- Thoreau the Land Surveyor
Henry David Thoreau, Surveying, Transcendentalism, Walden
Scholars of Henry David Thoreau have tended to dismiss the ways in which Thoreau earned his living—selling and making pencils, teaching occasionally, buying a rundown farm, and surveying—ultimately leaving undisturbed the assumption that Thoreau’s books are the main expression of his philosophy. Lawrence Buell has claimed that while Thoreau “took pride in his skill and success at [surveying],”such work forced him to “anesthetize his proper sensitivities.”1 Patrick Chura’s book, however, thoroughly complicates this neat opposition between politics and vocation, and between literature and life. Rather than explain Thoreau’s “higher laws” as superseding or apologizing for the rest of his life’s work, Thoreau the Land Surveyor proposes that Thoreau’s ideas about possession, property, duty, and nature are cultivated through the one hundred [End Page 744] and sixty-five surveys he conducted in and around Concord from 1840 through 1861.
Chura places himself, literally, behind the surveyor’s compass, using the practice of surveying as a way into the historical conflict over territory that is central to our national relationship to ownership. The cross-fertilization of geography, surveying history, and textual scholarship in this study demonstrates that not only might Thoreau’s ethics be in conversation with his fieldnotes but, more interestingly, his fieldnotes and surveys can lend us access to a view of nature that underlies his Transcendentalist beliefs. Making the surveyor’s work his own, Chura attempts to redraw the boundaries of historical and literary fields, resituating a range of texts, including A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1849), Walden (1854), “A Plea for Captain John Brown” (1859), and “Life without Principle” (1863), in relation to the fieldnotes.
Thoreau the Land Surveyor begins by offering various accounts of the significance of the surveying profession during some of the earliest moments in American literature, history, and mythology, reminding us that George Washington’s first career was as a surveyor in Virginia County. Noting the surveyor’s complicity in reinforcing the hierarchical order of the colonial aristocracy, Chura provides a sense of the complexity of the concept of possession within an American ideology plagued by an ambiguous relation to property, both human and territorial. With regard to Thoreau, he identifies the various ways in which the surveying profession forces the writer and naturalist to compromise his own “anti-institutional” persona. Walden and Cape Cod are read in light of the U.S. Coast Survey, the rhetoric of which linked scientific advancement, national responsibility, and a belief in Manifest Destiny in antebellum America, particularly in the decade leading up to the publication of Walden (47, 49). Chura proceeds to highlight the merger of Thoreau’s manual and intellectual labor, providing a compelling analysis of the ways in which his 1846 survey of Walden Pond subverts professional surveying standards in favor of higher ideals, often ignoring personal property lines. Chura is bold in his claim that the surveying notes of Walden Pond may have in fact preceded Walden itself and thus might be “an urtext of Thoreau’s masterpiece” (41).
New students of Thoreau often feel scandalized when their teachers reveal that the Fitchberg Railroad ran less than fifty feet from Walden Pond and suggest that the text itself is an effort to regain the kind of freedom and autonomy that the landscape lacks. Yet Chura’s sixth [End Page 745] chapter, “The Science of the Fieldnotes,” presents a way of recontextualizing the pond–railroad dichotomy through a reading of the surveying notes that allows us to imagine how the geographical position of the pond might empower rather than disrupt the book Thoreau began to ponder there.
Perhaps most wide-ranging in its argument for the relevance of surveying, not only in shaping Thoreau’s sensibilities but as a political tool in wars over territory, is the discussion of Thoreau’s relationship to “that other Kansas surveyor,” John Brown. One of Chura’s aims, offered with a concision and clarity that characterizes his writing, is “to explain how Thoreau...