Originally published in Midwest Quarterly, Winter 2004, Volume XLV, No. 2, this was my undergraduate thesis paper and the first thing I ever had published on a national scale.
Since the advent of mass-media advertising, American environmentalists have seldom lacked corporate-generated fuel for public outrage. Recent trends in automibile sales and advertising have yielded a bumper crop of bile. Among the worst of these offenders is a TV spot featuring a sporty utility vehicle rumbling through dense woodland terrain, eventually breaking through the vegetation to unveil a utopian grott complete with waterfall and lagoon. The driver — a white male, of course — looks awe-struck at his “discovery” and leaps into the water, celebrating his presumed solitude by belting out “Cheek to Cheek.” He is at fiirst shocked to hear another voice chiming in with his reverie, but as the camera pulls back to reveal dozens of like-minded adventurers in the same make of vehicle, he grins in delight at this new era of universal accessibility.
Viewing this romanticized notion of “conquering” the outdoors, the nature-minded observer can hardly help but wonder, “Whatever became of Walden?” The answer, sadly, may be that we have never strayed all that far from Thoreau’s design.
Henry David Thoreau was certainly not the first public figure to “get away from it all,” but he was the first American to fully develop the idea into a comprehensible philosophy of life. Over the past century, “Walden” has become synonymous with untouched paradise in American culture. Thoreau’s vision of fulfillment through solitude has been regularly accepted as the model of man’s harmonious existence with nature, but in many aspects his experiment exemplifies the mindset it is so often used to refute.
There is a school of thought that casts Thoreau and most of his era’s prominent nature writers as naive tools in a massive cover-up of the destructive force of 19th-century America. In he essay “Thoreau’s Ambivalence Toward Mother Nature,” Louise Westling accuses Thoreau of “creating a sentimental stance toward the land and its creatures that masked and simultaneously erased the conquest and destruction of the “wild” continent” (Westling, 145). Strong arguments could be made for this stance; for instance, the area immediately surrounding Walden in the 1840s was far more industrially developed than Thoreau ever acknowledges, and his dwelling was not quite so secluded as is often implied, suggesting a tendency toward romanticism.
Still, Thoreau hardly turns a blind eye toward the ravages of industrialization. He speaks fearfully of the approaching railroad and dismisses the Manifest Destiny mindset as “only great circle-sailing [which] the doctors prescribe for diseases of the skin merely” (Thoreau, 252). The general tone of Walden is not a hazy tribute to Nature as it was, but an attempt to record what exactly America was sacrificing in the name of expansion. The real problem is an arrogance and myopia that results in Thoreau’s unwitting complicity in that very destruction.
It is a common misconception that Thoreau’s ideas necessitated an equal balance of power between man and nature. In the “Solitude” passage, he does declare himself “partly leaves and vegetable mould” (109), but Thoreau’s narrative casts him chiefly as an outsider and observer. His consistent capitalization of “Nature” deifies the natural world, presumably making Thoreau her humble supplicant. Many times he indeed seems humbled by his surroundings. In the same paragraph of “Solitude,” he delivers this breathless ode:
The indescribable innocence and beneficence of Nature — of sun, wind, and rain, of summer and winter, — such health, such cheer, they afford for ever! And such sympathy have they ever with our race, that all Nature would be affected, and the clouds rain tears, and the woods shed their leaves and put on mourning in midsummer, if any man should ever for a just cause grieve. (109)
It would be difficult to regard a man who wrote such lines as anything but an unabashed adorer of Nature and her domain. Still, much of Thoreau’s writing reveals, perhaps unconsciously, an attitude of superiority and self-centeredness that works against the image of the single-minded nature lover. This strange blend of egotism and humility can make Walden a frustratingly conflicted read at times.
If man’s position as Nature’s servant was truly established, most of the conventional wisdom about Walden would bear out. It stands to reason that a single man should feel humbled in the presence of such a massive force as Nature, after all. Thoreau, however, never fully fits the mold of the worshipful adorer. His general attitude suggests that he and his surroundings form a strange kind of peer group. In other words, locating himself in excellent surroundings somehow conveys excellence to Thoreau himself, a position that seems fallacious at best. If one accepts this tenuous symbiosis, would any individual who took up residence in the same cabin on Walden Pond have achieved a similar status, or is that honor reserved for those whose thinking follows the same lines as Thoreau’s? If the latter is true, the groundwork would seem to be laid for a sort of “intellectual imperialism” in which only those who have taken the initiative to spell out their standings in relation to nature, to fully grasp Nature’s glory, could make any claims of “ownership.”
