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There is no account of the blue sky in history.

Thoreau, January 7, 1851, Journal 3, 1990, p. 174

Would you see your mind—look at the sky.

Thoreau, January 26, 1852, Journal 4, 1992, p. 291

Henry David Thoreau lived in an age of keen observers, and he was very much a man of his time. Both scientists and artists developed an acute self-consciousness of their respective methods and faculties of observation, and of the limits as well as the prospects of their new modes of inspection. Thus each appreciated the problems of cognition with new insight. Within this tradition, for Thoreau,seeing—both the world and himself—became his preoccupation, and his problem. The least conspicuous or most obvious were equally susceptible to his gaze, and thus he made his contribution by making the ordinary extraordinary. He believed that the secrets of nature, and of humanity's place within it, were ultimately revealed by identifying what was significant in the everyday world; and that this revelation, in turn, depended on meticulous attention to, and accounting of, the commonplace. On the other hand, he too was guilty of complacency. An amusing observation made by Henry Petroski makes the point:

Henry David Thoreau seemed to think of everything when he made a list of essential supplies for a twelve-day excursion into the Maine woods. He included pins, needles, and thread among the items to be carried in an India-rubber knapsack, and he even gave the dimensions of an ample tent…. He wanted to be doubly sure to be able to start a fire and to wash up, and so he listed: “matches (some also in a small vial in the waist-coat pocket); soap, two pieces.” He specified the number of old newspapers (three or four, presumably to be used for cleaning chores), the length of strong cord (twenty feet), the size of his blanket (seven feet long), and the amount of “soft hardbread” (twenty-eight pounds!)….

… [h]e advised like-minded observers to carry a small spyglass … a pocket microscope … tape measure … and paper and stamps, to mail letters back to civilization.


But there is one object that Thoreau neglected to mention, one that he most certainly carried himself. For without this object Thoreau could not have sketched … fauna…. Without it he could not label his blotting paper … or his insect boxes … record measurements … write home … [nor] make his list. Without a pencil Thoreau would have been lost in the Maine woods.

According to his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson, Thoreau seems always to have carried, “in his pocket, his diary and pencil.” So why did Thoreau … neglect to list even one among the essential things to take on an excursion? Perhaps the very object with which he may have been drafting this list was too close to him, too familiar a part of his own everyday outfit, too integral a part of his livelihood, too common a thing for him to think to mention. (1989, pp. 3–4)

This is an unusual omission and only highlights Thoreau's scrupulous care in constructing his world. It is amusing precisely because it is out of character, jarringly inconsistent with Thoreau's own meticulous attention to the seemingly obvious. Petroski was writing about the innocuous pencil as an object of historical interest. I cite the omission to emphasize a philosophical point and a psychological truism: Knowledge is selective. We know what we want to know, or at least seek knowledge in the particular context of self-interest. Each of us follows his or her unique train.

Certainly, Thoreau was aware of this adage, and in acknowledging the limits of his observations, he both appreciated the endless splendor of the world about him and his own limited ability to fully appreciate it:

As I look north westward to that summit from a Concord cornfield— how little can I realize all the life that is passing between me & it—the retired up country farm houses—the lonely mills—wooded vales—wild rocky pastures—and new clearings on stark mt sides—& rivers gurgling through primitive woods—! All these and much more I overlook. (Thoreau, September 27, 1852,Journal 5, 1997, p. 357)

This preoccupation with the limits of his vision is a constant Thoreauvian theme, and even as his observations of nature became more scrupulous and even “scientific” in character, a self-consciousness remained, beguiling the growing positivist efforts to objectify the world. This Janus-like vision— simultaneously observing both the world and himself—offers us an essential clue in understanding Thoreau's project.

So, as Thoreau sought to know nature, he again and again faced his own autonomy—his consciousness of that world and his capacity to comprehend it. Thus he was both fascinated with understanding his place in the world, and at the same time committed to making that world, or at least his place

in it, his own. So there was always a bidirectional movement in Thoreau's work: he would not only develop, even create, his personal identity in the context of nature, he would also engage and know nature in his particular fashion and thereby uniquely identify his world. Despite his commitment to empiricism and public discourse, Thoreau understood that what he saw and how he processed that experience were characteristic of his personal vision and ultimately shaped by it. My interest in Thoreau is primarily to understand what informed this dialectical process—the development of the man and the making of his world. Consequently, on this reading, I see Thoreau asking profound philosophical questions.

Thoreau regarded himself as living a philosophically informed life. For him, philosophy was a moral guide, and in the same spirit in which he criticized the mercantile pursuits of his neighbors, he distanced himself from philosophers who, in his view, failed to rise to his standard of living the virtuous life:

There are nowadays professors of philosophy, but not philosophers. Yet it is admirable to profess because it was once admirable to live. To be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, nor even to found a school, but so to love wisdom as to live according to its dictates, a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust. It is to solve some of the problems of life, not only theoretically, but practically. (Walden, 1971, pp. 14–15; revised from Fall-Winter 1845–46 Journal entry [Journal 2, 1984, p. 145])

As the passage continues, Thoreau's identification with his own definition of the true philosopher emerges clearly:

The success of great scholars and thinkers is commonly a courtier-like success, not kingly, not manly. They make shift to live merely by conformity, practically as their fathers did, and are in no sense the progenitors of a nobler race of men…. The philosopher is in advance of his age even in the outward form of his life. He is not fed, sheltered, clothed, warmed, like his contemporaries. How can a man be a philosopher and not maintain his vital heat by better methods than other men? (Ibid., p. 15)

Despite certain misgivings sprinkled in the Journal, Thoreau was, at least, sympathetic to philosophy and would repeatedly assume the philosopher's voice (e. g., ibid., pp. 65 and 94; Journal 5, 1997, p. 470). At the end of Walden, he asserted Socrates' credo, “Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth” (1971, p. 330). Indeed, one might summarize Thoreau's life as dedicated to this proclamation.


