Question 3: Burroughs’ criticism on Thoreau

After reading “A Critical Glance into Thoreau” by John Burroughs, Burroughs views Thoreau as “a dreamer, an idealist, a fervid ethical teacher, seeking inspiration in the fields and woods” (Burroughs 487). That quote simply establishes a general ground for all of those people who label themselves nature writers. Generally speaking, every Nature-writer escapes into nature and away from civilization to find a deeper connection to Nature or connect things that occur in Nature to human emotions. At the same time, Burroughs see’s Thoreau as “not a great philosopher, he was not a great naturalist, he was not a great poet, but as a nature- writer and an original character, he is unique in our literature” (Burroughs 488). This is where I disagree with Burroughs. A person who raises moral questions or proposes a new theory can be classified as a philosopher. Thoreau addresses the busy lifestyle. People can get consumed with the idea of getting rich, or always trying to have more but Thoreau says we should live a simple lifestyle. “I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand, instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumb nail” (Thoreau 293). Thoreau may not have been a great naturalist but Thoreau did call to attention economy, the value of money in the lives of human beings and true knowledge. In essence, “Thoreau was in no sense an interpreter of Nature… but if he sees anything unusual in Nature, like galls on trees and plants, he must need to draw some moral from it and indulge his passion for striking expression and fantastic comparison, usually at the expense of the truth” (Burroughs 489). Thoreau simply does not criticize an issue but offers a solution. In Walking, Henry David Thoreau says “I rejoice that horses and steers have to be broken before they can be made the slaves of men, and that men themselves have some wild oats left to sow before they become submissive members of society” (Thoreau 306). If a person simply nods in agreement with what Thoreau said then they might not understand the subliminal message. Horses are naturally wild animals but in order to be tamed and domesticated they first must be broken by the owner. One technique some use to tame a horse is they usually tie the leg of a horse until the horse is tired and then the owner gently stokes a horse so that the horse knows it is safe. Similarly in society, we have norms. If a person does not “fit” the norm then society as a whole will make sure he or she becomes like everyone else. Thoreau’s message is simple. Everyone has a natural wild spirit to them. Society sets the norms of how to act. We should not be easily submissive to what others expect of us but just be individuals. Therefore, Burroughs is correct to criticize Thoreau for not incorporating so much Nature and human emotions but Burroughs should reevaluate his criticism for Thoreau not being a philosopher or an interpreter of Nature. Thoreau’s examples do incorporate Nature and human beings as well as offer insight about how to live a better life.

 

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 Excerpt p. 26-47. pub. University of Georgia Press 2001

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