Thoreau’s Maine:  “A Still 
More Perfect & Glorious State”

By Daniel S. Malachuk, Western Illinois University

Originally published in Maine's Place in the Environmental Imagination, editor
Michael D. Burke, 2008 - Published with the permission of Cambridge Scholars Publishing

Thoreau Reader:  Home - The Maine Woods

[1]        The enduring insight of Leo Marx’s 1964 The Machine in the Garden is that American culture, at its best, pursues neither city nor wild but a “middle landscape.”  If this culture has too often blindly glorified such a middle landscape, the greatest American authors have pursued the same with their eyes wide open to all its challenges.  For Marx, this critical pursuit of the middle landscape is the true work of the pastoral.

[2]        To environmentalists working in today’s academic humanities, however, Marx’s pastoral has become largely irrelevant.  This irrelevance is understandable in part.  Marx’s American pastoralists only wrote literature — they did not do the dirty work of actually creating the middle landscape — and forty-some years later we live in such urgent ecological times that Marx’s “complex pastoral” can seem a little too complex.(1)

[3]        But perhaps our more urgent times have also made us too quick to dismiss the moderate ideal to which Marx paid tribute.  Lately, especially in the academic humanities, we tend to gravitate toward the extremes of either “naturism” or “culturism.”  Naturists, including most “ecocritics,” contend that all forms of life are equally valuable.  Intentionally or not, this “biocentrism” — and subsequent suspicion that every human use of nature is essentially exploitative — often results in positions that sound a lot like the primitivism that pastoralists have always avoided.  Culturists, who contend that nature does not even exist but is rather a “social construction,” have much in common with that other extreme avoided by the pastoralist, the decadent partisan of a reengineered world.(2)

[4]        To the extent that we care any longer about the pastoral, our new versions of it have been deformed by this extremism, too.  No longer the literature of the middle landscape, the pastoral has been repositioned at one or the other extreme.  For most critics, the pastoral has become an ideology of exploitation masquerading as a literature of rurality.  Throughout the opening chapters of the important and immensely influential Wilderness and the American Mind, for example, Roderick Frederick Nash depicts the pastoral as only the leading edge of a colonial civilization bent on destroying wilderness, the true location of value.(3)  Leading ecocritic Glen A. Love makes explicit and frankly endorses this demotion of the pastoral when he writes that “wild nature has replaced the traditional middle state of the garden and the rural landscapes as the locus of stability and value, the seat of instruction.”(4)

[5]        The few critics who seek to defend the pastoral also assume this means repositioning it at one of the extremes, though in this case not as a city literature (masquerading as a rural literature) but as yet another wilderness literature.  When the critic most responsible for contemporary reassessments of the pastoral, Lawrence Buell, defined that pastoral in 1989, he associated it with “all literature…that celebrates an ethos of nature/rurality over against the ethos of the town or city,” seeming to leave open the possibility that the pastoral was also bordered by the wild, which goes unmentioned.  But his 1995 version of the pastoral clarifies that by pastoral he really means “all literature that celebrates an ethos of rurality or nature or wilderness over against an ethos of metropolitanism”:  the pastoral is on one side (with the wild), metropolitanism on the other.(5)

[6]        These extremist tendencies make an accurate assessment of Thoreau’s two major projects in The Maine Woods very difficult.  In this essay, I hope to avoid these tendencies while evaluating these two projects.  Thoreau’s first project in The Maine Woods is to describe those woods as a middle landscape, situated between city and wilderness:  Marx once showed Thoreau doing the same in his Walden descriptions of Concord.  The second project, though, reveals Thoreau’s book to be something other (and I think better) than Marx’s pastoral, for Thoreau offers his portrait of Maine’s middle landscape as a work of not only imaginative art but policy.  In 1849, Thoreau closed his essay “Resistance to Civil Government” with these inspiring but mysterious words:
I please myself with imagining a State at last which can afford to be just to all men, and to treat the individual with respect as a neighbor; which even would not think it inconsistent with its own repose if a few were to live aloof from it, not meddling with it, nor embraced by it, who fulfilled all the duties of neighbors and fellow men. A State which bore this kind of fruit, and suffered it to drop off as fast as it ripened, would prepare the way for a still more perfect and glorious State, which I have also imagined, but not yet anywhere seen.(6)
[7]        In the three trips he made to the Maine woods between 1846 and 1857, Thoreau did see that “still more prefect and glorious state,” and he describes it in The Maine Woods.


[8]        From Virgil’s Eclogues forward, Marx explains in The Machine in the Garden, the Western pastoral has been threatened by not one but two extremes.  In Virgil’s case, the pastoral’s two “vulnerable borders” are with Rome and “the encroaching marshland.”  For American pastoralists, those extremes emerge as the industrial city and the wild.  Like Virgil and other early pastoralists, then, the American pastoralists describe a “landscape of reconciliation,” one they achieve (as Jefferson does in his writings, for example) with “the syntax of the middle landscape” that “leads the mind toward an affirmation of primitive values…but [with] no serious intention of going all the way.”  This “mediation between the extremes of primitivism and what may be called ‘over-civilization’” is to be found in Walden, too.  Jefferson and Thoreau both hoped to “avoid…that choice” between the wild and the city.(7)

[9]        According to the dominant current reading of The Maine Woods, though, Thoreau finally makes that choice.(8)  Unlike Walden, The Maine Woods supposedly proves that the mature Thoreau finally chooses the wild, thus implicitly rejecting not only the city but the middle landscape of the pastoral as well.  The passage most often cited in support of this reading of The Maine Woods is the “Contact!” paragraph in the “Ktaadn” chapter, which describes a moment during the descent from Mt. Ktaadn when Thoreau and his colleagues pass through an area called “Burnt Lands.”  “Perhaps I most fully realized that this was primeval, untamed, and forever untameable Nature, or whatever else men call it, while coming down this part of the mountain,” Thoreau writes.(9)  The paragraph evolves into a tribute to wilderness, a wilderness so impressive to Thoreau that he renounces his old homocentric egotism and converts to biocentrism.  These are the final sentences of the paragraph:
Talk of mysteries! — Think of our life in nature, — daily to be shown matter, to come in contact with it, — rocks, trees, winds on our cheeks! the solid earth! the actual world! the common sense!  Contact! Contact! Who are we? where are we? (71)
[10]        Max Oelschlaeger is typical of critics lately in finding in this paragraph evidence that the mountain “rekindles for Thoreau a primal or Paleolithic coming-to-consciousness of humankind’s naked rootedness in and absolute dependence upon nature.”(10)

[11]       The problem with this interpretation of the “Contact!” paragraph, though, is that it ignores the focus of Thoreau’s conversion experience on Ktaadn, which is a conversion to God (to use the conventional vocabulary) rather than to the wild.  Thoreau emphasizes the presence of God on Ktaadn not only in the paragraph itself but in nearly all the paragraphs that refer to the mountain before and after it.  In the second paragraph of the “Ktaadn” chapter, for example, Thoreau notes that Ktaadn is “an Indian word signifying highest land” (3), and soon thereafter Thoreau reports that he asked a potential Indian guide “if he thought [their god] Pomola would let us go up [the mountain]” (10).  If Thoreau’s tone here is somewhat disrespectful of native customs, it changes when he is at the summit:

The tops of mountains are among the unfinished parts of the globe, whither it is a slight insult to the gods to climb and pry into their secrets, and try their effect on our humanity.  Only daring and insolent men, perchance, go there.  Simple races, as savages, do not climb mountains — their tops are sacred and mysterious tracts never visited by them. (65) (11)
[12]        Later, in the “The Allegash and East Branch,” the third and final chapter of the book, Thoreau is notably neutral when describing his guide Joe Polis’s own superstition about climbing mountains (177).  This is in keeping with Thoreau’s increased respect for all native customs as dramatized over the course of the three chapters.(12)   Especially when one considers that Polis’s other superstitions — such as his understanding of the phosphorescent wood (180-81) — are nothing less than epiphanic for Thoreau, surely we should consider Thoreau’s numinous experience on Ktaadn in this same light:  i.e., as only the first of several reconsiderations of the significance of wilderness in light of his emerging appreciation of native customs.  In any case, far from a biocentric appreciation of the wild in itself, Thoreau insists in “Ktaadn” that we should see in the wild the face of God, and that we should therefore reverence the wild as an instrument of God’s revelation.(13)

[13]        The real problem, though, is our almost exclusive focus on the “Contact!” paragraph, which stands nearly alone in the book as a description of a landscape that is untouched by human activity.  Instead, throughout the book, there is a subtle but unrelenting theme that even the Maine woods have been shaped in myriad ways by human activity.  There are, of course, a few moments when Thoreau bemoans that activity, moments that remind us of the “Economy” chapter in Walden.  But, by and large, the references are notable for their neutrality, including in the “Ktaadn” chapter, and taken together show Thoreau determined to depict the Maine woods not as wilderness but as a middle landscape.(14)

[14]        For example, early in “Ktaadn,” Thoreau stops for the night in the town his map calls “Enfield.”  He begins by mocking the whole notion of putting such puny settlements as Enfield on maps in the first place.  “This, like most of the localities bearing names on this road,” he writes, “was a place to name, which, in the midst of the unnamed and unincorporated wilderness, was to make a distinction without a difference, it seemed to me” (8).  So is Enfield, then, mere wilderness, devoid of humanity?  On the contrary, in the very next sentence Thoreau writes this:

Here, however, I noticed quite an orchard of healthy and well-grown apple trees in a bearing state, it being the oldest settler’s house in this region, but all natural fruit, and comparatively worthless for want of a grafter.  And so it is generally lower down the river.  It would be a good speculation, as well as a favor conferred on the settlers, for a Massachusetts boy to go down there with a trunk full of choice scions, and his grafting apparatus, in the spring. (8)
[15]        This passage mirrors the movement Marx finds in Jefferson’s writings, which (as cited above) “lead the mind toward an affirmation of primitive values…but [with] no serious intention of going all the way.”(15)   Far from being purely wild, then, Enfield is somewhat settled, and indeed could be better settled by improving its orchards.

[16]        This “Enfield” paragraph, and not the “Contact!” paragraph, is typical of “Ktaadn.”  Again and again, Thoreau will refer to a place as wild — or as “a bran new country” (16), “a new country” (35), “a new world” (78) — only to subsequently catalog all the evidence of human activity — a house, a farm, a logging camp — in what initially seemed a “wild.”   “[I]t was always startling to discover so plain a trail of civilized man there,” Thoreau writes in one of dozens of similar moments in the woods (42).

[17]        The next chapter, “Chesuncook,” not only continues to catalog the presence of humans in the Maine woods but also often imagines (and, in tone, quite enthusiastically) future settlements.  To consider again just one example, Thoreau describes canoeing a narrow stream “where the tall dark spruce and firs and arbor-vitae, towered on both sides in the moonlight, forming a perpendicular forest edge of great height, like the spires of a Venice in the forest” (102).  Thoreau then imagines a future settlement, emphasizing how such a settlement would minimally alter the landscape:

We thought of the day when this might be a brook winding through smooth shaven meadows on some gentleman’s grounds; and seen by moonlight then, excepting the forest that now hems it in, how little changed it would appear. (102-03) (16)
[18]        Thoreau thus signals in various ways that the Maine woods are not at all a howling wilderness but rather what Marx calls the middle landscape.  Thoreau even remarks that “[g]enerally speaking, a howling wilderness does not howl: it is the imagination of the traveler that does the howling” (219).   The Maine Woods thus seeks to liberate us from the howling in our own minds, so that we can see more clearly what the Maine woods actually are.  Even the summit of Ktaadn — as opposed to the burnt lands on the side of it — is figured as a middle landscape, with both domesticated and wild qualities.  Yes, nature here “seems to stay sternly [to all humanity], why came ye here before your time?” (64), but Thoreau also makes use of metaphors from across the pastoral tradition to describe that landscape:  he finds “gray, silent rocks [that] were the flocks and herds that pastured” (61), a tree that “blazed here, too, like a good citizen of the world” (62), and a mountain that “was, in fact, a cloud-factory” (64).  Even the burnt lands that so awed Thoreau in the first chapter are only neutrally described in the final chapter (255), much as the second chapter’s portrait of moose butchering as a “tragical business” (115) is reported with utter nonchalance in the third (266-67).  In short, The Maine Woods consistently dramatizes how Thoreau, with a little more time in those woods, comes to appreciate how humans and nature have created a new middle landscape, one certainly more wild than Concord’s middle landscape, but a middle landscape all the same.

[19]        Perhaps, though, it is his depictions of the more permanent Maine settlements that really showcase Thoreau’s talents as a pastoralist. His description of his stay at the remote house of George McCauslin (one of his guides) includes a paragraph lavishing such detailed praise upon the supper offered (“Everything here was in profusion, and the best of its kind” (23)) that it is worthy of comparison to that classic of English pastoral poetry Ben Jonson’s “To Penshurst.”  But Thoreau also finds that pastoral ideal in the lives of the native peoples, too, even in “Ktaadn,” the chapter otherwise depicting Thoreau at his most bigoted toward the Indians.  Thoreau begins by remarking upon the primitive quality of the Indian’s life, but note how he then moves on to implicitly question whether the primitive and civilized are so easily distinguished from each other:

Thus a man shall lead his life away here on the edge of the wilderness, on Indian Millinocket stream, in a new world, far in the dark of a continent, and have a flute to play at evening here, while his strains echo to the stars, amid the howling of wolves; shall live, as it were, in the primitive age of the world, a primitive man.  Yet he shall spend a sunny day, and in this century be my contemporary; perchance shall read some scattered leaves of literature, and sometimes talk with me.  (78-79)

[20]        As discussed below, this is just one of many times when Thoreau emphasizes the civil quality of those — white or red — who live in the middle landscape of the Maine woods.(17)


[21]        In Walden, Marx contends, Thoreau’s middle landscape is an act of literature, nothing more.  When in “Spring” Thoreau describes the thawing bank as evidence that the season’s arrival is “like the creation of Cosmos out of Chaos and the realization of the Golden Age,” he is careful, Marx explains, to include the word “like.”  “It is a poetic figure,” Marx continues:

In Walden Thoreau is clear…about the location of meaning and value.  He is saying that it does not reside in the natural facts or in social institutions or in anything ‘out there,’ but in consciousness.  It is a product of imaginative perception, of the analogy-perceiving, metaphor-making, mythopoeic power of the human mind.  For Thoreau the realization of the golden age is, finally, a matter of private and, in fact, literary experience.  Since it has nothing to do with the environment, with social institutions or material reality…, then the writer’s physical location is of no great moment.(18)

[22]        Marx’s assertions may or may not be true of Walden, but in The Maine Woods Thoreau’s physical location does indeed seem to be of great moment, politically — I will now argue — as well as ecologically. The Maine Woods makes abundant references to not only politics but also political theory (including the nature of civil society, the government, and the citizen), and yet these subjects seem to have been completely disregarded by critics.  Part of this neglect of Thoreau’s interest in political theory is undoubtedly in keeping with the hoary tradition of reading Thoreau as an anarchist, a simplistic reading of Thoreau’s work that I have challenged in another place.(19)   Here, I seek only to evaluate Thoreau’s intentions in so openly admiring not just Maine’s woods but Maine itself:  that is, Maine as a political as well as an ecological model for republics.  The details of this admiration, I will contend, comprise the most comprehensive portrait of that “still more glorious and perfect state” (of “Resistance to Civil Government”) to be found in Thoreau’s oeuvre.

[23]        There are, for sure, a few moments when Thoreau bluntly dismisses politics in The Maine Woods, but certainly such moments are to be expected in a pastoral.  After all, a pastoral does promote an ethos of rurality over against the city (and its political machinations) as well as over against the wild.  So, just a few paragraphs into the book, Thoreau is dismayed to learn that people still gossip about political news all the way up in rural Passadumkeag (8).  Deeper into the book, and more randomly at the end of a paragraph otherwise dedicated to the “note of the white-throated sparrow,” Thoreau erupts “What a glorious time [the sparrows] must have in that wilderness, far from mankind and election day!” (193).  Nor is there anything surprising in the substance of Thoreau’s objections:  Thoreau memorably objects to society’s obsession with “the news” in Walden  and voting in “Resistance.”(20)

[24]        More surprising is Thoreau’s readiness in The Maine Woods to nonetheless acknowledge that some political activity up in Maine is worthwhile — quite a lot of it, actually.  There is his genuine appreciation of the native people’s deliberations about public schools for Indians at the end of both the second and third chapters (148-49, 293-94).  There’s also Thoreau’s remarking not only that he finds a stray copy of Emerson’s “Address on West India Emancipation” at a logging camp but that it also (and the italics are Thoreau’s) “had made two converts to the Liberty party here” (34).

[25]        These and other little details might just be incongruous, except that Thoreau explicitly praises Americans — and rural Americans more precisely — for their love of the liberty of thought and discussion.  In “Ktaadn,” summarizing his disdain for a provincial quality English tourist he meets, Thoreau observes that, in contrast, “[n]o people can long continue provincial in character who have the propensity for politics and whittling, and rapid traveling, which the Yankees have, and who are leaving the mother country behind in the variety of their notions and inventions.”  He continues in this patriotic vein:  “The possession and exercise of practical talent merely, are a sure and rapid means of intellectual culture and independence” (15).  A few pages later, Thoreau becomes more precise in his praise, lauding McCauslin’s “dry wit and shrewdness, and…general intelligence” as traits that “I had not looked for in the backwoods.”  This leads to a remarkable assertion:

In fact, the deeper you penetrate into the woods, the more intelligent, and, in one sense, less countrified do you find the inhabitants; for always the pioneer has been a traveler, and, to some extent, a man of the world; and, as the distances with which he is familiar are greater, so is his information more general and far reaching than the villager’s.  If I were to look for a narrow, uninformed, and countrified mind, as opposed to the intelligence and refinement which are thought to emanate from cities, it would be among the rusty inhabitants of an old-settled country, on farms all run out and gone to seed with life-ever-lasting, in the towns about Boston, even on the high road in Concord, and not in the backwoods in Maine. (22-23)
[26]        This is the first of the many defenses of the pioneer — along with the hunter — as a model citizen, the kind of citizen that Thoreau describes at the end of “Resistance to Civil Government.”  This ideal citizen is that “higher and independent power” to which the ideal state will defer, for this ideal citizen may live “aloof” from that state yet still fulfill “all the duties of neighbors and fellow-men.”   In the rest of this section of my essay, I will examine how Thoreau rigorously defends this model “forest-citizen” (as I will refer to both the pioneer and the hunter) as Maine’s great offering to new democratic republics like the United States, a forest-citizen that is the “fruit” (again, recalling the language of that last paragraph in “Resistance”) of both Maine’s political and natural resources — of both Maine and its woods.

[27]        Consider Maine’s natural resources, first.  Ecologically, Maine cultivates its forest-citizens with its diverse and especially well-watered topography.  Thoreau does not recognize this at first about Maine, and this yet another theme in The Maine Woods that emerges only over the course of the three chapters.  In the first, “Ktaadn,” Thoreau asserts that “[t]he country is an archipelago of lakes, — the lake-country of New England” (36), but toward the end of the third chapter, “The Allegash and East Branch,” Thoreau reverses the emphasis:  Maine is more water than land, it seems, and so “instead of being a lake country, it was an archipelago” (246).  All that water is what makes the Maine woods so enlightening, so civilizing.

[28]        Allow me to demonstrate this in more detail.  In “Ktaadn,” this quality of the Maine woods is not at all clear to Thoreau:

What is most striking in the Maine wilderness is, the continuousness of the forest, with fewer open intervals or glades than you had imagined….The aspect of the country indeed is universally stern and savage, excepting the distant views of the forest from hills, and the lake prospects, which are mild and civilizing in a degree….These are not the artificial forests of an English king — a royal preserve merely.  Here prevail no forest laws, but those of nature. The aborigines have never been dispossessed, nor nature disforested.  (80)
[29]        Thoreau finds Maine’s forest overwhelmingly closed and dark, and, like the first modern theorists of liberalism (the social contract theorists, Hobbes and Locke, a point to which I return in my conclusion), he assumes that a land where the “laws…of nature” prevail can only produce aborigines, salvages or woods “people” (to pick up a word from the next paragraph) who themselves have never been disforested, enlightened, civilized.

