Posts Tagged ‘Henry David Thoreau’

The Relationship between Civilization and Nature in Thoreau’s “Walking” and E. M. Forster’s “The Machine Stops”

I chose this topic since the question of civilization versus nature is one that has interested me the most in our class discussions.  “The Machine Stops” (1909) is a science fiction short story that had a great impact on me when I first read it due to its predictive accuracy in describing a future society that lives completely separate from nature.  I felt that in Thoreau’s “Walking” (1862) essay, Thoreau voices, in a more straightforward fashion, many of the same concerns that Forster deals with in his short story.


I first read “The Machine Stops” for a class on science fiction literature, and in that class we discussed the way nature is represented in this and other science fiction literature.  In general, sci fi lit (particularly dystopian works like this) present a world that is so dependent on technology that it has ceased caring for nature; themes such as environmental degradation and conformity to rigid societal codes are common in such stories.  Both of these themes are key in both texts: Thoreau disapproves of societal codes in his text, while the character of Kuno in Forster’s text becomes ostracized for his refusal to conform to a technology-dependent society.  Also, Thoreau discusses the problems of building development in his text and how over-development can ruin nature, while in Forster’s text all human beings live in underground bunkers because of the massive environmental degradation.  Another major theme is spirituality: Thoreau discusses the spiritual value inherent in wilderness, while in Forster’s text, a religion that worships technology develops, and its deity is The Machine, a massive conglomeration of technology that supports life in the underground bunkers.




  1. How does each text address human society?  How does each is mindless conformity criticized in both?
  2. How is spirituality used in each text?  How is organized religion treated in each?
  3. How does each text deal with environmental degradation?  How does each use the “apocalypse trope?”
  4. Thoreau and Forster were writing approximately 50 years apart from each other.  How does each text’s intended audience influence their respective arguments?

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

Burrough’s Assessment of Thoreau


In John Burrough’s “A Critical Glance into Thoreau”, I agree with some of the things he says about Thoreau and disagree with other statements. Thoreau was a critic of the life around him and by going to live in the woods he did leave the civilization he was apart of. I do agree with Burrough that “his nature-lore was an aside… while he ponders on higher things.” (Burrough 43) Thoreau used his journey to list the woes of civilization such as a farmer having a house and being made poor from the expense or people who are “needlessly poor all their lives because they think that they must have such… as their neighbors have.” (Thoreau 27) Nature itself is not talked about more than what is going on with humans. Thoreau’s connection to nature is his act of going back to the basics of food, shelter, and clothing which eliminates wastefulness that harms nature. I also agree that Walden “embodies a fresh and unique personality, and portrays an experiment in the art of living close to nature, in a racy and invigorating style.” (Burrough 44) Thoreau offers a new perspective about different aspects of society that get passed over as being normal and in this way the importance of them is questioned, such as the benefits of paying to go school rather than having real life experiences that teach a trade or how he questions the importance of fashion changes and how they should not matter. Burrough’s statement that Thoreau’s philosophy is “nearly always illogical” I disagree with, because Thoreau’s philosophy of living life without being taught what to do, what to say, or what path to follow is very logical and important. He is advocating freedom and creativity in order for people to enjoy life and not continue a way of life just because it’s always been done that way. Also, he advocates for people to live within their means, such as not buying a house that’s unaffordable or buying things to fit in with others. Thoreau advocates for people being content with that they have, because people can have peace when they are not chasing after the next big thing. He says, “Shall we always study to obtain more of these things, and not sometimes be content with less?” (Thoreau 28)

Group 1’s Fourth Blog Post

Walt Whitman's use of free verse became apprec...

Walt Whitman; Image via Wikipedia

For this blog response, you have a few different writing options. Choose only ONE of these topics to write your response. Be sure to make it clear which question you chose in the subject line of your post. Remember, this blog response is for Group 1 only!

  1. Write an ecocritical analysis of a Whitman poem of your choosing. What is the argument of this poem?  Besides applying some of the ecocritical interpretative techniques you’ve learned in this course in answering this question, be sure to also consider the specific elements of poetry as a form, like speaker and listener, imagery, patterns of sound, form, meter, lineation, etc. Some questions to consider regarding these elements of poetry include: Who is the speaker, where is s/he, and what is the speaker’s state of mind? Does the poem have an implied listener and to what effect? What images are most striking in this poem? Do they seem conventional, familiar, surprising, experimental? Why?What patterns of sound to you find in this poem and what effect do they give? How are the poem’s lines structured?
  2. Find a contemporary newspaper or magazine article that relates to an idea in Thoreau’s Walkingor Whitman’s poetry. In your response, explain the connection between the article and Thoreau/Whitman, making sure to quote from each to showcase the connection. Besides giving a BRIEF summary of the article and thoroughly explaining the connection to Thoreau/Whitman, be sure to also address the significance of the connection. In other words, what do we gain/learn from connecting Thoreau/Whitman to this contemporary issue (or, if you prefer, from connecting this contemporary issue back to Thoreau/Whitman)? You are also required to include a link to the article in your post.
  3. After reading the excerpt from “A Critical Glance into Thoreau” by John Burroughs, do you agree with Burroughs’ assessment of Thoreau? Why or why not? In your response, be sure to quote from Thoreau’s Walden and/or “Walking” to support your answer. As a reminder, Burroughs’ discussion on Thoreau can be found on pgs. 487-489 of the course pack.
  4. After reading the excerpt from Notes on Walt Whitman as Poet and Person by John Burroughs, do you agree with Burroughs’ assessment of Whitman? Why or why not? In your response, be sure to quote from Whitman’s poetry to support your answer. As a reminder, Burroughs’ discussion of Whitman can be found on pgs. 483-485 of the course pack.

