Charles Brockden Brown: “Wieland; Or, the Transformation” (1798)

The horrors of war would always impend over them, till Germany were seized and divided by Austrian and Prussian tyrants; an event which he strongly suspects was at no great distance. But setting these considerations aside, was it laudable to grasp at wealth and power even when they were within our reach? Were not these the two great sources of depravity? What security had he, that in this change of place and condition, he should not degenerate into a tyrant and voluptuary? Power and riches were chiefly to be dreaded on account of their tendency to deprave the possessor. He held them in abhorrence, not only as instruments of misery to others, but to him on whom they were conferred. (36)


Another unfortunate gap in this blog is now over. This one is due to my summer travels. Now, I am back in Taiwan and ready to write, beginning with the first American gothic novel: Wieland by Charles Brockden Brown. Brown was not only the first American gothic writer, he was the first professional novelist of the young American republic. A little context on this may be useful.

Early colonial society in British North America quickly became both diverse and quite different from England. This was due to the unique conditions, varied economies, and diverse ecologies of mainland North America. Some of the basic examples of this are planation slavery in Virginia and the Puritan town in New England. Over the course of the first half of the eighteenth century, as the colonies developed, they retained some of this uniqueness but became more alike and also more culturally tied to England. The evidence for this is in architecture, furniture, the books colonists read, and fashions. In short, the American educated elite created simulacra of English society, often on a smaller scale. Look at Jefferson’s home, Monticello. The American Revolution revealed the limits of this trans-Atlantic culture. Although independence was won politically and militarily, American culture was still tied to England. The early republican period was concerned not only with establishing the political foundations of American government, but also with establishing cultural independence. The most well-known example of this was Emerson’s call for a distinctive American culture, but the efforts preceded his declaration by decades. The quote above, from the early parts of Wieland show Charles Brockden Brown engaged in an effort to establish—in the written word—what made America different from Europe. Overall, despite the fact that Brown was importing the gothic tradition to America—he was clearly influenced by William Godwin, something even more apparent in Arthur Mervyn—he struggled to make it fresh and American. In this work, it comes across most clearly in the trans-Atlantic geography of the novel. Characters move across a wider canvas. (I am suddenly thinking of Lovecraft’s writing which was both intensely local but at times global in scale.)


Wieland is narrated by Clara Wieland and follows her life on a farm with her brother Theodore. Theodore Wieland married Catherine Pleyel. They maintain a close friendship with Catherine’s brother Henry. They live a quiet life of filled with conversation and intellectual fulfillment. Again, expressing a American sentiment, the Wielands are not wealth estates holders. They have a humble background, complicated by their father’s oddities and bizarre death. He was a follower of a strange religion, which he attempted to deliver to the Indians. He died suddenly of spontaneous combustion. This left the Wielands as orphans. When Theodore is given the chance of claiming an inheritance in Europe he refuses, choosing the more simple life. So, unlike in much of British gothic writing, we are not looking at the elite. However, in sentiment, custom, and morality the narrator Clara reveals a level of humble virtue that was so much a part of the early American ideal.

Their life is disrupted by the arrival of Carwin. He is physically mysterious and the details of his past are only revealed in fragments. Clara comes to know that he is wanted in Europe for robbery, but escaped to America. She is—it seems—attracted to Carwin despite the threat he poses to her virtue. Clara often claimed she felt he was a risk to her life as well, but the subtext is much more sexualized it seems to me. With his arrival Clara—and more importantly Theodore—start to hear voices. Many of these are produced by Carwin who has the ability to throw his voice, a skill he mastered and uses for his own benefit. Pleyel, who is preparing to marry Clara, overhears a conversation suggesting Clara had a sexual relationship with Carwin. Pleyel leaves after confronting her on this. Clara denies having this conversation. It was created by Carwin, who had his own designs on Clara. Later, Theodore killed Catherine and his children, claiming that he was ordered to by voices he has heard. Clara immediately blames Carwin for creating these voices. Carwin confronts Clara, confessing his malevolent uses of his ability, but denies ordering Theodore to kill anyone. Carwin saves Clara’s life from Theodore who escaped from jail. At the end, Clara leaves America for Europe, following Pleyel.