[30]        By and large, Thoreau continues to read the Maine landscape along these lines in the second chapter, “Chesuncook,” too.  He and his party headed through the woods toward Chesuncook Lake “with as much expectation as if it had been a university, — for it is not often that the stream of our life opens into such expansions” (122).  Maine does not offer enough of these vistas, he concludes, and so enlightened civilization can never develop there.  Thoreau ties these presumptions together in a brilliant concluding paragraph of “Chesuncook.”  After criticizing the excessive eradication of trees in states to the south of Maine, Thoreau admits that, “[n]evertheless, it was a relief to get back to our smooth, but still varied landscape [of Massachusetts]” (155).  He continues:

For a permanent residence, it seemed to me that there could be no comparison between this [Massachusetts] and the wilderness, necessary as the latter is for a resource and a background, the raw material of all our civilization.  The wilderness is simple, almost to barrenness.  [Rather, t]he partially cultivated country it is which chiefly has inspired, and will continue to inspire, the strains of poets, such as compose the mass of any literature.  Our woods [in Maine] are sylvan, and their inhabitants woodmen and rustics,— that is, selvaggia, and the inhabitants are salvages.  A civilized man, using the word in the ordinary sense, with his ideas and associations, must at length pine there, like a cultivated plant, which clasps its fibres about a crude and undissolved mass of peat.  At the extreme North, the voyagers are obliged to dance and act plays for employment.  Perhaps our own woods and fields, — in the best wooded towns, where we need not quarrel about the huckleberries, — with the primitive swamps scattered here and there in their midst, but not prevailing over them, are the perfection of parks and groves, gardens, arbors, paths, vistas, and landscapes. (155)
[31]        Without question, we have here Thoreau’s ringing endorsement of the middle landscape.  What we also have, though, is his conclusion — thus far, at least — that the more settled parts of the country alone can achieve this.  The Maine woods are just too wild, the people who inhabit them only salvages, “woodspeople.”(21)

[32]        However, in the third chapter, “The Allegash and East Branch,” Thoreau reconsiders his opinion of the Maine woods in a couple ways.  For one, as already indicated, Thoreau discovers in this chapter just “how watered this country is” (245), much more so than he thought in “Ktaadn.”  And those waterways really do enlighten the forest-citizenry (211), as does the occasional settler’s clearing (240).  When in this last chapter Thoreau reintroduces his thesis that the woods can produce only the savage and not the civilized, his phrasing is notably more tempered:

It is an agreeable change to cross a lake, after you have been shut up in the woods, not only on account of the greater expanse of water, but also of sky.  It is one of the surprises which Nature has in store for the traveler in the forest.  To look down, in this case, over eighteen miles of water, was liberating and civilizing even.  No doubt, the short distance to which you can see in the woods, and the general twilight, would at length react on the inhabitants, and make them salvages.  The lakes also reveal the mountains, and give ample scope and range to our thoughts….I perceive that in these woods the earliest settlements are, for various reasons, clustering about the lakes, but partly, I think, for the sake of the neighborhood as the oldest clearings.  They are forest schools already established, — great centres of light. (197-198)
[33]        No longer does Thoreau unconditionally declare life in the Maine woods to be that of the salvage.  The woods “would at length…make” one a salvage — again, in the sense of making one a woodsperson — except that Maine’s well-watered woods are in fact “forest schools,” great centres of the light that make one enlightened, civilized.  And, Thoreau in this passage seems now to allow that within the Maine woods, at least, there is indeed enough variation in the topography to enlighten its travelers.  In a paragraph close to the end of the book, meant to serve as a summation of the camping experience in the Maine woods, Thoreau notes that “[y]ou may penetrate half a dozen rods further into that twilight wilderness…or you may run down to the shore” for water “and while you stand there, see a fish leap, or duck alight in the river, or hear a wood-thrush or robin sing in the woods.  That is as if you had been to town or civilized parts….[T]en or fifteen rods seems a great way from your companions, and you come back with the air of a much traveled man” (275).

[34]        The other way Thoreau revises his judgment of the Maine woods — as civilizing and enlightening its forest-citizens rather than (to recall his phrasing above) “making them salvages” — brings me to the second of the resources of Maine assessed in this book, its political resources.  Not only is Maine’s middle landscape richer in ecological variety than Thoreau at first believed, but Maine’s middle landscape is also richer in political resources, particularly its civil society and its government.  Both of these, along with the ecological variety described above, combine to cultivate Thoreau’s model republicans, the forest-citizens.

[35]        Turning to civil society first, throughout the book, Thoreau presents Maine’s civil society as developing in response to those dark woods.  He writes that “[t]he trees are a standing night” (275), and his choice of “standing” pointedly links the trees — as he also linked the “standing government” in “Resistance” — to the “standing army,” which was the traditional threat to the liberties and virtues of a new republic.(22)   More specifically, against that standing night, Thoreau most often champions the (literally) most enlightening component of Maine civil society, fire.  “Ktaadn” refers to the various camps Thoreau and his colleagues come across as, for example, “a spacious public house in the woods” (12); “[e]very log hut in these woods is a public house,” he writes (18).  Given that “the scenery about them is drear and savage enough” (19), what is essential to a “true forest house” (20) is a huge fire.  “These houses are made comfortable by the huge fires that can be afforded night and day” (19), he writes, and “[t]he fire-place [is] the most important place of all” (19).  (Needless to say, the fire at McCauslin’s — that Penshurst of Maine — “would have roasted an ox” (23).)  On a rainy day, Thoreau looks over Emerson’s “Address” and books and pamphlets by the light of the fire at McCauslin’s (34).

[36]        Thoreau never neglects to describe the fire’s fundamental role when making camps outdoors, either.  In “Ktaadn,” Thoreau reports that “[t]he first business was to make a fire,” which “is the main comfort of a camp, whether in summer or winter, and is about as ample at one season as at another.  It is as well for cheerfulness, as for warmth and dryness.”  Indeed, Thoreau continues, “[i]t forms one side of the camp; one bright side at any rate” (39).  Fire literally helps to define the civilized space humans make for themselves against the standing night of the woods.  Later in “Ktaadn” he writes again that “we lay under our tent…and the usual huge fire blazed in front” (55).  After fishing, “[w]e soon had a fire blazing, and stood around it, under the damp and somber forest of firs and birches,” cooking the fish.  (“Thus we regaled ourselves” (59) he adds, a typically mischievous choice of word to describe the forest-citizenry of this republic of Maine.)  Perhaps the passage that makes the centrality of fire to Maine’s civil society most explicit is Thoreau’s description of yet another campsite in “Chesuncook”:

It was worth the while to lie down in a country where you could afford such great fires; that was one whole side, and the bright side, of our world.  We had first rolled up a large log some eighteen inches through and ten feet long, for a back log to last all night, and then piled on the trees to the height of three or four feet, no matter how green or damp.  In fact, we burned as much wood that night as would, with economy and an air-tight stove, last a poor family in one of our cities all winter.  It was very agreeable, as well as independent, this lying in the open air, and the fire kept our uncovered extremities warm enough. (104)
[37]        Thoreau underscores here the fundamental differences between the open-air, well-lit, and civil experience of the forest-citizens’ hearth and the cramped, closed-in, and isolated experience of the city-citizens’, especially when he adds that “[i]t was surprising with what impunity and comfort one who has always lain in a warm bed in a close apartment, and studiously avoided drafts of air, can lie down on the ground without a shelter, roll himself in a blanket, and sleep before a fire…and even come soon to enjoy and value the fresh air” (104).   More, the fire provides not only the heat that liberates people from an atomized existence in the city but also the same kind of enlightenment as Maine’s well-watered and mountainous topography.  Thoreau concludes his tribute to the camp fire with a portrait of “the ascent of the sparks through the firs” (104).  “We do not suspect how much our chimneys have concealed; and now air-tight stoves have come to conceal all the rest” (105).(23)

[38]        In keeping with their combative position vis-à-vis the “standing night” of the trees, these camps and their forest-citizens are, for Thoreau, akin to militias, which from Machiavelli forward were traditional indicators of the healthy republic.  Thoreau likens the loggers to warriors who lived in “the Homeric age,” though Thoreau’s intention is as much to remind us of the domestic responsibilities of Achilles and his men as to underscore the heroism of the Maine forest-citizens (128).  Thoreau praises one Maine hunter as enjoying a “much more wild and adventurous…life than that of the hunter in Concord woods, who gets back to his house and the mill-dam every night.”  His praise then veers into the kind of language usually reserved for portraits of the Spartan citizen-soldier.

