‘Allied to Life’: The Non-Teleological Poetics of Thoreau’s Journal

By Daniel Nelson

The subject of this paper is the Journal: the seven-thousand-page masterwork of Henry David Thoreau’s late career; a record, at once lyrical and meticulously factual, of his daily excursions, observations, and experiments. It is a text which has long troubled readers because of the impression it gives of being endless, in both senses: inordinately long (its length unmitigated by any organizing structure besides that of the seasonal cycle), and without a purpose. I argue that Thoreau’s experiment in endlessness was artful and self-conscious rather than a result of waning creative energies (the traditional critical view) or of waxing scientific ambitions (the modern critical view). Though scholars now concede that the Journal is an important literary work in its own right, few critics—with the notable exceptions of Sharon Cameron and François Specq—have explored the implications of declaring an endless, unstructured, unclassifiable text (Specq calls it “a huge achievement of virtually no practical use or value”) a literary masterpiece. Moreover, scholars such as Laura Dassow Walls and Kristen Case, while careful to express admiration for the Journal’s intrinsic merits, ultimately characterize it as a research tool that aided in the production of, and finds its true endpoint in, other, less generically ambiguous texts such as Thoreau’s late natural history essays. I refute this claim by analyzing the insightful statements of purpose found in this apparently purposeless text, which reveal it to be a self-consciously modern experiment in writing outside of the constraints of genre and discipline. I call this experiment “non-teleological poetics” because its aim is not a product (e.g., a finished text or a coherent body of thought) but a process in which living and writing, perceiving and thinking, are interdependent and immediately fruitful rather than subordinated one to the other for the purpose of some imagined future good.
My paper (which is a condensed version of my dissertation’s third chapter) centers around a few key statements from the Journal that explicitly address one of the questions posed by the symposium: what role does the frame of a text—the point or points at which the text meets what is outside of it, and so comes to an end—play in that text’s production and reception? Thoreau writes, “Perhaps I can never find so good a setting for my thoughts as I shall thus have taken them out of,” that is, as the setting which is furnished by the Journal’s undiscriminating, unending record of each day’s observed phenomena. This setting, he continues, explaining why he does not “bring the related thoughts [articulated in the Journal] … together into separate essays,” is “the proper frame for my sketches,” because within it “my thoughts are now allied to life–& and are seen by the reader not to be far fetched.” Thoreau doesn’t want to lift his “sketches” out of the Journal framework and into “separate,” closed off “essays,” I argue, because he is convinced of a mysterious relation between hors-texte and text, contingency and artistry, nature and the mind. 

Author’s bio:
He recently completed his PhD studies in English at the University of Rochester. His dissertation was on Henry David Thoreau’s Journal and Emily Dickinson’s poems. Its argument, in brief, was that these texts showcase a category of writing and thinking about nature that is distinct from other literary and philosophical genres. In the present paper the name he gives to this category is “non-teleological poetics.”

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8 replies on “‘Allied to Life’: The Non-Teleological Poetics of Thoreau’s Journal”

It was a pleasure to read this paper. I was particularly interested in the ideas that writing can be an act of perception itself and that the writer is able to better capture a thing in its full liveness by ceding authorial control. I am interested in learning more about the publication history of Thoreau’s journal, considering in printing, trees are inevitably transformed into paper, whereas in Thoreau’s writing about the woods, trees are captured as live beings. I also wonder what Thoreau’s thoughts are regarding the technology of printing vs writing for one’s own/journal keeping. Thanks!

Thanks, Honglan, I’m glad you liked it. It might interest you to know that Thoreau’s father ran a pencil-making business, and Thoreau himself developed a variation on the making of graphite pencils (using something called lumbago I believe it was) that was apparently quite influential in the industry. So to answer your question, I think Thoreau probably did have worthwhile thoughts on the subject of printing, and yet I can’t at the moment recall anything he said explicitly on that subject. …Incidentally, I originally had considered studying his and Emily Dickinson’s manuscripts in conjunction (since Dickinson is the other central figure of my dissertation), given that Dickinson’s manuscripts are so clearly significant, a kind of private publication as some have described it. But I didn’t find Thoreau’s manuscripts to be particularly worth studying–plus his handwriting is impossible to read! Anyway I will have to think about this and perhaps get back to you. But–to get back to Dickinson–if you haven’t already you should check out her manuscripts, I think they would interest you in the way they hover between abstraction and materiality; they can be viewed at edickinson.org as well as in an unusual book put out by New Directions called ‘The Gorgeous Nothings’ (as well as, of course, at Harvard and at Amherst College).

