The wellspring of American nature writing

The wellspring of American nature writing

Walden remains uncannily ‘addressed to our condition exactly,’ 150 years after its publication.


Henry David Thoreau could have been describing his own gift to American letters when he wrote in Walden, “There are probably words addressed to our condition exactly, which, if we could really hear and understand, would be more salutary than the morning or the spring to our lives. How many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book.” How many indeed.

The 150th anniversary of Walden’s publication in August [2004] has generated a stream of Thoreau-related books. Introducing one of them, John Updike writes that while Walden may be too revered for its own good, it has also contributed more to “America’s present sense of itself” than any other nineteenth-century American classic.

Age aside, Walden indeed remains uncannily “addressed to our condition exactly” by its complex interiority, its focus on sensory perception, its dissent against the pettiness of popular culture and the anxiety it induces, its reportage on the natural world, and its quest to understand both our alienation from nature and our profound connection to it.

The self-imposed drudgery against which Thoreau protested has certainly not lifted, and it is only more true today that Americans, as he wrote so long ago, “have no time to be anything but a machine.” One could argue that Walden 's spiritual undercurrent—too long ignored but richly engaged in recent books—prefigured the strain of spirituality without religion so widespread in America today. As Terry Tempest Williams writes in a different anniversary book, “Walden is a prayer born out of American soil by an American soul.”

Walden's salience explains why Princeton University Press, Shambhala Publications, and Yale University Press dared to add this year to the 200-plus existing editions of this iconic book.

Walden did not start off as a publishing juggernaut, of course. Eight days before Ticknor & Fields officially released it, W.R. Alger, a Unitarian minister, entered the publisher’s Boston retail outlet, the Old Corner Bookstore, plunked down a dollar, and, near as anyone can figure, bought the first copy. Walden did well initially, but the first edition of 2,000 copies did not sell out for five years, at which time it went out of print. Thoreau reflected this downbeat debut unintentionally in his six-word journal entry for August 9, 1854: “Walden published. Elder-berries. Waxwork yellowing.”

Thoreau’s tone hardly anticipates the book’s enduring influence. Walden is recognized as the template of the American journey narrative, the wellspring of American nature writing, and a core text of the conservation movement. It has inspired countless writers (Robert Frost, E.B. White, and Annie Dillard come to mind) and spawned untold experiments in simple living. Needless to say, Thoreau—the champion of civil disobedience and mentor to all who march to a different drummer—has long been an inspiration to Unitarian Universalists, too.

Princeton’s 150th anniversary paperback edition of Walden features the authoritative text edited by J. Lyndon Shanley in 1971. What's new is Updike’s introduction, which is brilliant but also nearly upstages Thoreau in its cantankerous jibes at our distracted culture. While the “outward sweep of Emerson’s pithy, exhortative sentences rather wearies the reader now,” he writes, we are drawn into Thoreau’s more particular and descriptive, yet more interior, prose as it glides on the river of narrative.

Updike notes that Walden represented a subtle shift as Thoreau moderated his romanticism with a desire to present nature as it is. But Thoreau’s new angle of vision did not blind him to the spiritual, he adds, for the end of Walden is infused with mystery and intimations of immortality.

Updike errs, however, when he calls Thoreau “the scion of a small industrialist” who scoffed at work because he had “free land to squat on” and the village’s generosity to lean on. Thoreau’s father misspent the little he inherited and bounced around in search of work during Thoreau’s youth, although the family’s pencil business took off. Had Thoreau’s brother and a sister, both teachers, not helped with the cost, he could not have gone to Harvard. Thoreau acted like a scion, yes, but any financial independence he boasted of was gained only by a fiat of imagination and denial.

Shambhala’s hardcover edition is bejeweled by forty-nine striking woodcuts by Michael McCurdy, visual aids to contemplation. Williams’s foreword is more earnest than Updike’s, but it, too, is wonderful. Where Updike faults Thoreau for living off the “surplus” generated by a slave economy, Williams hones in on the double metaphor of emancipation in Thoreau’s writing: It “was not only to be extended to the freedom of slaves, but to the freedom of one’s own soul.”

She also focuses on Thoreau’s practice of the art of seeing, his double vision. “With one eye, he sees the object as the thing itself in all its intimate detail. . . . With his other eye, he sees the pond for what it inspires: myth and metaphor.” And he reminds us, she notes, that we are not at the center of nature but are rather “part of a teeming, vibrating whole.”

Yale University Press offers a “new” text of the classic book. Walden: A Fully Annotated Edition (2004; $30), edited and annotated by Jeffrey S. Cramer, curator at the Thoreau Institute at Walden Woods, is the first complete annotation of Walden in a decade, and, scholarly scrums aside, readers will be intrigued by Cramer's wide-ranging commentary and new bibliographical and historical background (including stunning passages from Thoreau's Journal and letters).

Cramer offers useful strategies for reading Walden, showing, for example, how Thoreau uses autobiography as a literary device to express not his actual life, but the one he aspired to in faith. Walden is so familiar that it is hard for some readers to jump the track of their previous readings. Cramer helps here by including private and public sources that provide an alternate angle of vision on the process of self-discovery that Thoreau renders artistically in Walden.

Thoreau’s knowledge of mythology and sacred texts from the Bible to the Bhagavad Gita was encyclopedic, and he referred to them or refashioned their cadences often. Cramer is excellent at citing these sources. Yet, regrettably, he does not comment on other references to religious faith, not even when Thoreau writes about the woods “bathed in so pure and bright a light” as would prove immortality (in “Spring”), the “greater Benefactor and Intelligence” over him, or how the story of the living bug in the wood fortified his “faith in resurrection” (both in “Conclusion”).