Early in his narrative, Thoreau makes clear that enlightenment is not as important to him as the superiority it affords. In the “Reading” chapter, he asserts that “[t]hose who have not read the classics in the language in which they were written must have a very imperfect understanding of the human race” (82), then launches into a long digression mocking popular fiction and its readers. He speaks of universal education creating “noble villages of men” (87), but defines the curriculum by his own parameters, essentially advocating the institution of a public school of Thoreauism. Obviously, Thoreau holds himself — and his intellect — in considerably higher esteem than he affords the majority of his fellows. Much as he denies full humanity to those who have not read the same books as he, so does he refuse admission into Nature in its “true” form to those who do not share his level of appreciation. In this way, Thoreau effectively establishes his intellectual autonomy over Nature.
It seems entirely possible that Thoreau’s apparent superiority may stem from overcompensation. He obviously finds Nature to be a somewhat intimidating presence, as evidenced by his frequent proclamations of her grandeur. His expressions of distaste for the “low” pursuits of his countrymen sometimes sounds like an effort to prove that, while he may not be able to live up to Nature’s standards, he has achieved what he believes to be some of the highest callings of mere humans: he is well-read, capable of appreciating Nature, and resourceful enough to establish his own dwelling in the woods.
As for the others who live in Concord and Walden Woods, Thoreau is almost uniformly patronizing. Speaking of the Field family, simple farmworkers kind enough to offer the author shelter from a raging storm, he is outright derisive. He is bemused by the “cone-headed infant” who might suppose himself to be heir to a kingdom rather than “John Field’s poor starveling brat” (163). For shelter, they gather under “that part of the roof which leaked the least.” Thoreau congratulates himself for not pointing out to Field that he has been underpaid for his year’s labor, and apparently thinks himself rather kind for sharing the secrets of his own sparse lifestyle. He advises the poor family to give up its few pleasures in life, namely “tea, and coffee, and butter, and milk, and beef,” apparently never thinking that the simplistic lifestyle that is workable for a single man with a penchant for self-sufficiency may not be as practical for a working family with small children.
While he makes some fine points about America’s culture of mandatory consumerism, Thoreau’s implication that all people would do better to leave themselves open to going a-huckleberrying whenever the mood catches them is fairly ludicrous. He chalks up John Field’s dismissal of his advice with the oddly insensitive statement that “the culture of an Irishman is an enterprise to be undertaken with a kind of moral boghoe,” but Field’s reaction seems in many ways to be the sensible one. After all, something in Thoreau must have loved that people massed themselves in dwellings, such as Concord. His grand experiment would no longer be unique if Walden Woods were teeming with other “pioneers.” As the huckleberry bushes were stripped bare and Walden Pond became overfished, both the landscape and the social atmosphere would likely begin to resemble the hated Concord. A life in the woods with a gang of kindred souls may be a cause for celebration in an SUV ad, but a cranky advocate of solitude would be unlikely to share that viewpoint.
As unforgiving as Thoreau is to most of his contemporary neighbors, he gives a great deal of admiration to those who went before him. The “Former Inhabitants” passage is filled with adoring odes to figures who can only be shadows and myth to the author. He speaks with great respect of a potter’s family, a retired military man, and several African-American laborers who made their homes in the area, noting their enterprises and career choices with none of the derision heaped on John Field. Whether or not these ghosts of the past allowed themselves to be paid unfairly or invested in coffee and butter while alive is unknown, but apparently unimportant to Thoreau.
His admiration for the former dwellers in the woods suggest that part of Thoreau’s devotion to simplicity stems from a romanticized concept of the past. He would like to cast these long-gone country folk as flag-bearers of a simpler era, but he has little to no evidence of their actual lifestyles. In fact, he occasionally allows their ancestral status to override the facts he does know. Despite making a number of strong anti-war statements throughout his writings, he laments the death of Colonel Quoil the soldier by saying he “should have made him fight his battles over again” were the colonel alive. After making clear and explicit his literary pretenses, he refers to the epitaph of “Cato and Brister pulled wool” as “about as edifying as the history of more famous schools of philosophy” (208).
