Nineteenth-Century Prose

Home » Vol. 44.2 (Fall 2017)

Vol. 44.2 (Fall 2017)


Richard J. Schneider, “Introduction: Thoreau Bicentennial Essays” (1-12)

If, as Henry David Thoreau wrote in A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, the value of a written work is determined by “time and the use to which a thing is put,” Thoreau’s reputation is more secure than ever. Although our views of Thoreau have changed with the times, in this bicentennial year of his birth his reputation is more secure than ever as the uses to which his writing is put continue to evolve – in his most popular works, in his travel narratives, and in his late nature writings. The essays in the present bicentennial collection testify to Thoreau’s widening influence in America and around theworld.

Daniel S. Malachuk: “‘The sun is but a morning star’: Thoreau’s Future” (13-36)

Thoreau was canonized a century ago for puncturing genteel provincialisms, but only recently have scholars acknowledged nationalism among them. Equally humbling, our first guides to Thoreau’s radical universalism were war protestors and environmentalists, not academics. Lately, pairing Thoreau with “planetarity” lets us valorize particularism, but, still, not his core dictum: always universalize. Thoreau’s was no retrograde Platonism; his Transcendentalism was empirical if visionary: even our particular sun “is but a morning star,” temporary sponsor of “the spring months in the life of the race.” Whereas Nietzsche and the postmoderns have been sure what physicist Fermi calls the “Great Silence” means we “clever animals” will die alone in an empty universe, Thoreau heard from the cosmos a different future, one to which, like those today at places like the University of Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute, we should attend.

Laura Dassow Walls, “The Samarae of Thought: Thoreau’s Gathered Timescapes” (37-48)

Thoreau’s late works are filled with samarae, the winged seeds of elms, maples, and pitchpines: “winged seeds of truth”collected by the poet and “tinged with his expectation.” In this material metaphor, wings give agency to seeds; wings and seeds act together, like words and paper, to carry life outward on the wind. Thoreau notices how, deep in the closed pinecone, seed and wing clasp together tight as a watch crystal, anticipating the opening winds that will set them free. Time is thus gathered, in expectation of the future. For Thoreau, time was shattered upon the death of his brother John; the arc of regeneration taught him how to regather time, to pack history and futurity into the present moment like a seed. While he struggles to realize this insight in A Week, his later work fuses time seamlessly, coiled tight as a pinecone anticipating wind and sun – not as a continuation of the present, but as advent, avenir, a revolution, as of the seasons or an emancipation to come. Thus to anticipate is to inflect the future, help it to realize itself. Thoreau’s gathered time is thus kairotic, gathered toward a future that cannot be merely awaited but must be seized and acted upon. It is in this sense he can say it was “of the last importance” to be present at the rising of the sun: the sun will be a morning star only to those who, awake, can realize the dawn.

Benjamin Mangrum, “Nature, Necessity, and the Philosophy of Metaphor in Walden” (49-70)

This essay argues that the prose style of Walden – and the use of metaphor in particular – is a literary mechanism for considering one of Thoreau’s chief philosophical concerns: the idea of necessity. The formal aspects of Thoreau’s prose in Walden are closely linked with his repudiation of this philosophical category. This essay begins by explaining modern formulations of the idea of “necessity” by reference to the work of John Locke, David Hume, and Immanuel Kant, who were seminal figures during Thoreau’s early education at Harvard and his subsequent intellectual development. Kant’s philosophy inaugurates a way of thinking that Thoreau adapts as a means for challenging the unquestioned, collective habits and assumptions of his contemporaries. By further developing Kant’s challenge to the moral and social implications of the idea of necessity, Thoreau constructs a philosophical justification for his reformist call to recast the shape of society. Yet Thoreau’s prose style conveys an even more radical philosophical position than Kant’s break from Locke and Hume. This essay argues that Thoreau’s use of metaphor recuperates a method for knowing and experiencing the world that he insists has been lost within the collective assumptions and economic demands of an industrializing society.