Death of Elder Wieland (spontaneous combustion)

Death of Elder Wieland (spontaneous combustion)

In order to interpret this, I want to go right to the question of human freedom. In the opening parts of the novel, America is presented as a land of equality and freedom. It gives opportunity to orphans and allowed social mobility. Nevertheless, we find our characters quite trapped. Clara is trapped by the sexual politics of the time, expectations of virtue, and general pertinence. Theodore, it turns out, is trapped by a madness that seems to run in the family. Perhaps his father’s religious delusions were rooted in the same madness that caused him to kill his family. Pleyel is much like Clara in his fidelity to social expectations. Carwin is the free agent that disrupts this system. As a consequence he may have driven Theodore over the edge with his use of his ability to create ominous voices. If we look closer, many of the chains that the characters feel are rooted in the Old World. Theodore’s inheritance threatens to transform him into an aristocrat. Carwin himself escaped from Europe and survives on remittances from Europe. Theodore’s philosophy, which is often tinged with fatalism, comes from books imported from Germany. We are presented with a type of chaos caused by the social and political disruptions of the American Revolution. Clara and Theodore seem to us like the United States, orphaned and set on their own, but traumatized by Old World burdens. Theodore reflects the madness of slavery, religious zealotry, and other more schizophrenic aspects to American life. Clara is filled with properness and virtue (what early American republicans thought Europe lacked) but ends up settled in Europe after coming to face with a certain madness of the frontier life. The death of her sister-in-law forced the break. “But now, severed from the companion of my infancy, the partaker of all my thoughts, my cares, and my wishes, I was like one set afloat upon a stormy sea, and hanging his safety upon a plank.” (141)

What I am trying to suggest is that the major theme of Wieland is separation and the division between the Old World and the New. Brown is uncertain quite where that takes him or what to do with it. Unlike a more vulgar work like The Contrast, which places American virtue and European hypocrisy in stark terms. In Brown’s Wieland the divisions are confused, chaotic, and traumatic. This makes it a more realistic tale.                                                                                                       

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.

Henry David Thoreau: “Walden” (1854): Part One

I do not speak to those who are well employed, in whatever circumstance, and they know whether they are well employed or not—but mainly to the mass of men who are discontented, and idly complaining of the hardness of their lot or of the times, when they might improve them. There are some who complain most energetically and inconsolably of any, because they are, as they say, doing their duty. I also have in mind that seemingly wealthy, but most terribly impoverished class of all, who have accumulated dross, but know not how to use it, or get rid of it, and thus have forged their own golden or silver fetters. (335)


Walden by Henry David Thoreau probably is the central text in the American anarchist tradition, although Thoreau never used that word as far as I know. Walden describes the technical details about Thoreau’s two years living near Walden Pond in relative isolation from his neighbors (although he was in walking distance from Concord). He saw it as a successful experiment in self-sufficiency. He took pains to describe how his experiment worked and why his model of simplicity was preferable to the values embraced by industrializing America. He was not rejecting progress. He saw what he was doing as clearly improvements and developments, including building a house, raising crops, and experimenting in innovative techniques. Through it all, however, his pursued these improvements in respect to his own values, needs, and desires.


I am not sure how applicable the way of life described in Walden is to our world. I am sure many anarchists today would accuse someone pursuing a similar experiment today of engaging in “lifestylism,” or point out how his privileged position (having access to Emerson’s land near Concord, being a white male, etc.). These critiques may be fair, but throughout Walden, Thoreau neither rejects the need to critique the world he lives in (the one that began again a mile from his house) nor turns his back on community and society.

Some of you, we all know, are poor, find it hard to live, are sometimes, as it were, gasping for breath. I have no doubts that some of you who read this book are unable to pay for all the dinners which you have actually eaten, or for the coats and shoes which are fast wearing or are already worn out, and have come to this page to spend borrowed or stolen time, robbing your creditors of an hour. (328)