Along with the deceased residents, he holds their land holy, saying “Deliver me from a city built on the site of a more ancient city, whose materials are ruins, whose gardens cemeteries (209). He even mourns the failure of a small dwelling that once sprouted in Walden Woods, wondering why it should be abandoned while Concord thrives. Why Thoreau assumes that this forsaken dwelling would have been any more admirable than Concord is unclear, but it could very well be another instance of groundless romanticism.
Of all of the former inhabitants of the land, Thoreau holds the Native Americans in highest regard. Throughout his writing career, he maintained an unwavering fascination with the Native American way of life. According to Suzanne D. Rose’s essay, “Following the Trail of Footsteps: From the Indian Notebooks to Walden,” “Thoreau identified the Indian as both his past and his destiny: (Rose, 77). The author says as much in one of his journal entries: “Wherever I go I tread in the tracks of an Indian — I pick up the bolt which he has but just dropped at my feet. And if I consider destiny I am on his trail.” In the “Economy” passage of Walden, he places Native American culture above that of the white man by citing Ireland, “one of the white or enlightened spots on the map. Contrast the physical condition of the Irish with that of the North American Indian, or the South Sea Islander, or any other savage race before it was degraded by contact with civilized man” (28).
The difficulty with Thoreau’s adoration of the Native American is a problem that runs throughout Walden’s descriptions of other residents: nearly every person or group of people mentioned in the text is romanticized in one way or another. The Indians are noble role models for the self-sufficient white man, Thoreau’s visiting friends are comforting wraiths, and the laborers are either proud preservers of a dying tradition or poor unfortunates lacking the depth of knowledge to appreciate their riches. By saddling these people with individual moral lessons, Thoreau effectively dehumanizes them, making them more like subjects of an ethnography than sentient beings. In this endeavor he cannot avoid the ethnographer’s perennial pitfall: he becomes the representative of the “superior” race while his subjects are reduced to objects of curiosity. Even as he elevates the Indians and some of the deceased farmers, he establishes them as “others” in a universe in which he represents the norm. Unconscious though it may be, this characterization fits squarely within the imperialist mindset. It is acceptable to respect and even admire the “foreign” persons, so long as the imperialist representative remains firmly in control of how they will be portrayed.
The idea of control manifests itself not only in Thoreau’s philosophy, but also in his style. Aside from the capitalization, Thoreau casts Nature as a specifically female being. As Westling points out, Thoreau’s feminization of Nature taints any claim upon coexistence or human subservience, instead making him a dominating invader. By casting Nature as a female entity, he implicitly makes her an other in a male-dominated society. Her otherness may be omniscient and mighty, but as a female she is an unfathomable, and therefore threatening, force in the eyes of mankind. Thoreau addresses this mystery by asserting his mastery of Nature and declaring himself lord of all he surveys, at least within his own mind, the only sphere that seems to matter to him. If Walden is a marriage, Thoreau casts himself as a respectful head of the household.
Westling also notes that the masculinist mindset of Thoreau’s time, combined with the aforementioned feminization, not only conceals but comes very close to excusing the human encroachment on natural lands. “Walden’s imaginary construct of Nature masks the exploitation of the pond’s resources — and in a broader sense the continent’s — for the hero’s needs which include the pretense that Nature is still whole and wild, an erotic, healing feminine other that gives access to transcendent spiritual reality” (Westling, 148). In other words, Thoreau crafts a largely false image of Nature that serves his own needs while neither acknowledging nor realizing the harm he is incurring in the process.
This pattern of thinking if in line with the offending sport utility vehicle commercial The awe-inspiring beauty of Nature, as observed by the incoming make visitor, is intended to bestow glory on the all-conquering vehicle that has allowed him to access this otherwise off-limits paradise. At the same time, Nature is used to distract the consumer from the environment’s inevitable despoilment at the hands of the outsiders, as well as the noxious emissions of the SUV itself. The message is clear: Nature is grant and glorious and worthy of our admirations, but Nature is ultimately ours for the taking.
