Tennessee Williams: “A Streetcar Named Desire” (1947)

Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire is a quite amazing play. It contains the maturation of some of Williams’ most central themes, such as the burden of the past, the violence of human institutions (again the family is the most visceral and inescapable of these), and the difficulty of honest relationships. The key point to me is that Blanche DuBois was making an honest attempt to remake herself by moving into her sister’s house after fleeing her ancestral home of Laurel. While she certainly made mistakes, she is not a horrible person and did not deserve the abuse she received by her brother-in-law, which ranged from intrusive interrogations, spying, rape, and ultimately exile and institutionalization. As we learn, Blanche has good reasons for her life falling apart. It is striking that compared to the family, the law and the state is actually quite open about giving people second chances. As difficult as it may be to survive the bureaucratic machine of the state after a mistake or a catastrophe, it at least (through systems of parole and bankruptcy) hold onto the mythology of second chances. Stanley (and more hesitantly Stella Kowalski) exploits Blanche’s weaknesses for his own pleasure and domination in the household.


Stanley is a working class guy and actually has a rather strong relationship with his wife due to their sexual chemistry and regular periods of freedom from each other. Certainly Blanche’s arrival—destitute and homeless although under certain pretensions—disrupts their delicate system. Stanley is eager to defend his little world from what he soon takes to be an intruder. (The hot water bathes seemed quite bothersome.) Class prejudice shapes Blanche’s view of Stanley. She also picks up on his defensive attitude toward his space and his family. “Thousands and thousands of years have passed him right by, and these he is—Stanley Kowalski—survivor of the stone age! Bearing the raw meat home from the kill in the jungle! And you—you here—waiting for him! Maybe he’ll strike you or maybe grunt and kiss you! That is, if kisses have been discovered yet! Night falls and the other apes gather! There in the front of the cave, all grunting like him, and swilling and gnawing and hulking!” (510)


Blanche may share some of the delusions attitudes of Amanda in A Glass Menagerie, but unlike Amanda, Blanche is really harming no one else with her delusions of grandeur and her promiscuity. If we look at her situation we find much to sympathize with. She was left in the ancestral home with the remnants of a Southern aristocracy (now a gerontocracy). Her job is to bury these elders one at a time. In the end she is left bankrupt and bearing the moral responsibility for being the last member of a decaying dynasty. Her husband killed himself after being exposed as a homosexual. Alone in her hometown she becomes promiscuous and an alcoholic and is eventually kicked out of the hotel she was staying at. She was fired from her job as a teacher around the same time (reportedly for starting a sexual relationship with a student). She certainly could have used some solidarity and support from her surviving relatives. This does not excuse her attitude toward her brother-in-law, which is dreadfully aristocratic.

The tragedy of the play is built on the tyranny of expectations both individual and social. Despite what Blanche says about Stanley, comparing him to an ape, he is as capable as the people of Blanche and Stella’s hometown of using moral expectations as a weapon. It is not clear that he holds them, but he sure does put on the moral outrage when he reports on what his informants tell him about Blanche’s unfortunate past in Laurel.

Of course the play ends with the largely unseen but very ominous threat of the asylum. Stanley arranged for Blanche to be taken in as a ward of a mental institution after her nervous breakdown resulting from Stanley raping her. Signs of her mental deterioration preceded this event and the rape is a tragic addition to her life of suffering. Stanley wanted to get rid of her and likely would have used a similar device to get rid of her. Why is it that in so much art, the police, the prison, the school and other authoritarian institutions are so easily attacked and undermined yet we continue to send our children and our brothers and sisters to these places? Why do not these depictions of institutions do more to undermine their power over our lives?

Tennessee Williams, “The Glass Menagerie” (1944)

I mean that as soon as Laura has got somebody to take care of her, married, a home of her own, independent—why then, you’ll be free to go wherever you please, on land, on sea, whichever way the wind blows you! But until that time you’ve got to look out for your sister. I don’t say me because I’m old and don’t matter! I say for your sister because she’s young and dependent. (422)


This is part of a short speech by Amanda in Tennessee Williams’ play The Glass Menagerie. I put it on there as an example of how the language of freedom is so easily a part of the lexicon of American literature. One could hardly say that the characters in the 1945 play are free. With the exception of the “gentleman caller,” Jim, none of the characters are able to break themselves free of their chains. Yet freedom remains the goal. This is part of the argument of this blog. The discourse on freedom is deep in the American mind, as evidenced by its literary heritage, despite—or perhaps because of—the authoritarian institutions, capitalism, family, and all the other shackles.