But I will make a more radical claim: Thoreau deeply engaged the key philosophical issue of his time, one which has dominated much of modern philosophy, and he offered an original response to it. I am referring to the post-Cartesian predicament, one framed in diverse ways but all converging on exposing the fragmentation of experience and the elusive epistemological character of our identities. Beginning with Descartes, the knowing subject was irreconcilably separated from the world. In this Cartesian construction,res cogitans was a distinct domain, and while humans might know the world and act in it, the mind was not part of the world. Thoreau hoped to demonstrate that there was, in fact, no final divide between man and nature, and that mind and nature might be integrated. For him, to be in the world was to appropriate nature using all his “rationalities”—objective, aesthetic, spiritual, and moral—each contributing to some final synthesis. Inspired by his mystical states, sustained by identifying his core “wildness,” Thoreau then pursued his naturalist studies as extensions of these intimate experiences of nature.

On this reading, Thoreau's imperative of seeing was ultimately an attempt to establish a full integration. But this picture of man and nature as fundamentally unified remained a poetic or spiritual aspiration. Despite the cogency of his enterprise, Thoreau was caught in the web of his own self-consciousness. His metaphysical construction was flawed, because he was unable to overcome the self-awareness imposed by his writing. Both a blessing and a curse, writing—deliberate and intellectually ordered—was Thoreau's own self-definition of who he was. And here we come face to face with the inherent tension (or even contradiction) of Thoreau's project: Despite all his efforts to touch, if not live, his “wildness,” Thoreau remained “civilized” as a writer. After all, writing is a defining activity of civilization, and in the selfconscious act of capturing experience, it confers an acute awareness of one's distance (if not removal) from nature. The voice of inter-pretation is ever-present and stands out as the dominant theme of his work. In short, throughout his multifaceted enterprises, we see Thoreau's study of nature coupled with introspective inspection as he surveyed the world.

If we understand Thoreau as partaking in the general philosophical discussion about the Cartesian subject, specifically in defining the relationship of man and nature as well as in deciphering the basis of knowing the world, his endeavors, irrespective of their philosophical success or failure, take on added significance. That being asserted, Thoreau was no philosopher, at least not in any ordinary sense. His thought was not systematic, and his reference to philosophy was filtered and highly derivative. Indeed, Stanley Cavell correctly observed that Walden was written in a “pre-philosophical moment

of its culture” (1981, p. xiii); yet Thoreau's philosophical education extended from the Stoics to American Transcendentalism, often guided by Emerson's own passion for German idealism and its English refractions.[1] So, while Thoreau would not have designated himself a philosopher, it is difficult to escape the philosophical sensibility he embraced again and again in his writings. More than a sensitivity to life's moral challenges, beyond ambitions to capture time and nature in poetic and scientific descriptions, Thoreau exhibited a sophisticated self-awareness of the epistemological limits of his various projects and the limits of rationality as philosophical problems. Eschewing orthodox philosophy, he nevertheless enunciated a response to the key philosophical questions of his time. I confess that there are many places in his writings where I would have appreciated a more complete development of a philosophical position or an argument for a philosophical stand; nevertheless, to read Thoreau philosophically is to enrich our appreciation of the structure of his thought and his attitudes about himself and the world he studied.

Rather than arguing about Thoreau's philosophical sophistication, it is more profitable to regard his intellectual efforts as “innocent” of the fractionation of knowledge and experience that so marks our own era. Just as he was able to understand and participate in the science of his era, he could well appreciate the philosophical issues debated at the time. Richly literate in diverse branches of knowledge, Thoreau possessed a philosopher's passion for epistemology, pursuing his quest for knowing the real relentlessly, and understanding the limitations of his knowing. Thoreau is particularly appealing to me in this last respect, for he held the key insight: seeing was ultimately dependent on the individual's ability to see and create, and the world as known is thus radically dependent on character. In other words, Thoreau's communing with nature, his historical pursuits of various kinds, his observations of society and people, he recognized as value-laden and thus organized around a self-image of his own ethical standing and what he wished to be. In short, Thoreau's world became a moral expression.

“Moral” is being used here—and throughout this book—not in reference to the more narrow ideas of “right and wrong” or “good and evil” but in reference to the generic understanding of “value.” To comprehend “moral” in this way is to acknowledge that prior to assigning “rightness” or “wrongness,” we must begin by regarding the act of judgment as following the decision that a verdict is to be made in the first place. With this broadened conception, value judgments not only include choices about one's actions typically regarded as “ethical” but encompass assigning value in any context. Each act—whether appreciating an apple tree, curbing one's consumerism,

or refusing to pay a poll tax—then becomes a selfconscious valuation. In this regard, morality has been extended into every facet of experience, because the knowing agent is acutely selfconscious that each act is significant or not significant as determined by the attention and value that is assigned. Thus there is no neat separation between knowing the world (epistemo logically) and valuing that knowledge (a moral judgment). In short, I will regard Thoreau's life as a grand moral example, where the ethics of selfintegrity have assumed primacy. If he indeed regarded the world as one of his own making, one radically dependent on what he saw, understood, and thus signified, then each moment, each observation, each understanding was imbued with judgment. From this vantage we might better peer into the pupil of his world, for Thoreau profoundly appreciated that “the ‘ought’ is, in fact, one of the most common features of what ‘is,’ of what is happening” (Caputo 1993, p. 7).

I am pursuing the path of modern scholarship that has been dubbed “Thoreau's epistemology of nature” (Buell 1995, p. 364). Following Krutch's (1948) and Paul's (1958) vision of Thoreau as an intellectual quester, Thoreau has been portrayed as reacting against Emersonian idealism (Porte 1966) or exhibiting a “programmed inconsistency” in his “divided attitudes toward nature” (McIntosh 1974); more recently he has been provocatively regarded as “writing Nature” (Cameron 1985), apprehending nature's “nextness to me” (Cavell 1981), or establishing unique epistemological categories by which he might know nature (Peck 1990). Not to delve into my agreements and disputes with these various studies here, suffice it to note that none has adequately accounted for the deeper orienting force of Thoreau's moral character on his epistemology. Thus both my approach (a reliance on contemporary philosophy) and orienting theme (the epistemological orientation bestowed by Thoreau's moral philosophy) are different from previous studies.