Taking a somewhat gentler approach to the feminization issue, Joe Boyd Fulton’s essay “Doing Pioneer Work: The Male Writer in Week and Walden” suggests that this marriage of man and Nature is more reciprocal. “Theorizing authorship as a procreative alliance between writer and subject, [Thoreau] imagines an intimacy that produces ‘offspring’ — his art — concomitant with a gender difference that offers a structure for maintaining otherness.” Fulton believes that the symbiosis between Thoreau and Nature is so elemental to the creation of a finished product as to render the two forces nearly equal, a mutually agreed-upon union in which “the earth is made fertile by their intercourse.”
Eventually, though, Fulton must admit that Thoreau never quite achieves an expression of that utopian connections. “Thoreau makes a sharp distinction between that writer and the written; the writer is an distinct from nature as male is from female, regardless of the extent to which they must interact” (Fulton, 292). In this light, the creative process becomes more like a collaboration that a true union. Nature is a vital part of the process, but still a separate entity from Thoreau himself. The writer cannot create without Nature, but he is in charge of the final product, while Nature must return to her role as an other.
This “otherness” is evidence of Thoreau’s general regard of man and Nature as interconnected but separate entities. Never does he regard himself or mankind as a true part of Nature, at least not in the same way that his owls, fish, and pine trees are part of Nature. Thoreau even goes so far as to say “Nature is hard to overcome, but she must be overcome” (175), indicating a not altogether friendly line between two opposing forces. In fact, he often defines Nature not on its own terms, but in opposition to the urban life he left behind. In his essay “Thoreau’s Urban Imagination,” Robert Fanuzzi claims that “Thoreau’s intent is to use historically identified conventions of urbanism to conceive a space that corresponds to his imagination… [He] represents nature according to the self-negating provisions of society” (Fanuzzi, 57-59).
If this criticism bears up, it could potentially negate a fair portion of the conventional wisdom about Walden. If Thoreau is defining Nature by what it is not, the common conception of the author as an outspoken proponent of all things natural is tainted. Certain aspects of the text do seem to bear out this notion; a fair portion of the “Solitude” passage, for instance, details the merits of removing oneself from society for the express purpose of escaping the crush of urban life, and a great deal of spite is directed at Concord as the antithesis of Walden. “What sort of space is that which separates a man from his fellows and makes him solitary?” (107) Thoreau wonders, casting his experiment as an effort to remove himself from interaction with the common city crowd. Furthering the idea of a fundamental separation from his countrymen, he muses, “Sometimes, when I compare myself with other men, it seems as if I were more favored by the gods than they… I do not flatter myself, but if it be possible they flatter me.” From this perspective, Walden appears less like a hymn to Nature than a repudiation of mankind’s values. The aim of the experiment seems not to be to find man’s role as one element of the natural world, but rather to strike a balance between two unlike forces.
In this light, Thoreau’s motivations begin to look somewhat selfish. Unlike Emerson, who focused, even when speaking of self-reliance, mainly on his role in relation to the world around him, Thoreau more frequently chooses to examine how the external world relates to him. In the “Where I Lived and What I Lived For” passages, he explains, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I have not lived” (72). The emphasis on the first person pronoun is unmistakable, mainly because Thoreau’s philosophy is based as much on self-fulfillment as self-reliance. As much as he dislikes other men’s misuse of Nature for capital gain, he is just as single-minded in his exploitation of Walden for his own intellectual enrichment. The physical results of these dual pursuits may differ, but the mentality behind them is unsettlingly similar. He speaks with disdain of those who would “earn their Walden by the turning of a cock or drawing of a plug” (153) in the same breath as he refers to the pond and forest as his own personal “ampitheatre for some kind of sylvan spectacle” (152). There are certainly a number of fundamental differences between physical and intellectual exploitation, but the end result of both is capitalization for one’s personal gain. If Thoreau’s regard for nature was fundamentally similar to that of the captains of industry, Emerson’s statement that “No truer American existed than Thoreau” takes on an ironic air.
To his credit, Thoreau occasionally hints at his awareness of this double standard, even lumping himself with his nemeses as he admits that “the woodcutters, and the railroads, and I myself have profaned Walden” (157). At other moments, however, he seems to completely ignore his complicity in the objectification of Walden. When he relates his discovery of a rotting boat on the shores of Flint’s Pond, he says it “was as impressive a wreck as one could imagine on the seashore, and had as good a moral” (155). Although Thoreau never explicates that moral, he clearly refers to Nature’s eventual triumph over invading technology. Perhaps he intends to include himself with the latter, but the tone of the passage is that of a man sitting in judgment. In this instance, Thoreau takes sides with nature, but he will cross back and forth several times more before his narrative is through.
