“‘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.

The scale on which his studies proceeded was so large as to require longevity, and we were the less prepared for his sudden disappearance…. It seems an injury that he should leave in the midst his broken task, which none can finish….

This somber view has since been repudiated, not only by admirers of Walden, but most emphatically by ecocentrists who now claim that Thoreau’s new direction led to his greatest achievement: the fashioning of a new way of depicting the intricate web of nature that enfolds humanity.

In 1993, three scholars of ecocentric views—Bradley P. Dean, Gary Paul Nabhan, and Robert D. Richardson, Jr.—collaborated in transcribing, editing, and publishing fragments of four of Thoreau’s manuscripts under the title Faith in a Seed. The event was announced with fanfare in a New York Times story as “A New Thoreau Book.”9 From the publisher’s press release its reporter borrowed the words “his first new book to appear in 125 years,” which “Thoreau scholars consider…a major contribution to American literature and a reason to revise traditional thinking about [Thoreau’s] life.” As it turns out, the text of Faith in a Seed is not really new, nor is the volume a “book” of Thoreau’s. The existence of the manuscripts, now deposited in various libraries, notably the Berg Collection in the New York Public Library, has been known to scholars for over a century, and there is no reason to suppose that Thoreau ever considered putting them together in book form. But even if the volume is not what the editors say it is, it is a significant work not so much for any literary merit it may have (slight, in my opinion) as for the light it throws on the current effort to reevaluate Thoreau’s work from an ecocentric point of view.

Taken together, the two essays that introduce the volume—one by Gary Paul Nabhan, a field biologist and writer, and the other by Robert D. Richardson, Jr., the author of a fine biography of Thoreau—make grandiose claims for it. Richardson contends that Faith in a Seed, especially its centerpiece, “The Dispersion of Seeds,” compels us to think of Thoreau in a new way: that after Walden he stopped being a “poet-naturalist” and took up “a life in science,” a change that resulted in a masterwork.

Walden is a great—perhaps our greatest—celebration of the sweet freedom of a life in nature…. The Dispersion of Seeds…celebrates fertility, fecundity, and interconnectedness. Walden is about the growth and cultivation of the self; The Dispersion of Seeds is about the growth of communities and the rise of new generations. Walden is the…masterpiece of Thoreau the poet-naturalist; The Dispersion of Seeds…is the culminating work of Thoreau the writer-scientist.

The notion that the achievement of “The Dispersion of Seeds” (a manuscript, not a published book) can in any sense be compared to that of Walden is preposterous. True, it is a charming casual essay, a precisely observed if repetitive patchwork of observations on a narrow subject: the ingenious ways that seeds contrive to get themselves dispersed. It shows in detail how birds, animals, wind, snow, water, etc., collaborate in disseminating seeds—for example, a squirrel’s clever way of plucking and stripping a pine cone without cutting himself on the razor-sharp scales:

He whirls the cone bottom upward in a twinkling, and beginning where the scales are smallest… he proceeds to cut through the thin and tender bases of the scales, and each stroke tells, laying bare at once a couple of seeds.

There are many descriptive passages like this in “The Dispersion of Seeds,” none of them significantly different from countless observations in the Journal. The larger project of which “The Dispersion of Seeds” had been a part originally contained Thoreau’s theory of the biological process governing the succession of tree species in a forest. Two years before his death, however, he made its argument the subject of a lecture and published it as an independent essay, “The Succession of Forest Trees.”10 The ecocentrists hardly needed the manuscripts reprinted in Faith in a Seed to confirm their contention that Thoreau, during his later phase, became a superlative nature writer with a sophisticated, proto-ecocentric vision. Much stronger evidence already was available in the pages of Thoreau’s magnificent Journal.


Even before 1906, when the first “complete” fourteen-volume edition of the Journal was published, a few knowledgeable readers realized that it was the main source of Thoreau’s evolving thought, and that it might be (as the editors of the superb Princeton edition later put it), “the central document of Thoreau’s imaginative life.” What early commentators seem not to have suspected, however, is that the Journal might have intrinsic literary value. As late as 1939, Henry S. Canby, a reputable critic and admiring biographer of Thoreau, described it as an unwieldy “hodgepodge” of disjointed segments.

