By Stefany Anne Golberg
“Is it not a reproach that man is a carnivorous animal? True, he can and does live, in a great measure, by preying on other animals; but this is a miserable way — as anyone who will go to snaring rabbits, or slaughtering lambs, may learn…Whatever my own practice may be, I have no doubt that it is a part of the destiny of the human race, in its gradual improvement, to leave off eating animals....”
— Henry David Thoreau, Walden
In 1845, Henry David Thoreau set off on a lone journey into the woodlands owned by his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson. He wanted to know if living more simply, in closer proximity to nature, would make him a better person, and if being a better, simpler person was the path to creating a better society. Walden is a unique and pioneering work in civil disobedience. But Thoreau’s two years in the woods were part of late-18th- and 19th-century America’s many experiments with alternative ways of life. All over the United States, people were living guinea pigs of their own idealism. Wacky communes espousing everything from free love to chastity sprouted up from Massachusetts to Texas. These eccentric communities shared one fundamental creed: that self-improvement, self-discovery, and self-fulfillment were essential to achieving a better society. At a time when the Western world was being swallowed by industrial smokestacks, and men, women, and children toiled away in nightmarish working conditions, Utopian community leaders went back to the basics, namely, the power of the individual to control his own destiny and do good, often in opposition to the mainstream. It’s no surprise, then, that diet was considered central to radical self-improvement. Vegetarianism was honored as the most radical diet of them all.
Vegetarian ideas figured prominently in 19th-century intellectual circles. Though practicing vegetarians remained outside the mainstream, as they do today, vegetarianism itself was intriguing, its arguments compelling. Thoreau, for instance, was not a strict vegetarian, but he did believe that the vegetarian diet was “the destiny of the human race.” Not because animals were cute and fuzzy and therefore ought to be saved from brutality, but because they were dirty and difficult and expensive. “The practical objection to animal food in my case was its uncleanness,” he wrote in Walden, “and besides, when I had caught and cleaned and cooked and eaten my fish, they seemed not to have fed me essentially. It was insignificant and unnecessary, and cost more than it came to. A little bread or a few potatoes would have done as well, with less trouble and filth.” You can stand around in the forest, waiting to spear, skin, and roast a bunny for your next meal, but…why?
Thoreau’s views on meat-eating were no doubt influenced by his friend and fellow Transcendentalist Amos Bronson Alcott. In the early 1840s, around the time Thoreau decided to traipse about Walden Pond, Alcott formed a vegan utopian commune in Harvard called Fruitlands. As you can guess by the name, Alcott’s community was much less tentative about vegetarianism’s essential place in an ideal world. “Who loves a garden still his Eden keeps,” he wrote. In Fruitlands, the garden was all that was needed to sustain and bring one closer to prelapsarian days, when animals and people lived harmoniously. Eden or not, vegetables took less time to prepare, and had the advantage of liberating women from kitchen labor. Of course, without the use of animal labor, the 14 residents of Fruitlands had to toil all the more on their communally owned property. The fact that they renounced animal fats as a means of light and heat meant they often lived and worked in dark and cold. Because Alcott thought trade was a form of labor exploitation, Fruitlands aimed to be self-sufficient through subsistence farming. Yet the commune lacked the economic sustainability of more ingenious Utopian societies like the Shakers and the Perfectionists at Oneida, for whom design, craft, and trade were the backbone of their longevity. The Fruitlands experiment failed after seven months, about the time it took for the weather to chill.
Vegetarians kept on trying. Not many associate the ascetic cracker that bears his name with radicalism, but Alcott’s friend Sylvester Graham was about as radical a vegetarian as they come. For this Presbyterian minister and his rabid followers (who called themselves Grahamites), the Graham cracker wasn’t a treat for kiddies, a vehicle for burnt marshmallows. It was a symbol of righteousness and the power of the people. In his “Defence of the Graham System of Living” which he dedicated to the “Rising Generation,” the vegetarian diet was thought of as a means to curb misery and disease, primarily rampant in cities. Most importantly, it was a tool that any individual could employ to better his or her lot:
The system of a simple [vegetable] diet…strikes at the root of all evil, and is an experiment which may be tried with success, not alone by nations, but by small societies, families, and even individuals.
He then claims that had the masses of Paris sated their hunger with vegetables instead of blood, they would never have supported Robespierre, the force behind the Reign of Terror. Whether or not the French can ever become passive vegetarians cleansed of their innate bloodlust, the basic premise of what a vegetarian diet could offer remained: a personal, incremental, nonviolent revolution.
These more puritanical ideologues — and the thinkers they influenced — who promoted vegetarianism on the grounds of health and cleansing rather than taste may seem unsympathetic to most 21st-century Americans. They were unsympathetic to most 19th-century Americans. But it’s worth bearing in mind that vegetarianism, at its roots, was not considered a simple dietary choice; it was an act of civil disobedience. Alcott spearheaded the strategy of tax evasion as a means of opposition to war and slavery, the same strategies Thoreau wrote about in Civil Disobedience. He was a dissident of the first degree — an outspoken abolitionist, promoter of women’s rights, and educational reformer. His vegetarianism was not just a natural extension of these values; it was his reformist ideals put into practice. One individual was not going to single-handedly end slavery, but could easily live a life that practiced nonviolence and equality.
Control over one’s own body is the most rudimentary freedom, and using diet as a means both of social cohesion and freedom from the mainstream has been a part of independent communities for thousands of years, from Judaism to the Nation of Islam. In 1995, when he was 34, Dexter Scott King, son of Martin Luther King, Jr., visited the comedian Dick Gregory at his vegan health spa in the Bahamas. He came to feel that veganism gave him “a higher level of awareness and spirituality”, and he has been a strict vegan ever since. For Dexter Scott King, like his 19th-century counterparts, abstaining from meat is a clear extension of his father’s principles of nonviolence. He even converted his mother, the great Coretta Scott. And so Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience, so influential to the young Martin Luther King, Jr.’s own ideas on freedom, continues on 160 years later. "There is a connection between how you have life and how you treat others," Dexter Scott King said told Vegetarian Times back in ’95. "It starts with the individual."
As vegetarianism grows in popularity, vegetarians remain America’s kooks and outsiders. Even Thoreau, who now is considered a giant of American letters, was a kook in his lifetime. In Emerson’s eulogy, he chided Thoreau for allowing his friends to fish him out of jail by paying his taxes, calling him “the captain of a huckleberry party.” But he also knew that big ideas had to fail for a long time before they succeed. “The scale on which his studies proceeded was so large as to require longevity,” he wrote, “the country knows not yet…how great a son it has lost.” So while America’s kooks are doomed to failure, they are often its greatest experimenters. Even as they fail, vegetarians continue to promote ideals that most Americans share: the power of the individual to be radical, to be disobedient, to change the world. I salute you, kooks and outsiders, glorious failures, O Captains of huckleberry parties. Fail on. • 26 Monday 2009
Stefany Anne Golberg is an artist, writer, musician, and professional dilettante. She's a founding member of the art collective Flux Factory and lives in New York City. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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