Despite Thoreau’s insistence on solitude as the most essential aspect of his experiment, his text sometimes takes on an evangelical tone. Walden has frequently been read as a model of a lifestyle, a guidebook for like-minded individuals seeking to abandon the ways of general society, and in many ways Thoreau is indeed “selling” the idea of Walden to the masses. The early chapters include a veritable laundry list of the supplies necessary to “do-it-yourself,” right down to itemized expense accounts.
Even if his intention was merely to keep a simple record of his time in the woods, Thoreau could hardly have been blind to the appeal his words would hold for readers fed up with the workaday world. If Walden is indeed about the intellectual exploitation of nature, this appeal is troublesome. Thoreau stakes his claim early on, quoting William Cowper’s declaration of “I am monarch of all I survey / My right there is none to dispute.” If Thoreau can make this bold statement, so can those who follow his teachings. Preach though he might about the banality of life in Concord, Thoreau would certainly have been more put off by a forest full of disaffected urbanites claiming dominion over all they could see.
In this way, Thoreau is like a factory worker assembling a machine that will eventually take his job. Paradoxically, if Walden succeeds in convincing readers of the superiority of his lifestyle, it may weaken the integrity of one of its key components, solitude. By demonstrating how easily a Walden can be achieved, he has opened the door to the generations of followers with less integrity than himself. Although he could not have known it for certain at the time, it might reasonably have been foreseeable that the success of Walden would essentially eliminate the possibility of its untainted replication. In his excellent essay “Houses in Walden: Thoreau as ‘Real-Estate Broker,’ Social Critic, Idealist,” Paul McCarthy goes so far as to cast Thoreau as a proud homeowner relishing the superiority of his abode to those of his neighbors. In fact, the author himself acknowledges in “Where I Lived and What I Lived For” that he was “regarded as a sort of real-estate broker by [his] friends” (McCarthy, 65). McCarthy runs through an illustration of Thoreau’s salesmanship that seems to support that analysis. In “Economy,” for instance, Thoreau spells out his definition of what a dwelling place should be, adhering, as always, to his principles of “simplicity, naturalness, and economy.” He declares that “[t]he most interesting dwellings in this country… are the most unpretending, humble log huts and cottages of the poor commonly” (41) and that “[m]any a man is harassed to death to pay the rent of a larger and more luxurious box” than the simple wigwams inhabited by the local Penobscot Indians (23).
Throughout the text of Walden, Thoreau meticulously recounts every detail of every dwelling place he encounters, inevitably holding it to the ultimate standard of his own cabin at Walden. The Field’s house is savaged as inefficient and unnecessarily extravagant, despite its inhabitants’ obvious poverty. The houses of Concord come in for similar criticism, which leaves unscathed only the tent-dwelling Penobscot, the deceased laborers of the defunct Walden village, and the Collins family, whose shack Thoreau purchases as raw materials for his own cabin. The Collins cottage falls in with Thoreau’s general theories of economic living. He agrees with Mrs. Collins’s simple assessment of “good boards overhead, good boards all around, and a good window,” and promptly pays the couple $4.25 for the shelter (35). McCarthy notes that the exchange “is speedily completed after Collins returns. The family does not receive from Thoreau the same kind of practical and philosophical advice offered to Field” (McCarthy, 327). For that matter, neither is it suggested that trying to communicate with the resourceful Collins, an Irishman like Field, requires “a kind of moral boghoe.” Apparently the “obstinate Irish” are granted greater leeway when their thinking happens to follow the same lines as Thoreau’s.
Whether Thoreau’s boasting about the superiority of his residence is intentional marketing or simple pride, the effect is definitely one of salesmanship. Walden is in many ways a sales pitch for a lifestyle, and the style of abode is certainly an essential part of that lifestyle. As Thoreau spells out not only what he requires of his own home, but also what he sees as the fundamental deficiencies of others’ houses, he sends a very clear message to the reader as to what steps are necessary to live life the Walden way.
