Giving the Game Away: Thoreau's Intellectual Imperialism and the Marketing of Walden Pond

By Brooker, Ira | The Midwest Quarterly, Winter 2004 | Go to article overview

Giving the Game Away: Thoreau's Intellectual Imperialism and the Marketing of Walden Pond


Brooker, Ira, The Midwest Quarterly


SINCE THE ADVENT of mass-media advertising, American environmentalists have seldom lacked corporate-generated fuel for public outrage. Recent trends in automobile sales and advertising have yielded a bumper crop of bile. Among the worse of these offenders is a TV spot featuring a sport utility vehicle rumbling through dense woodland terrain, eventually breaking through the vegetation to unveil a utopian grotto complete with waterfall and lagoon. The driver--a white male, of course--looks awe-struck at his "discovery" and leaps into the water, celebrating his presumed solitude by belting out "Cheek to Cheek." He is at first shocked to hear another voice chiming in with his reverie, but as the camera pulls back to reveal dozens of like-minded adventurers in the same make of vehicle, he grins in delight at this new era of universal accessibility.

Viewing this romanticized notion of "conquering" the outdoors, the nature-minded observer can hardly help but wonder, "Whatever became of Walden?" The answer, sadly, may be that we have never strayed all that far from Thoreau's design.

Henry David Thoreau was certainly not the first public figure to "get away from it all," but he was the first American to fully develop the idea into a comprehensible philosophy of life. Over the past century, "Walden" has become synonymous with untouched paradise in American culture. Thoreau's vision of fulfillment through solitude has been regularly accepted as the model of man's harmonious existence with nature, but in many aspects his experiment exemplifies the mindset it is so often used to refute.

There is a school of thought that casts Thoreau and most of his era's prominent nature writers as naive tools in a massive cover-up of the destructive force of 19th-century America. In her essay "Thoreau's Ambivalence Toward Mother Nature," Louise Westling accuses Thoreau of "creating a sentimental stance toward the land and its creatures that masked and simultaneously erased the conquest and destruction of the 'wild' continent" (Westling, 145). Strong arguments could be made for this stance; for instance, the area immediately surrounding Walden in the 1840s was far more industrially developed than Thoreau ever acknowledges, and his dwelling was not quite so secluded as is often implied, suggesting a tendency toward romanticism.

Still, Thoreau hardly turns a blind eye toward the ravages of industrialization. He speaks fearfully of the approaching railroad and dismisses the Manifest Destiny mindset as "only great circle-sailing [which] the doctors prescribe for diseases of the skin merely" (Thoreau, 252). The general tone of Walden is not a hazy tribute to Nature as it was, but an attempt to record what exactly America was sacrificing in the name of expansion. The real problem is an arrogance and myopia that results in Thoreau's unwitting complicity in that very destruction.

It is a common misconception that Thoreau's ideas necessitated an equal balance of power between man and nature. In the "Solitude" passage, he does declare himself "partly leaves and vegetable mould" (109), but Thoreau's narrative casts him chiefly as an outsider and observer. His consistent capitalization of "Nature" deifies the natural world, presumably making Thoreau her humble supplicant. Many times he indeed seems humbled by his surroundings. In the same paragraph of "Solitude," he delivers this breathless ode:

   The indescribable innocence and beneficence of Nature--of sun,
   wind, and rain, of summer and winter,--such health, such cheer,
   they afford for ever! and such sympathy have they ever with our
   race, that all Nature would be affected, and the clouds rain
   tears, and the woods shed their leaves and put on mourning in
   midsummer, if any man should ever for a just cause grieve. (109)

It would be difficult to regard a man who wrote such lines as anything but an unabashed adorer of Nature and her domain. …

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