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The Struggle Over Thoreau

The Writings of Henry D. Thoreau: Journal Volume 1: 1837-1844

Editor-in-Chief, Elizabeth Hall Witherell
Princeton University Press, 702 pp., $75.00

The Writings of Henry D. Thoreau: Journal Volume 2: 1842-1848

Editor-in-Chief, Elizabeth Hall Witherell
Princeton University Press, 602 pp., $70.00

The Writings of Henry D. Thoreau: Journal Volume 3: 1848-1851

Editor-in-Chief, Elizabeth Hall Witherell
Princeton University Press, 620 pp., $70.00

The Writings of Henry D. Thoreau: Journal Volume 4: 1851-1852

Editor-in-Chief, Elizabeth Hall Witherell
Princeton University Press, 787 pp., $70.00

The Writings of Henry D. Thoreau: Journal Volume 5: 1852-1853

Editor-in-Chief, Elizabeth Hall Witherell
Princeton University Press, 715 pp., $65.00

Consciousness in Concord: The Text of Thoreau’s Hitherto “Lost Journal” (1840-1841) Together with Notes and a Commentary

edited by Perry Miller
AMS Press, 243 pp., $42.50

Deep Ecology for the 21st Century: Readings on the Philosophy and Practice of the New Environmentalism

by George#tedited by Sessions
Shambhala, 488 pp., $30.00


‘Tis said that the views of nature held by any people determine all their institutions.”

—Ralph Waldo Emerson,English Traits

Ecocentrists are the Puritans of today’s environmental movement. Dedicated to changing the way we think about humanity’s relations with nature, they are critical of anyone—whether an environmentalist or a despoiler—who assumes that the chief reason for protecting the environment is its usefulness to human beings. “No intellectual vice is more crippling,” writes the Harvard sociobiologist and outspoken ecocentrist E.O. Wilson, “than defiantly self-indulgent anthropocentrism.”

The transformation of consciousness envisaged by the ecocentrists is, they believe, comparable in scope with that initiated by the discoveries of Copernicus, Newton, or Darwin. Beginning with the unarguable fact that Homo sapiens is only one of the myriad interdependent species on Earth, they are convinced that we have no right to reduce this diversity of life, or to gauge the worth of other forms of life, or, indeed, the entire realm of inanimate nature, merely on the basis of their value to ourselves. To satisfy our basic needs, of course, we would continue to kill some animals, consume plants, and use nature in other ways. But these activities would be restricted by the ruling ethic of ecocentrism: to live lightly on the earth, to limit the scope of technological innovation and intervention, and to treat all forms of life with reverence and responsibility.

Like radical feminism and so much else, radical environmentalism emerged from the Sixties. The two events most often credited with having crystallized it are the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in 1962 and the first Earth Day in 1970. Yet Carson herself traced the origin of her thinking to an earlier event: Hiroshima, which led her to contemplate “the possibility of the extinction of mankind.” The first chemical she alludes to in Silent Spring is not DDT but strontium 90, a byproduct of nuclear explosions.

To Carson Hiroshima demonstrated that humanity now had the unprecedented power to contaminate the entire earth. (It would be two or three decades before scientists discovered global warming, ozone depletion, and the accelerating rate of species extinction.) Beginning with John Hersey’s Hiroshima (1946), a series of vivid, well-documented, and widely read books—among them Silent Spring, Lewis Mumford’s The Myth of the Machine (1967), Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb (1968), Barry Commoner’s The Closing Circle (1971), Jonathan Schell’s The Fate of the Earth (1982), Bill McKibben’s The End of Nature (1989), and Albert Gore’s Earth in the Balance (1992)—have given continuing plausibility to the fear of a coming ecological apocalypse.

The doctrinal lineage of ecocentrism may be traced, by way of the Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess, back to nature writers like Carson, Aldo Leopold, and John Muir, as well as to poets and novelists like Gary Snyder, Robinson Jeffers, D.H. Lawrence, and Thomas Hardy, and further back to the Romantics—Rousseau, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Blake, Goethe—and especially to the two prominent American Transcendentalists, Emerson and Thoreau. In 1973, Naess, then sixty years old, coined the term “deep ecology,” “deep” to distinguish it from the “shallow” empiricism of scientific ecology, and to raise the “why” and “how” questions that scientists tend to avoid. Besides studying the biophysical processes of environmental degradation, he said, deep ecologists should determine “what kind of society would be the best for maintaining a particular ecosystem.” This political extension of the doctrine, Naess said, was the result of his observation, at first hand, of environmental conflict, especially in California between 1963 and 1968, where he saw the need for “fighting the power-centers…pushing mindless ‘development.”’