The makers of the SUV ad have made some attempt to adhere to the outline of this sales pitch, but have distorted the original intention. In modern parlance, “simplicity” is generally applied to activities that are easy to do, while Thoreau understood the term to mean a way of living without unnecessary luxuries. In the context of Walden vs. SUV ads, these definitions could hardly be more at odds. While the vehicle in question no doubt delivers the driver to previously unreachable splendors with minimal effort, its very existence would surely be denounced by Thoreau as a useless extravagance. The “simplicity” of Thoreau’s world involved a great deal of labor in pursuit of a lasting inner peace. The modern version hawks instant gratification with little to no work involved.
Yet, in a perverse way, this new vision of an easy-access utopia is linked to Thoreau’s ideas. By extolling the virtues of the Walden experiment in print, he gave the public access to his formula, including a number of people who would fail to understand his message or twist it to their own advantages. While it is ridiculous to disparage any author for readers’ misinterpretations of his or her writings, there is ample evidence that the current twisted perception of Nature can be traced back to the seeds planted by Walden. Social factors are to blame, not Thoreau, but his hand is inextricably in the mix.
In fact, Thoreau even hints (again, perhaps unintentionally) at these possible dangers in his conclusion: “I had not lived there a week before my feet wore a path from my door to the pond-side; and though it is five or six years since I trod it, it is still quite distinct. It is true that others may have fallen into it, and so helped to keep it open. The surface of the earth is soft and impressible by the feet of men; and so with the path which the mind travels” (254). These lines are written mainly as a condemnation of “the ruts of tradition and conformity,” but they are equally applicable to the eventual development of the Walden philosophy. While Thoreau acknowledges that the trail he blazed may have attracted enough traffic to remain visible, he could hardly foresee that it would quickly become a superhighway.
Of course, the Walden ideal is not the only thing for sale in Walden. To some extent, Thoreau is also marketing himself. He is delving into a subject matter and a field of writing for which there is no real precedent, and therefore might understandably feel somewhat obligated to explain his qualifications for such a daunting task. Perhaps this explains some of the seemingly pretentious and arrogant passages early in the book; Thoreau may be listing his rosters of necessary reading material and citing his occasional scuffles with conventional society as part of a pitch for acceptance. There is, after all, a fine line between the serene, Nature-loving visionary and the sociopathic, nonsense-spouting hermit, at least in the eyes of society at large. If the author is made a commodity before the narrative has even begun, it hardly seems surprising that the work as a whole can be read as a sales pitch.
Still, the greatest blame for the corruption of Walden and Walden lies with a social climate that allowed Thoreau’s concept to be commodified. In his essay “The Significance of the Loss of Things: Walden Pond as ‘Thing,’” David Strong identifies the environment of Walden as comprised of “things” in the Heideggerian sense. Heidegger defined “things” as those concrete objects around which mankind gathers, objects like a “bridge, jug, footbridge, plow, horse and bull… tree and pond, too, brook and hill.” These are objects generally thought of as utilitarian, but the use of each should ideally involve a certain level of supplication on the part of the user. These objects, at least in Heidegger’s era, enabled humans to accomplish feats that would be impossible without the application if things. Strong argues that Walden Pond is one such thing, and that Thoreau regards the pond with the appropriate level of respect. He puts it to use as a source of food and a bathing hole, but also offers his utmost praise and admiration on numerous occasions (148-149).
Strong also draws on the writings of Albert Borgmann, who feared that “things have been transformed into… commodities procured by devices.” Thoreau notes the beginnings of this trend when he expresses his distaste for those who “earn their Walden by the turning of a cock or drawing of a plug” (153). For these people, the pond is reduced to a commodity — running water — procured by a device — the tap. If such commodification is directly responsible for a fundamental loss of respect for Nature, Thoreau seems to be among the last true defenders of the “pure” way of life (147-48).
In another light, however, Walden looks like something of a facilitator for the commodification of Walden. In his “The Ponds” passage, Thoreau says, “I am thankful that this pond was made deep and pure for a symbol” (153), a statement that would eventually take on an unforeseeable irony. Whether or not it was Thoreau’s intention, his writing established Walden Pond as an icon. While the physical pond still existed as a “thing,” it loomed much larger in the minds of millions as an abstract concept, a symbol of a bygone era and an escapist ideal. The SUV ad is a perfect illustration of how “unspoiled” Nature like the Walden of Thoreau’s time has been intellectually commodified as a getaway for anyone with the ambition to seek it out and the resources to purchase the necessary vehicle to get there.
