Walden West and the Twilight of Transcendentalism
Walden West, published in 1961, is by general consensus the crowning achievement of the preternaturally prolific (upwards of 150 books published in his lifetime) Wisconsin writer August Derleth (1909–1971). Composed of sketchbook essays that alternate between swooning nature reveries and depictions of hardscrabble Midwestern lives, Walden West implores us to recognize the world in a grain of sand. Derleth’s microcosm is Sac Prairie, a thinly veiled composite of his Sauk City birthplace and the adjacent village of Prairie du Sac in southcentral Wisconsin. Throughout his career, he periodically and methodically added to what he called his “Sac Prairie Saga,” which grew to include nearly forty volumes in multiple genres, from literary and historical novels to short stories, poetry, and journals.
Derleth’s themes aren’t always spelled out for us. At times they may seem nebulous or contradictory, presumptuously universal or awkwardly personal in scope. Similar infelicities have been attributed to the writings of Derleth’s spiritual forebears, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. Transcendentalism, after all, was never a systematic or fully articulated philosophy. Rather, it was a radical ideology of personal revelation meant to be experienced (and expressed) individual by individual; a democratizing and in the same breath an enshrinement of human consciousness and its capacity for insight and ecstasy.
Walden West vividly captures a small town populace increasingly alienated from nature, yet shadowed by an innate, often unconscious, connection to its rhythms and splendor. Derleth is a conflicted revivalist, seeking on the one hand to emulate the immediacy with which Thoreau and Emerson responded to the natural world, while equally aware that he can’t escape the lens of mid twentieth century anxiety. Moreover, because of his abiding enthusiasm for the nightmarish fiction of Edgar Allan Poe and H. P. Lovecraft — a parallel universe as insular and pessimistic as Emerson and Thoreau’s is outward-reaching and optimistic — Derleth clearly understands that there is poetry to be found in even the darkest night of the soul.
Much as Thoreau is the robust herald of dawn (“All memorable events, I should say, transpire in morning time and in a morning atmosphere,” he writes in the second chapter of Walden, “Where I Lived, and What I Lived For”), Derleth is the poet of twilight:
There was always in childhood that hour when the streetlights came on — on the edge of evening, at the beginning of night, when darkness had not yet taken all the village and the afterglow still burned saffron or cerise, copper or old rose, magenta or emerald or mother-of-pearl along the western rim …
In another Walden West passage, Derleth further describes the twilight hour as “a mysterious and beckoning borderland” that embodies not only “adventurous expectancy” but also “the spiritual isolation which is the common heritage of every individual.” Once darkness descends, “remnants of time past” seem to haunt the village streets. “The Sac Prairie night,” he writes, “was filled with spectres for me …”
Thoreau’s sun-drenched lexicon (“Morning air!” he enthuses in the chapter titled “Solitude”), by contrast, is far less attuned to the mystery and melancholy of nighttime. Scour Walden from beginning to end and you’ll find he musters only half-hearted clichés about owls screeching like “midnight hags” and “fallen souls.” While he writes memorably in chapter nine, “The Ponds,” of playing his flute from a boat on moonlit Walden Pond, in an earlier passage he mocks the apprehensions of the local fishermen who skedaddle back to town at sunset: “I believe that men are generally still a little afraid of the dark, though the witches are all hung, and Christianity and candles have been introduced.” Thoreau’s wry sarcasm reflects his overall critique of materialism. He’s chastising the townsfolk of Concord — and urbanized mankind in general — who pride themselves on their sophistication while still harboring childish fears and prejudices.
Derleth alludes often to Thoreau’s dictum that “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” The phrase carries an enormous weight of existential sorrow in Walden West. Psychosis and despair have become symptomatic of the conformity that Thoreau disdained. Or, put another way, psychosis and despair have become troubling attributes of modern-day nonconformity. Much of Derleth’s compassion is focused on Sac Prairie’s misfits: the lovelorn, the drunkards, the suicides, the neglected elderly. More often than not they are emotionally or psychologically damaged. There’s George Cooper, the village pharmacist, who “made his leisurely way to a nearby cornfield and shot himself.” Significantly, there is no comfort to be found in the cornfield’s pastoral promise of bounty. Years after his suicide, gossip persists that Cooper was addicted to drugs dispensed from the local pharmacy. His son grows up to have a nervous breakdown and spend time in a sanitarium.
A Sac Prairie alcoholic named Rich Monn is granted a certain dignity through Derleth’s universalizing lens:
There was something about him where he stood all by himself under the trees and the stars, on the edge of the streetlight’s glow in the darkness, that was symbolic of many men and women, not alone in this Sac Prairie, but in all the Sac Prairies of the world, something which spoke, out of that pathetic, ludicrous figure, of the spiritual isolation of so many people, something which made the thoughtful onlooker to wonder what thin line divided him from that other, knowing perhaps that the distance of chance or Providence was less great than the few steps separating one from the other in that darkness.
Evident here is the allegorical use to which Derleth harnesses the night and the darkness. Spiritual isolation in this context takes on a quality of Keatsian “negative capability.” Life becomes profound only when we acknowledge and embrace its mysticism and terror, its sordid unhappiness.
