The Full Thoreau

The Puritans of today’s environmental movement, the ecocentrists, have recently made Henry Thoreau their patron saint. The defense of the environment, they believe, requires us to adopt a wholly new way of thinking about our relations with nature. First, they argue, we must abandon the delusory notion that humanity’s chief reason for protecting the environment is its usefulness to itself; second, we must adopt an ecocentric ethic like that embodied in Thoreau’s later work, which calls for a commitment to live lightly on the earth, to restrict the scope of technological innovation and intervention, and to treat all forms of life and all parts of the nonhuman world responsibly, and with reverence and care.

In recent years, Thoreau’s life and work have been reassessed in light of his controversial mid-career change of outlook and method. Formerly most scholars had deplored Thoreau’s shift, around 1850-1851, from a poetic to an empirical or, as he put it, a “distinct and scientific” way of depicting nature. But today’s radical environmentalists see that shift as a major step forward, leading as it did to the ecocentric nature writing of the great Journal, and of the late natural history manuscripts like those recently published in Faith in a Seed (1993).

But today’s ecological revisionism raises some difficult questions. How, for example, did Thoreau’s shift of outlook affect the composition of Walden? We know that he was still working on the book in 1852 and 1853, long after he had changed the style of his Journal entries. Does that change also make itself felt in Walden? If it does, to what extent does it alter the book’s coherence? How does it affect nature writing? Is it the case, as some scholars contend, that Walden is flawed by the deep incompatibility between the two stories it tells: one about the pleasure Thoreau takes in the natural world, the other about his anger at the social world?

These questions go to the heart of Lawrence Buell’s recent study, The Environmental Imagination. An avowed ecocentrist and professor of English at Harvard, Buell concentrates on Thoreau and Walden to examine the implications of ecocentrism for literature and “humanistic thought generally.” An intermittently trenchant and pedantic work, it is impossible to categorize, but Buell’s fervent ecocentrism infuses it with a consistency of purpose. Quoting then Senator Albert Gore’s statement that “we must make the rescue of the environment the central organizing principle for civilization,” Buell would enlist writers and humanistic scholars in an urgent rescue operation. Since, as he believes, the crisis originates in consciousness, the work of writers surely can help to ameliorate it. In fact, he reminds us, American writers began creating a rich body of environmentally conscious literature some two centuries ago. Now it is up to us “to look searchingly” at that body of writing with a view to finding “better ways of imaging nature and humanity’s relation to it.”

The Environmental Imagination is …

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