Document Type


Author Biography

Alex Moskowitz is a Visiting Lecturer in the Department of English at Mount Holyoke College, where he teaches American and African American literature through the nineteenth century. His book project, American Imperception: Literary Form, Sensory Perception, and Political Economy in Nineteenth-Century American Literature, explores how sensory perception has been historically determined by economics.


This essay takes Thoreau’s frustrations with the impossibility of perceiving the injustice of slavery as an invitation to discern within his larger corpus a distinct body of work that we can call Thoreau’s antislavery writing. Beyond the mere topic of antislavery, I argue in this essay that Thoreau’s antislavery writing is defined by a spatial politics that intersects with the politics of emotion: I argue that Thoreau is deeply invested in how the issue of slavery is consistently displaced spatially and emotionally. Through careful close readings of a number of shorter entries from Thoreau’s Journal and his major antislavery essays—including “Resistance to Civil Government,” “Slavery in Massachusetts,” “A Plea for Captain John Brown,” and “The Last Days of John Brown”—I show how Thoreau returns throughout his career to a recurring set of images and rhetorical tropes to help conceptualize the immediate importance of abolition, even to those who think themselves too far removed from slavery to do anything about it, or to care. In his writing, Thoreau wants to know why slavery and the abolitionist cause engender such an apathetic response, and why, similarly, slavery appears to be such a distant issue. As I show, the emotional and spatial distance from the issue of slavery that Thoreau notes in his neighbors results from how economics compartmentalizes the political sphere. Political economy and the language of economics make the most pressing political issues always seem remote and insignificant. Thoreau is interested in how political conviction and action can become disjointed: just because you know something is wrong does not mean you are going to do anything about it. This essay, then, starts from a place of frustration. It tracks Thoreau’s frustrations, and it pairs those frustrations with a shared set of politically coded images and rhetorical tropes to consider Thoreau not just as an antislavery speaker and figure, but also as a literary writer whose most complex thinking reveals itself to us when we treat him and his writing as such.