Remember, your posts should follow these requirements and guidelines:

  • Posts must be at least 300 words.
  • Posts must include at least one quote from the text. If you are writing about more than one text, then you’ll need at least one quote from each as support. If the question you chose asks for more than one quote in the instructions above, then be sure to follow those instructions.
  • Stay focused on answering the prompt question above. Avoid repeating the question and be as specific as possible in your answer.
  • Please note that you do not need to answer every “thinking question” I have posted (the questions after the bold directive). These are just options, so you could focus on one or a few. Avoid writing a response that looks like a Q & A or laundry list of answers to these smaller questions; make sure your response flows smoothly and has unity.
  • Your response should make an argument, not summarize the text. If some summary is asked for in the prompt you chose, keep that summary brief and concise.
  • Use specific moments from the text(s) to support and illustrate your argument.
  • Be sure to introduce, quote, cite, and comment on all quotes.
  • Don’t forget to tag your posts! Before adding a new tag, check the “choose from the most used tabs” menu to make sure it is not already listed.
  • Don’t forget your Works Cited!

Group 1, your blog response is due by class time on Tuesday, October 18.

Group 2, blog comments are due by class time on Thursday, October 20.

Floridian: The wild man of Lilly Spring

Floridian: The wild man of Lilly Spring.

Another article about Ed, complete with references to Thoreau’s Walden!

English Students Build Thoreau’s Cabin

Students work to be one with nature – – Altoona, PA | News, Sports, Jobs, Community Information – The Altoona Mirror.

I just wanted to share the article I mentioned in class because I thought it was interesting. Pretty pricey English project!

Excessively Simple: Thoreau’s Argument For Self-Reliance in the Wilderness

In Henry David Thoreau’s Walden he treats nature as a sanctuary and as a sort of Eden. Although his focus is mainly on economic follies, the subtext is a calling for a return to nature, with an emphasis on simplicity and self-reliance.  He talks about actual farmlands being a burden to man because the men become slaves to them. He calls his townsmen’s “misfortune…to have inherited farms, houses, barns, cattle and farming tools; for these are more easily required than got rid of” (Thoreau, 6).  Thoreau’s excerpt focused on society’s need to give up excess and luxury and accept the basic gifts of nature. He narrows down “the necessities of life for man…Food, Shelter, Clothing, and Fuel” (Thoreau, 11). These four essential items are the what man are able to live off of, but he argues that man has taken advantage of them and are consuming an excessive amount and living in luxury.

Man is capable of surviving on the four essentials and only need turn to nature to find easily find them. In this sense, the wilderness is like Eden. Man does not need anything above what has already been bestowed upon the earth in resources. Thoreau calls for a return to a primitive living versus the “superfluously course labors of life that its finer fruits cannot be plucked by them” (Thoreau, 7). As long as we are striving for anything beyond fundamental sustenance, we will be able to fully appreciate nature and form a true sense of identity. The endless toil because of our greediness causes that innate identity to be confused and lost amidst the struggle.

Thoreau also sees the permanent house as a negative separation between man and nature. Instead of our once primitive and nomadic lifestyle, we have “settled down on earth and forgotten heaven” (Thoreau, 29).  Although one would consider adequate shelter with creature comforts a type of heaven, Thoreau condemns it as a barrier from the Eden of nature. Thoreau treats civilization with a very negative attitude, preferring the solitude of self-reliance in the wilderness. I think his argument is very important in that it highlights some very valid issues of our lifestyles. I cannot personally say I would be willing to strip my life down to the four essentials and only live off of what is absolutely necessary for survival, but I do agree with his arguments for identity. The more our civilization grows, and consequently to higher our needs and wants become, I believe we are becoming disconnected from nature. A relationship with the wilderness is vital because being alone in the wild can teach someone what they are capable of living with, and without. This helps us define ourselves with relation to the earth achieve a greater sense of balance of Thoreau’s simplicity and our excess.


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