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Walden and the Pastoral

September 10, 2016

Walden, summer 2012, photo by author

One of Thoreau’s projects or experiments in Walden is one familiar to the tradition of nature writing, the mode or genre of the pastoral. In both writing and painting, the pastoral depicts a simpler life, usually figured in terms of a pasture, traditionally populated by a shepherd and his flock, and set in sharp contrast to a busier life figured by the city or town. In this sense, the pastoral is usually nostalgic as well as agricultural: things used to be simpler in earlier  ways of living, classical, pre-industrial or pre-technological times. That sounds like Walden, to some extent. At least, it sounds somewhat like the critique of society Thoreau initiates in “Economy” as well as his apparent thesis in response to the problem, delivered in the next chapter: simplify and live deliberately as nature. We could well imagine this scene at Walden, Thoreau idling on the banks of the pond, thinking his thoughts, reading his Homer, and writing his book, as something like Thomas Cole’s “Arcadian or Pastoral State” from his “The Course of Empire” series of 1836. Or, in literature that you might have encountered elsewhere, think Wordsworth (his Lyrical Ballads) or Milton’s famous pastoral elegy, “Lycidas.”

But as we are starting to see, Thoreau’s book about simplicity is more complicated than that. We see the complications with the pastoral head on in “Sounds.” We find there a “pastoral” vision, explicitly named. But it’s a vision attached to the train that runs alongside Walden pond. So, the train disrupts the pastoral landscape–the conflict between old and new, agricultural and technological, that we expect with the pastoral. Except, Thoreau doesn’t seem that bothered by the train. He is willing to see it, in fact, as a figure of the pastoral life whirling by. This is quite complicated. If Thoreau is not directly lamenting the loss of a simpler life here, the incursion of the “machine in the garden,” what exactly is he doing? A related complication here: Thoreau begins the chapter valorizing a nature that can be experienced “without metaphor,” then proceeds in this focus on the train as “iron horse” to metaphorize the hell out of his experience of the train at Walden.

Leo Marx provides an interesting and influential critical reading of this problem and the nature of Thoreau’s pastoral project in his classic book The Machine in the Garden [the relevant excerpt of the argument is in the critical section at the book of our Norton edition, “Walden’s Transcendental Pastoral Design”; American Studies majors take note, this is a classic of American Studies criticism]. The gist of his argument: This isn’t a traditional pastoral vision, focused only on the agricultural way of life that has passed; and it isn’t a full embrace of the technologically new. Thoreau crafts a middle ground in the craft of his writing: the pastoral as way of life is gone, lost to history, but it can be relived and relocated in literature. “In the end Thoreau restores the pastoral hope to its traditional location. He removes it from history, where it is manifestly unrealizable, and relocates it in literature, which is to say, in his own consciousness, in his craft, in Walden” (464).  To anticipate a phrasing to come later in Spring: Walden is dead but Walden is alive again.

This is something we will give more thought to as we explore the crafting of the book, do our own deliberate reading of this book in which the author argues that books should be read deliberately as they were written. I am hypothesizing that to read deliberately is in Thoreau’s complicated sense of the pastoral to read organically.

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