Thoreau's Materialism: From Walden to Wild Fruits

Article excerpt

During the 1850s, Thoreau increasingly engaged in participatory observation of nature. At the same time, he became increasingly radical in his political beliefs. These concurrent developments were closely related manifestations of an underlying trend of increasing commitment to a materialist understanding of the ecosocial world, of human society in nature. Walden is a transitional text; it articulates a materialist analysis of capitalist social relations and the moral effects of the market and competition, but it offers an idealist response, centered on individual self-reform, to that clearly drawn problem. Wild Fruits, the guide book Thoreau left in manuscript, offers a second answer to the same problem. Wild Fruits is an almanac with a communal subject, which focuses on collective experience of endemic New England plants that produce edible fruits. The book argues that commerce and private property limit access to the wild, alienating urbanites and the poor from fulfilling relationships with nature. In response, the book convokes a utopian democratic community, bound together by the collective devotional exercise of gathering and eating wild fruits. The book concludes with a call for collective direct action to protect tracts of wild land by holding them as "a common possession forever."

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"Think of our life in nature--daily to be shown matter, to come in contact with it,--rocks, trees, wind on our cheeks! the solid earth! the actual world! the common sense. Contact! Contact! Who are we? where are we?"

Thoreau's retrospective outburst about climbing Ktaadn is so etravagantly fractured that its argument can get lost. It begins with relaxed contemplation of the central Romantic idea, "our life in nature," and then descends rhythmically from the abstract to the concrete until it grounds that idea in the irreducible facticity, the thingness, of the planet. Having found a point d'appui, it rises again, the rhythm more insistent and confident now, opening outward from the actuality of the non-human "earth," to the materiality of the complete ecosocial "world," and finally to the patterns of human understanding that bind its communities. The climactic ejaculation--"Contact! Contact!"--occurs only now, with the thought that we live together not only with nature but with each other. We, people, and the earth, are in material fact a "we." (1)

The movement of this soliloquy mirrors Thoreau's intellectual growth over the course of his adult life. Beginning in the thin atmosphere of Romantic idealism, with its sharp distinctions between spirit and matter, "man" and nature, he came over time to see the natural and social worlds as inseparably integrated and concrete. His thinking about natural and human history developed in parallel until, in his final years, he connected issues of environmental and social justice into a synthetic critique of the priorities of capitalism. Moreover, rather than remain satisfied with attempting to reform ideas, he began to experiment with strategies for intervening materially to change the society around him. In other words, he moved gradually away from Transcendental idealism and individualism, becoming not only the scientific ecologist we see in the late natural history manuscripts but increasingly a political radical as well, one who stressed the need to make ideas into tools for collectively transforming the existing ecosocial order.

This essay begins by briefly surveying competing theories of Thoreau's ideas on the relations between mind and matter, and then turns to the critique of capitalism framed in the first chapter of Walden, showing that the recently published Wild Fruits proposes a second answer to the question of "Economy." Emerson famously scolded Thoreau for his habit of contradiction. And readers frequently encounter, as James McIntosh argues, "opposed attitudes vibrating against each other in the crucible of an essay, a poem, or a day's journal. …