LOCATING THE AMERICAN VOICE: SPACE RELATION AS SELF-IDENTIFICATION IN HENRY DAVID THOREAU'S VISION
"I do not propose to write an Ode to Dejection, but to brag as lustily as chanticleer in the morning, standing on his roost, if only to wake my neighbours up." (Thoreau 1963: 62). This statement from Henry David Thoreau's WALDEN, usually taken out as a motto for the book, clearly hints at a cultural dialogue, having opposite sides. Thoreau would not indicate that it is Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "Ode to Dejection" he is having in mind; he makes it quite clear though that what he intends is exactly the opposite. His "bragging" is supposed to contradict a whole cultural context which he takes Coleridge's title to be symbolizing.
Although Thoreau is most often being placed in the context of international Romanticism (Miller 1961: 147-159), the fact remains that in his writings there is only occasional reference to his European counterparts. Shared dispositions and artistic views with mainly the English romantics led Thoreau, just like Emerson some time before, to wrestle with the very power of this inevitable contemporary impact that made it difficult for him to be authentically New-English himself (McIntosh 1974: 59). And authentically New-English he wanted to be, always insisted on being. In his transcendental vision America and Europe formed a complete contrast which he fully internalized in terms of his own self-identity.
So I would suggest here, that the Atlantic for Thoreau turned out to be a psychologically needed PHYSICAL REMOTENESS overloaded with EXISTENTIAL IMPORTANCE that only grew with the years. Thoreau would always stick to his preoccupation with the "genius loci" of America as his one and only means for self-preservation. He would gladly go to Oregon, but not to London. Place was so crucial to him that he never crossed the Atlantic like his fellow Emerson, never made the return journey from New England to England. Place-relation with him existentially equals self-identification. Therefore, be it threatened, a fervent zeal is needed for its defense. The safety of "I am America" should never turn for Thoreau into the insecurity of "How far is America from me?"; he would not let that happen. Yet it started tending to with the time passing, the way from WALDEN to "Walking", from 1845 to 1862, being marked by a gradually deepening discrepancy between the ME and the NOT-ME. As a result, the EMOTIONAL DEGREE of Thoreau's speaking about the American West AS OPPOSED to the European East RISES CONSIDERABLY towards his older age, PROPORTIONALLY COUNTERBALANCING THE ENHANCING DISTURBANCE OF HIS RELATIONSHIP WITH NATURE. And nature for him was but entirely American.
"Eastward I go only by force; but westward I go free...", Thoreau states in "Walking" (1990: 125). Although he fights some of the same battles Wordsworth, Coleridge or Carlyle do, he generally prefers not to exhibit his acquaintance with their works and consciously avoids European influence. Instead, he LOCATES his human and poetical voice in America, as distinctively American. This is not simply echoing Emerson who had already proclaimed that "... here, here in America, is the home of Man..." (Emerson 1903-1904b: 540); it is not just following Emerson in his search of a poetic which would embody the energy and space of the American continent and the recalcitrance of the American's break from Europe. It is all very personal here, truly existential. The core of a lived philosophy of living. The "genius loci" of America personified to the utmost extremity. And I would go further here in suggesting, that in the course of time this SELF-IDENTIFICATION, so seriously taken as it was, did NOT turn out to be an EASY one and had to be SPECIALLY cherished. Thus, when experiencing an undisturbed harmony between himself and America's Nature, Thoreau effortlessly outlines the physical and creative hiatus between the West and the East in terms of advantages and, respectively, disadvantages. When, though, his harmony with nature becomes threatened later on, he starts to painfully feel he is going "eastward", closer to the European disposition, closer to an Ode To Dejection. He would never allow that happen, would eagerly defend his newenglishness, i.e. his very self-identity - would therefore glorify the West zealously, enthusiastically, desperately.
If, in other words, in the essay "Thomas Carlyle and his Works", written at Walden Pond in 1845, at the time of his famous experiment, Thoreau had only blamed London for Carlyle's incapability to create a transcendental hero, almost twenty years later, in "Walking", he would exhilaratingly magnify America's wilderness - vs. Europe's tameness - as the world's preservation and future. So let me now draw your attention to these two essays and the DEEP PERSONAL DRAMA OF DIS/LOCATION, painfully unfolding itself inbetween them.
