Week 4, Day 1, Emerson and Thoreau

“Standing on the bare ground, -- my
head bathed by the blithe air, and
uplifted into infinite space, -- all mean
egotism vanishes. I become a
transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see
all; the currents of the Universal Being
circulate through me; I am part or
particle of God.”
Nature—A radical new imagination
of woods and wilderness:
The greatest delight which the fields and
woods minister, is the suggestion of an
occult relation between man and the
vegetable. I am not alone and
unacknowledged. They nod to me, and I to
them. The waving of the boughs in the storm,
is new to me and old. It takes me by
surprise, and yet is not unknown. Its effect is
like that of a higher thought or a better
emotion coming over me, when I deemed I
was thinking justly or doing right. (28)
Nature—A radical new imagination
of woods and wilderness:
Yet it is certain that the power to produce
this delight, does not reside in nature, but in
man, or in a harmony of both. It is necessary to
use these pleasures with great temperance. For,
nature is not always tricked in holiday attire, but the
same scene which yesterday breathed perfume and
glittered as for the frolic of the nymphs, is overspread
with melancholy today. Nature always wears the
colors of the spirit. To a man laboring under
calamity, the heat of his own fire hath sadness in it.
Then, there is a kind of contempt of the landscape
felt by him who has just lost by death a dear friend.
The sky is less grand as it shuts down over less worth
in the population. (29)
Spirit in Nature:
The world proceeds from the same spirit as the
body of man… We are as much strangers in nature,
as we are aliens from God. We do not understand the
notes of birds. The fox and the deer run away from
us; the bear and tiger rend us. We do not know the
uses of more than a few plants, as corn and the apple,
the potato and the vine. Is not the landscape,
every glimpse of which hath a grandeur, a face
of him? Yet this may show us what discord is
between man and nature, for you cannot
freely admire a noble landscape, if laborers are
digging in the field hard by. The poet finds
something ridiculous in his delight, until he is
out of the sight of men. (50)
Nature—How do we know nature?
Perceive it? Study it?
“When I behold a rich landscape, it is less to my purpose to
recite correctly the order and superposition of the strata, than
to know why all thought of multitude is lost in a tranquil sense
of unity. I cannot greatly honor minuteness in details, so long as
there is no hint to explain the relation between things and
thoughts; no ray upon the metaphysics of conchology, of
botany, of the arts, to show the relation of forms of flowers,
shells, animals, architecture, to the mind, and build science upon
ideas.” (51)
“The problem of restoring the world original and eternal
beauty, is solved by the redemption of the soul… The reason
why the world lacks unity, and lies broken and in heaps, is,
because man is disunited with himself. He cannot be a
naturalist, until he satisfies all the demands of the spirit.” (54)
Nature— “Build therefore, your own
“Every spirit builds itself a house; and
beyond its house a world; and beyond its
world, a heaven. Know then, that the
world exists for you.” (55)
Emerson— some big take-aways
Emerson’s relation to religion; what is relation of
spirit to nature?
Tradition vs. insight: relation of American literature to
How does nature sub-serve humanity (its uses)?
How does one know nature?
Emerson’s view of science & relation of science to
What is the relationship of the poet to nature?
From Emerson to Thoreau…
If Emerson is arguably the most important
19th century American literary figure,
Thoreau is arguably the most important
19th century American environmental
 What are the stereotypes/preconceptions
we have of Thoreau?
Thoreau: Emerson’s “Earthy
Heavily influenced by Emerson
 Split visions of Thoreau: an ecological
saint? Or the wannabe who lived in
Emerson’s backyard?
 Walden never claims to be an experiment
in wilderness living….so what is it?
What is Walden?
What is Walden?
Based on the journals Thoreau kept
during his stay at Walden Pond.
 Kept a journal from 1837-1861.
 Spent 2 years in a cabin at Walden Pond
that he built himself (1845-1847).
 Walden is not published until 1854: nine
years of writing and revisions! Walden is
thus a highly constructed literary
piece – not a direct nature essay or a
simple journal.
Buell suggests that there are 7 environmental
“projects” in Walden:
Pastoral project of edenic recovery
Pastoral project of critique
Experiment in frugality (adds georgic
elements to his use of pastoral)
Interest in natural history (the seasons,
Landscape aesthetics
Geography (landscape of Concord vs.
landscape of the text)
“Politics” of nature
Two big reading questions for
What does Thoreau have to say about the
Buell argues that Walden actually illustrates
the development of an ecological
perspective over the course of the book: the
later chapters show a more eco-centric
perspective than the earlier chapters. It is as
if Thoreau became more environmentally
aware while working on the text. Do you
agree with this statement? Why or why not?
What evidence (through close reading) do
you have to support your answer?
Checklist of characteristics of
environmental texts
The nonhuman environment is present not merely as a
framing device but as a presence that begins to suggest
that human history is implicated in natural history.
The human interest is not understood to be the only
legitimate interest.
Human accountability to the environment is part of the
text’s ethical orientation.
Some sense of the environment as a process rather
than a constant or a given is at least implicit in the text.
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