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American Literary History 17.4 (2005) 687-713

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Unlikely Kindred Spirits:

A New Vision of Landscape in the Works of Henry David Thoreau and Asher B. Durand

This famous 1849 painting, Kindred Spirits (Fig. 1), has illustrated the cover of volume 1 of the Norton Anthology of American Literature since its first edition in 1979. By presenting it here, I mean, of course, to draw attention to Nina Baym's distinguished editorship of the Norton and—later on—to reflect upon this painting's iconic status. Asher B. Durand, who painted this picture, and Henry David Thoreau are the focus of this essay. As I have suggested in my title, these two are an unlikely pair; they belong to different generations and to different regional and artistic cultures.1 By linking them across these divides, I hope to show some lines of relation in antebellum America that have been insufficiently noticed. But first I need to acknowledge the unmistakable differences between Thoreau and Durand, since these differences are closely, if paradoxically, related to their deeper similarities.

To begin, Thoreau is famously the recluse who went to Walden Pond to find solitude there, and Durand was perhaps the preeminent organization man of American art in the antebellum period. He helped found the National Academy of Design in the 1820s and served as its president from 1845 to 1861. It's a measure of Durand's deep involvement in the public realm that he painted American presidents, including Andrew Jackson, from life.2 At a personal level, Durand was by all accounts a gentle and affable man, devoted to his family and friends, whereas Thoreau never married and had a difficult time with friendship. He loved to work at the extremes of expression and wanted, like Chanticleer, to wake his neighbors up, as he says in Walden (1854). Durand, in contrast, characteristically worked within a moderate range of experience, avoiding, for example, the melodrama and polarities of his Hudson River School mentor, Thomas Cole. And while Thoreau went to Walden Pond to live a life of voluntary [End Page 687] poverty, as a reaction against emergent market capitalism, Durand was an artist who literally made money—designing bank-notes in his first career as an engraver. More important, he was fully at home in the world of the business of art, its promotion, sale, and distribution.

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Figure 1
Asher B. Durand, Kindred Spirits (oil on canvas), 1849. Collections of The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox, and Tilden Foundations.

There is also, as I have mentioned, the regional difference: Durand was, loosely speaking, a Knickerbocker, and Thoreau a Yankee. As Baym has astutely pointed out in a recent essay on Walden, this book cannot be read without understanding it in part as an expression of regional rivalry, specifically as a contrast between "humble" rural New England landscapes like Walden Pond and essentially touristic Hudson River Valley scenery, which by midcentury had become an emblem of the national landscape.3

Finally we come to the difference in the trajectories of these figures' careers and the long-term receptions of their work. Thoreau, at his death in 1862 at age 44, was regarded as much a disciple of [End Page 688] Ralph Waldo Emerson as an author in his own right and had to await the twentieth century to assume full canonical status in our letters.4 Now, of course, Walden is on everyone's list of world's classics. Durand has suffered a very different fate. Living far longer than Thoreau, until age 90 (he died in 1886), he was regarded as the most important landscape painter in the US in the years immediately following Cole's death in 1848.5 Through his various public roles, and in his 1855 "Letters on Landscape Painting" in The Crayon—America's leading midcentury art journal—he exerted great influence in the art world of his day. But since the Civil War Durand's stock has fallen steadily...


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