Later, during a 1984 camping trip in Death Valley, Naess and the American philosopher George Sessions drew up an eight-point platform for deep ecology.1 They were aware of the affinities between their “holistic” principles and those inherent in Eastern philosophy, the cultures of many indigenous peoples, and most non-Western religions. Indeed those affinities have made them vulnerable to charges of idealizing preindustrial, non-Western cultures and of harboring an unthinking hostility to modernity.

The ideological divide between ecocentric and anthropocentric environmentalists first came into public view in the 1890s, when a small sect of passionate nature lovers, led by John Muir and the founding members of the Sierra Club, rejected the utilitarian outlook of Gifford Pinchot, the head of the US Forest Service and Teddy Roosevelt’s adviser on “resource management,” and of other establishment conservationists. Muir was committed to the essentially spiritual character of nonhuman nature, a view shaped by his Scotch Presbyterian upbringing and by his immersion in the work of Emerson and Thoreau.

Emerson has probably done more than any other American thinker to secularize the prevailing view of humanity’s relations with nature. (This does not mean, as some of his current admirers imply, that his thinking ever lost its strongly religious tenor.2 ) Published in 1836, his manifesto Nature served as the founding document of American Transcendentalism. Emerson’s aim was to recover that “original relation to the universe” enjoyed by earlier generations, who “beheld God and nature face to face,” while “we [do so] through their eyes.” Why, he asks, “should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe?” But since direct encounters with the divine probably have been foreclosed by humanity’s fall into self-consciousness, Nature—“a remoter and inferior incarnation of God”—has become “the present expositor of the divine mind.” As evidence, he describes an intense moment of communion with nature in mundane, unpropitious circumstances:

Crossing a bare common, in snow puddles, at twilight, under a clouded sky, without having in my thoughts any occurrence of special good fortune, I…have enjoyed a perfect exhilaration…. All mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball. I am nothing. I see all…. I am part or parcel of God.

But this famous passage, one of the memorable conversion experiences cited by William James in The Varieties of Religious Experience, did not lead Emerson to pantheism, or even to a belief in nature as the chief agent of human transformation. (“Yet it is certain,” he drily noted in a telling afterthought, “that the power to produce this delight does not reside in nature, but in man, or in a harmony of both.”) For Emerson, the ultimate locus of meaning and value is the self. “NATURE,” as he defines it, includes everything “that is separate from us, all which…[is] NOT ME, that is, both nature and art, all other men and my own body.” Yet of the two entities, “Nature and the Soul,” composing Emerson’s anthropocentric cosmos, he gives the paramount role to the human mind/soul. As might be expected, today’s ecocentrists have little use for Emerson’s thought. And yet, oddly enough, they have adopted his sometime disciple and friend Henry Thoreau as their patron saint.


For at least half a century, Thoreau has been known as the reclusive Yankee who wrote Walden and “Civil Disobedience.” (His stature rests, to a surprising extent, on those two works.) Walden won him a place among the “classic” American writers and a reputation as a practicing sage of the simple life; with “Civil Disobedience,” which inspired Tolstoy, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, he became the preeminent advocate of nonviolent resistance to oppressive state power.3

Thoreau’s twenty-five-year literary career often has been described as having taken a neat, up-and-down course.4 The first leg, beginning in 1837, included his two best-known public acts—his experiment in solitary living at Walden Pond (1845-1847), and his refusal to pay the poll tax, which earned him a night in the Concord jail (July 1846). During that period he developed a distinctive literary voice. By 1849 he had written the first draft of Walden,5 and published the essay “Civil Disobedience” as well as A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers—the only one of his books, apart from Walden, to be printed during his lifetime.6 But the success was short-lived. He published A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers at his own expense, and it did not sell. The disappointment was compounded by his failure to interest a publisher in the Walden manuscript, and by his estrangement, personal as well as philosophical, from Emerson. These setbacks led him to doubt the reliability of publication as a measure of literary achievement, and to reconsider his aims as a writer.

