Outdoor Literature (PE 4440)


Lecture Notes






First Reading from the Anthology of the Outdoor Experience
Henry David Thoreau's Walden

WaldenLecture Notes from Henry David Thoreau's Walden


Generation: Henry David Thoreau is from the Transcendental Generation.

We begin by looking at Thoreau through the eyes of his generation.  (He was born in 1817.) 

The following are a few events that occurred during the lives of the Transcendental generation:

Transcendental Generation: Youth
Transcendental Generation -  Youth

1801 - Thomas Jefferson is sworn in as the 3rd President of the United States.
1803 - The United States purchases the Louisiana Territory for $15 million, containing what is now Arkansas, part of Colorado, Iowa, Louisiana, part of Minnesota, Missouri, part of Montana, part of North Dakota, part of Oklahoma, South Dakota, and part of Wyoming.
1804 - Louis & Clark begin their expedition through the Louisiana Territory.
1816 - From 1816 to 1840, 3,000 miles of canals are built

Transcendental Generation: Rising Adults & Midlife
Transcendental Generation - Adult

1830 - Mormon Church organized by Joseph Smith in Fayette New York.
1830's - Two Thousand miles of railroads built.
1841 - Brook Farm Commune set-up by New England transcendental intellectuals.  Lasts until 1846.
1845 - Thoreau begins building a cabin beside Walden pond.  He stays until 1847.
1848 - Gold discovered in California.  80,000 prospectors emigrate in 1849
1854 - Thoreau publishes Walden

Transcendental Generation: Midlife & Elders
Transcendental Generation: Midlife & Elders

1861 - Abraham Lincoln is sworn in as the 16th President of the United States.
1861-1865 Civil War
1862 - Thoreau dies
1869 - The Transcontinental Railroad is completed at Promontory Point, Utah.
1872 - Congress establishes first national park: Yellowstone
Background information on Thoreau
Henry David ThoreauThoreau lived most of his life in Concord, 20 miles west of Boston.  His father owned a pencil factory and made fine pencils.  Concord was a quite, rural community.
His father had enough money to send Thoreau to Harvard (he graduated from Harvard in 1837).  At Harvard he was thoroughly steeped in transcendentalism.  And while there he learned much about Ralph Waldo Emerson who was one of the leaders of the transcendental movement. 
After Harvard, he tried teaching but quickly decided that he wasn't cut out to be a teacher.  He went back to making pencils and did some surveying.

In 1841, he moved into Emerson's household.  He worked as handyman, but he and Emerson had long discussions about transcendentalism.  Emerson served as the editor of the Dial, a transcendental journal, and had Thoreau edit one of the issues.
In 1845 Emerson allowed Thoreau to use a piece of property that he owed, located on the shore of Walden Pond.  There Thoreau wanted to build a cabin and live close to nature.  He had also planned to finish work on a book he was writing:  A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers.  He lived there for two years.
He would live 15 more years.  During that time, he spent some more time at Emerson's, rented a room in his parent's home, did some surveying, and worked in the pencil factory.
In 1849 he published A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers.  It sold only a couple hundred copies.
Sometime after his two-year experience at Walden, he began to write about it.  He tried to avoid the pitfalls of A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers.  One pitfall was the serious tone of the book.  He tried to lighten up Walden by adding humor here and there.
Walden was more successful than A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, but it never sold very many copies, at least nothing like Emerson's books.  It wouldn't be until the next century that Thoreau's Walden would be recognized as one of the great works of American literature.
Walden is best understood through the lens of transcendentalism, and let's spend a little time looking at it. 
The transcendental movement was the result of religious controversy within the Unitarian church.  Some members of the church felt that it was too rational, too commonsensical, too much guided by the rule-book, that it lacked feeling and mystery.  They lamented the loss of a deeply felt religious experience.
Transcendentalism which grew from the controversy brought with it some of the mysticism that the church's rational approach lacked.  Transcendentalists maintained that man is not limited to belief in God based on reason, but rather that the mind can create a consciousness of God.   In that regard, the mind is a powerful instrument, capable of imagination and intuition.  It can imagine God.  Of all of the early transcendentalists, the most important was Ralph Waldo Emerson.   Emerson wrote and spoke extensively and believed that every man, through the power of his intellect, had the ability to become god-like. 
You can see the importance of imagination in Walden when Thoreau wrote:  "I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by a conscious endeavor."
Look at this passage written by Thoreau from the conclusion: 
"I learned this, at least, by my experiment: that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.  He will put some things behind, will pass an invisible boundary; new, universal, and more liberal laws will begin to establish themselves around and within him; or the old laws be expanded, and interpreted in his favor in a more liberal sense, and he will live with the license of a higher order of beings.  If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be.  Now put the foundations under them." 
That's transcendentalism.
Previously we have learned that the taming of the American wilderness took on a religious connotation as pioneers cleared the land and subdued it (to use the biblical term).  Let's look at bit more at religious terms:
Deism -  Belief in God on evidence of reason and nature.  A deist might say that she believes in God because of the regular pattern of stars.  Or the rotation of the earth every 24 hours.
Transcendentalism.  A transcendentalist doesn't need to use reason to believe in God.  A transcendentalist can feel God's presence through imagination and intuition. 
We'll use the Grand Canyon as an example  . . .
A deist would look at the Grand Canyon.  He would see the layers of rock: Redwall Limestone, Tapeats Sandstone and Zoraster Granite, and he would say that the canyon's geological evidence convinces him that there is a God.  A transcendentalist, on the other hand, would take in the beauty of the canyon, and through her imagination, see God's presence.
More Terms…
Calvinism.  Strictness in religious belief. The idea of strictness comes from John Calvin (1500's), a protestant who believed in the authority of the scriptures and that strict church discipline was necessary. 
Puritans.  The Puritans, likewise, wanted greater strictness in religious discipline.  Strictness was necessary because the Puritans feared the innate sinfulness of man.  In a wilderness men and women would go wild.  They would become beasts and sinners.  They would fall into the life of the unregenerate (a life with the absence of belief).
Transcendentalists, however, believed in man's basic goodness.  Man would not turn into beasts.  In fact, it was just the opposite.  Primitive lands and nature would help man gain insights into spiritual truths. 
Emerson talked theoretically about transcendentalism, but Thoreau actually lived the life of a transcendentalist during his two-year experience at Walden Pond.
The Three Stages of a Transcendental Life:
Emerson described three basis stages of a transcendentalist life: 
1.  The transcendentalist learns from wise thinkers of the past (which comes largely through reading).  
2. The transcendentalist lives in harmony with nature, and by doing so is able to discover universal truths and develope a close relationship with his or her creator.. 
3. After being nurtured by books and nature, the transcendentalist must share his or her spiritual gains with other men or women.
With this philosophical background, things in Walden begin to fall in place: 