In adopting this strategy, “the self” becomes a central concern, and in this regard two fundamental axes of Thoreau's personhood must be portrayed. The first is the self as knower, an epistemological examination, and the second is the self as a moral category. In the end, we will see that the two dimensions collapse into one, and that the world Thoreau sees and knows is the world he creates out of his moral attitude about that world and the ego which appreciates it. Personalizing knowledge of the past and of the natural world in his own terms—formulations constructed on a grid of value and meaning—the self was in danger of falling into a solipsistic hole, and so Thoreau lived with a balanced tension, where his perspectivism was constantly measured against facts. Thoreau's Romantic struggle of the self's

selfdefinition and his pursuits to place that self within a cosmos of his own discernment reflect a dialectical struggle between engagement with the world and at the same time a retreat from it. In this sense, he truly was a Romantic Hero, for the odyssey of selfdiscovery—an arduous spiritual journey—was a key Romantic metaphor (Cardinal 1997), and Thoreau was truly one of the great introspective travelers of his era. Triumphing in his inward voyage, Thoreau overcame the seductions of a crippling solipsism and emerged with a freed imagination, one enacted on the primacy of his independent personhood.

This theme of fierce independence and individuality, famously enunciated in the “Conclusion” of Walden (“If man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer” [1971, p. 326]), became Thoreau's cardinal ethical mandate. He jealously guarded against what he perceived as the distractions of a “normal” life: “Even the wisest and best are apt to use their lives as the occasion to do something else in than to live greatly” (May 20, 1841,Journal 1, 1981, p. 290). And to live greatly was to live independently: “My life will wait for nobody … It will cut its own channel” (April 7, 1841, ibid., p. 297), and in word and deed this became his manifest credo. Indeed, the young Thoreau possessed an uncommon confidence of purpose (“I shall not mistake the direction of my life” [May 6, 1841, ibid., p. 308]) and will (“I make my own time I make my own terms” [November 13, 1841, ibid., p. 342]). In fact, Thoreau's overarching moral philosophy was deliberately to define and to establish his unique self, an act of will that linked every aspect of his intellectual and emotional personality. The present study hinges upon that theme as we explore the various modalities in which Thoreau thought and wrote.


Gradually it has become clear to me what every great philosophy so far has been: namely, the personal confession of its author and a kind of involuntary and unconscious memoir; also that the moral (or immoral) intentions in every philosophy constituted the real germ of life from which the whole plant had grown.

Nietzsche [1886] 1966, p. 14

[A] man's vision is the great fact about him. Who cares for Carlyle's reasons, or Schopenhauer's, or Spencer's? A philosophy is the expression of a man's intimate character, and all definitions of the universe are but the deliberately adopted reactions of human characters upon it.

James [1909] 1987, p. 639


Nietzsche and James, in the passages set out above, were either repeating or rediscovering Johann Gottlieb Fichte's own dictum, “The kind of philosophy one chooses depends upon what kind of person one is” (Wissenschaftslehre [1797], quoted by Neuhouser 1990, p. 56). Whoever said it first, and there are undoubtedly ancient antecedents, the sentiment summarizes my own view. I similarly hold the reciprocity of a philosophy reflecting character and character expressed in a philosophy. In this regard, Thoreau is a particularly vivid case study, and indeed, one can barely understand his philosophy independent of his life work and the personality that lived it. But more, he also exemplifies how the entire enterprise is grounded in the moral personality. In this latter respect, Nietzsche was specifically referring to how value—what is chosen as important, indeed as critical, to a serious and deliberate life—must serve as the very foundation of any guiding philosophy or spirituality. And James built his Principles of Psychology ([1890] 1983) around the precept that our “interest in things” (p. 304) not only organizes our world but is the clue to understanding consciousness and the very notion of the self:

Millions of items of the outward order are present to my senses which never properly enter into my experience. Why? Because they have no interest for me.My experience is what I agree to attend to. Only those items which I notice shape my mind—without selective interest, experience is an utter chaos. (Ibid., pp. 380–81; emphasis in original)

As a phenomenologist, James sought to show not only how we actively and deliberately select sensory experience but also how the philosophical consequences of such an insight frame our understanding of consciousness. What and how we see is largely informed by what we want to see and can see as determined by the structure of our knowing, a value system of the senses and their cognition. For instance, I enter a room looking for my copy of Walden. Of the myriad visual details available to me, I quickly fasten on a particular text, which, except for some very minor details, is almost identical with the other volumes of the Princeton edition,The Writings of Henry D. Thoreau. My interest, the value structure of that moment, determines not only my seeking that particular book but the very cognitive focusing required to do so. From this almost trivial example we might extrapolate to a grand vision of nature, which is, indeed, I maintain, how we should “read” Thoreau. To be sure, we have many criteria by which we select our impressions and thus mold our experience. Here, I wish to explore how an epistemology is informed by a specifically moral vision. So there is a twopronged issue to explicate. First, for a philosopher, “nothing whatever is impersonal,

and above all, his morality bears decided and decisive witness to who he is,” that is, to the innermost nature of his character (Nietzsche [1886] 1966, p. 14); and second, the value structure of thought determines to a greater or lesser degree what one sees, and therefore what one knows. Thus I will attempt to draw such a philosophical, ultimately moral, portrait of Thoreau by looking both at the man and at his philosophy in order to achieve a composite, and thereby more complete, understanding in both of these domains, the moral and the epistemological.