How much more respectable also is the life of the solitary pioneer or settler in these, or any woods, — having real difficulties, not of his own creation, drawing his subsistence directly from nature, — than that of the helpless multitudes in the towns who depend on gratifying the extremely artificial wants of society and are thrown out of employment by hard times. (244)
[39]        Coming across another logging camp, Thoreau writes “[i]t was a simple and strong fort erected against the cold, and suggested what valiant trencher work had been done there” (248).  Perhaps the furthest Thoreau goes in this vein is in his paean to the Indian in “Chesuncook,” whose bow is “so sure to be unstrung by contact with civilization.”  “Alas for the Hunter Race!,” Thoreau declares, “the white man has driven off their game, and substituted a cent in its place” (146).

[40]        But, like Jefferson “lead[ing] the mind toward an affirmation of primitive values…but [with] not serious intention of going all the way” (to recall Marx’s words one last time), Thoreau seems in such passages to be pushing us to reconsider our assumption that citizenship must be cultivated in a middle landscape bereft of all elements of the wild.  What Thoreau finds in Maine, to the contrary, is that a middle landscape situated much closer to the wild extreme is perfectly capable of cultivating a civilized citizenry.  I mean civilized, as Thoreau does above, in the ordinary sense, “with his ideas and associations” (155).  Maine’s rugged forest-citizens have both ideas and associations.  Like those who hear howling in the wilderness when there is none, only those unfamiliar with Maine assume the pioneer and hunter to be “solitary,” something Thoreau dramatizes for us in “The Allegash and East Branch.”  When returning from their excursion Polis recommends an alternative route back to Oldtown, Thoreau confesses that he “feared…that the banks of the St. John were too much settled.  When I asked him which course would take us through the wildest country, he said the route by the East Branch.  Partly from this consideration,” Thoreau writes, “we resolved to adhere” to the original, wilder route.  Three paragraphs later, however, Thoreau includes this exchange with Polis, which the reader is now prepared to understand as critical not of Polis’s inclinations to build civil associations but of Thoreau and his companions’ unenlightened instinct to be alone:

Polis had evidently more curiosity respecting the few settlers in those woods than we. If nothing was said, he took it for granted that we wanted to go straight to the next log hut. Having observed that we came by the log huts at Chesuncook, and the blind Canadian’s at the Mud Pond carry, without stopping to communicate with the inhabitants, he took occasion now to suggest that the usual way was, when you came near a house, to go to it, and tell the inhabitants what you had seen or heard, and then they tell you what they had seen; but we laughed, and said that we had had enough of houses for the present, and had come here partly to avoid them. (234)
[41]        Polis seeks to keep Thoreau from “going all the way” into primitivism.  He is instructing Thoreau (and us) about the character of Maine civil society, something his tribe has occasion to do again at the end of the book.  While in “Ktaadn” Thoreau had been convinced that Indians were little more than isolated vagrants in the woods (e.g., “[m]et face to face, these Indians in their native woods looked like the sinister and slouching fellows whom you meet picking up strings and paper in the streets of a city” (78)),  the Penobscot Indians impress Thoreau very differently at the end of “The Allegash and the East Branch”:
The Penobscot Indians seem to be more social, even, than the whites. Ever and anon in the deepest wilderness of Maine you come to the log-hut of a Yankee or Canada settler, but a Penobscot never takes up his residence in such a solitude. They are not even scattered about on their islands in the Penobscot, which are all within the settlements, but gathered together on two or three, — though not always on the best soil, — evidently for the sake of society. I saw one or two houses not now used by them, because, as our Indian Polis said, they were too solitary. (291)
[42]        Throughout The Maine Woods, then, one finds detailed appreciations of Maine’s civil society, the complex product of both native peoples and whites.  Supporting this rich network of civil associations is the government.  Many readers are familiar with Thoreau’s various calls for the government to preserve the wilderness.  Most memorably, Thoreau wrote in Walden that “[w]e need the tonic of wildness”:  “[o]ur village life would stagnate if it were not for the unexplored forests and meadows which surround it.”(24)   It is in The Maine Woods, though, that Thoreau proposes how the government will get us that tonic.  This is the last paragraph of “Chesuncook”:
The kings of England formerly had their forests ‘to hold the king’s game,’ for sport or food, sometimes destroying villages to create or extend them; and I think that they were impelled by a true instinct. Why should not we, who have renounced the king's authority, have our national preserves, where no villages need be destroyed, in which the bear and panther, and some even of the hunter race, may still exist, and not be ‘civilized off the face of the earth,’ — our forests, not to hold the king's game merely, but to hold and preserve the king himself also, the lord of creation, — not for idle sport or food, but for inspiration and our own true re-creation? or shall we, like villains, grub them all up, poaching on our own national domains? (156)
[43]        What must be noted is that Thoreau is proposing that the government not only preserve the forests but also those animals and humans that thrive there.  He proposes this, I would contend, not to isolate the Indians but rather to allow them to preserve their civil associations and the forest-citizen ideal that Thoreau is advocating throughout this book.  The paragraph preceding the one just quoted, for example, explains that this preserved wilderness is necessary for “fragile flowers…commonly described as too delicate for cultivation…derive their nutriment from the crudest mass of peat.”  What are these fragile flowers?  Partly, they are the native peoples, to whom whites must go for instruction, just as they must go to the forest for the same.  “These [flowers] remind us,” Thoreau explains, “that, not only for strength, but for beauty, the poet must, from time to time, travel the logger’s path and the Indian’s trail, to drink at some new and more bracing fountain of the Muses, far in the recesses of the wilderness” (156).

[44]        Also notable about Thoreau’s proposal at the end of “Chesuncook” is that the government will preserve forests without destroying villages — that we should “have our national preserves, where no villages need be destroyed.”  Thoreau is describing, in other words, a different middle landscape, where the village and wild thrive in close proximity to one another.  As already discussed, the “Chesuncook” chapter also includes among its final paragraphs the great tribute to the “smooth, but still varied landscape” of “the best wooded towns” in Massachusetts, not Maine.  But there is another paragraph in that final section of “Chesuncook” that seems to endorse Maine, not Massachusetts, as the real model.  Maine, he worries, “will soon be where Massachusetts is.”