The opening chapter of Walden is the longest. Since it is such a doozy, I will focus just on it today. This chapter stands as one of the great individualist critiques of industrial capitalism. Its prominent place in the book reminds us that Thoreau is interested in the social relations at the root of the rapidly changing world that he lived in. The fact of rapid transformation makes the lessons of the elders meaningless to Thoreau. One problem that industrial capitalism is that is distances us from a knowledge of what is really needed for life and our own capacities. The appeal of the “frontier life” is that it articulates the boundaries of this need and individual potential. He uses the metaphor of being too “warm” to suggest the nefarious aspect of growing wealthy and pursuing luxuries. Intellectual labors have been similarly degraded into the pursuit of luxury, rather than philosophy. By dwelling on the question of necessity, Thoreau tells us that we are not actually that far from post-scarcity (and if we were in 1854 we certainly are now). Increased false needs, luxuries and the like, are one of the major chains preventing us from living freely. Another aspect of this is the feeling that production has value only for commerce. For an individual, the fact that someone does not want to purchase what another has created does not decrease the value of that thing for the creator.

Following this, he explores some of the necessities of life, such as clothing, shelter, and food. The purpose of economy must be to achieve these needs, but our understanding of our needs has been perverted. While some of his arguments about self-sufficiency are dated, others seem inspiring to me. The idea of people building their own home rather than accept a lifetime of debt to banks is not only admirable, but perfectly within the realm of possibility, especially is pursed in community solidarity. From our late capitalist perspective we can look at Thoreau’s model for individual self-sufficiency as a model for sustainability by limited consumption. It is also an argument against work. He insisted that he had to work for others only as a day laborer for a few days per year. Compare this to the endless wage slavery most people of the world face today (if they are the “lucky” ones with jobs). In short, limited needs means limited need to work and limited obligation to institutions indifferent to your survival. This is not an anti-social argument, but a foundation for a much more sociable experience. He does think it is hard for people of radically different values and strategies in life to work together, but he is open to people getting their “living together.” (379)


He has a useful examples of the added benefit of a simple life. Two people want to travel. One walks, working along the way as necessary, but always making progress toward her goal. The second, works to save up enough to purchase a train ticket. Thoreau was unconvinced that the later would reach the destination first and would have a much less meaningful experience. Today, I guess few people still take the option of working on a merchant ship to see the world, but I think we can think seriously about travelling in lower tech ways. Two weeks on a train, instead of one day on a plane may seem rational and ensure I will miss the least amount of work, but I can think of much added value that could come from the slower option.

The chapter on economy ends with a criticism of the reformism that was so popular in Thoreau’s day. He targeting philanthropy as essentially an outside imposition on people’s lives, full of moral baggage. He may have underestimated the horror of poverty, often making an assumption that a poor person may enjoy his life, but we can still take from him a belief that charity need not be presumptuous.

Following “Economy” is a series of shorter chapters that go on until the end of the book. They deal with a variety of topics. Sometimes building off of themes in the first chapter. They can, and should be, read in small chunks for various bits of applied wisdom. I think outside of “Economy,” which really is a primer for the rest, the chapters of Walden can be consumed freely and willfully. I, however, was systematic. I will talk about some of these seventeen chapters in the next post.

Henry David Thoreau: “A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers”: Saturday, Sunday, Monday

Surely the fates are forever kind, through Nature’s laws are more immutable than any despot’s, yet to man’s daily life they rarely seem rigid, but permit him to relax with license in summer weather. He is not harshly reminded of the things he may not do. She is very kind and liberal to all men of vicious habits, and certainly does not deny them quarter; they do not die without priest. Still they maintain life along the way, keeping this side the Styx, still hearty, still resolute, “never better in their lives”; and again, after a dozen years have elapsed, they start up from behind a hedge, asking for work and wages for able-bodied men. (30)


Henry David Thoreau’s brilliant book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, is hard to summarize or even isolate thematically. Like the subtly changing landscapes along the Massachusetts waterways that Thoreau describes, his philosophical ponderings venture from the personal to the national to the universal. Many readers will tease out something for themselves, likely disregarding the rest. If, on the surface, A Week is a naturalists account of the plant and animal life and scenery of the river, it is also a documentary of his thoughts and values. Now we are free to take in some of the scenery and completely ignore others—Thoreau is not an authoritarian telling us to “Look at that tree!” In the same way we are free to completely ignore some of his philosophy. It does not seem to me to be a system that requires unification and strict method for the observer. Nature has certain rules and principles governing how things work. Thoreau’s philosophy has that as well. In neither case, are we required to know what those rules are to appreciate the beauty before us. A Week is an ideal book to read on a day when you promise yourself to do nothing. Maybe it needs to be read in that way. I had trouble getting into it before because I was thinking about what to say about it. I came back to it a bit hung over, bored and uninspired and its treasures opened up before me.