It has often been remarked how philosophy reflects the philosopher, how character and personality may be articulated in various conceptual projects (e.g., Atwood and Stolorow 1993), and Thoreau has endlessly fascinated his students in their attempts to tie together the threads of his thought with the rich intensity and eccentricity of his life. While commenting on Thoreau's evolution of thought, I do not specifically follow the biographical path but instead adopt a philosopher's stance in showing how Thoreau's metaphysics of the self informs and guides each aspect of his multifarious project, where each topic must relate to the overarching questions, How did Thoreau situate himself in the cosmos? What indeed is that problematic self, and what are the metaphysics underlying it? How did the Romantic vision of the person lead to the essential problems with which Thoreau grappled?

Thoreau has a certain “plasticity.” He lived multiple personae: Romantic poet, champion of rugged individualism, naturalist, American patriot and social reformer, middleclass misanthrope, mystic, Transcendentalist, prophet, and on. We have ready testaments for each of these aspects of a life which in many ways was both a failure and a heroic venture. Both in his time and in ours, Thoreau is vilified as a nonconformist ne'erdowell or celebrated as a key member of the American pantheon, an architect of our contemporary consciousness—a physician to our discontent. His reputation as seer largely rests on Walden, a text more widely read in American literature courses than any other.Walden is a “solution” of the question of how to express nature, whether “nature” be thought of as the external natural environment or as the internal, wild, and natural self. These two poles are expressed in a myth of Thoreau's making, namely, that we each potentially possess the heroic ability to elevate our respective lives by conscious effort, by deliberate moral choice. That choice, he insists, requires the rejection of a material, moneydriven economy in favor of an economy of personal renewal resting on an awakening to a greater reality: the world of the spirit found in nature. In naming the wild, celebrating nature, and identifying our true self with communal nature, humankind's deepest divinity might be

discovered and released from its shackles. Thoreau's standing rests on how one regards this call to seek our deepest identity, irrespective of how we orient ourselves to environmentalism. The sanctity of nature—environmental ethics writ large—is perhaps central to Thoreau's own views, but even deeper than those concerns is the primacy of the identity of the self.

Thoreau also polarizes us, and in so doing, he reenacts in us the deep attitudes of his detractors and followers. Apparently, none is neutral. Why? Because he challenges us at the level of moral reckoning: he demands that we declare our own views of nature, society, and ultimately ourselves. In announcing what he values, Thoreau makes us confront our own values, for in word and deed he challenges our complacency, demanding that we respond to his summons for a new ethic. He marshals his rhetorical power so that we must respond, we cannot remain complacent; and thus he breaks our silence. In the service of that moral accounting, Thoreau marshals his epistemological project as well as the various efforts at social reform. But more than crying for a sensitivity to nature or a call for public reform, he calls us to reform ourselves. So in asking us, What indeed do we value?, Thoreau initiates a dialogue with our moral personalities. And he begins that dialogue by exposing himself to our scrutinizing his own selfinspection.

But a psychological portrait is not offered here. To what degree Thoreau suffered, or what inner dynamic might describe his inner conflicts, is indeterminate, even irrelevant to this discussion. What is of interest is how he consciously dealt with his existential state and what he bequeathed us as a testament of his response. Thoreau's autobiography—the Journal and his other published writings—reveals as much as we need to know: Thoreau was keenly aware of the metaphysical instability of the self, most evident in its groping for knowledge about the world, in its yearning to seek its own grounding in that world, and, perhaps most fundamentally, in the study of its own split consciousness. This must remain the focus of our interest. We have much philosophical discussion of the general epistemological and metaphysical crisis which appeared in the mid-nineteenth-century. Thoreau both illustrated its outline and then offered a response to that challenge.

From at least shortly after his graduation from college, he had already set his sights on the moral work that would occupy him throughout his life. The trajectory of his thought and work seem to me clear from his earliest Journal entries at age twenty, and while there was significant development through the publication of Walden at age thirtyfour, the philosophical project appears quite constant—a view at odds with that of other critics who have traced his literary development (e.g., Adams and Ross 1988), his science (e.g., Walls 1995), or his view of nature (e.g., McGregor 1997). That is not to say that

Thoreau's mature musings were the “same” as his youthful musings. Ironically perhaps, as Thoreau discharged Emerson, he more fully and enthusiastically embraced Transcendentalism between the springs of 1851 and 1852. In a careful textual analysis, Stephen Adams and Donald Ross (1988, pp. 155 ff.) have shown how Thoreau assumed a different vocabulary describing his attitude toward nature and poetry, a process they call a “conversion” but which might be better referred to as a crystallization, endorsement, or confirmation.[2] The difference between these latter characterizations and the first suggests that the Romantic elements were present before 1851 and only became better articulated as Thoreau more fully realized his mature philosophical attitude. After all, we have strong early evidence for his sympathy to nature, his jaundiced view of objectivity and its scientific expression (see chapter 4), his endorsement of intuition and conscience, and his strong aesthetic and spiritual sense of being. But after 1851, his style changes, shifting from references to classical sources to more contemporary citations. He uses “wild” and all of its variants much more liberally; “sympathy” (see, for example, Journal entries of July 18 and July 23, 1851; January 26, 1852) and “imagination” (see, for example, 1851 Journal entries for July 11th, August 21st, and December 20th) appear more frequently and with deepened significance; and finally, a certain exuberance about life, himself, and his connection to nature punctuate the Journal of this period. Integral to these shifts is a certain self-consciousness, also part of the Romantic temperament: “My practicalness [empiricism] is not to be trusted to the last…. I begin to be transcendental and show where my heart is” (June 7, 1851,Journal 3, 1990, p. 244).[3]

All of this attests to a Romantic sensibility coming forth—the expressiveness of the self, reaching out through spirit and poesis to an expanded vision of the cosmos and his place in it. Coincident with his renewed efforts on Walden, Thoreau wrote at the emergence of spring of a new vitality and hope—no less than a prayer for his own salvation:

My life partakes of infinity. The air is as deep as our natures…. I go forth to make new demands on life. I wish to begin this summer well—to do something in it worthy of it & of me–To transcend my daily routine–& that of my townsmen to have my immortality now—that it be in the quality of my daily life. To pay the greatest price—the—greatest tax of any man in Concord–& enjoy the most!! I will give all I am for my nobility. I will pay all my days for my success. I pray that the life of this spring & summer may ever lie fair in my memory. May I dare as I have never done–may I persevere as I have never done. May I purify myself anew as with fire & water—soul & body–May my melody not be wanting to the season. May I gird myself to be a hunter of the beautiful that naught escape me–May I

attain to a youth never attained[.] I am eager to report the glory of the universe–may I be worthy to do it–To have got through with regarding human values so as not to be distracted from regarding divine values. It is reasonable that a man should be something worthier at the end of the year than he was at the beginning. (March 15, 1852,Journal 4, 1992, p. 390)

And so he began again to revise his reflections on his life at Walden Pond. Central to that reconsideration was a radical insight concerning time and his own temporality (see Peck 1990; also chapter 1 here) and, closely linked, a reassessment of his personal goals. The elliptical reference he gives in Walden about the reason why he went to the woods and why he left is more forthrightly addressed in the Journal, but as he himself admits, “Why I left the woods? I do not think that I can tell” (January 22, 1852,Journal 4, 1992, p. 275). Still, he offers an insight:

Perhaps if I lived there much longer I might live there forever–One would think twice before he accepted heaven on such terms–A ticket to Heaven must include tickets to Limbo—Purgatory–& Hell. Your ticket to the boxes admits you to the pit also. And if you take a cabinpassage you can smoke at least forward of the engine.–You have the liberty of the whole boat. But no I do not wish for a ticket to the boxes—nor to take a cabin passage. I will rather go before the mast & on the deck of the world. I have no desire to go “abaft the engine[.]” (Ibid.)

Thoreau truly was not satisfied with any permanence, reading his own “wildness” as an incessant need for “freedom.” In this context it was the freedom of a perpetual search of himself, and this too is part of his abiding Romanticism.

There is, of course, a metatheme, developed during this same period, that addresses the question of personal purpose, the agenda of living (Adams and Ross 1988, p. 172).Walden does offer an answer to the enigmatic question why Thoreau “left the woods.” In a dialogue between a Hermit and a Poet, Thoreau thrashes out the course of his life:

Shall I go to heaven or afishing? If I should soon bring this meditation to an end, would another so sweet occasion be likely to offer? I was as near being resolved into the essence of things as ever I was in my life. I fear my thoughts will not come back to me…. There never is but one opportunity of a kind. (Walden, 1971, pp. 224–25)

Thoreau indeed goes “fishing” in a return to the world: “Well, then, let's be off. Shall we to Concord? There's good sport there if the water be not too high” (ibid.). He again pursues various agendas—some mundane, others of

vast philosophical import. He would continue to seek the unity of the world, the arrest of time, the poetic metaphors of life, the scientific insight of nature—all in the quest to know what was real for him, both ontologically and morally. So in some sense,Walden crystallized a composite view which pulled each of these concerns into some coherence, and which he may well have regarded with a profound sense of completeness (Richardson 1986). Yet in another sense, reflecting the metaphysics of his own self, Thoreau could not be satisfied with any “answer,” and so he continued to explore all the subjects previously approached. Although that pursuit was essentially structured by the mature completion of his magnum opus (in 1854), there is an unmistakable inward turning, exemplified by the massive expansion of his Journal, which became the central focus of his creative endeavors. His observations of nature seem to have a new intensity and clarity. This was achieved at a high personal cost.

As even early Journal entries indicate, the seeds of solitude had been sown long before Thoreau fully realized that his youthful dreams of heroic leadership were not to be fulfilled. At age twenty-four, he wrote presciently of what would become the Walden Pond experiment, and more generally, the posture of his life:

I want to go soon and live away by the pond where I shall hear only the wind whispering among the reeds–It will be a success if I shall have left myself behind, But my friends ask what I will do when I get there? Will it not be employment enough to watch the progress of the seasons? (December 24, 1841,Journal 1, 1981, p. 347)

This is precisely what Thoreau eventually did, formalizing what had heretofore been intermittent excursions:

I sit in my boat on walden—playing the flute this evening—and see the perch, which I seem to have charmed, hovering around me—and the moon travelling over the ribbed bottom—and feel that nothing but the wildest imagination can conceive of the manner of life we are living. Nature is a wizzard. The Concord nights are stranger than the Arabian nights. (May 27, 1841, ibid., p. 311)

Thoreau went to the pond and played his flute, putting a spell not only on the fish but upon himself. During this period he was extensively reading Eastern religious writings, and the solitude he sought was critical for the mystical experiences he craved. This posturing may be regarded as a pushpull phenomenon: a manifestation of his incipient misanthropy and thus a countermove against the society of men, as well as a pull toward a primary spiritual communion. In either or both cases, Thoreau recognized the dual

need for privacy (“I cannot think nor utter my thought unless I have infinite room” [March 22, 1842,Journal 1, 1981, p. 385]) and an existential reality about himself:

How alone must our life be lived–We dwell on the seashore and none between us and the sea–Men are my merry companions—my fellow pilgrims—who beguile the way, but leave me at the first turn in the road—for none are travelling one road so far as myself. (March 13, 1841, Journal 1, 1981, p. 288)

Thoreau eventually was to regard his solitude (always denying “loneliness”) as a virtue, one he fully described in Walden (its fifth chapter) and unabashedly admitted in an early Journal entry: “Whoever has had one thought quite lonely—and could consciously digest that in solitude, knowing that none might accept it, may rise to the height of humanity—and overlook all living men as from a pinnacle” (April 10, 1841,Journal 1, 1981, p. 300). In solitude, Thoreau would garner himself as a leader, a hero, a prophet. The Journal is replete with such allusions (more fully discussed in chapter 6).

