SEVEN } Beston, Oliver, Dillard, and Fluid Transcendentalism
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} 173 The leaves cry. It is not a cry of divine attention, Nor the smoke-­ drift of puffed-­ out heroes, nor human cry. It is the cry of leaves that do not transcend themselves, In the absence of fantasia, without meaning more Than they are in the final finding of the ear, in the thing Itself, until, at last, the cry concerns no one at all. —Wallace Stevens, “The Course of a Particular” (1951) When we think of the effects of the transcendentalist movement in the decades since the mid-­ nineteenth century, perhaps the most obvious one has to do with encouraging a less alienated and more immersive relationship with the more-­ than-­ human natural world. This is not because all the individu‑ als associated with transcendentalism wrote about or experimented with living close to natural environments, nor did they foreswear the tools of the modern age. In fact, transcendentalists depended on printing presses, newspapers, jour‑ nals, bookstores, railroads, lyceums, to name just a few examples of the trans‑ atlantic urban and commercial world’s communication tools, to convey their ideas and words to larger audiences. For some, “nature” was part of a philo‑ sophical argument against Cartesian instrumentalism, which separated the human actor and maker from the supposedly passive natural world, including one’s own body, and against Lockean empiricism, which privileged sense im‑ pressions as the source of ideas rather than intuitive and imaginative insights. Many transcendentalists imagined, at their desks, a cosmos in which humans and nonhumans existed in reciprocal relationships, a cosmos that represented a secularized version of the kingdom of God anticipated by their more orthodox neighbors. But for many readers and for the thousands of yearly visitors to Concord, Massachusetts, and Walden Pond, transcendentalism is inseparable from Henry Thoreau. Thoreau in turn embodies the transcendentalist turn to nature, in his essays and books, in his systematic observation and recording of seasonal change in and around Concord, and particularly in his two-­ year retreat on the Seven } Beston, Oliver, Dillard, and Fluid Transcendentalism 174 { Chapter Seven shore of Walden Pond. Walden gives readers, as well, memorable examples of Thoreau’s harsh critique of the repetitive and soul-­ destroying labor that was changing the face of work in the antebellum North. His essays on civil disobedi‑ ence, on the forced return of Anthony Burns to slavery, and on John Brown have made him a hero in civil rights, antiwar, and anticapitalist movements of the twentieth and twenty-­ first centuries. At the same time, a series of writers from close to his time to ours have acknowledged Thoreau’s strategic withdrawal to Walden Pond as a model and inspiration for their own strategic withdrawals to shelters apart from other humans, separated from the usual thrum of society and commerce, to enact experiments in living close to nonhuman nature and to reflect on those experiments. Among many others, we can count John Muir’s My First Summer in the Sierra (1911), Henry Beston’s The Outermost House (1928), May Sar‑ ton’s Journal of a Solitude (1973), Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (1974), Anne LaBastille’s Woodswoman (1976), and Judith Ann Smithson’s Smithson’s Island: The Necessity of Solitude (1996). This incomplete list highlights the number of women writers, in particular, who have lived alone for periods of time and wrote reflec‑ tions on the experience. For them it has been especially important to embrace solitude in a culture that links women with sociability and to learn forms of out‑ door self-­ reliance in a culture that associates such expertise with men. What is evident in Thoreau is the same turn to secularity that marked other transcendentalists in the antebellum period: a turn away from the supernatu‑ ralism of historic Christianity, a turn toward the sense that living in and for this world was a viable option, just as a return to more traditional forms of faith was equally so for others. In this version of secularity, in which adherence to inher‑ ited religion is no longer assumed as a cultural given, this tug toward the “im‑ manent frame,” as Charles Taylor calls it, is often countered by a desire to expe‑ rience the “more than” moments which push back against human flourishing as the highest good and seem to come from some other place. In this sense, the modern secular turn is toward an interpenetration, a coexistence, an overlap‑ ping of languages and behaviors, rather than the triumph of one over another or the...


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