Nature Writing and Thoreau

Since last week’s lecture was in the form of a 5-paragraph essay, which many of you denounced as “too formal,” this week’s lecture will take the form of a blog entry.

Today is September 11. It’s the day when we commemorate the tragic and devastating terrorist attacks in New York, Pennsylvania, and Washington D.C. It’s a day to remember with collective sadness and the realization that we are all “Americans.”

Although it’s a day of sadness, it’s also the day that our class is thinking about what “American” means after reading an excerpt from the Autobiography by Benjamin Franklin. Today we think about Franklin with a new eye on Henry David Thoreau’s Walden. Franklin’s Autobiography reads like an “imitate me,” self-help manual that ultimately confesses itself a necessary failure: nobody’s perfect, he concludes. But he tried to perfect himself, and he did it without the help of “Providence.” Franklin’s life story isn’t the standard “Puritan conversion narrative” like Mary Rowlandson’s. Sacvan Bercovitch has claimed that Franklin’s autobiography tries to “reconcile the extremes of individualism and individual sublimation into the community.” To put it simply, Franklin started out individualist, but later revised his story to appear more useful and community-minded.

Benjamin Franklin, 1767

He changed his tune after advice from the “coaxers” named Abel James and Benjamin Vaughn. Previous autobiographers of the colonies — before the American Revolution — tried to use scriptures to mediate between the individual and the community. Franklin’s advisers (coaxers) urged him to reconcile the individual with the community be making his life a guidebook that others could use and imitate — not just a self-adulatory story of his successes.

Well by the time Henry David Thoreau had settled into his little cabin near Concord, Massachusetts, Franklin’s post-Revolutionary “self in community” had swung the other direction for the narrator of Walden. Thoreau’s published narrative about his time out in the “wilderness” (that wasn’t very removed from civilization) became a landmark text of American literary history as it is widely considered the “model for a new literary form known as ‘nature writing’ ” (xvi).

A replica of Thoreau’s cabin at Walden Pond, 2017

Thoreau’s Walden departs from the community responsibility of Franklin’s “model life” and shows a narrator who is not concerned about speaking in the first person. On the contrary: Thoreau uses his autobiographical exploration of time spent in the woods as an instrument to state his alliance with the natural world, and his opposition to political and social policies of the country in which he finds himself (the year in which Walden was published — 1854 — was the year that slavery expanded West with the Kansas-Nebraska Act).

Thoreau uses himself in nature as his theme, and from that larger theme he explores the natural environment in ways that the genre of nature writing has since imitated, adopted, and expanded. Nature writing is a literary art, but it’s also as rigorous as natural science. Like the sciences of biology or botany, nature writing has a similar allegiance to verifiable fact and careful observation.

Thoreau in 1856

Unlike the sciences, however, nature writers interpret their observations through aesthetic language. They are mindful of the role that storytelling and dramatic narration play in our psychic and cultural well-being.

All nature writers see Thoreau as the originator of nature writing in the U.S. Like Thoreau, nature writing is not only concerned with accurate and factual representations of nature, but also with the impact of nature upon humans, humans upon the natural world, and the relationship among the humans within nature. In the nature writing of today, we see Thoreau’s influence as nature writing is still an activity that is inseparable from the writers’ observations of themselves.

Nature writing makes no distinction between the observing human and the natural elements observed; one acts upon the other. And where human actions diminish or destroy the natural world, the ecologist gives voice to the catastrophe or sounds the alarm*.

*The term “ecology” is coined ca. 1866–69 as a way to describe the relationship of organisms to one another and to their environments.

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