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Thoreau's Autumnal Indian LAURIAT LANE, JR. Thoreau's great interest in the North American Indian is a commonplace. The Indian had many meanings for Thoreau, embodying many, perhaps all, of his most central concerns. Some of these meanings Thoreau made clear in published writings; others remained half-expressed or implicit in the notebooks and journals he had gathered against the day- which never came -when he would write his book on the Indian. For Jonathan Bishop, "the meditations on Indian facts are a convincing part of Thoreau's total experience of the sacred." 1 Edwin Fussell singles out five "uses" of the Indian for Thoreau: as the Past, as Fundamental Man, as Nature, as Language, and as the Frontier. 2 In an analysis of The Maine Woods I have suggested that the Indian "summed up in his person the various dimensions of Thoreau's response to the Maine Woods: ... natural, topographical , historical, social, comic, and moral." 3 But the Indian also had meaning for Thoreau as part of what I choose to call Thoreau's autumnal vision. At first glance, it may seem only perverse to speak of the autumnal vision of a writer whose most famous book ends on a series of notes like the following: The first sparrows of spring! The year beginning with younger hopes than ever! The faint silvery warblings heard over the partially bare and moist fields from the bluebird, the song sparrow, and the redwing, as if the last flakes of winter tinkled as they fell! What at such a time are histories, chronologies, traditions, and all written revelations? The brooks sing carols and glees to the spring. The marsh hawk, sailing low over the meadow, is already seeking the first slimy life that awakes .... The grass flames up on the hillsides like a spring fire ... the symbol of perpetual youth, the grass-blade, like a long green ribbon, streams from the sod into the summer, checked indeed by the frost, but anon pushing on again, lifting its spear oflast year's hay with the fresh life below. 4 As Thoreau says, "Walden was dead and is alive again." But Shelley may remind us that one kind of autumnal vision takes autumn as so inevitably inferring the rebirth of spring that autumn almost becomes spring: The trumpet of a prophecy! 0 Wind, IfWinter comes, can Spring be far behind? In Walden autumn almost becomes spring, just as, in Thoreau's early essay, "A Winter Walk," winter almost becomes summer. I have in mind another kind of "autumnal vision," however, one less imTHE CANADIAN REVIEW OF AMERICAN STUDIES VOL, VI, NO. 2, FALL 1975 mediately inspiriting, to be sure, but one perhaps more long-lasting and more true to the nature of human reality, for all the beauty and eloquence of Walden's next-to-last chapter, "Spring." For Thoreau, word-play was a favorite and powerful literary weapon. Consider , as one way into our subject, what multifoliate meanings he could intend by the simple word, "fall." Then, as now, autumn was the fall. In the fall, he could walk the woods and watch the fall of leaf and fruit. Seeing ripe apples trembling in the wind and about to fall, he could remind himself of another fruit and another fall, man's fall, when, in the words of Robert Frost, a good Thoreauvian, "Eden sank to grief." Or, as Thoreau watched the sun fall into the west, for him the most mythical of all compass directions, he could draw his much-loved parallel between a day, a year, and a life, and think how his "way of life," like Macbeth's, was "fallen into the sere, the yellow leaf." This brief set of verbal variations brings up another preliminary point. Responses and relationships such as these obviously do not come to us as a total surprise, with the thrill of a new discovery. Instead they cause, in Melville's phrase, a "shock of recognition" or, in the hands of a lesser writer, a shudder of familiarity. They may, that is, call up responses and relationships to some degree already within us. An autumnal vision must be in some way archetypal, and Thoreau's...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1710-114X
Print ISSN
0007-7720
Pages
pp. 228-236
Launched on MUSE
2019-01-02
Open Access
No
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