THE WILD, THE WEST, THE WORLD: THE WILD WEST WORLD OR THE WORLD WILD WEST
"The West of which I speak is but another name for the Wild... in Wildness is the preservation of the World". Henry David Thoreau wrote these lines in the year of his death, 1862, having long behind his back his Walden, or Life in the Woods experience and developing it into his key transcendentalist art-life equating concept of "Walking". "Eastward I go only by force; but westward I go free..." - he stated. - "It is hard for me to believe that I shall find fair landscapes or sufficient wildness and freedom behind the eastern horizon."
Life vs. true life, civilization vs. true civilization, exhaustion vs. vitality, decay vs. vigor are some of the implications that lie behind Thoreau's clear-cut opposition between the East and the West. "My needle is slow to settle" - he would go further, - "... but it always settles between west and south-west. The future lies that way to me..." Thoreau emphasizes the intimate relationship between the self and America, the need of locating the poetical voice in America as distinctively American. He was preoccupied with the "genius loci" of America to the extent that he felt himself the voice of the place, the place itself. No wonder then, that the title of his spiritual autobiography naturally became the name of the place that made it possible - Walden. The West, or the Wild, he thought of as providing the life energy of the World. What it mainly provided him with though was his own artistic and existential SELF-IDENTITY.
It was this very self-identification with New England that gave him the inner stability of being different, i.e. non-English. In his transcendental vision America and Europe formed a complete contrast which he fully internalized in terms of his own self-balance. THE MORE SECURE HE WAS IN HIS AMERICANNESS, THE MORE INNERLY BALANCED HE FELT HIMSELF, so as to be able to live according to the "higher laws" of what he called a true living. Being at home with his American identity meant to him to be capable to live "up to the height of his own conceptions", as he put it in "Walden". When experiencing an undisturbed harmony between himself and Nature - and nature for him was but entirely American, - Thoreau somewhat evenly outlined the borderline between the West and the East in terms of advantages and, respectively, disadvantages. When, though, this harmony became threatened in the course of time, he started to painfully feel he was going "eastward", closer to the European disposition - therefore glorified the West eagerly, enthusiastically, desperately.
So I would argue here, that THE EMOTIONAL DEGREE OF THOREAU'S SPEAKING ABOUT THE WEST AS THE WILD AS OPPOSED TO THE EAST RISES CONSIDERABLY WITH THE YEARS AND THAT HIS ZEAL COMES TO PROPORTIONALLY COUNTERBALANCE THE ENHANCING DISTURBANCE OF HIS RELATIONSHIP WITH NATURE, i.e. with America's nature. Moreover, the more fervent the zeal is, the more GLOBAL the statement becomes. The advantageous New World gradually transcends for Thoreau into the whole World.
If in the essay "Thomas Carlyle and his Works", written at Walden Pond during 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. His notion of space expands with the time passing from Walden, Cape Cod or the Maine woods, from Massachusetts and New England to the whole of America; together with it the universal symbolism of an exceptional individualistic life experience dissolves into the generalized vision of the American mind matching the "infinitely higher heavens and the brighter stars" of America. "Else to what end does the world go on, and why was America discovered?" - Thoreau's question follows only naturally.
I would suggest here that Thoreau's gradual shifting from younger age to maturity is marked by TWO SIMULTANEOUS PROCESSES, COMPENSATIVELY LINKED TOGETHER: on the one hand, the "loss of his senses", as he put it in the Journal, or the loss of the capability for transcending the senses, and, on the other hand, the overemphasized, quite enthusiastic self-identification with America, already globalized in his vision as the West - the Wild - the World. And I would even go further here in suggesting, that, undergoing self-reconfigurations as he found himself he was, Thoreau passionately grasped the idea of reconfugurating America as the preserver of both the self and the World.
How did he feel about the changes in himself? And what an America did he figure out as a result?
"I fear that the character of my knowledge is from year to year becoming more distinct and SCIENTIFIC;" - he noted in his Journal of the early 1850's, - "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..."(J, II, 406). It is worthwhile pointing out here, that this narrowed down or torn apart scope of his Thoreau calls "scientific knowledge"; obviously, what he 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. Ralph Waldo Emerson was the first to notice in him the ability to infer the "universal law from the single fact" (W, X, 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). He was yearning after wide scopes and felt narrowed down; he was longing for wholes and felt pinned to particles. And with him this was not an intellectual or artistic problem only; it was a DEEP PERSONAL DRAMA. 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" 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. And that the very NAMING was felt essential. The Walker, though mentioned here and there before, had never so far been a clear-cut category for the Self with Thoreau; the mutual transcendence of America into the World and of the World into America had never yet been a clear-cut category in his vision either. Overemphasizing and naming went together in order to provide what Leo Marx called the turning of the inspiring vision of an ideal landscape into "a token of individual survival"1. "As a true patriot," - Thoreau observed in "Walking", - "I should be ashamed to think that Adam in paradise was more favorably situated on the whole than the backwoodsman in this country." Obviously, he was reviving the myth of the New Adam. And Adam was the Namer. So Thoreau named the Walker and went on naming America as the West, as the Wild, as the World.
