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Monday, February 22, 2016

Fort Thomas Resident Jonathan McKenzie Publishes Book About Henry David Thoreau

Fort Thomas resident Jonathan McKenzie recently published his first book, which is based on years of researching Henry David Thoreau's writing.

Jonathan McKenzie, an assistant professor of political science at Northern Kentucky University (NKU), began researching Henry David Thoreau in 2006. "I think part of what made me interested in Thoreau was his preference for a provincial lifestyle and his insistence on making his own criteria for evaluating his life," McKenzie says. The roots of this began in McKenzie's boyhood.

"Growing up in Wyoming, I spent the vast majority of my time catching lizards in the desert or biking miles of untouched federal land," McKenzie says. "I think this experience prepared me to read Thoreau with a sympathetic eye—he was a keen observer not only of nature, but of the changing economic landscape of the early industrial revolution. His published and unpublished work consistently sing the praises of small, simple, local things. While his friends and acquaintances, including Ralph Waldo Emerson, traveled to Europe to gain experience and enlightenment, Thoreau was a self-described 'home-cosmographer,' one whose journeys were all inward or related to his own small town."

From 2009-2012, McKenzie researched and wrote on Thoreau's journals and published works, with an end goal: a book. McKenzie finished the first draft in 2012. "I gave the manuscript to the University Press of Kentucky, and they had two scholars in my field read it and suggest revisions," McKenzie says. "These revisions went through several iterations before I finally received a contract to publish the book in 2015. I spent months correct errors, making an index, and writing summaries." 

The Political Thought of Henry David Thoreau: Privatism and the Practice of Philosophy was published early this year.

McKenzie was born in Rock Springs, Wyoming, a small mining town. He received a bachelor's degree and master's degree in political science at University of Wyoming, and it was there that he also met his wife, Christina. They moved to Indiana in 2009, and McKenzie completed his Ph.D. in political science and philosophy at Purdue University. McKenzie started working at NKU in 2009, and in 2010 they and their two children moved to Fort Thomas.

The book started as McKenzie's dissertation at Purdue. He spent two years researching and another year writing his dissertation. "The book takes the same subject, but it is completely distinct from the dissertation," McKenzie says. "While people know Thoreau for Walden or 'Resistance to Civil Government,' his real masterwork is his Journal, which he kept on a regular basis for over 20 years. The journal is full of incredible insights and ideas, but it runs over 7,000 pages, so people usually don't spend much time on it. I wanted to write a book about what we can learn from Thoreau's journals, so I spent years studying them while I was at NKU." 

The Political Thought of Henry David Thoreau examines Thoreau's political ideas alongside his vision of living well. "In particular, I examine the ways that ancient philosophers, particularly Socrates and the stoics, influence Thoreau to resist the seductions of cultural and political participation, instead prodding him to continue working on himself," McKenzie says. "The result is a philosophy that is often derided as selfish or egotistical, but one that holds that a strong individuality is necessary of maximizing the value of personal life."

McKenzie says that Thoreau's major virtues include reflective simplification, where one keeps a constant eye on the necessities of life; voluntary poverty, where one reduces one's commitments in order to provide the most possible time to direct experiences with nature; solitude, where one resists dependence on others in order to develop tolerance of oneself; political indifference, where one participates only in political causes that directly affect one's life; and wildness, where one overcomes civilization by practicing the arts of walking, seeing, and listening.

"I didn't write the book with the hope that anyone would read it, which sounds odd, I suppose," McKenzie says. "I just wanted to work on a problem and see if I could figure it out for myself. The book is kind of an invitation to anyone who thinks about similar issues to take what I thought about and do some thinking of their own. I don't pretend that the book will have any practical importance—it is, after all, a book about someone who has been dead for 150 years, and the impact that people dead for 2,000 years had upon him. It's really the essence of impractical knowledge!" 

But McKenzie also says that if there is one thing that Thoreau can model for us, it's Thoreau's interest in the everyday. "He spent the last 10 or so years of his life trudging through his familiar woods, cataloging seed dispersion, tree sizes, fruit ripening, insect life—and never, in that time, sought new experiences," McKenzie says. "He had developed the ability to be consistently excited by things that were a part of his everyday routine. That's really an incredible way to live, in my opinion. Culturally, we are conditioned to appreciate the new. Thoreau's advice in his letters was to 'gnaw an old bone,' or return to those things most familiar to you, taking a microscopic look at them, and become enchanted by them." 

While you can purchase the book on Amazon or through the University Press of Kentucky, McKenzie notes that it's an expensive book ($75). "It might be easier to request it through your library," he says.

These days McKenzie is working on two projects. First is a book that looks at how 19th century American writers viewed the negative aspects of America's turn toward democracy. "Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, for instance, criticizes the way that the public takes our personal shame and turns it into guilt, and Herman Melville's Moby-Dick demonstrates that the concept of slavery is written into the fabric of our lives, and cannot be extinguished," McKenzie says.

McKenzie's second project is a return to Thoreau. "I am researching a book about how he explores the concept of consciousness in his final years—particularly the relationship between the regeneration of plants and the idea of human death," he says. "That book is in its early stages, but I'm excited about it." 


  1. this guy's got a tremendous three-point basketball shot too!

    1. Amen to this comment. I find this quote quintessential Jonathan "It's really the essence of impractical knowledge!" Love it

  2. You definitely underscore your commitment to a simple life by urging people not to buy your "expensive" book. Just check it out at the library. I like that. Although I still might buy it.