Was Thoreau a romantic? Final thoughts on “Walking”

Much has been said about how unconventional Henry David Thoreau was. Although brilliant he was solitary, decidedly different, very blunt, not especially attractive physically, and he was prone to “queer” habits such as climbing trees, imitating bird calls and the like.

Yet women did find Thoreau attractive. Louisa May Alcott had a schoolgirl crush on him, and based characters in her books on him, most especially Adam Warwick, her doomed lover in Moods, and David Sterling in Work: A Story of Experience.

Sophia Foord, a naturalist and boarder at Hillside, the Alcott family home during Louisa’s teenage (and happiest) years, actually proposed marriage to a horrified Thoreau who brushed her aside.

Except for a failed attempt at love with Ellen Sewall (where he competed with his brother John for her affections), and a possible romantic interest in Lidian Emerson, Thoreau was not a ladies’ man. But I do maintain that he was a romantic.

Thoreau wrote passionately in his essay,  “Walking,” about traveling west, commenting that he usually positioned his feet west to south-west because “The future lies that way to me, and the earth seems more unexhausted and richer on that side.” He adds, “We go eastward to realize history, and study the works of art and literature, retracing the steps of the race, — we go westward as into the future, with a spirit of enterprise and adventure.” While Thoreau protested the idea of Manifest Destiny (the 19th century American belief that the United States was destined to expand across the North American continent, from the Atlantic Seaboard to the Pacific Ocean – Wikipedia) especially because of the Mexican-American War (which annexed Texas and permitted another slave state), it does seem that at least philosophically, he embraced the idea of heading west. And here’s where the romantic in him showed its face:

Every sunset which I witness inspires me with the desire to go to a west as distant and as fair as that into which the Sun goes down. He appears to migrate westward daily and tempt us to follow him. He is the Great Western Pioneer whom the nations follow. We dream all night of those mountain ridges in the horizon, though they may be of vapor only, which were last gilded by his rays. The island of Atlantis,and the islands and gardens of the Hesperides, a sort of terrestrial paradise, appear to have been the Great West of the ancients, enveloped in mystery and poetry. Who has not seen in imagination, when looking into the sunset sky, the gardens of the Hesperides, and the foundation of all those fables?

Not to be a killjoy, but what about all the hardships pioneers faced going out west? Many many thousands of people died from disease, starvation and battles with Native Americans. It was a tremendous struggle just to survive. I was surprised  in the romanticism and naivety that Thoreau seemed to exhibit but I was glad to see that he had such an optimistic spirit. He cites Sir Francis Head, an English traveler:

 “The heavens of America appear infinitely higher — the sky is bluer — the air is fresher — the cold is intenser — the moon looks larger — the stars are brighter — the thunder is louder — the lightning is vivider — the wind is stronger — the rain is heavier — the mountains are higher — the rivers larger — the forests bigger — the plains broader.”

This line made me laugh:

” . . .  the traveller can lie down in the woods at night almost anywhere in North America without fear of wild beasts.”

Um, ever hear of black bears?? Or bobcats??

It got me to thinking about the experiment at Walden. I still think it was a noble experiment but isn’t it true that he brought his laundry to his mother at the family homestead in Concord? :-)

I know that going west for Thoreau was as much about allegory as it was about actually traveling there. The east represented the Old World and Old World (e.g. old ideas and narrow-minded and conventional) thinking whereas the west represented a broadening of one’s horizon and the possibility of reconnecting again with Nature – Sir Francis said it perfectly.

What’s the point of all this? Just that Thoreau was many things: brilliant thinker and writer, transcendentalist, abolitionist and government protester (and willing to go to jail over it), surveyor, pencil maker, innovator, naturalist – a man who said much and truly walked the walk. I would just like to add that he was also a romantic. Bombastic at times, but definitely a romantic.

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6 thoughts on “Was Thoreau a romantic? Final thoughts on “Walking”

  1. lisa :) says:

    I like your points about the hardships of the West, and I think you’re right about his idealizing and allegory. Interestingly enough it seems that Thoreau’s view of West-ness is sort of how modern readers view Thoreau’s pro-nature stance – most of us like the idea of being more in tune with and more integrated into the natural world, but when it comes to the inconveniences of experiencing it (stormy weather, excess heat/cold, insects, etc.) we usually prefer our modern comforts.

    • susanwbailey says:

      Great point! It is true that being outdoors incurs many inconveniences so we hang pictures in our homes, read Thoreau, maybe join the Audubon society and go out on a few walks during the year and/or visit a cabin in the woods. That’s what I do! :-)

      One point I forgot to mention which I learned in my reading (might have been from American Bloomsbury, not sure) is that in Thoreau’s day and place, he had the luxury of looking at nature that way. He didn’t have to crawl and scape to survive, and most people living in Concord and the surrounding areas enjoyed the same privileges. Even when he lived on Waldon Pond, he had all kinds of safety nets, what with his mother’s house in town, Waldo and Bronson visiting, etc. It makes me wonder what he would have been like had he really had to fight for survival.

  2. Jillian ♣ says:

    Aw! I want to read this. I like Thoreau. I have no idea why, but I do. :-)

  3. SilverSeason says:

    I haven’t read this essay by Thoreau but I very much enjoyed Walden. I agree that he was a romantic and he also embraced a rather extreme individualism. It is fine to march to your own drummer, but he did not acknowledge that marching was possible because other people were cheering him on.

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