In other words, the eagerness to restore his lost harmony with America's nature provoked a sheer interest on Thoreau's part towards whatever "details" there were concerning America's past and, at the same time, widened his spatial preoccupation with the "genius loci" of America from the local to the global American Wilderness. 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. This double-sided process was Thoreau's attempt towards a reconfiguration of his native America - and of his own transcendental, entirely American self.
My point is that, undergoing his inner crisis, Thoreau attempted at overexagerating 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 in order to form - for himself, as well as for the rest of the world, - 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 as the Wild as the World. Since we are faced here with the two rather contrastive sides of the very same thing - or disposition, - let us now consider them one by one.
It is well-known that Thoreau "read avidly everything he could lay his hands on concerning early America", that "he read thoroughly in the local histories, not only of Concord and eastern Massachusetts or the areas which he visited on his excursions..., but any local histories he could find"2. It is also agreed upon that "he wished to know every place as he knew Concord: completely, both as it was in the present and as it had been in the past"3. And it is another well-known fact that, although he had been interested in the American Indian from childhood and early started collecting relics on his walks through the countryside, it was not until 1848 that Thoreau began an intensive reading on the subject and, in the 14 years he was left to live, filled eleven manuscript notebooks, containing about 2800 pages, with tremendous material on virtually anything pertaining the Indian4. AND I would like to point out here not simply Thoreau's intention to write a book on the Indian, but mainly that he came up with this intention and did a tremendous amount of work to this end not earlier, but in those LATER YEARS of his life, when, in his own words, he was "insistently asking Nature to give him a sign". In a period when he was desperately yearning after his lost youthful days and every "bird had become a moth in his eye", as he put it in his Journal, HIS EARLIER INTEREST DID ONLY NATURALLY GROW INTO A DEEP INNER NEED for a reconfiguration of his own of Native North America - as well as of early North America. His previous devotion to New England had transformed itself into "a token of individual survival" (Marx), so he needed firm ground under his feet. The facts, all kinds of data, concerning America, were sure to provide it. So there was no paradox, as it is sometimes considered (Harding), between the moments of Thoreau's inspiration becoming fewer and farther between and his intensified at the time documental search. It was rather, as I already stated, one of his two ways to counterbalance his disturbed harmony with nature, to get down to the ultimate truth "scientifically", i.e. nontranscendentally. In order to achieve it, though, even more transcendentally than before.
"Some of our northern Indians" - Thoreau writes in "Walking" in the very end of his lifetime, - "eat raw the marrow of the Arctic reindeer, as well as various other parts, including the summits of the antlers, as long as they are soft... They get what usually goes to feed the fire." Behind these sentences lies a volume of particular documental reading. But it was obviously not an end in itself, since this is how Thoreau goes on: "This is probably better than stall-fed beef and slaughter-house pork to make a man of. Give me a WILDNESS whose glance no CIVILIZATION can endure - as if we lived on the marrow of koodoos devoured raw." Thoreau was aiming in his late years at the very bottom of factual knowledge and thus, with its firm support under his feet, felt capable of making his highest imaginative leap. And he made it. Thoreau turned America's nativeness - its Wildness - into an intellectual and cultural category, even into an emblem. Romantically seeing it in a complete opposition with the civilization of the East, of course.
The passage quoted is exemplary for Thoreau's manner of thinking and writing in his later years, of his disposition at the time. He would still start from the single fact and then reach towards its universal value, but what had happened was that THE FACT had slightly changed: it was still the object of observation, like before, but it was already predominantly THE RESULT OF LEARNING. Thoreau had lost his senses for Nature, for America's nature, and was REPLACING them with detailed factual knowledge about America's native and early history. 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. 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.
