Academic journal article Journal of Ethnic American Literature

Thoreau, the Literary Artist and Urbanization

Academic journal article Journal of Ethnic American Literature

Thoreau, the Literary Artist and Urbanization

Article excerpt

Henry David Thoreau, in the middle of the nineteenth century, had squarely faced the possibility that life in urbanized America, with its growing number of nineteenth-century conveniences, might work to the disadvantage of the individual who wanted to know the full worth of life. The possibility produced in Thoreau the desire to try the two years at Walden Pond in order to satisfy any later doubts that he "had not lived," and the Concord and Boston he knew became part of the dialectic with the essential-with nature-that he developed on almost every page of Walden. This dialectic has claimed the attention, rightly or wrongly, of some part of almost every piece of writing on Thoreau.1

Thoreau's dialectic of civilization and nature is essential to an understanding of his reaction to urbanization. Unlike Francis Parkman, Thoreau did not merely reject society, he was no mere misanthrope, he did not condemn civilization. And it is not without qualification that one can say, "that the evolution of Thoreau's convictions follows the path...from love of nature to the assumption that human society is hateful" (Krutch 60). What Thoreau often found hateful was the destruction society perpetrated in the name of progress. In this Thoreau is the voice of the individual conscience speaking out against the large, sometimes loose power of society:

What [Thoreau] did wish to find out was how many tools and conveniences were really necessary and at what point they began to cost more in time and effort than they were worth-an inquiry which, by the way, has never been satisfactorily concluded by Thoreau or anyone else. (Krutch 81-82)

With respect to urbanization Thoreau appears to have felt the way many city dwellers did at the end of the century-albeit more acutely- that city life was threatening the life of the individual.2 Krutch's comment about the cost in time brings to mind not only what Thoreau is at great pains to declare in the chapter on economy in Walden-that men can become the prey of their tools-but also the larger assumption about life and death, that there is only so much time in which to get what we are going to out of life. This theme is behind Thoreau's sojourn at Walden, and it applies directly in his criticism of the society full of "things"-the society unconscious of its demands upon the individual's time. By using his time well at Walden, Thoreau indirectly criticized the society that did not. More significantly, Thoreau's concern for time raises the question of its real importance for a society in which the "things" that take people's time appear to make them happy. When they clearly do not make them happy, as individuals in urbanized life were discovering at the turn of the century, it was necessary to reevaluate assumptions about what is important.

In Walden Thoreau had realized that what appeared important to the masses of men did not have to be important to him, especially if the "things" overrode the aesthetic, moral and spiritual values one had been led, by his upbringing and education, to expect from life.3 But this did not mean, as the quote from Krutch indicates, that one had to reject the "things" entirely. Some of the "things" were obviously here to stay. What this did mean for Thoreau was that he would have to find a way to experience these higher values if he could, and it is accurate to say that he succeeded intermittently in this when he lived at Walden for two years and as he took walks in nature all his life long. His special purpose in Walden was to convey a sense of those higher values.

Some critics have attempted to present an integrated interpretation of Thoreau's attitude toward civilization and nature, and almost all have continued to comment on what may be loosely termed Thoreau's attitude toward the primitive. In one of the most penetrating studies involving Thoreau, Leo Marx has attempted to link Thoreau's thought about civilization and nature to a native pastoral tradition. …

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