Williams produced a handful of plays during the war. I am skipping over, for now, the one-act plays collected in 27 Wagons Full of Cotton (published in 1946) to look at the great run of plays he produced in the decade between The Glass Menagerie and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. This was period saw Williams rise in the theatrical world and the awarding of two Pulitzer Prizes (not that we should judge the works based on such standards).

I have never seen A Glass Menagerie, or any other Tennessee Williams plays, performed live. I suspect that it would be a very claustrophobic experience. Williams took great pains in the stage directions to create the setting for his “memory play.” There are only four characters. The setting is an apartment near an alley in St. Louis. Escaping even for a minute is presented as a victory. Amanda Wingfield is the mother and she lives entirely in the past, often repeating banal lessons about the way life if to her near captive children. At every moment she reinforces the idea that her children are incapable of moving beyond the home, despite demanding that of them. Laura, her daughter, is the owner of the titular glass menagerie, which occupies much of her time. She has a leg brace and this had led to her mother being overly protective of her. By the time of the play, Laura lacks any self-confidence and is completely dependent on her mother and brother. Williams writes about her that “Laura’s separation increases till she is like a piece of her own glass collection, too exquisitely fragile to move from the shelf.” (394) Tom, the son, has a meaningless job but has greater ambitions. The needs of his mother and sister keep him at the apartment. He is the one most directly enslaved by the situation and the one most capable of rebellion. The final character is a breath of fresh air. Tom brings in Jim as a “gentleman caller” for his sister, although there is little hope that it will go anywhere. Jim is not a brilliant man but he is quickly able to diagnosis the situation in the apartment and knows enough to stay away.

The structure of play is suggested on the first page. “Part I. Preparation for a Gentleman Caller. Part II. The Gentleman calls.” This is more or less the end of Amanda’s dreams for her daughter. In Amanda’s mind, the only hope for her daughter is if some man saves her by marrying her. Amanda seems to live in a deluded past that recalls an endless train of suitors for her own hand. This reaches the level of a tall tale when we learn about one day with seventeen suitors. Tom wants to get out desperately. He often goes to movies just to escape the apartment and his queer mother and banal sister. Amanda assumes he is engages in all sorts of other activities, but Tom denies this. Eventually, he brings in Jim who politely gets to know Laura and leaves. It was not a serious date for Jim, although Amanda and Laura envisioned it as a central event in their life. All in all, it is quite horrible to watch unfold.

The date was more like a brief therapy session where Jim desperately encourages Laura to go out into the world and make something of herself on her own terms. “Why, man alive, Laura! Just look about you a little. What do you see? A world full of common people! All of ‘em born and all of ‘em going to die! Which of them has one-tenth of yoru good points! Or mine! Or anyone else’s, as far as that goes—Gosh! Everyone excels in some one thing. Some in many! All you’ve got to do is discover in what.” (454) There is a bit pomposity in this lecture (he looks in the mirror when he comments how some people excel in many things), but it is a lesson that a woman like Laura, who has been told all of her life that she is inadequate and needs the support of a man, needs desperately.

Tom is probably the only character who can escape. He has a job and some dreams of his own. He spends most of the play with one foot outside the door anyway. There seems to be to be little hope for Amanda or Laura. Amanda is too married to the past. She must live in the delusional house she created. Laura long lost any chance for emotional autonomy. The lesson of this play for our thinking about freedom is the devastating impact family can have. Oppression is much more likely to be something intimate. People like Bill Gates and Terry Guo may be worth billions and run little empires, but it is our immediate boss, the tedious middle manager who oppresses us day to day. To talk about the patriarchal marriage system seems besides the point in a play like The Glass Menagerie. The damage done to Laura was done by the ones closet to her. As long as living in freedom requires a free mind, the problem of the oppression of familial expectations will need to be addressed. I have no doubt that there are countless Lauras out there (and no small number of Toms). The people who create the chains around these victims need to be accountable.