Moreover, Thoreau went on investing the whole thing with his own personal, existential EGO. His autobiography transcended from Walden dwelling and Concord vicinity walking into walking America's wilderness, or the World's future, or the Holy Land. He would, for instance, compare himself to the wild apple, which, again in the last year of his life, provoked his most inspired admiration: "Our wild apple is wild only like myself, perchance, who belong not to the aboriginal race here, but have strayed into the woods from the cultivated stock." ("Wild Apples"). And this comparison goes further in his observation that the apple was not simply carried, but - like our "Western emigrant" - "has migrated to this New World, and is even... making its way amid the aboriginal trees; just as the ox and dog and horse sometimes RUN WILD AND MAINTAIN THEMSELVES". I would argue here that the last statement is a key statement in Thoreau's end-life-crisis vision of the self, of the world and their preservation. In "Walking" he points out that "it is not indifferent to us which way we walk. THERE IS A RIGHT WAY...". And there is no room left for hesitations that this right way should be the WILD WEST. "LIFE CONSISTS OF WILDNESS..." - he would also declare. - "The most alive is the wildest". Moreover, he would hint it between the lines, that the most productive following of the right way is in the very walking, in the VERY MOVEMENT from East to West, from the cultivated stock to the indigenous, and not in the simple, so to say static, belonging to the West.
"Not only the Indian, but many indigenous insects, birds, and quadrupeds, welcomed the apple tree to these shores", Thoreau remarked in "Wild Apples". As if the apple tree naturally belonged to the wilderness of America and only had to migrate westward. Though there was, of course, the aboriginal crab-apple, this "half-fabulous tree" to Thoreau, he saw it in terms of inferiority to the apple: "Though these are indigenous, like the Indians, I doubt whether they are any harder than those backwoodsmen among the apple trees, which, though descended from cultivated stocks, plant themselves in distant fields and forests...". So, obviously, it was the right way to take, and not simply the indigenous belonging to the place that counted for Thoreau. He knew about the apple migrating "from Greece to Italy, thence to England, thence to America", he knew perhaps more than anyone in America at the time about the great forefathers migrating from Europe to America. Thus, by a tremendous reading on native and early America, in his later days he certified the ground for a tremendous identification, its symbol being the apple turning wild. Thoreau made it clear the RIGHT WAY was not to be born wild, like the crab or the Indian, but to RUN WILD AND THUS MAINTAIN THE SELF. It was an entirely positive process to him that "the farmer displaces the Indian". In other words, Thoreau transcended his wild reading about the Wild West, about America, towards the conviction that "America is made for the man of the Old World" ("Walking"). Once he was able to prove it by documentary knowledge, he felt free to make his global assertions that walking westward was the right way for both the Walker, and the World.
"I live a sort of BORDER LIFE", Thoreau confesses in "Walking" clearly echoing his Journal of the same time. 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 vision of America as the West as the Wild as the World as, finally, "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."
Such was Thoreau's global vision of America. His preservation of both the Self and the World, his world. He needed the highest imaginative leap possible in order to overcome "the loss of his senses", his already distorted harmony with nature. And his Nature never ever ceased to be entirely American. In the last years of his lifetime his ability to infer the "universal law from the single fact" got extremely intensified, since it was painfully attempted at and eagerly longed for. If in earlier times he easily turned the local into global, he now went a step further - the utmost global he turned into local by envisioning the New Jerusalem on the actual soil of New England. "Walking" turned out to be Thoreau's globalizing formula, enabling him to see the wild west as the World wild west. It also turned out to be his "glocalizing"5 formula (to use Thomas Friedman's term) though, since the World in his vision could not be but distinctively American. Thus the concept of "walking the wildness of the west" appeared to be Thoreau's last global/glocal reconfiguration of his native America.
1. Leo Marx, The Machine in the Garden (London - Oxford - New York: Oxford University Press, 1967) p. 364. [back]
2. Walter Harding, A Thoreau Handbook (New York: New York University Press, 1959), p. 108. [back]
3. Lawrence Willson, The Influence of Early North American History, 1949, p. 106. (quot. Harding, A Thoreau Handbook, p. 108) [back]
4. Harding, work cit., p. 109. [back]
5. Thomas L. Friedman, The Lexus and the Olive Tree. Understanding Globalization (New York: Anchor Books, Random House, Inc., 2000) [back]
Friedman, Thomas L. The Lexus and the Olive Tree. Understanding Globalization. New York: Anchor Books, Random House, Inc., 2000.
Harding, Walter. A Thoreau Handbook. New York: New York University Press, 1959.
Marx, Leo. The Machine in the Garden. London - Oxford - New York: Oxford University Press, 1967.
Willson, Lawrence. The Influence of Early North American History. 1949.
© Albena Bakratcheva, 2002
The 9th Biennial Maple Leaf and Eagle Conference on North American Studies: "Reconfigurations of Native North America", University of Helsinki, Finland, September 3-6, 2002.