A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers was Henry David Thoreau’s first book. It was written alongside Walden while he was living at Walden Pond. It was published in 1849, almost a decade after the trip that it supposedly documents. It was a disappointment. Emerson did not promote the book to Thoreau’s disappointment. Of the original 1,000 books, Thoreau took back 706 of them. So, it is fair to say that Thoreau was largely neglected at this time. A few years later, Walden will be much more successful. Of course, Thoreau is not making a living from his writing and works various jobs throughout his life such as teaching, surveying, and a bit of lecturing.

A Week is broken up into seven chapters, each corresponding to a date. While I cannot even attempt to approach a summary of the work, I can highlight some anarchist themes. Thoreau is commonly identified as an anarchist and is certainly one of the most important figures in the American libertarian traditions. Months ago I looked at his essays and found not only themes of anti-slavery and individualism, but also strong currents of anti-capitalism and even work resistance. The theme of work resistance surprised me because I rarely saw that outside of a fully industrial, post-scarcity economy. Thoreau was not like Kropotkin, he was suspicious of industrialization and technology. His argument against industrial regimen of work was rooted in his effort to preserve individualism in the face of a homogenizing society. Anyway, let’s see what A Week contributes to my growing literary arsenal of anarchism.

At times Thoreau seems to hack the promethean spirit of early America, a belief in progress and the potential of the human mind to accomplish great deeds, while also sabotaging some of the clearest images of that progress. He questions the application of that promethean spirit.

Instead of the Scythian vastness of the Billerica night, and its wild musical sounds, we were kept awake by the boisterous sport of some Irish laborers on the railroad, wafted to us over the water, still unwearied and unresting on this seventh day, who would not have done with whirling up and down the track with every increasing velocity and still reviving shouts, till late in the night. [Notice that the exploitation of labor and the violation of nature are two sides of the same process for Thoreau.] One sailor was visited in his dreams this night by the Evil Destinies, and all those powers that are hostile to human life, which constrain and oppress the minds of men, and make their path seem difficult and narrow, and beset with dangers, so that the most innocent and worthy enterprises appear insolent and a tempting of fate, and the gods go not with us. But the other happily passed a serene and even ambrosial or immortal night, and his sleep was dreamless, or only the atmosphere of pleasant dreams remained, a happy natural sleep until the morning; and his cheerful spirit soothed and reassured his brother, for whenever they meet, the Good Genius is sure to prevail. (94)

In this second part, Thoreau details the two sides of this coin, labeling them the Evil Destinies and the Good Genius. It is the tension between these two sides of the American spirit that come as close as anything can to being a theme of the book.

As in the opening quote, Thoreau consistently uses the language of freedom and oppression. I included that one because it suggest the logic of the liberal state in a certain way. Like nature, the liberal state gives the illusion of autonomy and freedom. And in the same way that the industrial frontier is just 12 years away from shattering the myth that nature’s laws can be overcome, so is the jackbooted nature of the state always just one crisis from being exposed. Thoreau is perhaps most interested in the tension between freedom nature provides and the unavoidable laws of nature and the pull of society. “Gardening is civil and social, but it wants the vigor and freedom of the forest and the outlaw. There may be an excess of cultivation as well as of anything else, until civilization becomes pathetic. A highly cultivated man,—all whose bones can be bent! Whose heavenborn virtues are but good manners!” (45–46)

Thoreau’s critique of religion is libertarian to the core. A major theme of “Sunday,” the second day of the “week,” is that religions are products of their societies and reinforce the needs and assumptions of that civilization. A hierarchical society, while have a hierarchical god. A terrified society will have gods that terrify them. Thoreau seems to take from this two conclusions. The first is that people should not take the Bible very seriously, pointing out that it does not have much to teach that is valuable or unknown and that it is also bad poetry. “Examine your authority. Even Christ, we fear, had his scheme, his conformity to tradition, which slightly vitiates his teaching. He had not swallowed all formulas. He preached some mere doctrines.” (57) The second conclusion extends from this and suggests that we should create religious traditions that work for ourselves. Is he predicting William James? He talks about a wood-chopper who may find little of practical value in the New Testament. His goodness and conscience is not derived from faith and certainly not organized religion (which is often mocks in the book). “Monday” continues some of the religious perspectives of “Sunday,” where Thoreau takes a special look at the value and limitations of Hinduism and the ancient Greeks. Through this discussion these is the general suggestion that all the different philosophies and religions are windows to the same truth.