Watch it for yourself.

Tennessee Williams, “Battle of Angels” (1939)

Tennessee Williams wrote Battle of Angels in 1939. Its initial run was quite brief, running only for about a week or so at the end of 1940 and the beginning of 1941. It would be published six years later. As I can tell, it was not performed until reworked into Orpheus Descending in the 1950s, after Williams had secured some success. The two plays are often published together. There are several themes at work in this play mostly about the nature of Southern small town life. It takes on a rather mystical angel at various times through the elusive character of the Conjure Man. I was to mention only one theme: the oppression of law both informal and formal. (It is a Sunday and I have a bit of other work to do on top of this blog, so I will be brief.)


The plot surrounds a migrant worker Val who arrives in a small town and takes a job in a general store. He piques the interest of an unmarried woman Cassandra (whose failure to marry has made a notorious figure in the community). Their date goes badly when she seems to expect sex from Val. Val later falls in love with the married manager of the store, Myra. Myra’s husband is old and dying and she is attracted to Val so they eventually become lovers. Val has a past. He fled Waco due to accusations of rape (he is apparently innocent but we really only has his claim that the woman from Waco was slighted by Val’s regrets the next day). During his employment, Val comes to the aid of an unemployed black man who is threatened with arrest for vagrancy. These four characters are bound by legal expectations. Val, like Caleb Williams or Jean Valjean, is being chased throughout the country for alleged crimes. This makes it impossible for him to settle in one place. The opposite is the fate of Loom, the black migrant, who by not being tied to the employment of a white man is considered a dangerous element in the small town. Cassandra is scorned by the other women in the town for her sexual liberty. Myra is bound to a banal and lifeless marriage. She is so desperate to escape that she has to lock the backroom door at one point and hide the key so as not to be driven to adultery with Val, who she is quickly falling in love with.

Cassandra has actually thought long and hard about the limitations she faces. Mocked by the other women in the town and even rejected by the rather sensuous and free Val, she has internalized her role as a pariah. It does, however, limit her freedom in the town. She is typecast and in fact she is presented to use as a bit of a tramp before we learn how she interprets her world. Williams may have been hacking the values he critiqued in structuring the introduction of Cassandra’s character that way. Cassandra’s monologue is fascinatingly rich. “You must be blind. You—savage. And me—aristocrat. Both of us things whose license has been revoked in the civilized world. Both of us equally damned and for the good reason. Because we both want freedom. Of course, I knew you were really better than me. A whole lot better. I’m rotten. Neurotic. Our blood’s gone bad from too much inter-breeding. They’ve set up the guillotine not in the Place de Concorde, but here, inside our own bodies.” (220) She sums up later on that the same truth confines Myra using some of the same language. “They’ve passed a law against passion. Our license has been revoked.”

Cassandra is facing the informal laws of the community, but the expectations are just as odious on Loon. In fact, the law against vagrancy builds on social expectations of their own. One of the thugs who question his “vagrancy” says: “Yeh, you all hush up. I’m talkin’ to this young fellow. Now, looky here: a nigger works on a white man’s property, don’t he? White man houses him an’ feeds him an’ pays him living’ wages as long as he produces. But when he don’t, it’s like my daddy said, he’s gotta be blasted out a th’ ground like a daid tree stump befo’ you can run a plow th’ought it!” (237–238)

I found the play to be worth reading. I cannot yet say if Orpheus Descending improves on Battle of Angels. I suspect it does, but this work stands on its own and parallels some of the transgressive themes of Not About Nightingales.


Tennessee Williams, “Not About Nightingales” (1939)

Tennessee Williams dedicated Not About Nightingales to one of his heroes, Clarence Darrow. Its major them would have been attracted to Darrow for it looks at the tension between the individual and the institution. This play is set entirely within an island prison, an apparently thinly veiled allegory for Alcatraz, but Williams claims that the prison is a model for all prisons. There are actually a series of interlocking confinement devices at work in the play. The island imprisons everyone who arrives, the prison contains 3,500 “criminals,” and “Klondike” is a solitary confinement cell—a place feared more than any by the prisoners. The action of the play centers on the arrival of a new secretary Eva, devastated by unemployment and desperate for work, and her love affair with an inmate Jim, who works in the office close to the warden and Eva. The second related plot is about a hunger strike that the inmates stage in protest of poor conditions and poor food. These two plot lines come together in the tragic aftermath.