On the other side of the ideological spectrum, Walden is equally, if less insidiously, commodified. Environmentalists have long adhered to Thoreau’s ideals and held up Walden as a sort of acme of ecological responsibility. While these ends are admirable, and would likely have met with at least a degree of favor from Thoreau, this concept of Walden can also be construed as harmful. From the Heideggerian perspective, the pond as a thing ceases to exist as soon as it is abstracted and put to use as a mere conduit for reaching a related but distinctly separate goal. To apply the Borgmann formula, Walden Pond, or an abstraction of it, has become the device by which environmentalists procure the commodity of ecological awareness. While this is arguably a very respectful and noble form of commodification, it is commodification nonetheless, and is therefore a detriment to the reality of Walden Pond, or any other equivalent facet of Nature, can ever again be looked upon as a pure, Heideggerian thing. Reclaiming an object from the realm of intellectual commodification is a practically impossible task.
Despite his genuine and admirable ecological concerns. Thoreau is remarkably short-sighted for much of Walden. He knows that changes must be implemented if Walden and the surrounding vicinity are to be preserved in anything resembling their natural states, but he never fully considers that his brand of thinking may be part of the problem. The fundamental trouble with Thoreau’s arguments against physical exploitation of Nature is that he continues to advocate saving the forests as an object for human consumption, albeit of a less obvious sort. Thoreau surely would have cringed at the idea of the modern National Park, with monitored ranger stations, family sedans rolling down wooded byways, and “points of interest” signified by plastic road markers. Nonetheless, his insistence on the preservation of Nature for the indulgence of only those who truly appreciate it can easily be used as justification for today’s neatly parceled-out “nature getaways.” After all, who can make the judgment that any person is unqualified to fully cherish what Nature has to offer? And so long as Nature lovers have these outlets, what argument can be made to stop the physical exploitation of other lands? Many of these reserves even offer “primitive” campsites which allow visitors to spend a week in the wilds with considerably fewer conveniences than Thoreau enjoyed at Walden, effectively transforming Thoreau’s grand experiment into a mere weekend diversion.
In hindsight, it seems as if Thoreau managed to market his ideas all too well. Nature has become more a destination than ever before. Taking an occasional weekend drive to a national park certifies one as a “Nature Lover,” but when Thoreau disciple Ted Kaczynski is led away from his own one room shack in the woods, his Walden-esque abode is taken as proof of his being a dangerous sociopath. Perhaps inevitably, even Walden itself has fallen victim to this vicious cycle. In his book The Environmental Imagination: Thoreau, Nature Writing, and the Formation of American Culture, Laurence Buell notes that today “one can live (for a price) within a half-mile of Walden Pond on a plot of no more than a couple of cozily landscaped acres at the end of a rusty cul-de-sac, backing up to a conservancy trail perhaps, and fancy that one is experiencing the ‘truth’ of Thoreau’s assertions” (Buell, 70).
It would be unfair to fault Thoreau entirely for the eventual failure of the Walden experiment. After all, he entered the woods expressly for his own benefit and enrichment, not as a conscious attempt to change the way the world viewed Nature. Still, the effects of his subtly adversarial relationship with Nature and his intellectual imperialism over his environment are readily evident in a modern society in which true solitude is almost never a viable option. Could it be a coincidence that conquering invader in the SUV ad chooses a song explicitly celebrating togetherness as his victory cry?
Buell, Laurence. The Environmental Imagination: Thoreau, Nature Writing, and the Formation of American Culture. Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1995.
Fanuzzi, Robert. “Thoreau’s Urban Imagination.” American Literature, 68:2 (1996 June), 321-46.
Fulton, Joe Boyd. “Doing ‘Pioneer Work’: The Male Writer in Thoreau’s Week and Walden.” ESQ, 41:4 (1995), 289-305.
McCarthy, Paul. “Houses in Walden: Thoreau as ‘Real-Estate Broker,’ Social Critic, Idealist.” Midwest Quarterly, 28.3 (1987), 323-39.
Neufeldt, Leonard N., and Mark A. Smith. “Going to Walden Woods: Walden, Walden and American Pastoralism.” Arizona Quarterly, 55:2 (1999 Summer), 57-86.
Rose, Suzanne D. “Following the Trail of Footsteps: From the Indian Notebooks to Walden.” The New England Quarterly, 67:1 (1994 March), 147-74.
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