1.  The transcendentalist learns from wise thinkers of the past (which comes largely through reading).  
Thoreau makes many references in Walden to the wisdom of the past.  Throughout the book there are literary allusions to the Greeks, to Confucius, to Hindu literature, to the bible.  In fact, one of the chapters in Walden is entitled "Readings"
2. The transcendentalist lives in harmony with nature, and by doing so is able to discover universal truths and develope a close relationship with his or her creator.. 
References to nature are found throughout Walden.  Thoreau observes the pond, bird life, and animals through all seasons.  When people think of Walden, they think of a book about a fellow who builds a cabin and enjoys the beauties of nature.  That's true, but when you understand transcendentalism, you know why.  It is an important stage in life, because it is through nature that one can discover truths and develop a divine consciousness
3. After being nurtured by books and nature, the transcendentalist must share his or her spiritual gains with other men and women. This has the effect of renewing society.
Thoreau shares his spiritual gains by writing and publishing Walden.  At the beginning he brags "lustily."  Like other transcendentalists, Thoreau had a strong moral streak, reminding us of our potential for spiritual growth.  His celebration of life and his call for men and women to recognize the pathway to spiritual growth is the core unifying theme of Walden.

Thus we find that Walden is a carefully designed work of art with a structure designed to support and restate a fundamental theme.  He started with notes of his experiences and then worked with them, adding, changing and eventually creating a significant work in the world of literature.

Two Literary Devices Used by Thoreau


Allusion: Indirect reference. Helps strike a cord in the reader


Here is a reference that could be used as an allusion:


Madison Avenue in New York is where many advertising & publicity companies are located


Here is the allusion:


“Janet has a Madison Avenue mentality.”



Literary Allusion: Indirect reference to a work of literature


Here's a literary reference that could be used as an allusion:


Elizabeth Browning (a poet) wrote: “How do I love thee?  Let me count the ways.”


Here is the allusion:


“How do I hate finals.  Let me count the ways.”


Metaphor: An image that helps illustrate an idea. Helps makes an abstraction more concrete


Before using a metaphor:


The climber fell and found himself entangled in slings and two ropes strung through seven carabiners.


After adding a metaphor:


The climber fell and found himself entangled in a jungle of slings, ropes and carabiners.


(In the above example, the word "jungle" is the metaphor. "Jungle" is the image that helps illustrate the idea that the climber is very tangled up in his equipment)



Walden - A  Look at our Readings

Thoreau tells us at the beginning that his book will respond to questions posed about his two-year stay at Walden.  He hopes to explain the spiritually rich life he enjoyed. While living close to nature, he is disappointed to observe other men wasting their lives, chasing wealth and social status.  Even farming has lost its noble character.  People are leading "lives of quiet desperation."

But … he explains, men and women can find a better life.

He looked closely at buying the Hollowell place because it afforded more solitude, but he didn't want the mortgage.  Instead he settled along the shore of Walden Pond, and there in his cabin he was able to free himself from the economic rat race, and to observe and be inspired by nature.

He talks about how happy he is.  He particularly enjoyed the mornings.

In the last chapter in our reading, Thoreau's spiritual quest at Walden Pond has come to a close.   Based on the truths he has learned, Thoreau tells us that we, too, must begin a new and finer life.  He tells us that we don't have to explore the darkest Africa or the South Seas, that life involves an inward voyage where we can discover our greatness.

Man can become whatever he chooses to be  "if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams."

He also remind us to avoid the trap of conformity:  "Why should we be in such desperate haste to succeed and in such desperate enterprises?" he writes in the "Conclusion" chapter.   "If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away. "

Thoreau ends Walden with the story of a bug hatching from the wood of a table.  The bug, which has remained dormant for many years, suddenly emerges as a beautiful moth or butterfly.  It is an optimistic ending to the book, a way for Thoreau to express hope in humankind, hope of our ability to transcend self-imposed limitations and fulfill our potential for excellence.


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