Thoreau's youthful selfabsorption was later replaced with keen attention to the otherness of the natural world and his place in it. Following the Walden experiment, the Journal testifies to an endless search for the meaning of nature and the corresponding knowing self. I will consider that evolution of thought and sensibility in this sketch of “the mind of a moralist,” for an abiding and relentlessly recursive selfevaluation undergirds this portrait of Thoreau. His was a voice that beckons us to address the apparently irresolvable dilemma of self-consciousness facing that chasm between a perceiving self and its world. Thoreau enacted a classic Romantic struggle: establishing a firm and abiding relation with nature, even a union, yet recognizing that this aspiration is dangerous, even misguided, since the self would, in its merger, be lost. Some students of the Romantics see this poetic quest as transfiguring an alienated nature to one redeemed, while others read an unreconciled, alienated nature whose pursuit is tragic. Thoreau lived with both aspects and characteristically played these themes as a complex counterpoint.[4] He was well aware of these conflicting movements, and his typically Romantic introspective cognizance reflects a deeper source of inquiry as he engaged in perplexing and oftentimes agonizing meditations on the nature of his personhood and the meaning of his life in the context of nature. Thoreau offered an original response to this Romantic imbroglio.

Much of Thoreau's writing may be heard as the turning of a creaking axle, whose linchpin, consciousness, holds the entire enterprise together. As Leo Marx wrote,


Thoreau is clear, as Emerson seldom was, about the location of meaning and value. He is saying that it does not reside in the natural facts or in social institutions or in anything “out there,” but in consciousness. It is a product of imaginative perception, of the analogy-perceiving, metaphormaking, mythopoetic power of the human mind. For Thoreau the realization of the golden age is, finally, a matter of private and, in fact, literary experience. (1964, p. 264)

Laurence Buell (perhaps ironically) aptly draws out the key implication of this reading: “Thoreau was not really that interested in nature as such; nature was a screen for something else” (1995, p. 11).[5] I would agree with the focus on self-consciousness as the locus of Thoreau's project, but I think we err in telescoping three different dimensions of “mind” into some single realm of consciousness: the private world consists of selfaware consciousness and another domain of unmediated experience, which is, in fact, not conscious but rather preconscious or unconscious. A third realm, the public world, reckons the processed word, written or spoken, to “read” or “hear” thought. Consciousness then mediates raw experience as processed thought, or as Thoreau put it, “the pen” is the fulcrum, or “lever” (August 4, 1841,Journal 1, 1981, p. 315), that allows him to lift experience, memory, and emotion from the depths of preand unconsciousness to the surface of the public forum. Rightly regarded as the nucleus of his work, consciousness must also be acknowledged in some sense as only a “solvent,” the necessary medium through which unmediated, unselfconscious experience assumes articulated value and meaning.

Questions of consciousness aside, Thoreau also aspired to mystical states—the suspension of selfawareness—and this aspect must also be considered.[6] He reveled in the mystical moments of pure communion—experience most genuine and authentic—but his polished literary product can only serve as a translation or distillation of that experience. Thoreau's mystical experiences are in this sense “lost,” remaining as faint echoes in his own allusions to them, and thus we cannot confidently factor them into the complex calculus of his project. Due to their elusive character, I have almost allowed Thoreau's mystical visions to fall outside my own analysis. But because they were an important reservoir of his experience, their influence must be acknowledged. While Thoreau sought such mystical experiences, he also recognized that they served principally as a well of inspiration as he moved beyond the isolation of the mystical state to his public role as seer. He was no starryeyed mystic, and he exercised the full force of his critical faculties to explore even those most intimate experiences for greater literary purposes. In short, mystical revelry was only one aspect of his self-consciousness,

one source from which he drew to write.[7] This selfconscious, splitscreen image of the self—the self experiencing and the self digesting the experience—appears at various sites of this study, for what intrigues me is not only how Thoreau regarded his world but how he attempted to understand the character of his selfhood and resolve the multiple tensions of its confrontation with the world and itself.


In chapter 1, the metaphysical foundation of Thoreau's thought is outlined by posing the question of how he understood time and how that understanding functioned to orient his epistemology and moral philosophy. When Thoreau left Walden Pond in September 1847, he had fully embraced his mature understanding of time and his “place” in nature. Specifically, Thoreau's understanding of the full immediacy of the present is the most sensitive measure of his metaphysics of nature. I contrast his understanding of “time” as restricted to the present (the Augustinian notion that past and future exist only in the mind) and serving as a human category of temporality with his notion of “eternity.” Thoreau's recognition that nature's flux is immediate and everpresent, existing in an eternal now, represents a crucial metaphysical insight, and his strategies for integrating the ceaseless evolution of the cosmos and himself revolve around efforts to “capture” time either in selfconscious understanding or in the total eclipse of mystical revelry. Time's apprehension or suspension becomes the foundation of his own reckoning of his selfhood and thereby introduces the basic themes of this study.

Time not only serves to ground Thoreau's thought in a deep ontology but leads us into the study of two epistemologies—history of culture (chapter 2) and natural history (chapter 3). In both chapter 1 endeavor to show how Thoreau chose to attend to the world—past and present—with highly selective purpose, guided by an aesthetic sensibility and, more profoundly, by a moral attitude. The life of “doing” becomes a life of “virtue,” and Thoreau was ever conscious of that ethical mandate.chapter 2 is structured on describing different forms of history writing employed by Thoreau, ranging from his interpretative narratives of New England history to the play between private memory and public history. The reconstruction of memory and the use of semiotic clues reflect most clearly the role of a personalized history in Thoreau's writing of his own identity. He thus refracts the past through the same moral prism that illuminates his nature study. Indeed, I hope to explicate Thoreau's own admission why natural history,

both more immediate and accessible, is in some sense more “real” than the history of his own culture:

It is easier far to recover the history of the trees which stood here a century or more ago than it is to recover the history of the men who walked beneath them. How much do we know—how little more can we know—of these two centuries of Concord life? (October 19, 1860,Journal, [1906] 1962, 14:152)

While social history served as a vehicle for Thoreau's various messages, it was superseded by natural history, which assumed the more powerful and intimate voice. I will argue that the immediacy of experience that nature study afforded Thoreau largely explains the centrality of this literary genre for him.

