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Walden’s Shore: Henry David Thoreau and Nineteenth-Century Science

Robert M. Thorson

(Harvard University Press; US: Dec 2013)

Early on in Walden’s Shore: Henry David Thoreau and Nineteenth-Century Science, author Robert Thorson, at the conclusion of a summary of his scholarly influences, notes his eschewal of studies that will strike a familiar chord for readers who are up to speed with post-structuralist, psychoanalytic, gender, and other theoretical approaches:

Though I weigh in strongly on published criticism, sometimes I’m so perplexed that I can only gasp. For example, I’ve nothing to say about Perry Miller’s interpretation of the Deep Cut’s sand foliage as a ‘slime of sand’ constituting a ‘filthy afterbirth.’ Or Paul Friedrich’s phallic rhythm of Thoreau’s lost axe relative to Patrick Morgan’s ‘geo-feminism’ of the shapely curves of meanders. Or Sharon Cameron’s claim that the Journal is seductive, sadistic, and voyeuristic.

Given the fact that Thorson is a geologist by training and vocation, it’s hard not to read the lines as a put-down of some aspects of contemporary humanities studies, in which Thorson presents himself as a tough-minded scientist introducing a bracingly empiricist sensibility to studies of Thoreau’s most famous work in contrast to abstruse musings of literary scholars. Whether this represents chutzpah or a salutary calling-out of scholarly foolishness, readers will have to decide for themselves. But it must be said that Walden’s Shore is a serious, substantial, and impressively erudite entry into the field—a model for how interdisciplinary approaches can bring original and revelatory perspectives to bear on even the most well-worn texts. 

Put simply, the aim of volume is to get to the bottom, literal and figurative, of both Walden the place and Walden the text. It takes as its context, an historical reality, particularly scientific controversy, that Thorson sums up early on his work:

Thus it was that Thoreau’s social experiment at Walden Pond was conceived, planned, and implemented, and the resulting book was written, rewritten, and carefully edited, during a time of great confusion between wildly different ideas about how the New England landscape came to be.”

This simple premise leads into myriad subjects, some of less direct relevance, and overall the work is probably strongest over its first 300 pages, especially where Thorson deftly interweaves a description of the topographic emergence of Walden lake (the “pond” itself plus its environs) over eons with an account of Thoreau’s composition and revision of the work over a decade and a half. Both, Thorson, makes clear, were intensive and laborious processes, magnitudes of scale aside. Thorson nicely demonstrates that while Walden may appear to be an unruly mélange of ad hoc philosophy, social and political commentary, and metaphysical contemplation, it is in fact a work of painstaking craftsmanship as well as considerable erudition.
Thorson’s careful reconstruction of Thoreau’s likely knowledge of landscape formation and glacial theory is especially impressive, and constitutes a comprehensive account of Thoreau’s relation to what was apparently a major scientific controversy of the mid-19th century. This version of Thoreau is a far cry from the idle dreamer of caricature. After all, Thoreau was a committed and savvy observer of his surroundings and keenly interested in how they came to be. He was also, apparently, an energetic and ingenious recorder of physical facts, a precise scientist as well as lofty transcendental muser. His genius for “mensuration”—the geometric calculation of spatial dimensionality—was, apparently, no less powerful than his genius for brilliant prose.

On both counts, Thorson proves himself a very capable explicator of Thoreau’s achievements, not without substantial talents in each field himself. Walden’s Shore is regularly punctuated with charts, graphs, and topographical renderings that, even as they benefit from contemporary technology and computational methods, largely serve to vindicate the accuracy of Thoreau’s observations and calculations. In terms of prose, Thorson infuses many of his descriptions with equal parts scientific rigor and an understated lyrical eloquence, for example in this summary of the early stages of planetary formation:

Shortly after its initial melting and differentiation into layers, Earth was struck by a Mars-sized object with great force. The incoming kinetic energy blasted so much debris into low orbit that it created a ring that congealed to form the moon. It also gave Earth its rapid spin, tilted its axis, and set in motion the orbital wobbles and harmonic oscillations ultimately responsible for the glacial-interglacial cycles giving rise to Walden.

In addition to describing Thoreau’s immersion in contemporary glacial theory, Thorson examines the seismic effect of other scientific theory on Thoreau’s thinking, particularly his encounter with the work of Charles Darwin, first his geologic research and later his biological theories.  Indeed, so powerful was the effect, Thorson argues, that we can divide Thoreau’s intellectual and literary development into periods that precede and follow a “conversion to science” or “transition to science.”

Here the argument of

is less original, as Thorson’s acknowledgment of the previous, groundbreaking work of other critics suggests. Indeed, the distinguishing feature is Thorson’s energetic emphasis on the significance of the scientific dimension of Thoreau’s thought. This may be a necessary corrective, but is probably overstated. Also, in his effort to prove Thoreau’s scientific understanding, Thorson repeatedly translates an observation into argot that is, apparently, supposed to prove the sophistication of Thoreau’s scientific understanding.

Aside from basking in radiant heat, Thoreau also used his body like a lizard to sop up sensible heat through conduction. On one cold night in May, a boss of rock had previously soaked up enough heat from the afternoon sun to keep him warm several hours after dark… Here he highlights the link between heat flux and thermal conductivity… And he knew that the surest way to cool down on a hot summer day was to plunge into the bracing cold water of a pond or river.

Passages such as this are, to be frank, somewhat goofy and it’s difficult to tell if an element of parody, of winking acknowledgment of the limitations of scientific discourse, is at work or not. In any case, some more rigorous editing would have allowed Walden’s Shore to move more quickly and play to its considerable strengths. 

Then again, perhaps we should be wary of dismissing the seemingly superfluous. After all, in Walden itself, it’s often the seeming rambles that open on to the finest discoveries. For its part, Thorson’s study can lay claim to a rare distinction among scholarly, or really, any work: regular revisiting should yield rewards that the reader misses in the initial encounter.


James Williams is a freelance copywriter and editor living in St. Louis.

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