The essay "Thomas Carlyle and his Works" was written when Thoreau was in the process of composing WALDEN, and simultaneously followed for a while the same creative impulse. Beside the fact that these two works trace the steps of Thoreau's acquiring his own literary voice, they share another distinctive feature: both are preoccupied with the notion of the "genius loci". Though Walden Pond is never mentioned in the essay, it obviously provides Thoreau's perspective towards Carlyle and his works. Thoreau was at the time entirely devoted to his experiment in living. He had gone to the woods, because he "wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life" and not to live "what was not life" (Thoreau 1963: 67). Walden Pond was his place for true living, his transcendentalist art-life choice, his VISION from the midst of Nature. Therefore Thoreau could not be but a WALDENER then. And in the vision of this Waldener Thomas Carlyle could not be but justified as a LONDONER. Thoreau had left his hometown Concord wishing to experiment with his own life. He had moved from the distractions of the city to the concentration provided by Nature. He had realized the need for changing the place in order for him to fulfil his intention. Such a disposition clearly outlines the choice of place as the only ground for Thoreau's dissatisfactions with Carlyle. Because London was the place chosen by the Scotsman Carlyle and Thoreau was thinking about this choice after having made the right choice for himself. Thoreau's perspective towards Carlyle always tends towards comparisons in terms of place and relation to place, thus drawing a kind of a topical borderline between the two otherwise alike transcendental minds.
"As we read his books here," - writes Thoreau - "in New England, where there are potatoes enough, and every man can get his living peacefully and sportively as the birds and bees, and need think no more of that, it seems to us as if BY THE WORLD HE OFTEN MEANT LONDON, at the head of the tide upon the Thames, the sorest place on the face of the earth, the very citadel of conservatism." (Thoreau 1989: 1610). Obviously, this passage is both a comparison and a comment, leaving no hesitation on the part of the reader as to which is the place preferred. Moreover, transcendental space or Carlyle's transcendental vision is considered in the essay in terms of limitations - those imposed by the walled-in physical space of London. "CARLYLE IN LONDON ... SEES NO OCCASION FOR MINSTRELS AND RHAPSODISTS THERE...", Thoreau observes. And the explanation comes right away: "HE LIVES IN CHELSEA, not ... ON THE PRAIRIES OF THE WEST..." (Thoreau 1989: 1608). The distinction between the East and the West, between closed spaces and open spaces is drawn clearly enough. And Thoreau would never ever separate the spiritual from the physical.
Spiritual spaciousness for Thoreau, as for all the American transcendentalists, is a synonym of POETRY. Therefore it is always associated with vision, the true Poet being necessarily a Seer. Thoreau did not simply share Emerson's idea, but took it upon himself to actually LIVE as a Poet and make Poetry out of his own life. Such was the motivation for his Walden Pond enterprise. Quite expectedly then comes Thoreau's estimation that "CARLYLE IS NOT A SEER, but a brave LOOKER-ON and REVIEWER..." (Thoreau 1989: 1609). Thoreau's major concern seems to be that Carlyle is not the Poet he could have been. Since for Thoreau he "indicates a depth, which he neglects to fathom" and therefore should not speak "TO A LONDON... AUDIENCE MERELY" (Thoreau 1989: 1611). He should finally produce a TRANSCENDENT HERO, but obviously for Thoreau to do that in London is a contradiction in itself. If Carlyle is to fulfil such an expectation he should definitely set himself free from the "genius loci" of London. So, following the general impulse of his essay, Thoreau comes up with the suggestion, that "possibly... in the silence of THE WILDERNESS and the desert he might have addressed himself more entirely to his true audience posterity..." (Thoreau 1989: 1611). The topical opposition is clearly outlined here in terms of impossibility against possibility - provided respectively by London and the Wilderness - of acquiring the true poetic vision.
Though critical on certain grounds, Thoreau never fails to express his reverence and admiration for Carlyle's style and language. And interestingly enough, this attitude provides another example of the spatial dichotomy that runs throughout the essay. "Such a style - so diversified and variegated!" - exclaims Thoreau as if under a spell. - "It is like the face of a country; it is like a New England landscape, with farm-houses and villages, and cultivated spots, and belts of forests and blueberry-swamps round about it, with the fragrance of shad-blossoms and violets on certain winds." (Thoreau 1989: 1600). This passage clearly indicates at least two things. First, that while writing the Carlyle essay Thoreau had reached the point of turning into one of America's masters of style. And secondly, that when considering beauty, he can take his comparisons from nowhere else but Nature. And Thoreau's nature is never any nature; it is essentially American, always the nature of his native New England.