Thoreau is constantly worried that the universal truths of nature and humanity (including all that ancient “wisdom” that he gobbles up with only nominal reflection) is doomed to be swept aside and forgotten by the mad rush to industrialization. Even local history, often the topic of A Week, is in danger of being lost. Here is his ideal:

Let a thousand surmises shed some light on this story. We will not be confined by historical, even geological periods which would allow us to doubt of a progress in human affairs. If we rise above this wisdom for a day, we shall expect that this morning of the race, in which it has been supplied with the simplest necessaries, with corn, and wine, and honey, and oil, and fire, and articulate speech, and agricultural and other arts, reared up by degrees from the condition of ants to men, will be succeeded by a day of equally progressive splendor. (127)

Thoreau seems to realize that the world around him is a graveyard of ideas, past ways of living, bits of nature, people, and even entire towns. He is uncomfortable in such a place. At one point he said that has no friends in the graveyard. This again is the two sided coin. The same promethean spirit that Thoreau wants to embrace is responsible for digging a lot of graves.

Francis Parkman, “The Oregon Trail: Sketches of Prairie and Rocky-Mountain Life” (1849), Part Two

“The human race in this part of the world is separated into three divisions, arranged in the order of their merits: white men, Indians, and Mexicans; to the latter of whom the honorable title of ‘whites’ is by no means conceded.” (274–275)

I do not want to give the wrong idea. Francis Parkman’s The Oregon Trail is not a Social Darwinian text, creating an odious racial taxonomy of the “American” West. However, statements like this were hard to look away from as I was reading the second half of the book. Parkman was by no means an egalitarian. In his massive history France and England in North America, he explained the failure of the French empire in religious terms (blaming their Catholicism) and often exposed other prejudices. Late in life, he wrote a polemic against women’s suffrage. In fact, he was quite active in the anti-suffrage movement. Pretty much all of his historical works whitewash black Americans and slavery. We do see here, his intense interest in American Indian life, which runs through his historical scholarship. His first major work was a history of the Pontiac revolt. I do not want to say that this translated into respect or a belief in equality. He never backtracked from racial superiority in the writing of The Oregon Trail, but he does hover around an attitude of respect, even when making clear to his readers that the Indians of the plains are not the threat that they some believe them to be.

Francis Parkman

Francis Parkman

Parkman’s real purpose of his Western travels, recorded in The Oregon Trail, was to experience the life of the Sioux (Ogillallah) first hand. He does this for a month or so before returning home. Readers hoping for a start to finish narrative of the Oregon trail itself will be disappointed, and despite the title of the original version (The California and Oregon Trail), he has nothing to say about the West coast destinations of the migrants.

His major conclusion about Indians, derived from his travels, was that they were fundamentally capricious and rather silly in their beliefs. “A grand scene of gambling was going forward with all the appropriate formalities. They players were staking on the chance issue of the game their ornaments, their horses, and as the excitement rose, their garments, and even their weapons; for desperate gambling is not confined to the halls of Paris. The men of the plains and the forests no less resort to it as a violent but grateful relief to the tedious monotony of their lives, which alternative between fierce excitement and listless inaction.” (208) He thinks this capriciousness leads to inaction and ineffectiveness in war and in interactions with whites. In his view, it was also evidence of a type of passivity, a disturbing acceptance of fate. He describes a fairly impressive war-party and goes through great pains describing how brave the warriors were, how they could suffer torture and death. But, “when suffering from a protracted disorder, an Indian will often abandon himself to his supposed destiny, pine away and die, the victim of his own imagination.” (214) To make the point clear, the chapter ends with a comment on the pathetic dismantling of the war-party after all the “fasting, dreaming, and calling upon the Great Spirit.” (214) Examples of this run throughout his reportage. He is amazed a battle where no one was hurt yet many bullets and arrows were expended. He reports on what he sees as irrational sloth, contributing to the debased and desolate environment.