Not About Nightingales was very timely in 1938, but it would take sixty years before it would be performed on the stage. A production (on Youtube at the time this post was written) is posted below.

As the play opens we meet a woman from Wisconsin who comes to the prison to visit her son, a sailor, who was put in prison for larceny. She is suspicious about the end of his letters. It is revealed that her son, Sailor Jack, has gone insane. Jack is just one of many prisoners at nearing this state. The warden, seemingly capable but largely indifferent to the running of the prison and unwilling to face what is going on within the walls of the prison, shovels most of these problems under the table, whether it is a financial irregularity or even the death of inmates.

He hires Eva almost as soon as she walks into the door because he is attracted to her. Eva is desperate for work. The bad economy has driven her to work in a prison, something she dreads for a variety of reasons. The immorality of working for a prison is made clear to Eva during a conversation in the second act with Jim, from which the title of the play emerges. Jim is disgusted by the Keats poem “Ode to a Nightingale” proclaiming that “Don’ those literary punks know there’s something more important to write about than that? They ought to spend a few years in stir before they select their subjects!” (149) For Jim, art must be directed toward class war. Eva defends Keats with: “He got out of prison by looking at the stars. He wrote about beauty as a form of escape.” (150) This part of the discussion highlights Williams view of art in the Great Depression era. This view was shared by many leftist writers of the time, who saw the proper role of art as polemical. In a follow up conversation, Eva and Jim discuss the morality of working for the prison. Jim states that she is contributing to the system that he and the other inmates are working to overthrow. Eva, desperately poor sees herself as having no choice but to work in the prison. In a way she is like many of the inmates who were forced to crime by the times. This strikes me as the key point in the entire play and its moral center.

The institution corrupts all people. The good-natured and intelligent Jim is drive toward violent rebellion. Eva serves a police force she does not empathize with and sees her authentic love affair with Jim transformed into something criminal (subject to voyeuristic investigations by the guards). Most importantly, the warden uses his power to constantly sexually harass Eva. He seems to have hired her due to her attractiveness, being largely disinterested in her credentials. He is on the outs with his wife, who leaves him at some point during the course of the play, and has had affairs. The warden sees Eva much as he sees the inmates, a captive person who must respond favorably to his advances. Once he learns of her feelings for Jim, he uses his upcoming parole decision to extort the promise of sexual favors. “Suppose I—I did sympathize—do as you say—and—and kept my mouth shut and anything else that you want! Would you send the letter? Would Jim get his parole? . . . The mailboat leaves at eleven-forty-five. You could have it sent over by that. Don’t worry. I won’t back out. I’m not afraid of you now. I like you—I’d like to show you how much.” (181)

The outcome of this is cut short by the outbreak of violence in the hunger strike. The prisoners jury-rig the solitary confinement cell to reach 150 degrees, using it to kill a guard. Jim participates in the murder of the warden. The arrival of the military forces the prisoners to either try to escape and swim to shore or fight it out against the military. Jim chooses flight and is never heard from again.

The causes of the prison rebellion seem to outsiders to be slight, but to the prisoners they are matter a great deal. Struggles need to be understood in their context, but all too often privileged people critique oppressed people for their strategies of resistance, their values, or their goals. Certainly people not in prison would not understand starting a hunger strike over monotonous food, but from that it should not be said that their struggle was meaningless or silly. As Jim attempts to explain to Eva, food was almost all they had.

Tennessee Williams, “Spring Storm” (1937)

One of my goals for this year in my blog is to expand types of writing. Up to now, I have focused on non-fiction writing, novels, and short stories. I think my coverage has been diverse, there are two areas of writing that I have neglected: poetry and the stage. To begin correcting this, I will take the next two weeks or so reading the collected plays of Tennessee Williams, collected in two volumes. An immediate problem that comes up is that my normal strategy of gobbling around 150 pages a day will not work if I want to give each work the attention it deserves. These two volumes collected over 20 of Williams’ plays. If I take it a work at a time, I will risk writing a longer series than even my lengthy looks at Philip K. Dick and Mark Twain. For now, I plan to post everyday one or two plays to keep pace.