Walter Hesford, “Thoreau’s Periodic Sentences, Experiential Transcendentalism, and Scientific Method” (71-94)

Thoreau’s aphoristic sentences and plain style have been duly praised. This essay praises instead his periodic sentences and extravagant style that bespeak his love for the fullness of phenomenal reality. The essay first examines the scientific and rhetorical meanings of “periodic,” then the roots of Thoreau’s affection for periodic structures, which includes his experience of the seasonal periods of nature and the early natural historians of these periods, as well as Homeric similes that helped him realize links between earth and sky, home and cosmos. These roots are especially evident in Thoreau’s early works such as A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. The periodic sentences and worldview of American writers from Samuel Sewall to Herman Melville are then compared to those of Thoreau. Finally, the periodic sentences of the late Wild Fruits manuscript are celebrated for the scientific and transcendental value they place in preserving our naturalworld.

Christina Root, “‘A Greater Vital Force’: Rhetorical Affinities between Thoreau and Darwin” (95-114)

This essay explores the parallels between Darwin’s style in the opening chapters of the Origin and Thoreau’s approach in his late essay “Wild Apples,” highlighting the affinities between these works’ strategies for overcoming resistance to their authors’ ideas, and showing Thoreau’s admiration for both Darwin’s ideas and method. Most striking to Thoreau are Darwin’s skill at and clear love of observing, as well as his ability to use vivid storytelling to convey nature’s vitality and capacity for endless metamorphosis. In contrast with Darwin, Thoreau is less concerned with achieving a new, persuasive explanation of change in nature than with showing that every aspect of the world including human language and thinking are alive and evolving. Thoreau had already explored his vision of the linked, dynamic processes of linguistic and physical metamorphosis in the picture he created of the sandbank in Walden and elsewhere. In “Wild Apples,” with Darwin’s help, he considers more deliberately the reader’s need to be prepared for such a way ofseeing.

Frank Izaguirre, “Henry David Thoreau, American Subversive: Sensory Balance in Walden” (115-134)

The notion that Henry David Thoreau was the first American nature writer has been adequately disproven, but he was certainly the first to change the way Americans wrote about nature in a number of important ways. Not least of these was how Thoreau subverted the predominance of sight in previous American nature writing by portraying a more balanced representation of the senses in his most famous work, Walden. Thoreau’s sensory balance is a convention that continues today and can be found in any number of acclaimed works of American nature writing. The cultural privileging of sight in the West influenced how early Americans wrote about their environment. As Europeans arrived in America and began writing about their environment, sight was the preferred sense through which to engage the landscape because it allowed Europeans to evaluate it from a distance. In an effort to appeal to European audiences, naturalists like Catesby and Bartram presented American nature in hypervisual terms. It would take the arrival of Henry David Thoreau to break the hypervisual streak in early American nature writing. Thoreau wrote about all five senses, and his sensory balance model leaves the reader experiencing the place he writes about as fully as possible, a convention that continues in contemporary American naturewriting.

John Hay, “Thoreau’s Sound Reasoning” (135-154)

This essay examines Thoreau’s theorization of sound and self via his attitude toward music. Thoreau has often been characterized as a careful listener who remained curiously dismissive of Romantic composers such as Beethoven. But how could someone so aesthetically perceptive fail to find any value in concert music? The essay tackles this question first by addressing New England’s general hospitality to the musical arts in the antebellum decades, to reveal what opportunities for listening a person like Thoreau had. It then analyzes Thoreau’s own comments about music and sonic phenomena to highlight a profound investment in the relationship between self and echo in Thoreau’s work – an investment that anticipates the attitudes of modern Continental philosophers.