Walden West finds its moral bearing in the conviction that we needn’t leave home to seek the world. (It’s a cue Derleth undoubtedly takes from Emerson’s adage in “Self-Reliance”: “The soul is no traveller; the wise man stays at home …”) By the same token, we needn’t leave the house to become lost. Derleth describes two Sac Prairie washerwomen, Widow Buchenau and her daughter, Clara, who “were as isolated from the world in their house as any occupant of a mountain peak in an uncharted land.” The Buchenau bloodline seems no less cursed than a haunted heritage in a gothic novel:
It was probable that the widow knew more than others suspected of insanity in the Buchenau family, for there was an unsolved mystery lying half a century in the past, when Clara’s uncle Hugo, a darkly moody man, had shot himself in an orchard one May morning, scattering his brains among the blossoms, and soon after, Clara’s father had sunk into a deep depression and had at last to be taken to Mendota as insane, and there died.
With the gruesome matter-of-factness of a crime scene photograph, Derleth’s Sac Prairie portraits can be unexpectedly lurid at times. He comes perilously close to investing his town’s history with the same pulp sensibility as the countless short stories he sold to magazines like Weird Tales. (In a prescient moment of sober self-appraisal, the autobiographical character Steve Grendon in Derleth’s 1945 novel Shield of the Valiant is said to have gotten “so used to the contrivances of pulp stories, that he could not be sure something of those contrivances had not crossed the borderline into his serious work.”)
On the one hand, Derleth is simply following his writer’s instincts and tracking the hidden dramas long whispered about behind closed doors. But more than this, he wants to make Sac Prairie a dynamic and mythic subject worthy of his restless pen, worthy of his own decision to stay put in Sauk City and pursue his literary aspirations from home. In the spirit of Whitman’s “I am large, I contain multitudes,” Derleth serves up his hometown as quintessential and all-encompassing. Thus, he can barely conceal his displeasure with a local woman named Carrie Patchen who year after year sought love and excitement beyond the town’s borders:
It did not seem to her that life and romance could exist in such a little town as Sac Prairie; love, passion, heroism, tragedy, comedy, courage, eternal hope, faith, hatred, jealousy, violence, murder, perversion, irony — all burned and shone and smouldered all about her, but she saw them not …
William Faulkner, in his 1957 novel, The Town, has one of his narrators — lawyer Gavin Stevens — rhapsodize similarly about the microcosmic infinitude of Jefferson, Mississippi, “this miniature of man’s passions and hopes and disasters — ambition and fear and lust and courage and abnegation and pity and honor and sin and pride — all bound, precarious and ramshackle…”
Thoreau’s anti-materialist stance is morally potent when he argues against slavery, but he’s not above generally admonishing villagers (and readers) in Walden with remarks such as, “It is very evident what mean and sneaking lives many of you live…” Derleth might be more inclined to peek in our windows after dark than scold us. Walden West mines the residents of Sac Prairie for every ounce of storyteller’s ore that Derleth can extract from them. He records their intimacies and struggles with ethnographic precision, occasionally succumbing to the kind of psychoanalytic jargon that had become prevalent in mainstream literature of the 1950s and 60s. He writes, for example, of Kate Fleeson’s “nymphoid compulsion” and her “paranoid delusions of persecution.” There’s Dr. Herman Flemburg, who “seemed to be an easygoing man,” but was in fact “extremely neurotic.” Beau Wardler, the one-armed mailman, “concealed a growing confusion and despair within.” It’s an open question whether Derleth the writer is exploiting these real-life individuals at the same time he’s presuming to lay bare their souls. Regardless, the personality sketches in Walden West are a remarkable literary achievement, combining the torrid sensationalism of Grace Metalious’s Peyton Place with the unsettling documentary candor of James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.
There is by default a germ of megalomania inherent in transcendentalism (“I shun father and mother and wife and brother when my genius calls me,” Emerson declares in “Self-Reliance”). Yet, for those whose talent and ambition are commensurate with their single-mindedness — August Derleth falls easily into this category — a dose of megalomania can fuel the vision necessary to sustain a work of art. The world for Derleth is a text to be translated and then rewritten in the language of his heightened sensibilities.
“People fascinated me, second only to books,” he writes of his childhood in the opening pages of Walden West. Later, in the section titled “Frieda Schroeder, Thoreau, and Emerson,” he places his twentysomething high school English teacher, Ms. Schroeder, amongst fascinating company indeed. Although he never penned a full-scale biography of Frieda Schroeder as he did for Thoreau and Emerson (Concord Rebel was published in 1962, followed by Emerson, Our Contemporary in 1970), Derleth nonetheless praises her as the “impulse” which brought him to the doorstep of enlightenment. Not to parse words, “she was simply too attractive to be stood up in front of a class of adolescent boys.”
Derleth is strikingly clear on this point. His emerging literary passion functioned as a kind of compensatory metaphor for his sexual awakening:
Perhaps it is folly to put the onus of it all on Miss Frieda Schroeder. But I think not. If she had not been so attractive as to draw upon herself all our libidinous desires, it is doubtful that I would have exerted myself so much to demonstrate my admiration for her in the only way open to me at fourteen — by reading the books I thought it would please her to have her students read … Seldom have the first faint stirrings of desire been so fruitful!
