Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

Walden and the Georgic Mode

Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

Walden and the Georgic Mode

Article excerpt

Walden has strong ties to a formal and informal georgic tradition that stretches from classical antiquity through eighteenth-century England and antebellum America into the present day. Under the influence of agricultural works--Virgil's Georgies, Roman agricultural writings, seventeenth-century American natural resource surveys, eighteenth-century georgic poetry, and nineteenth-century technical agricultural works--Thoreau turns to the georgic mode in Walden as a means to integrate creative artistic work and the natural environment in a way unavailable to the more familiar pastoral tradition, a modal shift evident in Thoreau-inspired writing in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The georgic critical approach requires the significant revision or reordering of pastoral interpretations of Walden's engagements with questions of time, history, nature, labor, and language.

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Lyric poem, experimental novel, literary almanac, spiritual autobiography, travelogue, jeremiad, homily, and philosophical treatise-Walden has traditionally defeated every critical effort to stabilize its generic identity. Indeed, as many readers have noted, polygeneric restlessness is a rhetorical tactic well suited to a book written in defiance of the spirit of conventionality that is the essence of genre, "a literary form that has clear superficial features or marks of identification." (1) At the same time that critics have ruled any generic pigeonholing both impossible and undesirable, however, they have reached a tacit consensus on the question of Walden's mode, a broader compositional category that "derives its identity not from any formal convention but from a particular perspective on human experience." (2) In the case of Walden, the modal designation "pastoral" has established dominion over the outermost formal frame of Thoreau's pivotal book, with far-reaching consequences for subsequent formal, thematic, and historical scholarship. The present essay reopens the question of Walden's pastoralism, arguing that the book's assumptions about man's nature and situation place it as firmly in a different mode, the georgic, that Thoreau found in Roman, British, and American texts and reinvented for himself as he strove to resolve the inherent difficulties of his life as a laborer, philosopher, and artist. Elevating the georgic to a status equal to that enjoyed by the pastoral in studies of Thoreau and American literature more generally accomplishes at least four things: it allows pastoral, a vital framework for understanding Walden, to recuperate from its procrustean overextension; it rescues Walden from interpretive stalemates created by logic of the pastoral; it permits apparently contradictory existing scholarship on familiar Thoreauvian themes (language, nature, reform) to coexist peacefully under a new conceptual rubric; and it encourages the comparison of Walden (and texts influenced by it) with new kinds of literary and extraliterary objects.

The Pastoral Background

To understand the stakes involved in splitting the georgic away from the pastoral, one must return to Theocritus and the origins of identifiably pastoral treatment of the countryside and the nonhuman world. The Idylls established the pastoral model of a shepherd's colloquy and inaugurated most of the form's distinctive themes: the singing match, the coquettish milkmaid, the wholesome and leisurely rustic life, and the lost lover. Mixed in with these prototypical pastoral set pieces were forays into the unglamorous lives of slaves and housewives and other less exalted members of the rural community. Vergil's Eclogues, which established the conventions for all self-conscious later pastorals, followed the Idylls in most particulars except its panoramic rural gaze, opting instead to focus more cleanly on the interplay between shepherds alone, situated as they now were not in a quasi-realistic Sicily but the imaginary realm of Arcadia. …

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