Tennessee Williams wrote Spring Storm for a playwright course at the University of Iowa. He had previously seen a handful of his works staged by amateur and student groups. Spring Storms was a failure in his course and the St. Louis theater troupe, “the Mummers,” refused to perform it despite putting on some of his other works. He was twenty-six when this was written and he has spent most of his adult life facing the Great Depression. Spending most of that time writing, he attended journalism school and performed various jobs, including working at a branch of the International Shoe Company, which his father manages. His career had a slow start and he attended various colleges. Spring Storm was never performed during Williams’ lifetime.


The social context of Spring Storms is an old Southern aristocratic family—the Critchfields—in a decline accelerated by the Great Depression. As the older generation of the family sees it, their last asset is their daughter Heavenly. By marrying the son of a well-off family, Arthur Shannon, the family’s financial future can be improved. As with much Great Depression literature, class exists at the center of this play. It runs through all relationships between the characters and drives the major action. None of the younger generation are particularly interested in the class divide, however. Whether this is due to their youthful naivety or a more progressive attitude toward class due to the Depression is open to interpretation. In the background of the Critchfield family is the historical legacy of Colonel Wayne, a Confederate officer who fought at Gettysburg. His portrait hands in the background and is commonly discussed. Heavenly even has conversations with him.

Young Tennessee Williams

Young Tennessee Williams

Four young men and women form the center of the story. Heavenly Critchfield has recently begun a sexual relationship with Richard (Dick) Miles. She suggest to her parents that she is pregnant by him, but this could be a means to avoid marriage to Arthur. Dick is presented as a working class dreamer. Arthur is well-off and has spent some time in Europe, where he sowed his wild oats and enjoyed various privileges that money provides. He is having a relationship with Hertha. Williams describes her as follows. “Hertha is thin and dark, about twenty-eight. Without money or social position, she has to depend upon a feverish animation and cleverness to make her place among people. She has an original mind with a distinct gift for creative work. She is probably the most sensitive and intelligent person in Port Tyler, Mississippi.” (13–14) Unlike Dick, Hertha is smart enough to engage with the world on its own terms. Dick, from a similar class background is more reckless. The initial pairings break class assumptions about who should be with who, but the young people’s indifference to class runs deeper. Arthur holds a grudge against Dick and Heavenly for the insults they lodged at him in school. His money did not translate into class privilege in the context of the playground.

Pushed by her family, Heavenly begins a courtship with Arthur, but she is quite cold and coy with him. She is much more interested in Dick but knows he is unstable. Arthur is filled with jealousy and resentment toward Heavenely and Dick. In a type of misdirected vengeance he focuses on seducing Hertha. His monologue, directed toward Hertha in an attempt to seduce her, is central to the play.

Yes. I told her that I was in love with her, and she said that I should go out and get drunk because that was the only thing that would do me any good. So I got drunk. It’s the first time I ever got drunk in my life and it was swell. Till I started thinking of her making love to Dick Miles. . . . I can forget all that with you, can’t I? You’re a girl, too. You could make love as well as she could. But not with Dick Miles. With me. What are you backing away for? Are you scared? That’s flattering. Nobody’s ever been scared of me before. I was like you, Hertha. I hid behind books all the time because they used to call me sissy when I was a kid in school. I never got over that. Not till tonight when I got drunk. God! I never knew it could be so good to get drunk and feel like a man inside. Literature and the arts. Stravinsky, Beethoven, Brahms. Concerts, matinees, recitals—what’s all that? If I told you you’d blush. You don’t like that kind of language. Sure, I sat through all that stuff and thought it was great. Got much stuff publishes in those little magazines with the big cultural movements. Art for art’s sake. Give America back to the Indians. I thought I was being highbrow. Intellectual. The hell with that stuff. Dick Mile’s go the right idea. He was one that she gave herself to, not me, not me. The one that got drunk and had himself a good time, he was the one that got Heavenly, and me with my intellectual pretensions, my fancy education, and my father’s money—what did I get? Pushed in the face! (76–77)


In this monologue, we see Arthur’s class resentment come forth. Whatever freedom his wealth gave him—evidenced by some trysts in Europe and his social clout in the town—he still experiences frustration over the experiences and social circle that his wealth excludes him from. Williams may be feeding into the cultural movements of the Great Depression that focused on the exclusionary nature of class and the divide across America people “the people” and the elite.