Chapter 3 offers a general “epistemological topography” of Thoreau's modes of knowing, and thereby we obtain a manifold on which his various projects, from the mystical to the scientific, might be situated. For as important as natural history was for Thoreau, we must bear in mind that this was the subject of only one facet of his writing. In this chapter, I explore how Thoreau both was indebted to, and reacted against, several key intellectual mentors—Emerson most directly, but Goethe, Coleridge, and Humboldt also played supporting roles in posing the challenges Thoreau responded to. Placing Thoreau in the intellectual context of his era—with the European Romantics immediately preceding him and the Transcendentalists with whom he lived—allows us to appreciate his unique position. And to offer a fair intellectual portrait, we must move Thoreau beyond the Transcendentalists and explore his nature study as some unique alloy of science and the introspective sensibility typical of the Emersonian circle.

Thoreau's standing as a naturalist, both from the perspective of the growing professionalization of science in the mid-nineteenth century and from his own attempt to offer his own unique reading of nature as a nature writer, revolved around the effort to “personalize nature.” My discussion of this issue falls into two parts.chapter 4 presents a survey of the scientific culture of Thoreau's era, and in the rise of positivism we see the ethos of a worldview at odds with Thoreau's Romanticism. Against the positivists' radical divorce of the observer from his object of scrutiny, Thoreau attempted to create his own nature study, appreciating that he could not fit into a science dominated by a positivist epistemology. He used “facts” as his own currency, for his own purpose.

We must place Thoreau's attitude toward nature within the problem of objectivity and the value of knowledge more generally, specifically how his

attitude toward nature is regarded within the broader discussion of the knowing subject. His was “a lovely dance between the self and nature” (Peck 1990, p. 121)— “the inner landscape … symbiotic with the outer” (Buell 1995, p. 101).chapter 5 explores Thoreau's nature observations, specifically how he composed his poetic view of the world, and the difficulty he experienced in writing of that experience. My discussion is based on the nature of facts, how Thoreau discovered or created them in the crucible of “unmediated experience”—personal and valued—and how he used them to create a personalized vision of the world. I maintain that one of the key themes tying Thoreau's many projects together is the world's “pliability” for fulfilling an intuition, or as he observed much better in A Week, “This world is but canvass to our imaginations” (1980a, p. 292). In Thoreau's urgency to find his own place in nature (McIntosh 1974; Garber 1977, 1991), he offered us not only a portrait of nature but a means of placing ourselves in the world that has had an abiding influence on contemporary culture. To Thoreau we owe much of our heightened awareness of nature's sanctity, a complex fusion of Romantic sentiment and an ecological (scientific) consciousness. Nature was not thereby redeemed so much as transformed in an ongoing creative project, which positioned the scientific worldview within a broadened humanistic context. So to note Thoreau's self-consciousness is only to place him among Romantics generally. What separates Thoreau most characteristically is his discerning naturalist's eye, informed by a scientific attitude yet committed to an enchanted vision of nature. These central chapters then treat “the fact” as their common theme, specifically how Thoreau used them as a painter might use various oils to create an image. His commitment to a poetic vision composed from hardwon facts made Thoreau the seer of our own environmentalism. I wish to emphasize that this popular appreciation is an epiphenomenon of a deeper metaphysical realization of the self.

The question of how to live the good life ordered Thoreau's every activity, and he consistently pursued the attempt to actualize his life in the attainment of virtue. He was driven to live a life where he could hold meaning and value under tireless scrutiny. Again, the question of agency guides our investigation, for to ask, How should one live? already assumes the character of a moral agency—or as Bernard Williams quips, “the generality of one already stakes a claim” (1985, p. 4). Here Thoreau assumes his characteristic voice. As important as nature was for him, his own identity was even more intimate and crucial. Indeed, from his perspective, the self assumes its most solid standing in the moral enterprise, ordering the way one sees the world.

Chapter 6 explores Thoreau's own sense of his “heroic” venture and the construction of his moral universe using virtue ethics as the scaffold of examination.

For Thoreau, virtue meant living the deliberate life, one acutely selfconscious in all domains. This was best expressed in his writing, and while he steadfastly pursued his literary art, the enactment of what he considered his virtuous calling, there is a fascinating “failure” between the attempt and its execution. The limits of writing focus much of the previous epistemological concerns and points on the central issues of Thoreau's conundrum of “writing his life” and thereby inscribing his selfhood. And then there is a second “failure,” one directly derivative of his personalized vision of the world and himself within it. I am referring to Thoreau's political writings, which reveal a moral solipsism that exposes the egocentrism of his ethics. So we see not only in his epistemological strivings but also in his moral philosophy a reduction of the world, natural and moral, to his own measure.

Thoreau's moral vision arose from the Romantic “solution” to the character of the self, which is best expressed in Fichte's notion of the “selfpositing I.” With that idea, in chapter 7 I examine the self from two vantages: The first is a short sketch of the philosophical context in which Thoreau's own efforts might be understood. The discussion is based on exploring the evolution of the self as an isolated entity (surveying its world with Lockean detachment) to the Romantic notion of the self as relation. If the self was to be understood and thereby defined as fundamentally seeking relation to an Other—the natural world, society, the self itself—then the basis for such relationships became a problem. The Romantic answer was that the self was free, selfdetermined, and morally obligated when establishing such relationships. Thoreau expressed this aspiration in word and deed. So in the second portion of this discussion, I situate Thoreau's triumphant vision of the self. This discussion freely draws on contemporary appraisal of autobiography, for in many respects Thoreau's work is the elaboration of an autobiography, a life “selfwritten” both in action and in narrative form, in response to an existential trial.