Lizzy LeRud, “Living Poems in Thoreau’s Prose” (155-176)

Thoreau’s career started with poetry: some of his earliest publications were poems, and his first major literary project was a comprehensive anthology of English poetry that he worked on from 1841 until 1844. He abandoned the project in order to begin writing A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, which, like a palimpsest, bears evidence of its predecessor even as it builds from it. A Week’s debt to Thoreau’s early work on poetry has been well documented by critics on all counts except with regard to the influence of Thoreau’s own embedded poetry. I argue that reading the dialogue between Thoreau’s poems and prose yields a depiction of poetry’s existence as something akin to a biological process, albeit one that exceeds the rules of nature and especially the inevitability of death. The book posits “life” stories of Thoreau’s poems, tracing poems from inspiration and inception, to printed words, to reprinted and recalled words, forces that outlast their author. In a book about significant loss – specifically, the loss of Thoreau’s brother, John, to whom the book is dedicated – a poem’s immortality matters even more in concept than it does in fact. The narrative of the journey – with its beginning, middle, and end – employs plot structure to commemorate the course of a life, John’s life, now ended, but the poems try to elude that temporality. Even as these poems escape the Week narrative’s portrayal of time’s inevitable losses, they function as a consoling force in the face of that loss within the narrative. Narrating the lives of poems may paradoxically fix them in the teleology of the excursion, but these lyrics nevertheless effect a more supple narration, a story that troubles notions of death and ending, life, and representation.

Ann Beebe, “The Red Flannel Shirt: The Dynamic Clothing Metaphor in The Maine Woods”(177-196)

In The Maine Woods (1864), a work comprised of three essays drawn from three of the six trips he took to Maine (1846, 1853, 1857), Henry David Thoreau’s eye is drawn in the midst of this remote and wild environment to man-made items, clothing. Overlooked by some scholars, the clothing metaphor in The Maine Woods is a classic case of Thoreau’s talent for observing the most ordinary of objects, functional clothing in this instance, from a fresh perspective to imbue it with unexpected meaning. What begins as a joyful attention to the red flannel shirts of the lumbermen to celebrate their type of masculinity, visibility, and commercial success becomes a confused exploration of race and class boundaries by the end of the work. 

Albena Bakratcheva, “‘Wild Apples’ and Thoreau’s Commitment to Wildness in the Last Decade of His Life” (197-212)

The focus of this essay is on Thoreau’s newly developed capability of overcoming the poignancy of existence in the last years of his life through making an art of the most refined poetic elegance as in the late essays (or through humor and extensive ‘wild’ narration as in Cape Cod). The first section deals explicitly with Thoreau’s preoccupation with wildness, establishing how environmental awareness was already a contemporary context for Thoreau and how it appears across his late work. The second section focuses on literary wildness, outlining the overall argument that in his last years Thoreau was engaging all the powers of verbal expression in order to sustain life, or that he was pleading the cause of nature preservation for both its sake and for the human sake while at the same time writing itself was becoming for him something much more than a profession and an art.

Julien Nègre, “From Tracing to Writing: The Maps that Thoreau Copied” (213-234)

By looking at maps that Thoreau copied during his lifetime and identifying the sources of his tracings, this article examines the role that these documents have played in his writing. Using Jacques Rancière’s notion of the distribution of the sensible, the article suggests that mapping can be read as a perpetuation of the distribution that delineates and inscribes a common space, but also makes invisible those who do not fit in the distribution. Thoreau’s tracings are understood here as a gesture of appropriation that becomes the basis of a politically subversive re-writing of the distribution, in order to make visible the places and the individuals that it excludes.

Iuliu Ratiu, “Found in Translation: Panait Musoiu and the First Translation of Walden in Romania” (235-252)

This essay analyzes the circulation of Walden from English to French and from French to Romanian in the first decades of the twentieth century and it provides new information about two translations of Walden published in the 1970s. It also shows how literature in translation helps disseminate ideas and texts to audiences for whom they were not initially envisioned by detailing some of the difficulties readers and translators from small countries have in accessing works of world literature.

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