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Ecology and Imagination: Emerson, Thoreau, And The Nature Of Metonymy

From: Criticism
Volume 55, Number 2, Spring 2013
pp. 299-329 | 10.1353/crt.2013.0014

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The world is enigmatical, every thing said and every thing known and done, and must not be taken literally, but genially. We must be at the top of our condition to understand any thing rightly.

—Ralph Waldo Emerson, journal Y (1845)

A Condensation of Its Context

Toward the end of his notebook titled "Naturalist," Ralph Waldo Emerson enters a sentence (dated 1853) that marks a symbolic vision of nature familiar to his readers and, in more recent years, of concern to his ecologically minded critics: "He is the richest who has most use for nature as raw material of tropes and symbols with which to describe his life." One can see why the tradition of reading Emerson's nature writing and environmental aesthetics in sharp contrast with Henry David Thoreau's—Thoreau viewed as "Emerson's earthy opposite," as Lawrence Buell characterizes this convention—has thrived, particularly in the greening of literary studies known as ecocriticism. To consider an influential example, in Nature's Economy (1994) Donald Worster locates in Thoreau's work of the 1850s the emergence of an ecological philosophy in a "more intense empiricism" that he predicates on Thoreau's difference from, and necessary rejection of, the transcendental idealism he first learned from an Emerson "who tended to devalue the material world except insofar as it could be put to higher spiritual uses by the human mind." "Emerson's moral doctrines could not sustain Thoreau for long," Worster concludes, "for they were aspiring branches that had no roots to support them. They were ideas that were not soiled enough." Worster's figure of difference, complete with Thoreauvian pun—the spiritual airiness of Emerson's imagination can't compare to the fecal matter of Thoreau's ecological ideas—maps a path in the ecocritical reading of Thoreau by way of Emer son that remains prominent and, I would suggest at the outset, stands in need of revision.

Consider the way Worster's version of Thoreau's empirically rooted difference from Emerson's figuratively deracinated use of nature has extended into recent criticism that gives greater attention to Thoreau's unpublished work after Walden (1854). This is "the Thoreau of the journals and later natural history projects," as Rochelle Johnson identifies the turn to Thoreau's more ecocentric work of the 1850s, focusing her attention on the abstractions of Emerson's rhetorical nature—that is, nature as raw material of tropes and symbols—in order to contrast the transcendental aesthetics Thoreau must overcome. Johnson locates a more ecologically minded Thoreau only when the naturalist can move beyond Emersonian metaphor in his later work, and therefore initiate (along with Susan Fennimore Cooper) an empirical "counteraesthetics" to the dominant paradigm in American environmental aesthetics codified in Emerson's line from his 1836 Nature: "The world is emblematic. Parts of speech are metaphors, because the whole of nature is a metaphor of the human mind." For Johnson, Thoreau's ecological perspective emerges in the writer's "observation and knowledge of the literal, physical world" in the work of his last decade that moves beyond his own (and not just Emerson's) use of metaphor to describe the physical world. Lance Newman argues further that the "irreducibly material environment" of Concord that Thoreau records so palpably in his journals and unpublished natural history projects transforms his "writing and even his consciousness." In its thoroughgoing and often messy empiricism, in contrast to the polish of Walden or the lyricism of A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1849), Thoreauvian ecocritics read this later work no longer as aesthetically deficient in Emer sonian metaphor or the transcendental poetics of correspondence, but rather as environmentally vital—sufficiently "soiled"—in its counter to metaphor's abstraction of the literal matter of nature.

However, this prominent mapping of the empirical, ecological Thoreau by way of sharp, fixed distinctions with the transcendental, tropological Emerson is not without its problems or its critics. David Robinson, for one, exploring Thoreau's "worldly transcendentalism," pursues a similar interest in the emergence of Thoreau's empiricism in the 1850s, but cautions against reading his ecological immersion in natural history after Walden as necessarily divorced from the poetics of "Emersonian idealism" evident in...

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