One place you might look for Thoreau’s thoughts on printing and its relation to a kind of writing that is more “allied to life,” is chapter 4 of Walden. It’s titled “Sounds,” whereas chapter 3 is titled “Reading.” Here’s how it begins: “But while we are confined to books, though the most select and classic, and read only particular written languages, which are themselves but dialects and provincial, we are in danger of forgetting the language which all things and events speak without metaphor, which alone is copious and standard. Much is published, but little printed. The rays which stream through the shutter will be no longer remembered when the shutter is wholly removed. No method nor discipline can supersede the necessity of being forever on the alert. What is a course of history, or philosophy, or poetry, no matter how well selected, or the best society, or the most admirable routine of life, compared with the discipline of looking always at what is to be seen? Will you be a reader, a student merely, or a seer? Read your fate, see what is before you, and walk on into futurity.
I did not read books the first summer; I hoed beans….”
And then ensues a fascinating passage describing a kind of meditation he would practice in his cabin.

Thank you for your intriguing presentation. I am following your words regarding Thoreau’s choice of ‘Journal’ as compatible with the framework for his stream of thoughts. I wonder though whether there are any physical properties that you have found in his journals that correlate to this “mysterious relation between hors-texte and text, contingency and artistry, nature and the mind”? I am aware of the conception of the journal as something more nomadic, but I wonder whether there are any physical elements, or perhaps a non-conformist use of them, that correspond to his disobedient views. And since you mentioned Dickinson in your response, I cannot avoid reflecting on her own usage of dashes.

Thanks for these questions, which I had not thought of before. I get the impression Thoreau wasn’t particularly interested in what we today call “the materiality of the signifier”–perhaps because he was too preoccupied with the materiality of the signified, i.e., of the actual things his writing referred to…So I can’t say that he thought of the physical qualities of his Journal manuscripts as having any particular significance. I could certainly be wrong though. For me (that is, for me reading Thoreau’s Journal) the “hors-texte” is simply nature, the nature that he was observing for several hours every day and bringing into the text of the Journal, not in any literal, physical sense, but in the sense that he lets nature make the decisions as to what he will write, when. So, yes, there’s a “disobedient” aspect to his work, but I don’t see him as overly concerned with defying conventions or producing a wholly new text, but rather as simply doing his own thing, which, since he was a writer, was a written thing, but, since he spent most of his time in nature and not talking with other writers, was also a natural thing.

Thank you for this fascinating talk. I was wondering if you could explain a bit more whether Thoreau intended for the journal to be read by others, and thus pre-supposed an audience or some nominal notion of publishing. If so, where does the idea of publishing play into the relationship between the journal’s more organic form and the idea that ‘books’ are less natural.

–Super enjoyable talk! Thank you! I find your argument really generative.
Question: In thinking about how Thoreau is accumulating so much within one text and the tensions of contingency, artistry and capturing something “whole”. Do you think that he is caught between capturing his experiences of Walden in a “static” form as a way to make “still” the unpredictability of daily life and movement of the natural world for his readers?
Does the text itself, and its construction, create particular boundaries around his concept of nature, in essence, is he capturing nature in a bell jar, and the words, sentences and paragraphs themselves create the boundary or container for this delimitation?
Does it seem that the journal is not only a more fluid space for Thoreau’s complex thoughts but in essence mimics the natural world in its unboundless and unlimitedness?

Thank you, I’m glad that you found the talk thought-provoking. I’m not sure I can do justice to your own thought-provoking questions and comments here. First, I would answer all three of your questions (the ones beginning “Do you think…?” and “Does…?”) in the affirmative, because what you’re saying seems accurate to what’s happening in the Journal–though every reader will describe this differently, according to his or her own lights as it were. The Journal is a very open text in this sense, very ambiguous in its intentions. Second, I’d like to say that ‘Walden’ seems to have had several goals, many of them not directly related to nature. Stanley Cavell’s ‘The Senses of Walden’ is worth consulting in this regard. I’m interested by your description of trying to make nature “still” … I think the quickest way I could answer your question is to say that in my opinion–this is sort of the larger idea of my dissertation–the “meaning of nature” is a paradoxical idea: all we really have access to is our own subjective response to nature (““The poet is a man who lives at last by watching his moods,” Thoreau says–even though what he appears to be watching is nature, as the surrounding sentences in that entry bears out). So yes, trying to write a book about nature might have seemed to Thoreau to be like putting it in a bell jar as you say–though I think Walden does a good job of gesturing to nature’s vastness and uncontainability (“much is published,” he writes there–meaning nature is always speaking, in what he calls “the language of all things”–“but little printed”). The Journal is trying harder and with more focus I think to let nature mean on its own, paradoxical though that is (since of  course meaning is either a function of intentionality, which nature either lacks or keeps hidden, or a function of interpretation, which would have to be brought *to* nature from an outside observer). Sharon Cameron gets at the paradox of this very well in ‘Writing Nature: Thoreau’s Journal,’ which like Cavell’s book is really a philosophical essay as well as literary criticism. She writes that Thoreau’s “progressive refusal to interpret the observations recorded” in the Journal make it seem “as if the significance of the description of a tree were the description of that tree” (5).

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