By 1851 Thoreau had made changes in his daily life, and in his view of nature and of its depiction.7 In the once-popular view of his career it was about that time that the downward leg began. In the decade that remained to him, he devoted his time to working as a surveyor, to walking in the Concord woods, and to keeping the journal he had begun as an all-purpose literary storehouse in 1837. By 1851 he had changed the Journal’s character. He made more frequent and copious entries, devoting more of them to recording close—at times what now seems ludicrously close—observations of nature. He sat for hours up to his waist in a bog; he measured tree rings, the depth of ponds, and snow banks; he compiled elaborate records of such cyclical events as the first arrivals of migrating birds or the first appearance of seasonal plants.

Within a few years the Journal had begun to look like a biologist’s field notebook. Only a few of those close to him had an inkling of his plans, among them the composition of a comprehensive, detailed natural history of Concord during a single year. At his death in 1862—he was only forty-four—he left behind a huge amount of manuscript material, some of it almost ready for the printer, and most of it (including the forty-seven notebooks of the two-million word Journal and several on special topics, such as Native American lore) made up of firsthand observations of nature.

The change in mid-career is the most controversial episode of Thoreau’s intellectual life. To many who knew him well, including Emerson, it seemed puzzling, misguided. Until recently, most of his admirers deplored it as having led to an almost fatal loss of the imaginative richness of his work. The risk was not lost on Thoreau, who wrote in 1851:

I fear that the character of my knowledge is from year to year becoming more distinct & scientific—That in exchange for views as wide as heaven’s cope I am being narrowed down to the field of the microscope—I see details not wholes nor the shadow of the whole. I count some parts & say “I know.” The cricket’s chirp now fills the air in dry fields near pine woods.

(Vol. 3, p. 380; August 19, 1851)8

Nevertheless, until his death eleven years later, he continued, with even greater intensity, to record “distinct & scientific” natural facts in his Journal. In the received view, the literary value of his late nature writing was negligible. In his funeral sermon, Emerson did more than anyone to establish that opinion. Inexplicably ignoring the achievement of Walden as a fully imagined, whole work, he cited random sentences in praise of Thoreau’s gift for aphorism, and ended his remarks on a muffled note of disapproval.

  1. 1

    Essays expanding on the “Deep Ecol-ogy Platform,” along with various other pertinent documents, interviews, and essays, including a generous selection of the relatively inaccessible writings of Arne Naess, are available in George Sessions’s useful anthology, Deep Ecology for the Twenty-first Century.

  2. 2

    I am thinking of Harold Bloom, Richard Poirier, and the late Irving Howe. An instructive exception is George Kateb, who candidly admits that it “may be rather wasteful to study Emerson unless one shares his religiousness.” See Emerson and Self-Reliance (Sage, 1995), p. 65.

  3. 3

    Thoreau’s reputed commitment to nonviolence was in fact somewhat less than absolute. In his address, “A Plea for Captain John Brown,” delivered to the citizens of Concord, October 30, 1859, he said: “I do not wish to kill nor to be killed, but I can foresee circumstances in which both these things would be by me unavoidable.”

  4. 4

    There have been at least two significantly different versions of this up-and-down course. According to the older, now largely discredited variant, the turning point of Thoreau’s career had occurred in 1854, with the publication of Walden.

  5. 5

    He probably had completed this draft before leaving the pond in 1847. By 1849 he evidently thought he had finished the book, but having failed to find a publisher, he resumed work on the manuscript in 1851. He made many significant additions and revisions before delivering a final version to the printer in 1854. J. Lyndon Shanley establishes the existence of nine distinct drafts of the manuscript in The Making of Walden; with the Text of the First Version (University of Chicago Press, 1957).

  6. 6

    His posthumous books, none of which has ever won a sizable audience, were largely based on journeys he took between 1849 and 1853. They were: Excursions (1863); The Maine Woods (1864); Cape Cod (1865); and A Yankee in Canada (1866).

  7. 7

    For biographical information I have relied chiefly on Walter Harding, The Days of Henry Thoreau (Princeton University Press, 1965; updated edition 1982), still the most detailed and reliable biography, and Robert D. Richardson, Jr., Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind (University of California Press, 1986), a comprehensive and catholic interpretation of the development of Thoreau’s ideas.

  8. 8

    Journal citations refer to the volume, page number, and date of the entry in the Princeton edition.

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