Thoreau's Imagination of Sacred Space at Walden
Few classic works of American literature are so intensely identified with a particular geographic site as Thoreau s Walden. Today the setting of this experiment in solitary living near the village of Concord, Massachusetts, remains a tourist mecca—and qualifies, for many, as a literary shrine. In fact, an energetic woman who resided in my corner of Connecticut helped for some years to lead a group called Walden Forever Wild, Inc., in its efforts to designate the pond area a Massachusetts State Sanctuary on the grounds that “its spiritual sanctity should be preserved beyond demands for local use.”1 Textual evidence suggests that Thoreau, too, regarded the pond precincts as sacred space but in a more complicated—and, I think, more deeply Transcendental—way. His most celebrated book underscores the belief that this place he had known from childhood, this remnant of a wilder New England so close to civilization, was not just an attractive place to live cheaply and freely. As the focal point of Thoreau's Romantic naturalism, it was also the locus of his worship and spiritual discovery. In other published writings Thoreau offers descriptive commentary on diverse sites he had visited, including Cape Cod, the Maine Woods, the Concord and Merrimack rivers, and Wachusett Mountain. But in the singular case of that book, originally subtitled “life in the woods,” Thoreau reflects at length on a place he had not only visited but inhabited.
Much has been written, of course, about the crucial matter of Thoreau s response to the nonhuman world. That Thoreau sustained a lifelong belief in the spiritual significations of nature, despite the heightened attention he showed after 185o toward scientific