Natural Life: Thoreau’s Worldly Transcendentalism, By David M. Robinson, Cornell University Press, $24.95
Henry Thoreau once famously noted that he had “traveled much in Concord,” and over the years scholars have traveled equally much in Thoreau, finding in him a chorus of “representative men,” to borrow a title from his friend and mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson. He is the exemplar of Emersonian self-reliance; he is the man who put transcendental philosophy into practice on the shores of Walden Pond; he is the voice of political conscience, forerunner of Gandhi and King; and, increasingly of late, he is a prominent poster boy for American environmentalism. (To borrow now from another of his contemporaries, Walt Whitman, Thoreau is large, he contains multitudes.)
While the still relatively new field of literary ecocriticism is burgeoning these days in all sorts of fruitful directions away from the study of conventional nature writing, it still seems difficult to talk about representations of the American environment without launching one’s critical canoe onto Walden’s waves or taking an intellectual stroll through the burned-over lands on the slopes of Ktaadn. Lawrence Buell’s 1995 work The Environmental Imagination: Thoreau, Nature Writing, and the Formation of American Culture is perhaps the most prominent recent critical exploration of Thoreau’s literary landscape, but Thoreau has also been examined in articles, chapters, and books by a large group of ecocritics and their fellow travelers (traveling on foot and in hiking boots, presumably). Thus, the idea of writing a book linking “Thoreau” and “nature” does not exactly startle and amaze. And yet, as David M. Robinson’s Natural Life: Thoreau’s Worldly Transcendentalism demonstrates, the man’s works are sufficiently rich that they invite continual new readings of the shifting and evolving nature of nature as he viewed it, understood it, and used its contours to mold his life.
As a critical stance, ecocriticism tends to be both ecocentric and personal; it pushes aside human perspectives and priorities, giving non-human nature a central presence within the text. The field emerged out of a growing sense of late-twentieth-century environmental crisis, and advocates new and better ways of thinking and acting toward the environment. Ecocriticism asks how a text under study can help us to critique and rethink our material and imaginative relationships to the sustaining world around us. Robinson’s book is not explicitly ecocritical; insofar as he uses the term, it is in reference to the work of other scholars. His own work instead locates us firmly inside Thoreau’s head, looking out at the world through Thoreau’s eyes. Robinson takes us through close readings of several of Thoreau’s works, primarily A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, Walden, “Ktaadn,” “Walking,” the Journals, and the late natural history essays collected by Bradley P. Dean in Faith in a Seed and Wild Fruits.
This traditional approach, scrutinizing text without much context, gives us the landscape that Thoreau traversed and explored primarily for the meanings he located there, for the symbolic and philosophical suggestions they offered, and for the counterpoint they provided to Thoreau’s own evolving thought. In Natural Life the primary landscape we explore is that of Thoreau’s own mind; environment is referent. And yet Robinson suggests that, in evolving ways over the course of his literary life, Thoreau was attempting to pattern himself after his surroundings even as he was patterning that environment in the pages of his books and journals; nature may look like Thoreau here, but Thoreau was trying to look like nature. Robinson takes his title from a comment of Thoreau’s in A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers:
Men nowhere, east or west, live yet a natural life, round which the vine clings, and which the elm willingly shadows. Man would desecrate it by his touch, and so the beauty of the world remains veiled to him. He needs not only to be spiritualized but naturalized, on the soil of the earth.
Robinson’s book is a detailed account of Thoreau’s intellectual and spiritual journey toward (and attempt to embrace and live by) the concept of “natural life,” a phrase that points in two related directions. First, Thoreau sought to live a life grounded imaginatively, ethically, and sensuously in the textures of the natural world. Second, over the course of his career he became more and more interested in natural life itself, in understanding how nature worked, so that in his later works he came “to define his intellectual task as the delineation of the processes and seasonal cycles that governed the flow of natural energy.” He did this not with an ecumenical spirit, but with an eye toward understanding himself, his own metaphorical and formative relationship to the ripening of leaves and the germination of seeds.
The phrase “natural life” (and the self-conscious rumination it suggests on living a life so defined as the best way to spend one’s days) does not recur in Thoreau’s work beyond its early appearance in A Week; the words “Live a Natural Life” were not tacked to the wall above his writing table. Rather, Robinson uses the concept as his own framework for understanding how Thoreau remade himself over the course of his writing life. And given the complexity—the ripening, if you will—of Thoreau’s evolving thought, the phrase comes to cover a lot of conceptual ground, from his original thoughts on being naturalized “on the soil of the earth” to its late working out in his political writings.
At that point, Robinson suggests, Thoreau’s “pursuit of the natural life . . . is envisioned as the pursuit of a life of moral freedom, one in which each choice in our daily life is a reaffirmation of our constructive agency in the world”—a formulation that has no explicit environmental referent at all. By contrast, Thoreau’s thinking about the other sense of “natural life”—the workings of the nonhuman world—achieves greater and greater precision over time. He eventually arrives at a proto-ecological understanding of the natural world, marked by “the recognition of an ever-enlarging network of relations, in which natural objects were defined through their part in a larger system, and thus through the process of their interactions.”
Thoreau’s vision eventually points back at himself as much as it gazes outward on the world: Robinson observes that in Thoreau’s late projects “empirical observation and metaphysical conceptualization played vital and complementary roles.” At the same time Thoreau moves closer to being the figure the twenty-first century has constructed, the man who knows nature and, through nature, knows himself. Thoreau, after all, lives in three places at once: in the pages of his books, in the pages of books like Robinson’s, and in the minds and imaginations of the environmentally inclined. Robinson’s book may tell us more about the inside of Thoreau’s head than about the world around him, but in so doing he adds depth and life to the Thoreau that we carry around in our own heads, the Thoreau who perennially sends us to find Waldens of our own. Insofar as Robinson explicates Thoreau’s thought and thereby gets us to contemplate how to live our own “natural lives,” he is doing important cultural work.