He is nothing if not a sensualist in Walden West. Derleth’s description of the Wisconsin River, for example, is charged with a subtle eroticism that suggests a perfumed body tumescent with desire:
It swelled and grew throughout the day, becoming a broad impressive river, and into the evening, when the water began once more to recede, the bars and stones of the river bottom came out again, and once more gave off that musk, breathing into the dusk … A sense of mystery came upon the murmuring waters, the pulsing susurrus of the stream, the exhaling musk invading cell and bone …
In this respect we can again see the influence of Walt Whitman’s voluptuous Leaves of Grass nudging aside the chaste moral austerity of Thoreau’s Walden. This isn’t to say that Derleth undermines or negates Thoreau. By no stretch is Walden West a case study in Harold Bloom’s “anxiety of influence.” But neither is it a wholesale appropriation of Thoreau’s themes or mere homage to Walden.
Derleth’s relationship with nature reflects the same melancholic perspective as his insights into human behavior:
It is significant, I sometimes think, that the facets of nature which quicken my pulse with that awareness of both life and death are inextricably associated with the loneliness of man’s mote-like existence in the cosmos — and acceptance of man’s essential solitude on earth, or by love, or both together, for they are only different aspects of the same face.
Sentiments about “the loneliness of man’s mote-like existence” are foreign to Thoreau in the pages of Walden. “Why should I feel lonely?” he boasts rhetorically in the chapter “Solitude.” We, like the Earth itself, should take comfort in our snug corner of the cosmos. “Is not our planet in the Milky Way?” he impudently asks. Yet, Thoreau is not so terribly far from existentialism when in the same chapter he writes, “We are for the most part more lonely when we go abroad among men than when we stay in our chambers.” This hints at the darker themes that Derleth will take up in Walden West.
By asserting that love and solitude, like life and death, “are only different aspects of the same face,” Derleth underscores a central paradox. It’s the “thin line” he saw in the darkness that barely separates our sanity from the spiritual isolation of the alcoholic Rich Monn. Author F. Scott Fitzgerald, no stranger to despair, writes in The Crack-Up that “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” August Derleth, watching a hawk soar above Sac Prairie, finds himself “sharing the hawk’s solitude as well as its ecstasy in flight, which enables me to float aloft while I am prone upon a hilltop …”
Derleth, August. 1945. The Shield of the Valiant. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.
Derleth, August.  1989. Walden West. Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. 1983. Essays and Lectures. New York: Penguin Books USA; The Library of America series.
Faulkner, William.  1961. The Town. New York: Vintage Books (Random House).
Fitzgerald, F. Scott. Edited by Edmund Wilson.  1993. The Crack-Up. New York: New Directions.
Thoreau, Henry David. 1985. A Week, Walden, The Maine Woods, Cape Cod. New York: Penguin Books USA; The Library of America series.
“All memorable events …” Thoreau, Walden, p. 393.
“There was always in childhood …” Derleth, Walden West, p. 12.
“In another Walden West passage…” Ibid., p. 84.
“Morning air!” Thoreau, Walden, p. 432.
“midnight hags” and “fallen souls” Ibid., p. 421.
“I believe that men generally …” Ibid., p. 462.
“the mass of men lead lives …” Ibid., p. 329.
“made his leisurely way …” Derleth, Walden West, p. 78.
“There was something about him …” Ibid., p. 165.
“The soul is no traveller …” Emerson, Essays and Lectures, p. 277.
“were as isolated …” Derleth, Walden West, p. 193.
“It was probable …” Ibid.
“so used to …” Derleth, The Shield of the Valiant, p. 19.
“It did not seem …” Derleth, Walden West, p. 114.
“this miniature …” Faulkner, The Town, p. 316.
“It is very evident …” Thoreau, Walden, p. 328.
“nymphoid compulsion” Derleth, Walden West, p. 235.
“paranoid delusions of persecution” Ibid., p. 236.
“seemed to be …” Ibid., p. 240.
“concealed a growing …” Ibid., p. 98.
“inner conflict” Ibid., p. 100.
“I shun …” Emerson, Essays and Lectures, p. 262.
“People fascinated me …” Derleth, Walden West, p. 9.
“impulse” Ibid., p. 57.
“she was simply …” Ibid., p. 56.
“Perhaps it is folly …” Ibid., p. 59.
“It swelled …” Ibid., p. 38.
“It is significant …” Ibid., p. 55.
“Why should I …” Thoreau, Walden, p. 428.
“Is not our …” Ibid.
“We are for the most part …” Ibid., p. 430.
“the test …” Fitzgerald, The Crack-Up, p. 69.
“sharing the hawk’s …” Derleth, Walden West, p. 255.
“Walden West and the Twilight of Transcendentalism” won the 2004 Rediscovering Wisconsin Writers Award from the Council for Wisconsin Writers. A version of this essay, titled “Wisconsin’s Walden — Adding Shadow to Paths of Light,” subsequently appeared in the Winter 2011 issue of Wisconsin People & Ideas.