It was about that time that I first read—or, more precisely, read in—the Journal, under the tutelage of Perry Miller, the historian of New England religion who supervised my undergraduate honors essay on Thoreau. Miller was one of the first scholars to suggest that the Journal is a carefully composed, autonomous work of art. He was fascinated by the complex process of transcription and revision by which Thoreau turned his field notes into highly finished Journal entries. He believed that the Journal is understandable only when read as the joint product of New England religious thought and European Romanticism. An atheist, Miller had an unusual empathy for people who suffer from unappeased religious hunger, and he read the Journal as an account of yet another Yankee seeker’s quest for communion with the Absolute—in this case, a spirit concealed behind the observable surface of Nature.

Miller saw the early essay “Natural History of Massachusetts” (1842) as central. Until Thoreau wrote it, he had evinced no particular interest in writing about the natural world. He wanted to be a poet. But Emerson as editor of The Dial shrewdly asked Thoreau to review a new four-volume set of official surveys of the fish, reptiles, birds, quadrupeds, plants, insects, and invertebrate animals of Massachusetts. In “Natural History of Massachusetts,” one can foresee his subsequent divergence from his mentor.

In Nature, in the chapter “Language,” Emerson had set forth the principles governing the literary use of Nature as a vehicle of thought and expression:

  1. Words are signs of natural facts; 2. Particular natural facts are symbols of particular spiritual facts; 3. Nature is the symbol of spirit. [My emphasis.]

Of course Emerson assumed that a writer’s success in carrying out this program depends on his having a genius for finding the particular word to match the particular fact. In his infrequent descriptions of specific natural phenomena, however, Emerson neglected his own strictures, as when he illustrates the experience of natural beauty in Nature:

I have seen the spectacle of morning from the hill-top over against my house, from day-break to sun-rise, with emotions which an angel might share. The long slender bars of cloud float like fishes in the sea of crimson light. From the earth, as a shore, I look out into that silent sea. I seem to partake its rapid transformations: the active enchantment reaches my dust, and I dilate and conspire with the morning wind.

Six years later, with “Natural History of Massachusetts,” the young Thoreau developed a more precise descriptive style. He mined his notebooks for passages to bring to life the threadbare taxonomic reports. He describes a fox running across a field of snow in close-up:

When he comes to a declivity, he will put his fore feet together, and slide swiftly down it, shoving the snow before him. He treads so softly that you would hardly hear it from any nearness, and yet with such expression, that it would not be quite inaudible at any distance.

Or an osprey soaring on the wind:

It sails the air like a ship of the line, worthy to struggle with the elements, falling back from time to time like a ship on its beam ends, and holding its talons up as if ready for the arrows, in the attitude of the national bird.

The sensuous details—the fox’s soft tread, the osprey’s backward tilt—evoke each creature’s distinctive physical presence, while Emerson rarely extricates himself from his subject or singles out its details.

“Let us not underrate the value of a fact; it will one day flower in a truth.” Thoreau had entered the first draft of this sentence in his notebook in December 1837, when he was twenty, yet, as Perry Miller noted in 1961, the idea was prophetic of his entire “artistic endeavor.” From the time I first knew him, Miller talked about the book on “American Romanticism” he intended to write as the final volume of his monumental work The New England Mind. The new book would document the convergence of residual Calvinism and the “romantic reaction” in literature and philosophy. In it he would counter the influence of American Renaissance (1941), the study of the same literary generation by Miller’s famous colleague at Harvard, F.O. Matthiessen. Miller was critical of Matthiessen for his aestheticism, for his embrace of socialist and Christian ideals, and, more particularly, for slighting the religious strain in Thoreau’s work.

By the late 1950s, however, Matthiessen was dead, and Miller’s own health was failing. The final volume of The New England Mind was unwritten. When he agreed to edit the so-called “lost” volume of Thoreau’s Journal Miller entered the sedate precincts of Thoreau scholarship.11 Miller’s edition of the “lost” Journal of 1840-1841, which appeared in 1958, contains his 127-page opinionated and intermittently acute introduction, along with 76 pages of entries by Thoreau and Miller’s many tendentious footnotes.12 Miller finds Thoreau “self-intoxicated” and “self-infatuated,” and suggests in the Freudian idiom of the time that his passion for recording arid facts arose from a “primal urge to find a ‘mother substitute’ in…nature.” He discovers a “drama” of ideas hidden beneath the Journal’s surface. In 1961 he summed up his views in the better-reasoned essay “Thoreau in the Context of International Romanticism.”13 Taken together, Miller’s commentaries give what was for many years the most sophisticated and influential rationale for the view that the Journal after 1851 was the flawed product of a self-destructive obsession.

