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American Imago 62.1 (2005) 7-34

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Following Thoreau's "Tracks in the Sand":

Tactile Impressions in Cape Cod

Department of English
Texas A & M University
Corpus Christi, TX 78412

In the published version of the eulogy he gave for his best friend, Ralph Waldo Emerson (1862) praised Henry David Thoreau's acute senses:

His power of observation seemed to indicate additional senses. He saw as with microscope, heard as with ear-trumpet, and his memory was a photographic register for all he saw and heard. And yet none knew better than he that it is not the fact that imports, but the impression or effect of the fact on your mind. Every fact lay in glory in his mind, a type of the order and beauty of the whole.

Throughout his writings, Thoreau is, as Emerson indicates, a meticulous observer and recorder of sensory perceptions and natural facts. However, while glorying in the beauty of nature in and of itself, he believed that such observations and facts are important only as they lead to the truths that illuminate one's relationship to the environment and to God. Like most of the people labeled transcendentalists, Thoreau rejected Locke's theory that all knowledge is gained directly through the senses. Instead, Thoreau believed that people are born with innate knowledge, which he, like Emerson, equated with the voice of God within. As people mature from the innocence of childhood to the experience of adulthood, however, they tend to lose touch with this spiritual consciousness. To prevent the corruption of this intuitive faculty, Thoreau believed people must continually strive to renew themselves by seeking the spiritual truths available in nature.

In describing Thoreau's use of sensory perceptions in his writings, F. O. Matthiessen (1941) observes, "What separates [End Page 7] Thoreau most from Emerson is his interest in the varied play of all his senses, not merely of the eye, a rare enough attribute in New England and important to dwell on since it is the crucial factor in accounting for the greater density of Thoreau's style" (87). Certainly, ample evidence exists for the acuity of all of Thoreau's senses, as well as for the exhilaration he derived from a fully sensuous experience in nature. However, an underlying tension between the pleasure he derived from contact with nature and a fear of physical intimacy pervades Thoreau's attitude toward touch. As a result, scholars have voiced many conflicting statements about Thoreau's use of this sense. On the one hand, Matthiessen claims:

He became ecstatic when he talked about touch. . . . He knew, like Anteus, that his strength derived from ever renewed contact with the earth. But he wanted more than contact with nature, he wanted the deepest immersion, and his delight mounted at being drenched in the summer waters of the pond, or when he could wonder whether "any Roman emperor ever indulged in such luxury as . . . walking up and down a river in torrid weather with only a hat on to shade his head."

In contrast, however, Richard J. Schneider maintains:

Another of the lesser senses for Thoreau was touch. Like taste, it was too limited because it required that its object be immediately present. In his relations to nature (as in his relations to men), he preferred that there be some space between him and the object with which he was communicating. Too often when he was close enough to touch something, he was also too close for the rest of his senses to perceive it as a whole, as anything more than surface.
(1973, 43–44)

Although Matthiessen's and Schneider's comments appear to be contradictory, there are elements of truth in both observations. Reports of Thoreau's prickly disposition and the aching lack of intimacy that characterized his interpersonal relations are legendary. John Weiss, one of Thoreau's classmates [End Page 8] at Harvard, writes that "he was cold and unimpressible. The touch of his hand was moist and indifferent, as if he...


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