UMF Honors Henry David Thoreau with Bicentennial Symposium
By Eryn Finnegan – Assistant Editor
UMF recently hosted a symposium to celebrate the legacy of author Henry David Thoreau in honor of his 200th birthday. The event featured guest speakers and UMF professors presenting a roundtable discussion, scholarly and creative works and a documentary.
Thoreau was an environmentalist and transcendentalist who most notably authored the book Walden and the essay Civil Disobedience. Thoreau’s works often investigated the environment and politics, and how people interacted with both.
Kristen Case, a UMF English professor and mastermind behind the symposium, believes Thoreau is still a relevant voice in society today. Upon realizing that UMF had nothing planned to honor the revolutionary writer, Case embraced the task of putting together this symposium.
“[The symposium] was an occasion to introduce the community to ideas and scholarship and activism that is still happening around his work,” Case said. “I wanted to show students that this stuff isn’t just [something to] read for a class, but it’s a real conversation that is happening out in the world.”
Case joined music professor Steve Pane for a collaborative performance that showcased their connections to Thoreau’s work and ideas. Case read her poetry, inspired by Thoreau’s journal entries, and Pane accompanied her on piano. Pane also performed a solo piece.
Filmmaker Huey, director of the documentary Henry David Thoreau: Surveyor of the Soul, shared many of Case’s thoughts, particularly about bringing Thoreau to a contemporary audience.
“In so many documentaries about historical figures, you never make it much past when they die,” Huey said. “I didn’t want to do that… I wanted to talk about the impact he had today.”
Surveyor of the Soul featured interviews from The Walden Project, a youth group aimed at teaching high schoolers Thoreau, Thoreau scholars and a fitting soundtrack comprised of “tunes Thoreau would have sang around the fire.”
Guest speaker James Finley, a Thoreau scholar and English professor at Texas A&M University, echoed similar sentiments about Thoreau and his legacy.
“He sees that environmentalism and social justice are very much related to each other,” said Finley. “I think in this era of climate change, [he’s] more relevant than ever.”
Case stated that she seizes any opportunity to teach Thoreau, saying, “he’s a great and timeless writer,” and that “he has a particularly resonant message for people who are college aged, who are thinking about how to spend their lives.”
Huey and Finley both attested to this point with their own experiences of how Thoreau came into their lives.
“He was the real deal to me,” Huey said. “Even though he had been dead for over 100 years, when I read [his poem] Smoke in college, everything just clicked.”
Huey went on to add that “he [wrote] about things that concern young people.”
“I first read Thoreau in high school,” Finley said. “Walden got me thinking in ways I hadn’t before. I needed that as a 16-year-old.”
Case was overall thrilled with how the symposium went and considers it a success.
“People have stopped and talked to me and sent me emails,” Case said. “I’m glad it was a diverse day, a lot of disciplines and a lot of different forms of presentation [were represented]. I wanted it to have something for everybody.”
Kalyn Grover, a sophomore Rehabilitation Services major, said that although she was required to go to the event, she still found it interesting and enjoyable.
“I went to see Steve Pane’s performance. I thought it was interesting how he related his art form to an entirely different kind of art,” Grover said.
Case stated that she will be traveling to Paris and Sweden to take part in more Thoreau celebrations, and noted that similar events are happening all over the world.
“I think Thoreau is relevant for a lot of reasons, and I hope the symposium highlighted some of those things,” Case said.