Miller’s analysis turns on Thoreau’s faith in a writer’s ability to elicit a higher truth from nature. Miller traces this faith to the German philosophic idealism popularized by Coleridge, and to the heritage of Thoreau’s own New England Calvinism, which included a belief in typology, a medieval system of hermeneutics. When walking in the woods, Miller argues, the young Thoreau sensed that “a wise purveyor” had preceded him, “typifying” the objects of his experience. He searched for ways to strike and maintain “the delicate balance between object and reflection,…fact and truth,…minute observation and generalized concept.” For Thoreau this became an unrelenting and (in Miller’s view) largely unavailing lifelong struggle. For one “breathless” moment Thoreau managed in Walden to hold the linked opposites “in solution, fused and yet still kept separate, he and nature publishing each other’s truth.” But after 1854, in his effort to convey the bedrock truth embedded in nature, the Journal deteriorated into “tedious recordings of mere observations,…measurements,…statistics.” Thoreau had “immolated himself on the pyre of an untenable concept of literary creation.”

Miller died in 1962, just as the environmental movement was getting underway. Had he lived, I think he may well have revised his judgment. But the high claims now being made for Thoreau’s late nature writings rest on the presumed advantages of that very shift to a more “distinct and scientific” language which Miller deplored. In any case Thoreau’s turnabout was not merely a stylistic one, or a matter of narrowing his vision from “wholes” to “details.” In 1849, in A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, Thoreau himself had expressed misgivings about writers who, in their eagerness to seize a universal truth concealed in nature, ignore its materiality.

May we not see God? Are we to be put off and amused in this life, as it were with a mere allegory? Is not Nature, rightly read, that of which she is commonly taken to be the symbol merely?

Instead of using figurative language to reveal the meaning of natural facts, he is prepared to trust the power of a factual idiom to do so. The unstated premise is that the meaning is latent, and that the particular words and facts with which they correspond have a common origin. As he writes in Walden, he has a recurrent urge to emulate “the language which all things and events speak without metaphor.” 14 He believes that his writing is most closely “allied to life” in its initial journal form, hence there is no reason to tailor entries for inclusion in essays or books. In fact, he realizes, the presumed structural weakness of journal writing, its lack of unity, actually enhances the power of the piecemeal entries to represent spontaneous responses to the observed environment.

Many of Thoreau’s long entries, often mistaken for raw material, are parts of a distinctive literary effort. The reinvigorated Journal, especially for the years between 1851 and 1854, is peculiarly affecting. No other work I know conveys such a vivid sense of what it might be like to experience an almost total sensory immersion in natural processes and nonhuman lives. Thoreau makes this experience so palpable that one can only repeat Alfred Kazin’s complaint: “It is not natural for a man to write this well every day.” Nature is not the Journal’s only subject, but after 1851 Thoreau gives less and less space to books, ideas, persons, public events. It is in the Journal that he prefigured the views of the late-twentieth-century ecocentrists.

In the spring of 1851, Thoreau recalled a time when it was “extacy” to live in close touch with nature. He had been reading Wordsworth, yet the following passage is also reminiscent of Puritan autobiography, and especially Jonathan Edwards’s account of his conversion in his “Personal Narrative”:

In youth before I lost any of my senses—I can remember that I was all alive—and inhabited my body with inexpressible satisfaction…. This earth was the most glorious musical instrument, and I was audience to its strains…. I can remember how I was astonished. I said to myself—I said to others—There comes into my mind or soul an indescribable infinite all absorbing divine heavenly pleasure, a sense of elevation & expansion—and have had nought to do with it. I perceive that I am dealt with by superior powers….

(Vol. 3, pp. 305-306; July 16, 1851)

During the summer of 1851 Thoreau’s recorded observations become more intense. He devotes a sequence of entries to the cricket, whose voice he tries to single out from the chorus of insect night music. He then reverts with great restraint to his old habit of speculating about the larger meaning of its sounds.

As I climbed the hill again toward my old beanfield—I listened to the ancient familiar immortal dear cricket sound under all others—hearing at first some distant chirps—but when these ceased—I was aware of the general earth song which my hearing had not heard amid which these were only taller flowers in a bed—and I wondered if behind or beneath this there was not some other chant yet more universal.

(Vol. 3, p. 263; June 13, 1851)

Two months later, however, he narrows the focus to the strictly physiological basis of the cricket song.