The essay "Thomas Carlyle and his Works" was written at a time when Thoreau was experiencing perfect harmony with nature. He was enjoying his favored "simplicity", having turned Emerson's idea of "correspondence" into a reality of living - nature for him then really was "a grand collection of metaphors for human actions and relations" (Emerson 1990: 29), i.e. for his own actions and relations. Hence Thoreau's CONVINCEDNESS in estimating Carlyle in no other terms but his "genius loci" attachments. There is not a sign yet here of that painful, though mostly subdued a feeling of SEPARATION FROM NATURE, that will only DEEPEN with the years into an UNRELIEVABLE EXISTENTIAL DRAMA. That feeling will creep into his Journal a few years after the Carlyle essay, leading him to quite a memorable lament: "We soon get through with Nature. She excites an expectation which she cannot satisfy. The merest child which has rambled into a copsewood dreams of a wilderness so wild and strange and inexhaustible as Nature can never show him." (The Journal 1906b: 293). And in the essay "Walking", written in the year of his death, 1862, Thoreau's isolation crisis persists throughout, compensatory expressed in an overexaggerated enthusiasm about the Wilderness, or America's nature. So I would argue here, that when SECURE in his imaginative balance between mind and nature, Thoreau would mainly and freely talk about the DIFFERENCES between himself and his transatlantic counterparts - such is the case of the Carlyle essay and the implicit objection to Coleridge. When, though, this balance is disturbed, or even lost, and the need for its restoration becomes more and more tormenting, Thoreau starts feeling himself CLOSER to the European (romantic) disposition of his time - which in its turn makes his situation worse. He would never ever admit this enhancing closeness, not to speak of writing another "English" essay. Quite on the contrary - in his later years he desperately sticks to his being authentically New English, therefore passionately glorifies the West as the World, as the only PLACE for humankind. But mainly for the Self, of course. In other words, SELF-LOCATION in America becomes for Thoreau emotionally overloaded as existentially indispensable when SELF-ISOLATION from nature enters. And this is exactly what happens on the way to "Walking".
"Methinks my present experience is nothing; my past experience is all in all... - Thoreau notes in his Journal of the early 1850s. - Formely, methought, nature developed as I developed, and grew up with me. My life was ecstacy. In youth, before I LOST ANY OF MY SENSES, I can remember that I was all alive..." (The Journal 1906a: 306). This sad ascertainment is followed up in another Journal passage of the same period: "I fear that the character of my knowledge is from year to year becoming more distinct and SCIENTIFIC; - Thoreau writes, - that, in exchange for views as WIDE as heaven's scope, I am being NARROWED DOWN to the field of the microscope. I see DETAILS, NOT WHOLES nor the shadow of the whole..." (The Journal 1906a: 406). Obviously, what Thoreau was already missing was the transcendental knowledge, or the capability of seeing wholes. And it had always been the wholes he'd been aiming at seeing, be they called visibilities beyond the visible or transcendental realities. Emerson was the first to notice in him the ability to infer the "universal law from the single fact" (Emerson 1903-1904a: 474). So, what had happened in the early 1850's with already aging Thoreau was that single fact and universal law did no more form an immediate metaphor in his imagination; they were split and a great effort was needed towards their combination (to use Coleridge's term). With him this was not an intellectual or artistic problem only. Because for Thoreau the transcendentalist formula of Art-Life equation had long ago swept from aesthetics to reality and he had been successfully experiencing it in his actual life, the Walden enterprise being nothing but that. This is why, having lost the harmonious whole of self and Nature, he did not only grieve. HE FELT THREATENED. HIS WORLD WAS THREATENED. And he had to defend - both his own self and the world that had made it possible. So the Self became the Walker, "born into the family of the Walkers" (Thoreau 1990: 118) and experiencing the art, or the profession of Walking, while the World emerged as the West, as the Wild, as America transcending into the Holy Land - the final destination of the noble Walker.
I would argue here, that it was at this point that Thoreau OVEREMPHASIZED the two poles of his lost harmony: the scientific and the transcendental, the single fact and the universal law, the detail and the whole, thus providing himself with what Leo Marx called "a token of individual survival" (Marx 1967: 364). In other words, in the last decade of his life Thoreau went further into the thoroughness of his scientific knowledge on the one hand and, on the other hand, gradually directed his transcendental knowledge towards a millennarianist vision of his own country. My point is that, undergoing his inner crisis, Thoreau attempted at overexaggerating both the "detail" and the "whole" in order to achieve a global, somewhat TITANIC BALANCE of the two in his already troubled vision. The classical scholar in him and his romantic disposition reached simultaneously a status of extremity - the very extremity of the contrast being in itself romantic too, - altogether leading him to an EXCEPTIONAL image of the Wilderness. Both directions he followed with extraordinary zeal and both directions led him to enthusiastic reconfigurations of America - be they scholarly or transcendental. This was no more Thoreau who used to be at ease to infer the universal law from the single fact; this was already Thoreau, innerly split into extremities and therefore forming a romantically globalized picture of his home country.