[45]        A good part of her territory is already as bare and commonplace as much of our neighborhood, and her villages generally are not so well shaded as ours. We seem to think that the earth must go through the ordeal of sheep-pasturage before it is habitable by man. (153)

[46]        What Thoreau seems to be suggesting, here, is that the traditional pastoral — emphasizing pasturage in the hills around a central town — is not the only way to make a middle landscape, and that we might redefine that landscape to include more extensively forested areas.  In that same paragraph, Thoreau goes on to chastise the excessive elimination of trees.  “And what are we coming to in our Middlesex [County, Massachusetts] towns? — a bald, staring town-house, or meeting-house, and a bare liberty-pole, as leafless as it is fruitless, for all I can see.”  True liberty, Thoreau seems to be suggesting here, requires a middle landscape that is more richly wooded, and he goes on to rail against the farmers’ habit of (what they call) “brushing up” but which “deserves to be called…Tree-hat[ing]” (154).

[47]        That forested middle landscape would be populated by forest-citizens, both the pioneers and the hunters, and the government is instrumental to their cultivation.  Thoreau indicates in several places that he is perfectly aware that the pioneer, like the hunter, tends to disappear with more permanent settlement.  Contrasting the Maine pioneer to “his brothers in the West,” Thoreau notes that the Maine pioneer’s “life is in some respect more adventurous….for he contends with winter as well as the wilderness, and there is a greater interval of time at least between him and the army which is to follow” (125).  But the government can do a few things, Thoreau proposes, to support those pioneers even after the army of settlers arrive.  Reflecting on the “fortune of pioneer dogs” who “face the brunt of the battle for their race” and the debt the future dogs of a more civilized Maine will owe them, Thoreau concludes “[w]e owe to our fathers analogous blessings.  Many old people receive pensions for no other reason, it seems to me, but as a compensation for having lived a long time ago” (127).  Thoreau seems to drop this idea only to pick it up a few pages later:

The sight of one of these frontier-houses, built of these great logs, whose inhabitants have unflinchingly maintained their ground many summers and winters in the wilderness, reminds me of famous forts, like Ticonderoga, or Crown Point, which have sustained memorable sieges.  They are especially winter-quarters, and at this season this one had a partially deserted look, as if the siege were raised a little, the snow-banks being melted from before it, and its garrison accordingly reduced.  I think of their daily food as rations, — it is called ‘supplies’; a Bible and a great coat are munitions of war, and a single man seen about the premises is a sentinel on duty.  You expect that he will require the countersign, and will perchance take you for Ethan Allen, come to demand the surrender of his fort in the name of the Contintental Congress.  It is a sort of ranger service.  Arnold’s expedition is a daily experience with these settlers.  They can prove that they were out at almost any time; and I think that all the first generation of them deserve a pension more than any that went to the Mexican war. (130)
[48]        If the government does not yet give pensions to these forest citizens, there are other ways that it supports pioneers and hunters.  Thoreau notes in passing that “I was told, that, by a recent law of Maine, foreigners are not allowed to kill moose there at any season; white Americans can kill them only a particular season, but the Indians of Maine at all seasons” (137).  Later Thoreau reveals his support for such laws by his disdain for a moose warden who fails to uphold them.  “His duty being, as he said, only to prevent the ‘indiscriminate’ slaughter” of moose for their hides, a moose-warden allowed a white man to hunt out of season.  “I suppose,” Thoreau dryly concludes, “that he would consider it an indiscriminate slaughter when a quarter was not reserved for himself.  Such are the perquisites of this office” (209).  Thoreau also supports laws restricting logging.  “Much timbers has been stolen from the public lands,” he notes in “Chesuncook.”  “Pray, what kind of forest warden is the Public itself” that it allows this to happen? (145).  Noticing a water trough along a road in “Ktaadn,” Thoreau learns from his companion that the government of Maine provides three dollars annually to one man in each school district to maintain that for travelers.  Thoreau deems this “a piece of intelligence as refreshing to me as the water itself”:

That legislature did not sit in vain.  It was an oriental act, which made me wish that I was still further down east — another Maine law, which I hope we may get in Massachusetts.  That state is banishing bar-rooms from its highways, and conducting the mountain springs thither. (88)

[49]        Readers familiar with “Resistance” — where he “heartily accepts the motto…That government is best which governs least,” etc. — and Thoreau’s brilliant essays in opposition to the Fugitive Slave Law and in support of John Brown will know how little Thoreau relished a government that violates personal liberties, and Thoreau signals his enduring concern here in the reference to the water trough law as “oriental,” shorthand in Thoreau’s day for a tyrannizing government.  Nevertheless, as I’ve written elsewhere, Thoreau like more nineteenth-century liberals than we tend to realize generally supported legislation (like that prohibiting the sale of liquor in certain places, or promoting the tonic of wildness in others) that was “perfectionist” in intent:  that is, legislation that would cultivate good people and good citizens.  A state-funded water supply was one such law.(25)

[50]        What, then, is the fruit of all this legislation, this robust and diverse civil society, and this varied topography?  What kind of citizen does Maine’s middle landscape — Maine’s forest polis — yield?  The short answer is the actual Polis of the book, Joe Polis, Thoreau’s guide in “The Allegash and East Branch.”  What impresses Thoreau the most about Polis, of course, is his woodcraft, his abilities as a hunter and a pioneer.  Often, Thoreau presents those abilities as a kind of rebuttal to the notion that the Maine woods are just too wild.  “Think of the denseness of the forest, the fallen trees and rocks, the windings of the river, the streams emptying in and the frequent swamps to be crossed.  It made you shudder.  Yet,” he continues, “the Indian [Polis] from time to time pointed out to us where he had thus crept along day after day when he was a boy of ten….” (279).(26)

[51]        Like two other natives who impress Thoreau — Joe Aitteon (89-90) and Louis Neptune (147) — Polis is introduced as an aristocrat within his tribe (158), and he has all the qualities of the natural aristocrat that Thoreau and Emerson and many other nineteenth-century authors like to imbue their representative men.  Polis is a man of few words (159, 162-63), a gentleman (161), frank (166), pious (194-95), intelligent (201), simple in dress (226), well-mannered (272), and playful (285-86).  Polis is also politick (294), and Thoreau is careful to note that Polis was successful operating in the actual polis of both whites (197) and Indians (294).

[52]        But, most of all for Thoreau, Polis is supremely self-possessed in the woods, living proof that “the individual as a higher and independent power” (as he phrased it in “Resistance”) can indeed flourish in a middle landscape that is more forest than pasture.  Of course, Polis’s virtues as a forest citizen are largely traceable to his being raised according to native custom: “The Allegash and East Branch” is in large part Thoreau’s unqualified tribute to the native people’s forest civilization. (“Nature must have made a thousand revelations to them,” Thoreau marvels at one point, “which are still secrets to us”   (181).)  But Polis’s self-possession is also a result of his drawing upon the best that white civilization has to offer, too.  In Polis, Thoreau writes, “you have an Indian availing himself cunningly of the advantages of civilization, without losing any of his woodcraft, but proving himself the more successful hunter for it” (201).  That melding of civilizations, and the topography’s and government’s roles in the process, are the major policy recommendations Thoreau makes in this pastoral.


