Sounding Walden Pond: The Depths and "Double Shadows" of Thoreau's Autobiographical Symbol
Poetzsch, Markus, ATQ (The American Transcendental Quarterly)
Symbolically, the pond remains bottomless. (Schneider 102)
Autobiography is that form of narrative that takes up most explicitly the problematic of depth. (Gunn 198)
If, to adopt Henry David Thoreau's own directives for effective reading, "we must laboriously seek the meaning of each word and line" (95), a perusal of Walden Pond necessitates not merely a wandering into the Concord woods but an immersion in the titular pond itself. Walden Pond, that "distiller of celestial dews" (Thoreau, Walden 170), is indeed central to the text, both spatially (its description occurs in the ninth of eighteen chapters) and metaphorically. The tradition of scholars who have plumbed the depths of its meanings is long and rich yet, as Richard Schneider's reference to the symbolic bottomlessness of the pond suggests, the text appears always to accommodate another line and bob. The perspective from which one commences that exegetical descent is of course vital to the outcome. Of the more recent explorations of the pond's symbolic fecundity, most studies have tended to approach it as a distillation of the broader quest narrative or "pilgrimage" (Abbott 184) that Walden as text represents. The pond, accordingly, becomes at once a locus and reflection of spiritual rebirth and ethical reform. Melvin Lyon, for example, builds his discussion of Walden Pond on the moral attributes of depth and purity, arguing that for Thoreau the pond represents "both a standard by which he can measure his improvement and an active influence upon his progress" (292). The pond, as suck functions objectively like a guide or prophet, eternally reflecting (on) the sidereal hemisphere, and subjectively like a conscience, a pure distillation of natural law. Philip Cafaro, in a more recent study, likewise foregrounds the ethical dimension of Thoreau's text, in particular its emphasis on the "cultivation" (22) of virtue. The process and various products of cultivation are of course centered in the natural world itself, with the pond exemplifying "nature's ... inexhaustible fecundity" (157) and thus serving as a model of growth for Thoreau himself. (1) Other critics, seizing upon the indistinct boundaries between pond and text, given their common appellation, have linked the body of water to the author's "artistic eye" (Schneider 101), in this case a purely mimetic organ that reproduces the world as it is, often with "insect view" scrupulosity (Thoreau, Journals 1:81). The text of Walden, accordingly, functions like a travel book, presenting the reader with vivid glimpses, like reflections on the pond's surface, of the woods, hills, and sky of the Concord backcountry, and Thoreau, in turn, takes on the role of tour guide, his natural descriptions conveying the freshness and surprise of first discovery. As Schneider is quick to point out, the scenery of Walden is everywhere shaped, colored, and inflected by "the persona of our guide" (93). Not only is Thoreau's form of naturalism grounded in a philosophy that is vehemently anti-capitalist and anti-materialist--what Cafaro glosses as "anti-mammonism" (192)--but it is also devoted to particularizing the regional, the local, the intimate space that is the author's home. Priding himself on his "Yankee shrewdness" (Thoreau 27) and self-sufficiency, Thoreau presents a travel book of decidedly circumscribed borders, a travel book--and here the generic designation begins to falter somewhat--which unapologetically espouses individual and national isolationism:
Men think that it is essential that the Nation have commerce, and export ice, and talk through a telegraph, and ride thirty miles an hour, without a doubt, whether they do or not ... But if we stay at home and mind our business, who will want railroads? (87)
Thoreau's conception of travel is in fact much more radically localized than is suggested by a resistance to commerce or an eschewal of trains. To "stay at home" is …
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: Sounding Walden Pond: The Depths and "Double Shadows" of Thoreau's Autobiographical Symbol. Contributors: Poetzsch, Markus - Author. Journal title: ATQ (The American Transcendental Quarterly). Volume: 22. Issue: 2 Publication date: June 2008. Page number: 387+. © 1999 University of Rhode Island. COPYRIGHT 2008 Gale Group.
This material is protected by copyright and, with the exception of fair use, may not be further copied, distributed or transmitted in any form or by any means.