Here are the basic things that most people recognized:
- Most of you understood the basic premise that Thoreau proposes in “Walking”: he says that there is something about nature that is curative. We need to expose ourselves to nature so that we can be cured…of something. And that “something” is very important; I’ll elaborate on that in a moment.
- Most of you understood that Thoreau has something against life in the city. By the way, I learned in some recent research that I was doing for an article about Ralph Waldo Emerson that the population of Boston in 1850 was 136,000. Thoreau was born in Concord, Massachusetts in 1817. Concord is less than 20 miles from Boston, so he his idea of an urban environment would have primarily been this town of 136,000 people. That’s about the size of Columbia according to 2013 numbers. But don’t imagine Boston as a place of Interstate highways and all the trappings of modern life—as one historian described New York in the first third of the nineteenth century, Boston would’ve been more like a medieval town than a modern one. I’m just trying to provide a little bit of context regarding what Thoreau found so awful.
- Most of the class provided some variation on this thought: “Thoreau was generally correct in his notion that we need contact with nature.” However, no one really dug into this as much as I would’ve liked. The truth is that Thoreau’s thinking along these lines has woven its way into the fabric of mainstream American culture in some really incredible ways. Here are some of the things and social phenomena that can be traced back to Thoreau’s environmental philosophies:
- The United States National Parks System, including world famous parks like Yosemite, Yellowstone, and Grand Canyon.
- Urban parks like New York City’s Central Park, which Frederick Law Olmstead developed based on the idea that urban dwellers need ready and and easy access to “nature.”
- Designated Wilderness Areas (similar to the National Parks System but different in that Wilderness areas are less accommodating to people. They are intended to preserve the type of “wildness” that Thoreau felt to be so valuable.
Now, here are some points of analysis that the class really did not venture into:
- Thoreau’s notion of “wilderness” is flawed in that he generally thinks of wilderness and the American West as places completely empty of human life. The American West was certainly not empty—it was home to many, many, native Americans, and these people were being rapidly displaced during Thoreau’s lifetime. The Indian Removal Act was signed in 1830, and most of the Native Americans East of the Mississippi were forced off their ancestral lands in the 1830s and 1840s. This included the Cherokee’s “Trail of Tears” that you grew up learning about if you lived in North Carolina, South Carolina, or Georgia. The only place where Thoreau comes close to dealing with the “Indian Issue” is when he writes this: “The weapons with which we have gained our most important victories, which should be handed down as heirlooms from father to son, are not the sword and the lance, but the bushwhack, the turf-cutter, the spade, and the bog hoe, rusted with the blood of many a meadow, and begrimed with the dust of many a hard- fought field. The very winds blew the Indian's cornfield into the meadow, and pointed out the way which he had not the skill to follow. He had no better implement with which to intrench himself in the land than a clam- shell. But the farmer is armed with plow and spade.” Here, Thoreau falls back to an old colonial justification for taking Native American land: “they are too unsophisticated to deserve that land. They don’t even know how to farm it properly.”
- One person recognized this, but otherwise it was unrecognized by everyone else: Thoreau’s attitudes about the city can be a little bit unfair and might not be generalizable to everyone. Let me put it a different way: what’s so bad about the city. Well, Thoreau’s ideas about the city are interwoven with some very old fashioned notions about what it means to work inside (he associates the city with indoor work). For Thoreau, indoor work was implicitly women’s work, and it stifled the (masculine) spirit. Thoreau makes all these implications in the first third of the essay, in the paragraphs surrounding this statement: “How womankind, who are confined to the house still more than men, stand it I do not know; but I have ground to suspect that most of them do not stand it at all.” Shortly after this statement, he suggests that a lack of attention to the outdoors indicates a fading masculinity: “As a man grows older, his ability to sit still and follow indoor occupations increases. He grows vespertinal in his habits as the evening of life approaches, till at last he comes forth only just before sundown, and gets all the walk that he requires in half an hour.” What Thoreau is describing is the advancement of a business and bureaucratic culture in America that was very different from the agrarian, pastoral ideal in which men were engaged in hard, vigorous, physical labor on their farms and forced to inhabit the interior domestic space that had been traditionally (and ideally) associated with women. So, here’s what I’m saying: Thoreau’s reaction against the city and against indoor work is, at least in part, a reaction to these threats to masculinity.