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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, among other things, a handbook on nature writing. Buell addresses a variety of historical, theoretical, and formal questions, such as the various methods of depicting place; environmental apocalypticism; the personification of nature; resemblances between the dream of New World nature in American literature and in other “settler cultures,” such as Canada, Australia, and South Africa. He devotes one of the three main sections of his book to a detailed account of the “canonization” of Walden. This section, a virtually self-contained monograph, is conventional literary history of the kind Buell practiced effectively in his two previous books about New England literary culture.1 What are the implications for literature, Buell asks, of the “turn to nature” in politics, the arts, and the collective imagination? How will literature change as writers come to believe, at a truly visceral level, that human experience is inseparable from the all-inclusive and complex interconnected biophysical process? Buell foresees the day when representing nonhuman nature will be a central literary subject “in its own right.”

For a work to qualify as an “environmental text” it is not enough, Buell maintains, for the natural environment to be a prop, the way landscape images serve as backdrops in realistic novels; it must be an active presence—as it is in, say, E.M. Forster’s Passage to India, where the echo chambers of the Marabar Caves serve to confirm and reinforce the Anglo-Indian characters’ sense of the emptiness of Indian culture. (Other novelists who presumably would meet Buell’s test are Cooper, Hardy, Tolstoy, Lawrence, Cather, and Faulkner.) In the ideal work, according to Buell, nature is an ever-present, ever-changing web in which humanity is forever entangled, and the specifically human interest is no more the only interest than it is in, say, Walt Whitman’s “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking,” where the presumed death of a bird helps to transform the boy observer’s consciousness into that of a mature poet.

In view of the centrality of man’s relations with nature in “classic” American literature, Buell is outraged by the “marginalization” of nature writing in the study of literature. What he finds especially valuable about good nature writing—exhibited by such modern American practitioners as Edward Abbey, Annie Dillard, Barry Lopez, Gary Snyder, Wendell Berry, or Peter Matthiessen, or by their precursors William Bartram, Susan Fenimore Cooper, John Burroughs, Mary Austin, John Muir, or Aldo Leopold—is the strong bond it creates between readers and the natural world. Nature writing, he believes, is the literary genre of choice for writers of an ecocentric persuasion and, as Rachel Carson demonstrated, it can be a potent weapon in the defense of the environment.

When he moved to the pond in 1845, Thoreau was neither a nature writer nor an ecocentrist, and Buell reads Walden as a record of the process by which he became both. Then, too, Buell has a personal attachment to the book, for he attributes his initial responsiveness to nature as well as his decision to teach American literature to his lifelong engagement with Walden. Since then he has acquired a Talmudic mastery of Thoreauvian minutiae and of the immense corpus of Thoreau scholarship.

Walden is for him the outstanding model of the intellectual and spiritual reorientation that the environmental crisis demands of all of us. Despite patches of jargon and some arid theorizing, Buell’s identification with Thoreau infuses his book with moral urgency. For him Walden is the record of an

always somewhat conflicted odyssey of reorientation, such as I myself have begun to undergo in recent years, such as it seems American culture has been undergoing, such as I am asking the reader to undergo by reconsidering the place of the environment in our conventions of reading and writing.

The Puritans called evangelizing works like The Environmental Imagination, written with a calculated design on the souls of their readers, “converting ordinances.”

Yet, in spite of Buell’s ardor, Walden is not what he would like it to be. Its subject is not the representation of nature “for its own sake”; nor is it primarily a work of nature writing. It is a pastoral, and despite their superficial similarities the two kinds of writing are quite different, in some ways antipathetic. For some two millennia, beginning with the work of two poets of antiquity, Theocritus (third century BC) and Virgil (first century BC), the pastoral in literature had portrayed the idealized lives of shepherds, its one constant feature being the contrast, explicit or implied, between their simple ways and the complex worldly lives led by courtiers and city dwellers. Although herdsmen lived in particularly close relations with nature, the literal representation of the nonhuman world rarely if ever had been a part of pastoral.

This distinction between pastoral and nature writing may help to explain why Buell, after years of study, is also perplexed by Walden‘s uncommonly strong hold upon him. “No other book I have lived with for so long a period,” he admits, “has so resisted my power to explain what it is about it that matters to me.”

Some of the difficulty lies with Walden itself, with the ambiguous way, for example, that it initially invites, but then resists, being read as a book about nature. The original title, Walden, or, Life in the Woods,2 reinforced that expectation, and so, except for one telling remark, does the capsule preview of the plot with which it begins:

When I wrote the following pages, or rather the bulk of them, I lived alone, in the woods, a mile from any neighbor, in a house which I had built myself, on the shore of Walden Pond, in Concord, Massachusetts, and earned my living by the labor of my hands only. I lived there two years and two months. At present I am a sojourner in civilized life again.3

The matter-of-fact voice makes it easy to miss the oddness of Thoreau’s choice of a site for his experiment in solitary living. So does his remark that he has returned to “civilized life” again, as if he, like the narrator of Melville’s Typee (1846), had been off in the Pacific living with cannibals. In fact, the parcel of Emerson’s land on which he lived for twenty-six months was only a mile or so from Concord, and it was tightly bounded by the new tracks of the Fitchburg railroad and the Walden Road. A prelude to a strain of self-parody that runs through the book, the mock heroism, intimates that a remote wilderness setting would not have suited Thoreau’s purpose. (In 1845 many such places were within easy reach.) He clearly did not intend to exclude the ordinary life of Concord.

Thoreau was no less interested in society than in nature. He frames Walden with chapters of caustic commentary on the quality of American life in “this restless, nervous, bustling, trivial Nineteenth Century,” and he repeatedly juxtaposes chapters about his life at the pond with chapters on the lives led by his Concord neighbors. In one of his more revealing statements of purpose, he surmises that “it would be some advantage to live a primitive and frontier life, though in the midst of outward civilization, if only to learn what are the gross necessaries of life” (my emphasis). Throughout the book he sustains the contrast between the two ways of life, each exemplifying a radically different set of relations with nature. Walden, in short, is a distinctively American version of pastoral.

Because pastoral is an anthropocentric form, Buell cannot reconcile it with his view of Walden as a record of Thoreau’s “odyssey of reorientation” toward ecocentrism. In the curious passage that begins the first chapter he writes,

I start with the subject of pastoral for “pastoral” has become almost synonymous with the idea of (re)turn to a less urbanized, more “natural” state of existence. Indeed this entire book, in focusing on art’s capacity to image and to remythify the natural environment, is itself a kind of pastoral project.

  1. 1

    Literary Transcendentalism: Style and Vision in the American Renaissance (Cornell University Press, 1973); New England Literary Culture from Revolution through Renaissance (Cambridge University Press, 1986).

  2. 2

    Two months before Thoreau died, in preparation for the publication of a second edition, he told his publishers, Ticknor & Fields, to drop the subtitle. Perhaps he too found it a bit incongruous in retrospect. The splendid new annotated edition of Walden is by Walter D. Harding, author of an informative biographical study (The Days of Henry Thoreau, Princeton, 1993), who is widely regarded as the dean of Thoreau scholars. His invaluable notes identify virtually all of the literary and other allusions in the Walden text, and they provide a wise selection of the recent, most pertinent biographical and literary historical research.

  3. 3

    J. Lyndon Shanley, in The Making of Walden (University of Chicago Press, 1957), demonstrates that the first version of the Walden manuscript, written during his stay at the pond, did not include this paragraph.

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