I hear a cricket in the depot field—walk a rod or two and find the note proceeds from near a rock—Partly under a rock between it & the roots of the grass he lies concealed—for I pull away the withered grass with my hands—uttering his night-like creak with a vibratory motion of his wings & flattering himself that it is night because he has shut out the day—He was a black fellow nearly an inch long with two long slender feelers…. They are remarkable [sic] secret & unobserved considering how much noise they make—….

(Vol. 3, p. 381; August 20, 1851)

On one of several all-night walks, he concentrates on the light patterns made by the moon’s rays on the pond’s surface. It is as if a realist painter has suddenly discovered elements of abstract design concealed in nature.

As I approached the pond down hubbard’s path…I saw the shimmering of the moon on its surface—and in the near now flooded cove the water-bugs darting circling about made streaks or curves of light. The moon’s inverted pyramid of shimmering light commenced about 20 rods off—like so much micaceous sand—But I was startled to see midway in the dark water a bright flame like more than phosphorescent light crowning the crests of the wavelets which at first I mistook for fireflies…. Standing up close to the shore & nearer the rippled surface I saw the reflections of the moon sliding down the watery concave like so many lustrous burnished coins poured from a bag—with in-exhaustible lavishness—& the lambent flames on the surface were much multiplied seeming to slide along a few inches with each wave before they were extinguished….

(Vol. 3, p. 262; June 13, 1851)

Moonlight acts as a purifying medium: it “takes the civilization all out of the landscape.” Of the motives behind Thoreau’s rapt depiction of nonhuman nature, none is stronger than his yearning for purification. This yearning can overwhelm his judgment, as in occasional fits of mean-spirited revulsion from the merely human. After spending a week in town “mixing in the trivial affairs of men,” for instance, he is overcome by a sense of “fatal coarseness,” as if he had “committed suicide”; but then a walk through the fields enables him to recover his “tone & sanity—& to perceive things truly and simply again.” As his asceticism increases in later years, he is less able to restrain his misanthropic impulses.

Despite its many charms, the Journal has never been widely read, partly owing to its length and the cost of multivolume editions. Single-volume collections of arbitrarily selected excerpts have been around for decades, but they are pitiful substitutes for the real thing. It is only since 1993, thanks to Daniel Peck, that an authentic sample of the unaltered text—A Year in Thoreau’s Journal: 1851—has been available. Peck’s lucid introduction and notes—he uses the new Princeton text—are especially useful for first-time readers. For the more ambitious, however, five volumes—covering 1837 to 1853—of the projected sixteen-volume definitive Princeton edition (part of what will be the first truly complete Writings of Henry D. Thoreau) have been published in an authoritative text with exceptionally useful yet unobtrusive editorial apparatus.

Today the Journal is considered a masterpiece of nonfiction nature writing, a genre that emerged in the West in the final decades of the eighteenth century. Nature writing encompassed natural history, the literary almanac, and the travel narrative, which already had made room in literature for factual observations of natural phenomena. Like the botanizing fad that simultaneously swept through the British and continental leisure classes, nature writing reflects the mounting prestige of science and the influence of Linnaeus, who had recently provided a classifying system for the study of all living things. His zeal in identifying and naming all natural phenomena inspired Gilbert White’s The Natural History of Selborne (1789) and William Bartram’s Travels (1791).

In Writing Nature: Henry Thoreau’s Journal (1985), Sharon Cameron, a formalist textual critic, argues that “it is Walden which is splintered from the Journal, not the other way around.” In Cameron’s view, the Journal’s prose imparts an uncanny transparency to the space between the writer’s words and their referents. She credits Thoreau with having achieved that will-o’-the-wisp of the romantic sensibility: the ability to put nature itself directly on the page—to write nature. One is reminded of Whitman’s vatic exclamation: “These states are my poems!” But Cameron also invokes the singular quality of the Journal as a standard for impugning Walden, which tells two “incompatible stories,” one “of rapture at the natural world,” the other “of rage at the social one.”

Cameron’s repudiation of Walden notwithstanding, she raises the salient issues posed by Thoreau’s shift in outlook and practice. How did that change affect Walden? We know that Thoreau did not complete his second burst of work on Walden until between 1852 and 1853, well after he had changed the character of the Journal, making it a more scientific work. The questions that arise are whether, and how, his altered viewpoint affected Walden. Is there a fundamental incompatibility, as Cameron argues, between the two “stories” told in Walden? In the second part of this essay I will discuss recent efforts to answer these questions.

—This is the first of two articles.

This Issue

June 24, 1999