Arthur’s sexual aggression toward Hertha leads to her suicide, which his interprets as a murder that he is responsible for. (The stage notes were a bit opaque for me about how she died, whether it was murder or suicide.) Dick, ever a dreamer, quits his work as a local courier and flees both the town and Heavenly. All the characters are thus left alone, their different class backgrounds and perspectives on life making them incompatibles.

Ah, there is much more that could be touched on, most significantly the division between the ages groups and the values changing from nineteenth century to twentieth century America.

Henry David Thoreau: “Cape Cod” (1865)

It is generally supposed that they who have long been conversant with the Ocean can foretell, by certain indications, such as its roar and the notes of sea-fowl, when it will change from calm to storm; but probably no such ancient mariner as we dream of exists; they know no more, at least, than the older sailors do about this voyage of life on which we are all embarked. Nevertheless, we love to hear the sayings of old sailors, and their accounts of natural phenomena, which totally ignore, and are ignored by, science; and possibly they will not always looked over the gunwale so long in vain. (937)


The final work by Henry David Thoreau collected in this Library of America volume is the posthumously published Cape Cod. (For my thoughts on his essays, see my previous posts organized in the Index, linked above.) Cape Cod has some similarities with The Maine Woods. Both were published in the year or two after Thoreau’s death with the leadership of his sister. Both were based on three separate trips to a place in New England, explored over the course of a decade. Both, potentially, give a long view of historical and environmental change. Cape Cod, however, looks at a place that is fully “civilized,” while The Maine Woods considered a place that, in Thoreau’s mind at least, was still a wilderness. To find this wilderness that so attracted him, Thoreau had to look to the coast and the sea. This is his only work to take the ocean as a category of analysis. Water was a major theme in Walden, but as part of the local ecosystem. Here the ocean stands as a behemoth before Thoreau.

The sea has even power over the land. “Perhaps what the Ocean takes from one part of the Cape it gives to another,—robs Peter to pay Paul. On the eastern side the sea appears to be everywhere encroaching on the land. Not only the land is undermined, and its ruins carried off by currents, but the sand is blown from the beach directly up the steep bank where it is one hundred and fifty feet high.” (956) The sea was not something that Thoreau could quite get a handle on, but he was impressed by the sailors and fishermen who dwelled in Cape Cod for their intimate knowledge of the sea.

As a node of capitalism, the exploitation of the environment, and commerce, Cape Cod is the polar opposite of the self-sufficient world Thoreau tried to create near Walden Pond. Lighthouses, ship wrecks, and small towns lining the cape. Nevertheless, Thoreau notices signs of people living on the margins, making a living from the periphery. I am sure he saw in these self-sufficient fishermen the pursuit of the same type of life he tried to live in Walden. “It is remarkable what a serious business men make of getting their dinners, and how universally shiftlessness and a groveling taste take refuge in a merely ant-like industry.” (976) He defends this “shiftlessness” as merely a coastal version of the life he advocated.

The chapter called “The Wellfleet Oysterman” is an interesting window into a vibrant subculture of Cape Cod. I am struck that in his other works, Thoreau has little to say about other people’s labors. Often they are cast aside as wage slavery or rejected along with the rest of the emerging industrial civilization Thoreau saw around him. This chapter may be his most careful study of how other people live and work. For me this is a sign of maturity on Thoreau’s part and suggests an opening of his mind. If Walden is about he chose to live and pursue freedom, Cape Cod is interested in how others have done so. And in his honest moments, he must confess that they find their own space for freedom, even within the capitalist civilization. So those of you who think that Thoreau is an impractical lifestylist, I do suggest taking a look at Cape Cod as well as The Maine Woods for evidence that he did have a broader appreciate for the system, the damage it caused and the diversity of ways people could live within it. Well, I will keep it short and sweet today. That completes my study of Thoreau, the great American individualist and perhaps early anarchist thinker.


