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.
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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