Question 3: Burroughs and Thoreau

I agree with Burroughs’ critique of Thoreau as a self-centered naturalist who likes to exaggerate his comparisons, and only looks at the superficial observation of nature. Burroughs believes that Thoreau is a writer of nature in the sense that he only writes about what concerns “Thoreau;” as he states, “[Thoreau was interested in things only so far as they related to Thoreau (Burroughs 45).” Thoreau interprets “Nature entirely in the light of his own idiosyncrasies (Burroughs 45).” This idea is prevalent in Thoreau’s “Walking.” Right from the beginning the reader is overwhelmed with “I’s” as Thoreau describes what he sets out to do with this literary work. All throughout the text the reader is confronted with Thoreau’s ideas and opinions, but he never contemplates on the deeper meaning of nature and its existence. For example, on page 275 of “Walking” Thoreau is listing flowers that he would love to have, but he does not describe them nor ponder long on them. He names them and then quickly goes to how they can benefit him. He writes, “…I should like to have my house front on this mass of dull red bushes… Why not put my [house behind this plot…” The only reason he mentions these flowers is to state how they would benefit him by replacing his artificial form of nature he calls his front yard. He is not interested in the nature of the flowers themselves, but in how their aspect will affect him.

As the reader keeps reading he finds many examples of his “fantastic” comparisons and moralized ideology Burroughs criticizes. As Burroughs puts it, “If [Thoreau] sees anything unusual in Nature…he must needs draw some moral from it and indulge his passion for striking expression and fantastic comparisons (Burroughs 46).” Thoreau seems to bring every observation back to God, morality, and sin. To illustrate, when describing the fencing and cutting down of nature he describes the man as standing by the “Prince of Darkness” and completely ignoring the “angels” and “heaven” around him (Thoreau 264). Thoreau is not so much worried about the effects this taming has on Nature as he is with the lack of morality that comes with it. The man in charge of the fencing is clearing sinning according to Thoreau by destroying God’s creation. Thoreau also calls “man’s improvements” as “simply [deforming] the landscape, and [making] it more and more tame and cheap (Thoreau 264).” Thoreau is creating a picture of man as unjust and selfish as he takes over God’s Nature and creates a lesser product only for his benefit.

Burroughs is correct in stating that Thoreau is a man who writes from a self-centered, limited perspective. Thoreau only writes about what he feels or believes, whether it is true or not. He makes self-authoritative claims about Nature and men, and judges those who do not see his way. For example, he feels that his friends who have only been lost in the woods, but then chosen to take the road are not true “walkers” (Thoreau 261). He believes that only God determines who has the right to be a walker, yet he claims to be one himself—I doubt that God actually spoke to him (Thoreau 261). I do not feel that Thoreau can be called a naturalist in terms of writing about Nature because he writes about himself. Sure, he outlines Nature, but he does not talk about it. His observations lack depth and thought. He does not seem to be moved by Nature mentally or personally; he never seems to be in awe of Nature. Unlike Wordsworth, Thoreau does not ponder on the essence and effects of Nature on the human mind and culture. In the words of Burroughs, “Thoreau was in so sense an interpreter of Nature; he did not draw out her meanings or seize upon and develop her more significant phases (Burroughs 46).

Thoreau, Henry D. Walden Civil Disobedience and Other Writings. 3Ch./Art: Walden; Walking p. 5-70, 260-287. Pub. WW Norton 2008

Mazel, David (ed). A Century of Early Ecocriticism. Ch/Art; Excerpts p. 26-47, 87-100, 113-147, 154-162. pub. University of Georgia Press 2001

 

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3 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by christys21 on October 19, 2011 at 9:26 pm

    While I do agree that Burrough’s analysis of Thoreau as bieng self-centered and limited in perspective, I find it hard for anyone not to be.
    Naturally, one would try to tell as close and accurate of a description as possible, and perhaps Thoreau did not do so. But, no matter how detailed one individual may describe a sunset, the person right next to them may describe in a completely different manner.
    Burroughs states, “It is this audicious gift which Thoreau has, of suddenly turning our notions topsy-turvy, or inside out, that gives spice to his page and makes Walden irritate while it charms”(44).
    This “gift” Burrough claims Thoreau to have may not be a gift, it may just be Thoreau’s true and honest account of nature.

    • Posted by christys21 on October 19, 2011 at 9:27 pm

      Forgot my citation!
      Mazel, David (ed). A Century of Early Ecocriticism. Ch/Art; Excerpts p. 44-45. pub. University of Georgia Press 2001

  2. Posted by etrotta on October 20, 2011 at 1:49 pm

    I feel that Burroughs’s analysis of Thoreau is too harsh. Thoreau’s writtings show how he feels that nature is a subliminal place and the goal of every person is to live and experience wilderness. That is his opinion and thoughts on the subject. It’s not fair to call somebody’s opinion selfish because personal feelings are going to have selfish tendencies.

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