Thoreau's Notes on the Journey West: Nature Writing or Environmental History?

By Philippon, Daniel J. | ATQ (The American Transcendental Quarterly), June 2004 | Go to article overview

Thoreau's Notes on the Journey West: Nature Writing or Environmental History?


Philippon, Daniel J., ATQ (The American Transcendental Quarterly)


In short, a land ethic changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it. It implies respect for his fellow members, and also respect for the community as such.--Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac

In 1861, Henry David Thoreau journeyed by train, boat, and stagecoach from Concord, Massachusetts, to the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, eventually traveling as far west as the Lower Sioux Agency on the Minnesota River. The three-month trip was the longest Thoreau ever took and his only voyage into the North American interior. Because he died of tuberculosis less than nine months after his return to Concord, however, Thoreau never published anything about his trip. All that remains of his Minnesota journey is a fragmentary set of notes and a handful of letters written by Thoreau and his traveling companion, Horace Mann, Jr.

Neither Thoreau's notes nor the trip they document has ever been highly regarded. The notes were published only twice: in 1905, in a corrupt limited edition edited by Thoreau's friend and biographer, Franklin B. Sanborn, and again in 1962, in a more reliable scholarly edition edited by Thoreau's modern biographer, Walter Harding. Harding's comments are representative of what little scholarship exists on this brief episode in Thoreau's life. He describes the organization of the notes as "completely chaotic" (1) and the trip as "a tragic failure" (Days 450).

In this essay, I reconsider the purpose, context, and content of Thoreau's notes and explore the significant challenges they pose for the contemporary reader. In particular, the incomplete character of the notes creates uncertainty about whether they should be read as nonfiction nature writing or as source texts for environmental history. By situating Thoreau's notes at the nexus of both of these disciplines--as part of Minnesota's emerging "literature of place"--the seeming weaknesses of this text can instead be seen as virtues that can help us make connections between the fields of environmental literature, history and ethics. Thoreau's text enables us to begin to articulate a version of what Mitchell Thomashow has identified as "ecological identity"--a version that belongs not to a single person but to an entire community. In the notes of his Minnesota journey, in other words, Thoreau offers a model for how to cultivate the kind of ecological community identity that Aldo Leopold later identified as central to the establishment of a land ethic.

Thoreau's own purpose in traveling to Minnesota was hardly as lofty as my reading of the text's potential meaning might suggest. The primary reason for his trip was to improve his failing health. As Thoreau indicated in a letter to Daniel Rickertson on 22 March 1861, he had caught "a severe cold about the 3 of Dec. which at length resulted in a kind of bronchitis" that confined him to home. (2) By late spring, his health had considerably worsened, and his doctor recommended that he travel to a more healthful climate, in accordance with the pre-viral theory of disease current at the time. Minnesota's comparatively cool and dry climate appealed to Thoreau for this reason, as he explained in a 3 May 1861 letter to H. G. O. Blake:

   The Doctor accordingly tells me that I must "clear out," to the West
   Indies, or elsewhere, he does not seem to care much where. But I
   decide against the West Indies, on account of their muggy heat in
   the summer, & the S. of Europe on ac of the expense of time & money,
   and have at last concluded that it will be most expedient for me to
   try the air of Minnesota, say somewhere about St Paul. I am only
   waiting to be well enough to start-hope to get off within a week or
   10 days. (C 615)

Health was not the only reason Thoreau set his sights on Minnesota. As Gordon Boudreau speculates, "It may be that his Minnesota journey was the geographical concomitant of an interior western voyage of mind and spirit that he had embarked upon years earlier" (148). …

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