer, 1988) decreed, “when people bend, the moral fabric dies”. That concern is the essence of Thoreau’s uncompromising abolitionist stance and the development of his most significant and enduring political work in the art of “On the Duty of Civil Disobedience”.
While scholars and historians widely acknowledge the lineage of Thoreau’s ideas running through the anti-colonialist revolution led by Mohandas Gandhi and the American civil rights protests led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the defiant beliefs can easily extend through the ’70s and ’80s with the rise of punk. For, when Graffin “warns against blindly accepting the government directives and blindly conforming to their ideals,” he is channeling the transcendentalist concepts of self-reliance and civil disobedience.
Thoreau writes that he “came into this world, not chiefly to make this a good place to live in, but to live in it, be it good or bad.” His beliefs and practices of individual liberty logically extend to a sense of almost primitive wildness, which is certainly evident in punk music, concerts, and culture. In his essay “In Wildness Is Thoreau”, English scholar Lewis Leary explains Thoreau’s unrestrained individuality beyond simply living outside society’s comforts (Harding). In a description that could be equally reflective of any punk, Leary describes how “Thoreau … was a wild man, who let his hair grow long, who dressed as he wished, and did exactly what he wished.” Thoreau would agree, having noted the same idea when he wrote, “All good things are wild and free.”
A similar wildness and independent spirit are integral and natural to the punk movement. John Robb, whose Punk Rock: An Oral History (2012) is a definitive record of the origins of punk, validates that primitive instinct, writing, “Where does punk rock start? It’s always been with us, that wild spirit, that outsider cry.” Similarly, in The Adventures of Henry David Thoreau (2014), Sims notes the almost aloof independence of Thoreau, who “never strove to be popular and seemed not only resigned to not fitting in, but to sometimes revel in it.” For example, he was even dressing punk in the 1830s because while black was the standard dress for church, he might show up wearing green.
Punk and Thoreau promote a belief in the individual spirit to survive and thrive. In Understanding Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience” (2010), Andrew Kirk describes Thoreau’s push for individual integrity as “a paean to the power of righteous individuals against the force of the unthinking majority. … Thoreau is concerned with the inalienability of the individual conscience.” Thus, Thoreau’s preference for “no government”, which he said we will have “when people are ready for it”, depends entirely on individual ethics, morality, and character – key components to the punk aesthetic. Finally, in a bit of insight reminiscent of my former colleague’s advice to his students, Black Flag frontman Henry Rollins explains, “Punk isn’t about mohawks or studded leather – it’s about resistance to tyranny in any form.” Nothing could better describe America’s original punk, Henry David Thoreau.
Harding, Walter, Ed. “In Wilderness Is Thoreau”. Henry David Thoreau: Studies & Commentaries. Dickinson University Press. 1972
Graffin, Greg. Anarchy Evolution: Faith, Science, and Bad Religion in a World Without God. Harper Perennial. 2011.
Graffin, Greg. “Punk Manifesto”. PunxInSolidarity. posted 22 October 2013
Kirk, Andrew. Understanding Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience“. (Words That Changed the World). Rosen. 2010.
Robb, John. Punk Rock: An Oral History. PM Press. 2012.
Sims, Michael. The Adventures of Henry Thoreau: A Young Man’s Unlikely Path to Walden Pond. Bloomsbury. 2014.
Thoreau, Henry David. “On the Duty of Civil Disobedience“. 1849. Gutenburg.org