Walden is an account of a serendipitous journey begun and ended by existential impulse rather than reason. It is what we call today a spiritual autobiography. Literary critics long ignored this quality of Walden, misled or perhaps comforted by Thoreau’s scorn for formal religion. (A religious iconoclast, Thoreau in 1840 resigned from the rolls of the Unitarian church in Concord—where he had been baptized in 1817 but which he did not attend—rather than pay to support it.)

But as the grip of English professors on the classic has eased, new readers have offered new Waldens—and new Thoreaus. One of them is the intrinsically religious person presented in Alan D. Hodder’s critical tour de force, Thoreau’s Ecstatic Witness (Yale University Press, 2001; $40). Peering behind Thoreau’s harsh and often funny scourging of churches, Hodder discloses a contemplative to whom reverence and mystery (“useful ignorance,” as he called it) were central. Theology and dogma left Thoreau cold, but imbibing nature through the portals of his senses moved him to religious rapture. Such ecstatic experience was the heart of Thoreau’s spirituality, but it was not all of it. Nature, he believed, was a mystery pointing beyond itself.

Three recent books engage this side of Thoreau, directly or indirectly, in marvelous ways. Bradley P. Dean makes another valuable addition to Thoreau studies with Letters to a Spiritual Seeker (W.W. Norton, 2004; $21.95). It collects Thoreau’s letters over thirteen years to Harrison G.O. Blake, his Transcendentalist soul mate in Worcester, a Harvard Divinity School graduate who left the ministry. Thoreau once said that religion (by which he meant experience, not creeds) was too intimate a subject for public speech, and he addressed it obliquely in his writing. Yet here, because Blake approached him as a spiritual mentor, Thoreau’s views on the soul are front and center.

“Let God alone if need be,” he wrote Blake. “It is not when I am going to meet him, but when I am just turning away and leaving him alone, that I discover what God is. I say, god. I am not sure that that is the name. You will know whom I mean.”

Dean’s book discloses an interesting tension in Thoreau. Here was a man who rejected Christianity in part because it saw the body as an obstacle, not a passage, to the realm of spirit—yet Thoreau recoiled from talk about sexuality, which he discussed only in vague terms.

In replying to Blake’s request for advice on “marital union,” Thoreau commented stiffly: “All lusts or base pleasures must give place to loftier delights.”

A highly original book on body, spirit, and self-discovery that invokes Walden is Mary Rose O’Reilley’s The Barn at the End of the World: The Apprenticeship of a Quaker, Buddhist Shepherd. The book is not about Thoreau, but his presence hovers. It crackles with life, free of the cant that can burden spirituality and nature books. O’Reilley is also hysterically funny about annoying monastery roommates, the effects of homeopathic fright pills, and how Americans, who spend big to improve the soul, behave spiritually “as I sometimes do in the gym: taking the elevator to the third floor in order to use the stair-climbing machine.”

After teaching English for twenty years, O’Reilley realized she had lost faith in twentieth-century fiction, much as a priest might realize he had stopped believing in transubstantiation. She felt a need to “live deliberately,” she writes (invoking Thoreau’s mantra). Because a barn full of animals brings her peace, she became an apprentice at a Minnesota sheep farm and, because she also wanted to pray more, she went to live at a Buddhist monastery in France. As a hireling shepherd, she learned to nurse, clean, deworm, catch, flip, shear, hoof-trim, castrate, and inoculate sheep (although she says she also spent a lot of time “slipping on sheep shit”). She wanted to ground her life in Walden’s “essential facts,” and it doesn’t get more real than carrying off dead lambs or shaving and cleaning ewe bottoms.

O’Reilley, a former Roman Catholic, has long been an active Quaker who does Buddhist meditation. Her book is more than a plea to welcome spirit into modernist empiricism. As one open to mystery and not overly impressed by the rational mind, she approaches it from the other end: absorbing reality back into the sacred. Her book is also about the tension between longing and having, between traveling and being; her theme is embracing the life we are given.

Ian Marshall, the author of Peak Experiences: Walking Meditations on Literature, Nature and Need, is another modern pilgrim. He is also a funny English professor, avid hiker, Thoreau freak, and, despite being a practitioner of literary ecocriticism, an extremely fine writer. Marshall thinks about metaphorical mountains while climbing real ones, including the peak that Thoreau, in a letter to Blake, said he keeps anchored in his mind and which he ascends “in my dreams, both awake and asleep.”

Scaling mountains, a range of literary works, and the field of human development in a single bound (or two), Marshall observes that being eye level with clouds can disrupt our hold on reality—but can also lead to integration of the self. (He presents this as an example of “eco-psychology.”) His template is Maslow’s theory of peak experience as a flow state that represents the apex of the human hierarchy of needs. Updating a central Walden theme, Marshall points us to nature to meet first our physiological needs, then our psychological ones. (Which means, of course, that we first have to see and overcome our alienation from nature.) Not the least because of its style of stream-of-consciousness scholarship, Marshall’s interesting book offers an alternate description of Thoreau’s ecstatic experience.

Walden is finally subject to its own dictum that great books will appear in a dead language to dull readers or in degenerate times. Great books live because we rewrite them into our lives. This is the nub of Mary Oliver’s poem, “Going to Walden,” included in Beacon Press’s handsome new paperback of her New and Selected Poems: Volume One (2004; $16). Friends urge Oliver to drive on highways to Walden Pond for a day trip. The poet, hearing Thoreau’s whisper, demurs. She knows her real task, even if the others may think her “half-foolish” for missing a day in the country:

Maybe. But in a book I read and cherish,
Going to Walden is not so easy a thing
As a green visit. It is the slow and difficult
trick of living, and finding it where you are.

This article appeared in the July/August 2004 issue of UU World.