Academic journal article Academic Exchange Quarterly

Writing like a Transcendentalist

Academic journal article Academic Exchange Quarterly

Writing like a Transcendentalist

Article excerpt


Thoreau's Walden presents a teaching challenge: students expect to enjoy a celebrated environmental book but then are disappointed when they find it repetitive and inaccessible. This article traces the development of a writing assignment designed to help students overcome their disappointment. The assignment asks students to conceive their own Thoreauvian vision of the natural world, encouraging them to engage in Walden's practice of sustained attention to detail and complex use of analogy. In the process, students learn that sticking with evidence does not necessarily amount to repetitiveness but rather adds depth to analysis. This awareness makes them more attentive and sympathetic readers of Thoreau and shows up as greater critical scrutiny and meaningful reflection in their writing.


While preparing to teach Henry David Thoreau's Walden for the first time, I polled colleagues to find out about their experiences teaching the text. Cautionary tales came in quick succession; students, my colleagues claimed, have a lot of trouble with Walden. They have all heard about Thoreau and expect to like him, not find him so difficult, One close friend specifically warned: students do not imagine Thoreau will sound so cantankerous.

I turned to the MLA Approaches to Teaching volume on Thoreau for ideas and the assignment I dubbed "Writing Like a Transcendentalist" began to take shape. One contributor discussed exploring the structure of leaves and how they compare to human life to help students understand Thoreau's analogies (Lebeaux 65). Another described bringing organic objects into class and having students choose one to write about for ten uninterrupted minutes each day while they read Walden (Blair 98). These prompts reminded me of Ann E. Berthoff's dialectical or double-entry notebook, in which students record notes or reflect on a topic and then later use the facing page to reconsider their original musings. She even prescribes use of the notebook to write on shells, seedpods, or 'any natural object that can serve as "text,"' reasoning that "reading the book of nature is probably the oldest writing assignment in the world" (46, italics in the original).

I set out to combine these approaches into a writing project originally designed to guide the class reading of Walden, demanding personal reflection from students that would encourage more sympathetic analysis of Thoreau. I liked the idea of letting students choose from a variety of natural artifacts, tapping into one reliable tenet of college students: they like to get things in class. Prizes for impromptu competitions or props for in-class exercises always seem to gratify them. I imagined their excitement over picking their objects could be a clever way into the text. Further, I wanted to emphasize the complicated workings of analogy in Walden. Perhaps if students forged connections between their lives and natural objects, they could better grasp Thoreau's analogies--how he looks at processes in nature and links them to social issues, ultimately unfolding them into his philosophy for deliberate living. What I did not fully anticipate was how this writing exercise, intended largely to make students better readers, would also make them better writers. "Writing Like a Transcendentalist" teaches the prose-writing lessons of choosing evocative subjects, making personalized connections to material, not dropping evidence too soon, and being relentlessly specific.

That one well-chosen, unambiguous image--far from being too particular to the writer to be useful to anyone else--sets readers down a path of deliberation that makes them see something familiar in an entirely new light. And it is this kind of experience, I tell students, that can inspire readers to say, "That was a great piece of writing," even if they cannot pinpoint exactly why.

As I expected, the organic objects initially enchanted my students. …

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