So it turned out that in the last almost 15 years of his life his attachment to the "detail" made him dive into whatever documentation concerning America's past he could come across and thus, "scientifically" as he put it, rediscover his native roots; on the other hand, his painful detachment from the "whole" took him to a revival of the old European myth of America as the New Jerusalem and to his inspired glorification of the West. If he was no more to derive directly from America's wilderness, he would derive from the documentary lore of native and early American history. This was no more the tendency to see the waters of Walden as the waters of the Ganges or the pond's pebbly bottom as the starry sky; it was already "the westward tendency", as he called it in "Walking", to transcend documentary knowledge about America into transcendental knowledge about America. And thus PLACE himself there. It was no more the small pond in the neighborhood of Concord transcending into the whole universe; it was already the scientifically certified knowledge of America transcending into a glorification, into a hymn of America's wilderness. It probably needed a greater imaginative leap to reach at such a metaphor.
"I live a sort of BORDER LIFE" (Thoreau 1990: 139), Thoreau confesses in "Walking". Between dimensions, suitable for a moss-trooper, and the natural life he's lost the caseway to - this is how he finds himself to be. To reach this "natural life", as he calls it, he would go through "bogs and sloughs unimaginable". Or counterbalance the "detail" with a GLOBAL IMAGE of the "whole". So, where the "westward impulse" gradually leads him to, is a purely apocalyptic (as Geoffrey Hartman would have called it) vision of America as "the new land and the new sky" of John's Revelation. Thus the light of a New England November sunset is beautifully made to figure forth the light of paradise restored at the end of "Walking".
"We walked in so pure and bright a light," - Thoreau's vision unfolds inspiredly, - "gilding with withered grass and leaves, so softly and serenely bright, I thought I had never bathed in such a golden flood, without a ripple or murmur to it. The west side of every wood and rising ground gleamed like the boundary of Elysium, and the sun on our backs seemed like a gentle herdsman driving us home at evening. So we saunter toward the Holy Land, till one day the sun shall shine more brightly than ever he has done, shall perchance shine into our minds and hearts, and light up our whole lives with a great awakening light, as warm and serene and golden as on a bankside in autumn." (Thoreau 1990: 142-143).
Such was Thoreau's global vision of America. His way to preserve both the Self and the World, his world. If in earlier days he had easily turned the local into global, he had now gone a step further, turning the utmost global into local by envisioning the New Jerusalem on the actual soil of his native New England. He would not let himself step "behind the Eastern horizon" and would eagerly struggle with that threat. He would always insist on the location of his American voice as distinctively American. Crisis or not. And then especially because of the crisis. Since his transcendental vision equalized space relation with self-identification. Since it was all justified in existential terms.
Emerson 1903-1904a: Emerson, Ralph Waldo. The Complete Works. Vol. X. Boston and New York: Houghton - Mufflin, 1903-1904.
Emerson 1903-1904b: Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Fortune of the Republic. // The Complete Works. Vol. XI. Boston and New York: Houghton - Mufflin, 1903-1904.
Emerson 1990: Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Nature. // Selected Essays, Lectures, and Poems. Ed. Robert D. Richardson, Jr. New York: Bantam Books, 1990.
Marx 1967: Marx, Leo. The Machine in the Garden. London - Oxford - New York: Oxford University Press, 1967.
McIntosh 1974: McIntosh, James. Thoreau as Romantic Naturalist. His Shifting Stance toward Nature. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1974.
Miller 1961: Miller, Perry. Thoreau in the Context of International Romanticism. // New England Quarterly, 34, June 1961.
The Journal 1906a: The Journal of Henry David Thoreau. Ed. Bradford Torrey and Francis H. Allen, 14 Vols. Vol. II. Boston: Houghton - Mufflin, 1906.
The Journal 1906b: The Journal of Henry David Thoreau. Ed. Bradford Torrey and Francis H. Allen, 14 Vols. Vol. VI. Boston: Houghton - Mufflin, 1906.
Thoreau 1963: Thoreau, Henry David. Walden. New York: Washington Square Press, Inc., 1963.
Thoreau 1989: Thoreau, Henry David. Thomas Carlyle and his Works. // The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Third Edition. Vol. I. New York - London: W. W. Norton & Company, 1989.
Thoreau 1990: Thoreau, Henry David. Walking. // The Essays of Henry David Thoreau. Ed. Richard Dillman. Albany, NY: NCUP, Inc., 1990.
© Albena Bakratcheva
First World Congress of the International American Studies Association (IASA): "How Far is America from Here?", Leiden, The Netherlands, May 22-24, 2003.