[53]        In the second chapter of The Machine in the Garden, Marx describes how Elizabethan travel literature is beset with contradictory images of America as both a garden of Eden and a howling wilderness.  Modern liberal theory traces its beginnings to this same period, and one quick way to explain why Hobbes’s leviathan state and Locke’s liberal state are so different is to note that while the former imagined the state arising in opposition to a nasty, brutish wilderness the latter imagined it arising in opposition — more gently, but still in opposition — to a garden.

[54]        Whatever their differences, both Hobbes and Locke imagined the state arising in opposition to nature, and perhaps the largest claim that can be made for Thoreau’s two projects in The Maine Woods is that here he is finally bringing to liberal theory a different sensibility, the sensibilities of a master pastoralist.  This is to say that Thoreau in The Maine Woods is imagining a state that arises not in opposition to but in harmony with nature, a middle landscape that is as sophisticated politically as pastorals have always been ecologically.  To rewrite liberal theory in the mode of the pastoral requires a better understanding of how humans really live in the wild, a better understanding of that notorious “state of nature.”  How Thoreau achieves that better understanding of the state of nature is what is dramatized over the course of the three chapters in the book.  If the first chapter is chockfull of references to the Maine woods as “grim” and “dreary” (culminating in the “Contact!” paragraph) and to the native peoples as not just “salvages” but “savages,” by the middle of the book Thoreau has begun to change course.  Now he mocks the propensity of whites to travel through the forest like Hobbes’s men in a state of war, their coach bristling with guns (161).  He mocks himself for thinking — like that first modern primitivist, Montaigne — of the Indians as cannibals (134-36), or of himself as a martyred Jesuit missionary (96, 136).  And now Thoreau slowly begins to build upon the idea that — after noting that even the Maine woods have human inhabitants — there seems to be a “law by which men are dispersed over the globe,” “a very stringent one, and not to be resisted with impunity or for slight reasons” (11).  That is Thoreau’s version of the law of nature, and when we are able to finally surrender our naturist fantasies of empty wilderness as well as culturist (and social-contractualist) fantasies of a completely reengineered world, and instead understand that it is a law that humans will inhabit all of the earth, the question then becomes how do we govern ourselves in harmony with — not in opposition to, not in self-quarantine from — the earth?  Yes, settlers naturally want space around them:  Thoreau notes that McCauslin “wanted no neighbors — he didn’t wish to see any road by his house” (25).  At the same time, Thoreau gently mocks this conceit of absolute solitude, reflecting (as McCauslin points out various landmarks around his house) that “even there the points of compass held” (26).  Rather than insist upon the absolute difference of the wild from the human, Thoreau would instead have us think of a tree as “a good citizen of the world” (62), lake shores as “civil and refined” (80), elms as “civil looking” (96).

[55]        The wild, in short, emerges in The Maine Woods as our partner in civilization, rather than our enemy, or our victim, and “[w]hile the republic has already acquired a history worldwide, America is still unsettled and unexplored” (81).  To bring all of America in line with its republican ideals requires a different model of citizenship, forest-citizenship, a citizenship cultivated by an enlightening civil society, a delicately interventionist government, and most of all a richly varied topography that has not been reduced entirely to pasturage.  Only then might we achieve that “still more perfect and glorious state,” one that Thoreau first “imagined” in “Resistance to Civil Government” and then may indeed have found up in Maine.


1.   On the difference between the sentimental and complex pastoral, see The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 5.  Marx himself admits the limitations of the complex pastoral when in closing he remarks that these authors “have served us well” but “[t]o change the situation we require new symbols of possibility.” “[A]lthough the creation of those symbols is in some measure the responsibility of artists,” he notes, “it is in greater measure the responsibility of society” (Machine, 365). - back

2.   This characterization of the current debate between naturists and culturists follows that sketched in Dana Phillips, The Truth of Ecology:  Nature, Culture, and Literature in America (New York:  Oxford University Press, 2003), 3-41. - back

3.   Wilderness and the American Mind, Fourth Edition (New Haven:  Yale University Press, 2001), 30-31.  While he effectively banishes the pastoral from the middle position, Nash still at times seems to want to value that middle position, as when he admires Thoreau for having “arrived at the middle by straddling.”  Nash’s explanation of how one values the middle by straddling it reveals, though, that the middle no longer matters.  Thoreau “rejoiced in the extremes,” Nash writes, “and, by keeping a foot in each, believed he could extract the best of both worlds.”  Note that there are now only two, no longer three, worlds:  the city and the wild, a dualism that becomes most rigid in Nash’s own utopia of humans living in urban “island civilizations” surrounded by pure wilderness.  “People living on the island habitats could leave them to enjoy minimum-impact vacations in the surrounding wild matrix,” Nash allows.  “They could even live out there,” but only as “wilderness people.”  “There are exciting possibilities for existences divided between quality wilderness and quality civilization.” (Wilderness, 94, 383). This seems the culmination of the straddling ideal. - back

4.   “Et in Arcadia Ego: Pastoral Theory Meets Ecocriticism,” Western American Literature 27.3 (1992): 203 - back

5.   “American Pastoral Reappraised,” American Literary History 1.1 (Spring 1989): 23; The Environmental Imagination: Thoreau, Nature Writing, and the Formation of American Culture (Cambridge:  Belknap Press, 1995), 439.  While one can still find references to both Marx and the pastoral in ecocriticism, one cannot find any reference to the pastoral as middle landscape.  See, for example, Cheryl Glotfelty and Harold Fromm, eds., The Ecocriticism Reader: Landmarks in Literary Ecology (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1996) and Karla Armbruster and Kathleen R. Wallace, eds., Beyond Nature Writing: Expanding the Boundaries of Ecocriticism (Charlottesville:  University of Virginia Press, 2001). - back

6.   Henry David Thoreau, Walden and "Resistance to Civil Government," ed. W. Rossi (New York: Norton Critical Editions, 1992), 245. - back

7.  Marx, The Machine in the Garden, 22, 87, 121, 139-40, 246. - back

8.    The Maine Woods was published posthumously in 1864; following a rough plan left by Thoreau, his friend Ellery Channing and sister Sophia Thoreau assembled the book from three essays about his trips to Maine and an appendix of technical terms.  The first chapter, “Ktaadn” describes Thoreau’s first trip to Maine to climb that mountain in August and September of 1846; it was originally serialized in some 1848 issues of Union Magazine.  The second chapter, “Chesuncook,” describes Thoreau’s second trip to Maine in September 1853 and was first published in the June-August 1858 issues of Atlantic Monthly.  The third chapter, “The Allegash and East Branch,” describes his third and final trip to Maine in July-August 1857. - back

9.    Henry David Thoreau, The Maine Woods, ed. J. Moldenhauer (Princeton:  Princeton University Press, 2004), 69-70.  Additional citations are provided in the text. - back