Henry David Thoreau: “The Maine Woods” (1864, posthumous)

The Anglo-American can indeed cut down, and grub up all this waving forest, and make a stump speech, and vote for Buchanan on its ruins, but he cannot converse with the spirit of the tree he fells, he cannot read the poetry and mythology which retire as he advances. He ignorantly erases mythological tablets in order to print his handbills and town-meeting warrants on them. Before he has learned his a b c in the beautiful but mystic lore of the wilderness which Spenser and Dante had just begun to read, he cuts it down, coins a pine-tree shilling, (as if to signify the pine’s value to him,) puts up a deestrict [sic] school-house, and introduces Webster’s spelling-book. (769–770)


One thing that strikes the reader of Henry David Thoreau’s book The Maine Woods is that he is describing a region under incessant threat of industrial capitalism. There is a struggle for survival at the heart of this book between the expansionist forces of New England capitalism and a more diverse world sheltered in the woods of Maine. The book consists of three essays written by Thoreau after three separate trips to the Maine forests. The first was in 1846, when he was living in Walden. The second was in 1853. The final trip was in 1857. A close analysis (which I will not do here) will suggests a gradual erosion of the wilderness in the face of expanding American capitalism. With these tours we are really seeing different stages of this conquest. Thoreau finds much appealing about Maine compared to Massachusetts, but cannot help but notice that that world is under growing stress.


The works Thoreau published during his life were really philosophical tracts that were presented as autobiographical narratives of his time living with nature. A Week was about a river trip. Walden, of course, was about his two years living near Walden pond. They can be read for the naturalistic value they offer, but mostly we approach those texts for what they say about Thoreau’s values and philosophy. The Maine Woods is much closer to a real travelogue.

So the signs of capitalist development are all around. We see it in the creeping settling of farmers, the formation of towns, the evaporation of Indian cultures, the rising of picket fences, and mills. Yes, it is not the cruel textile mills of Lowell, but it is the start and Thoreau is wary of much of what he observes. “But Maine, perhaps, will soon be where Massachusetts is. 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.” (710) Some parts of the forests Thoreau explored have already been worked over. In his account of the first trip, he described an old logging camp that has been abandoned, leaving the countryside “overgrown with weeds and bushes.” (626)

Many may approach The Maine Woods as a book of naturalism, and they would not be wrong. I find Thoreau’s descriptions of the people of the Maine forests as fascinating as his descriptions of the landscape. The Indian guides that so affected Thoreau with their beliefs and the fiercely independence settler stand are the center of The Maine Woods. These are, in the end, the only forces that could oppose the creeping gigantism of New England “civilization.” (I am often reminded of Deadwood these days, and I felt it again here in the assumed opposition of the pioneer settlers to the forces of state and corporate power.)

The only hope for the yet pristine parts of the Maine forests was that the United States may have already looked beyond New England and, by the 1850s, was more interested in exploiting and settling the “great West.” Yet even this is a false hope. For Thoreau, Bangor stands as a cancerous tumor in the middle of the woods. The forests are alive still but only for the moment.

We have advanced by leaps to the Pacific, and left many a lesser Oregon and California unexplored behind us. Though the railroad and the telegraph have been established on the shores of Maine, the Indian still looks out from her interior mountains over all these to the sea. There stands the city of Bangor, fifty miles up the Penobscot, at the head of navigation for vessels of the largest class, the principle lumber depot on this continent, with a population of twelve thousand, like a star on the edge of night, still hewing at the forests on which it is built, already overflowing with the luxuries and refinements of Europe, and sending its vessels to Spain, to England, and to the West Indies for its groceries, —and yet only a few axe-men have gone “up river,” into the howling wilderness which feeds it. The bear and deer are still found within its limits. (655)

So, although The Maine Woods is clearly one of Thoreau’s less well-known works and overshadowed by Walden and his great essays, it is historically significant and should be understand in the environmental history of the United States. In a world without wild spaces anymore, it is not always that useful go back to the imagined pristine wilderness. As much as Thoreau believes it exists, he did not understand how the Indians used and misused the natural world even centuries before whites arrived to the Americas. More useful, perhaps, is to look at the original crimes that led to the triumph of capital over the commons. Without fully knowing it, Thoreau did this in The Maine Woods. While describing the forests of Maine he was looking into the seizure of the commons. How this happened, where, when, and by whom are some of the most important historical questions of our time as we struggle to restore the commons before capital succeeds in the destruction of all life.