Posts Tagged ‘Burroughs’

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


Burroughs on Whitman

I have to agree with Burroughs’ assessment of Walt Whitman. When Burroughs’ writes, “The image of Walt Whitman seems generally to have in his mind is that of the Earth,” (36). We must understand that Whitman does not offer changes to readers; he merely describes the relationship between man and nature. “Collecting I traverse the garden of the world,” (149). I think it is interesting how Whitman uses the metaphor of a garden here. In one sense, he describes Earth as a commodity for the human race because gardens are typically located near a home. Whitman expresses his personal relationship and vision of the Earth rather than attempting to explain how to change what has already taken place. However, in an earlier passage Whitman writes, “I will plant companionship,” (148). This line might offer the reader some way to find harmony for living in nature. If Whitman traverses the earth “planting companionship”, he is not looking to destroy what nature has produced. Instead, he is looking for ways to involve himself in nature.

Burroughs also states, “He corrects this false, artificial Nature, and shows me the real article, that I hail his appearance as the most important literary event of our times,” (38). This is especially important to understand when we read Whitman. It is interesting how Whitman writes about nature outside of its intrinsic beauty. “Though probably every spear of grass rises out of what was once a catching disease,” 461). Granted, Whitman does combat the ugly side of nature with the growth of something new, but he uses the intense imagery of a “disease”. Whitman breaks free from the Romantics by ridding his poetry of the fabricated natural images. Instead, Whitman can show readers what can come of the “disease”. Burroughs assessment definitely has truth, but he cannot tell the reader how to interpret Whitman’s writings. The reader has to make up their own mind, but we have to understand that Whitman wrote about his personal relationship with nature.

Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass. “Death-Bed” Ch./Art: Excerpts p. 116-119, 148-150, 258-264, 27-5-282, 284-293, 459-462. pub. Random House 2001

Mazel, David (ed). A Century of Early Ecocriticism. Ch./Art Excerpt p. 26-47. pub. University of Georgia Press 2001