From this perspective, Thoreau met two cardinal challenges. The first pertained to his “aloneness,” to the irreducible solitude that he understood as a metaphysical condition of being human; the second was a Romantic grasp of destiny, which was to recognize consciously and deliberately the full expanse of his metaphysical horizon and develop an identity in response to that conscious vision of nature. As he wrote in his early Journal:

Each one marches in the van. The weakest child is exposed to the fates henceforth as barely as its parents … they cannot stand between him and his destiny. This is the one bare side of every man–There is no fence—it is clear before him to the bounds of space. (March 13, 1841, Journal 1, 1981, p. 288)[8]


The road to Thoreau's destiny was the dual path of “selfdiscovery” and “selfcreation.” Especially in this latter regard, Thoreau truly followed Emerson's call in “Nature”:

Every spirit builds itself a house; and beyond its house a world; and beyond its world, a heaven. Know then, that the world exists for you. For you is the phenomenon perfect. What we are, that only can we see…. Build, therefore, your own world. (1983a, p. 48)

This was a shared vision, one that became a heroic venture for Thoreau insofar as he regarded himself as committed to a valiant though perhaps impossible task.

In our postpositivist era, we now appreciate that the radical separation of the subject from the object of examination is a false conceit. Our view of nature is always a construction, known in a particular way, in a particular context, with a particular history. But Thoreau lived in a period that witnessed the rapid rise of positivism, when human knowing was thought to be totally transparent on its object. He recognized that such an idealized objectivity would rob us of making the world our own. He struggled with a response to this challenge. He showed us why the positivist perspective was distorting, alienating, and ultimately false. He sought to preserve an enchanted world and to place the passionate observer in the center of his or her universe.

Thoreau's venture, seen either as a success or as a splendid failure, has linked him to our own moment. One tributary of his thought leads from Walden Pond to twentieth-century environmentalism, where he is justly regarded as one of those in the vanguard leading urbanized Americans back to nature. Indisputably, the aesthetic and spiritual character of that movement owes much to the model offered by Thoreau's own nature studies and writings. The other stream of thought is, I believe, a deeper contribution, for his life's example has served many more who do not share his passion for nature. So, while most would see him as the author of a new ecological consciousness, I argue that what he offers is a moral consciousness more radical than that required simply to green America. The Epilogue comments on how Thoreau's contributions to our own concerns are best understood as an effort to “mend the world,” or what Edmund Husserl later referred to as the project of seeking a unifying Reason. For those who see a world fractured, where splintered knowledge and local beliefs are loosely coordinated in a pragmatic utilitarianism, the basis for unification of experience remains elusive. And meaning finds little support in a secularism that has sequestered God, and in a science that preaches materialism. We are left radically

alone, bereft of a moral compass in a world devoid of meaning other than what we bestow upon it. In Thoreau's admonitions, we recognize the moral precariousness of our lives, which are uncoordinated by any great enterprise and isolated by our individual pursuits. What most see as a conundrum, he saw as a surmountable challenge (or even an opportunity), albeit one that called for heroic effort. Thoreau regarded himself as engaging a silent but ominous tyranny that had crept into his pastoral garden and, like the weeds in his bean field, must be vanquished. Now, when moral agency has lost its foundations and our confidence in our own autonomy and free will has been weakened, he confidently strides forth from the nineteenth century with a bold assertion of the primacy of the self in all of its dominions.

Thoreau charted a metaphysics of the self that sought to integrate aesthetic, spiritual, and scientific faculties in order to forge a synthesis of diverse experience and disparate knowledge. In celebrating personalized knowledge, Thoreau decried positivism not as a philosophy of science, but as a philosophy of knowing, whose objectivity was inadequate for navigating the world and making it meaningful. Radical objectivity fails because the view from nowhere leaves Man out of the picture, and with no perspective there is no significance, no meaning, no order, and ultimately no self. Thoreau's prescription: a complex amalgam of aesthetic empiricism, Eastern mysticism, poetry, and manual labor. Each was marked by deliberate purpose, selfreflection, and most important, the selfconscious effort of doing. Those inspired by Thoreau may not be taken by any of his particular pursuits, but they see in his life a steadfast moral commitment of seeking and affirming personalized meaning and signification. This encompassing ethics of the self resonates with the current, widely held sentiment that ultimately we are responsible for making sense of the world and our place in it.

This anthem of selfhood has become a popular moral call to arms. For those enlisted, an interest in nature may be only a passing fancy, but the necessity of finding personal meaning in an increasingly alienated world is a clear challenge. Thoreau, by offering his life as an example of such a search, has been promoted from captain of a huckleberry party (Emerson's derisive characterization [see p. 174]) to general of legions.

To a large extent, Thoreau's appeal depends on how far we regard his life and work as a triumph in asserting his will and the primacy of his personhood. Robert Milder astutely notes, regarding the writing of Walden, that there are two stories, not always congruent, that unfold in Thoreau's writing: the narrated story of discovery and renewal (which we commonly attend to) and the enacted story of the writer's efforts to adapt himself to the world (Milder 1995, pp. 54–55) or, as I would say, to create a moral cosmos.

Indeed, using Milder's trope, I regard the two stories as converging in the various ways Thoreau attempts to create a selfmythology. This study is an examination of how Thoreau discovered, indeed constructed, his personhood, and how he did so not primarily as a literary, nor even an epistemological, project but as a moral one that reached well beyond his writings, encompassing experience he made no attempt to capture with his pencil. The mind of a moralist—a category superseding any authorial voice—is at the epicenter connecting all of Thoreau's endeavors. The pivotal issue for us is to probe the constitution of Thoreau's moral philosophy, to see how it informed his life's work, and its expression. It is this ethical dimension that brings him to the forefront of our contemporary concerns.

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