10.   Max Oelschlaeger, The Idea of Wilderness: From Prehistory to the Age of Ecology (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1991), 149.  Buell also emphasizes this paragraph from The Maine Woods, citing it as evidence of Thoreau’s prescient biocentrism:  that is, Thoreau’s appreciation of biota in itself:  The Environmental Imagination, 13-14.  Whatever the interpretation of it, the “Contact!” passage has for a long time been the primary or even only passage from The Maine Woods discussed by critics.  For a summary of how critics have focused on this passage, once to prove Thoreau’s repulsion from the wild and now to prove his attraction to it, see Jeffrey Myers, Converging Stories: Race, Ecology, and Environmental Justice in American Literature (Athens:  University of Georgia Press, 2005), 158n. - back

11.   Consider the other explicit references to Mt. Ktaadn prior to the ascent. The second reference is to “our first, but…partial view of Ktaadn,” which Thoreau describes as “a dark isthmus in that quarter, connecting the heavens with the earth” (33).  The third is to note that the mountain’s “tableland appearance” reminds Thoreau of “where a demigod might be let down to take a turn or two in an afternoon, to settle his dinner” (45).  And, when Thoreau and his party finally begin the ascent, the mountain is a “blue barrier as if it were some fragment of a wall which anciently bounded the earth in that direction” (57).  There are too many references to God (or some higher power) in the actual “Contact!” paragraph to review here, but, to cite the most important one, Thoreau describes this burnt land as “a specimen of what God saw fit to make this world” (71). - back

12.   Throughout this essay, my points about The Maine Woods assume that Thoreau intended the sequence of chapters to dramatize his evolving understanding of multiple subjects.  On Thoreau’s “gradually increasing sensitivity to the natives” over the course of the three chapters, see Philip F. Gura, “Thoreau’s Maine Woods Indians: More Representative Men,” American Literature 49.3 (Nov. 1977): 366-384. - back

13.   Bradley P. Dean characterizes the paragraph as Thoreau’s “attempt to articulate the ineffable, for Thoreau on Mount Katahdin, like Moses on Mount Sinai, had beheld God (spirit) and nature (matter) face to face”; see “Introduction,” Wild Fruits, Henry David Thoreau (New York: W.W. Norton, 2000):  xv.  Along these lines, one might read The Maine Woods as in part a narrative of Thoreau’s coming to terms with the inadequacy of the classical and Judeo-Christian traditions to do justice to God’s presence in nature.  As he concludes following the experience of the phosphorescent wood, “I have much to learn of the Indian, nothing of the missionary” (181).  An allusion at the beginning of “Chesuncook” indicates Thoreau might find his experience analogous to Jonah’s in the Bible.  On the steamer from Boston to Bangor, Thoreau reports he is “[a]nxious to get out of the whale’s belly” (85).  Like Jonah en route to the Ninevites, then, Thoreau initially thinks of himself as the reluctant but righteous missionary —  a “chaplain to the hunters” (99).  But Thoreau, like Jonah, eventually discovers that he actually has little to offer these salvages — that they are capable of coming to God without much prodding from him after all.  In the fourth and last book of Jonah, the prophet sulks under a gourd; learning one does not have a monopoly on righteousness is not easy.  Thoreau’s own under-the-gourd moment would be the third chapter of The Maine Woods, “The Allegash and East Branch.”  That chapter begins with Joe Polis’s first question to Thoreau — what is “the meaning of reality”? (168) — but Thoreau has already admitted he doesn’t know this (e.g., “who are we? where are we?”).  Rather, Thoreau, like Jonah, actually comes to know God after his missionary work:  in Thoreau’s case, as a witness to Polis’s own piety.  The two ironic references to himself as analogous to hapless Jesuit missionaries would support this reading of Thoreau as Jonah, too (96, 136). - back

14.   I can find only a few moments in The Maine Woods where Thoreau, as in the “Economy” chapter of Walden, objects to the human use of nature and just leaves it at that.  One would be the fourth paragraph of “Ktaadn,” which ends “[t]he mission of men there [in the Maine woods] seems to be, like so many busy demons, to drive the forest all out of the country, from every solitary beaver swamp, and mountain side, as soon as possible” (5).  But the norm in The Maine Woods is for Thoreau first to denounce a “lower” use of nature and then to propose a “higher” one.  In “Chesuncook,” Thoreau writes that “the pine is no more lumber than man is, and to be made into boards and houses is no more its true and highest use than the truest use of a man is to be cut down and made into manure” (121).   On the tendency of contemporary critics to ignore the spiritual or transcendental concerns in Thoreau’s writing, see Dean, “Introduction,” and Daniel S. Malachuk, “Transcendentalism, Perfectionism, and Walden,” The Concord Saunterer New Series, 12/13 (2004/2005): 283-303. - back

15.   Marx, The Machine in the Garden, 121. - back

16.   In “Ktaadn” Thoreau also imagines a future city conducting lively commerce (36), and, in “Chesuncook,” future “ornamental grounds” alongside a forest stream (108, 118). - back

17.   Other portraits of abundance would include the description of fishing for trout near McCauslin’s cabin (53-55) and Smith’s farm (127). - back

18.   Marx, The Machine in the Garden, 264. - back

19.   In his Introduction, Taylor provides a good summary (and critique) of the commentary on Thoreau’s anarchism:  Bob Pepperman Taylor, America’s Bachelor Uncle: Thoreau and the American Polity (Lawrence:  University Press of Kansas, 1996), 1-13.  I examine Thoreau’s commitment to the liberal state in Daniel S. Malachuk, Perfection, the State, and Victorian Liberalism (New York:  Palgrave, 2005), 111-15, 127-29. - back

20.   Thoreau, Walden and "Resistance to Civil Government", 63-65, 230-31. - back

21.   For the purport of Thoreau’s wordplay here — i.e., that he means “woodspeople” literally, not savages — see Robert F. Sayre, Thoreau and the American Indians (Princeton:  Princeton University Press, 1977), 8-9. - back

22.   Thoreau, Walden and "Resistance to Civil Government," 226. - back

23.   Typical of the many other references to fire in the book is “[w]hen I returned to the shore it was quite dark, but we had a rousing fire to warm and dry us by, and a snug apartment behind it” (240).  Less typical, but as important, Thoreau seems also to approve of the role fire plays in making more permanent settlements:  see his blunt recommendation that the urban poor burn over Maine land, become farmers, and thus “begin life as Adam did” (14). - back

24.   Thoreau, Walden and "Resistance to Civil Government," 211. - back

25.   Malachuk, Perfection, the State, and Victorian Liberalism. - back

26.   Also in reference to Polis’s woodcraft, Thoreau exclaims “[w]hat a wilderness walk for a man to take alone!...It reminded me of Prometheus Bound. Here was traveling of the old heroic kind over the unaltered face of nature” (235).  Recalling the fundamental role of fire in civilizing Maine, Thoreau’s portrait of Polis as the demigod who brings fire to humanity is striking enough.  Additionally, this second reference to Prometheus makes us reconsider the first, which Thoreau makes when describing the Ktaadn summit.  “It reminded me of the creations of the old epic and dramatic poets, of Atlas, Vulcan, the Cyclops, and Prometheus.  Such was Caucasus and the rock where Prometheus was bound” (64).  A reading of Polis as Prometheus would suggest that Thoreau has come to understand that summit and can now answer the questions it inspires: who are we? where are we? - back

Thoreau Reader:  Home - Maine Woods