When Parkman returns to his guides, and Fort Laramie, he returns to reporting on the more international population of migrants following the Santa Fe Trail. There are hints in the final hundred pages of The Oregon Trail of dark foreshadowing about just how horrible the consequences of this migrant would be for the environment and people of the West. They met one armed migrant who claimed that he had a mission during his travels of killing an Indian. Encounters like this convince us immediately that despite the often festive nature of both the migrants and the Indians along the trail, as well as the elaborate rules of the game described in the last post, there was always a brutal reality of violence and power below the surface. For what were these migrants, ultimately, if not the extension of white American power over the continent?

The hints of environmental devastation are just as strong. People slaughtering snakes and keeping trophies. The constant sounds of axes levelling forests. The slaughter of the buffalo. Bears being frightened and chased off by armed gangs of migrants. Parkman admits some of this impact openly. “We soon came in sight of [Bent’s Fort], for it is visible from a considerable distance, standing with its high clay walls in the midst of the scorching plains. It seemed as if a swarm of locusts had invaded the country. The grass for miles was cropped close by the hoses of General Kearney’s soldierly.” (276) As is well known, the buffalo hunts took on a festive atmosphere and were engaged in for sport, more than need. One of his companions challenged: “Do you see them buffalo? Now I bet any man I’ll go and kill one with my yager.” (325) Parkman contributed to the prejudice of the expanding white America over the nature of the West. Several times he refers to the animals of the region (buffalo and sheep are two examples I recall) as being stupid and strangely clannish and arbitrary. This is not so different from how he interpreted the Indians he encountered.



Not insignificantly, the final chapter of The Oregon Trail is called “The Settlement,” which describes both the return to St. Louis after Parkman’s frontier adventures but also the future of the West he toured, although he was not fully aware of it yet. “Little more than a hundred miles now separated us from the frontier settlements. The whole intervening country was a succession of verdant prairies, rising in broad swells and relived by trees clustering like an oasis around some spring, or following the course of a stream along some fertile hollow. These are the prairies of the poet and the novelist. We had left danger behind us. Nothing was to be feared from the Indians of this region, the Sacs and Foxes, the Kanzas, and the Osages.” (337) The reason for this comparative peace was that this land and these people were already consumed by the United States’ empire.

St. Louis at the time of Parkman's travels

St. Louis at the time of Parkman’s travels

Aldo Leopold: The Last Decade

A Sand County Almanac came at the end of Aldo Leopold’s career in professional wildlife management and conservation. Much of his career was spent in the United States Forest Service. He was thus an agent of state-directed conservation and “management.” As his life spanned from the Progressive era to the height of the New Deal project, it is not surprising that he looked to the state for answers. As my last post tried to map out in broad terms, over the course of the 1930s, Leopold lost faith in “civilization” and the state as agents of conservation. By the end of the 1930s, he was looking to the “farmer as conservationist” instead. If A Sand County Almanac was Leopold’s last words, it is striking that the state is almost absent. Surely it has a place in the background and he probably never thought that it had no role in rectifying the relationship between humans and the land, but Leopold was largely thinking in terms of an ethical transformation led by various vernacular forces. I even can see Leopold moving toward an idea that there is an utter disconnect between all aspects of “civilization” and the land.


In 1941, in a then-unpublished manuscript “Yet Come June,” Leopold wrote: “Empires spread over the continents, destroying the soils, the floras and faunas, and each other. Yet the trees grow. Philosophies spread over the empires, teaching the good life with tank and bomb. Machines crawl over the empires hauling goods. Goods are plowed under, or burned. Goods are hawked over the ether, and along lanes where Whitman smelled locusts blossoms morning and evening. Quarrels over godos are planted think as trees along all the rivers of America. . . . Trucks carrying goods race the railroads. Cars carrying consumers of goods race the trucks. Yet the trees grow. . . . Chemists and physicists harness power, biology harnesses plants and animals, all for goods. Politics is the redistribution of goods. Literature and the arts portray the drama of the haves and have-nots. Research is not to decipher the universe, but the step up production. Yet the trees grow.” (457)

Leopold tackled education in a 1942 conference talk called “The Role of Wildlife in a Liberal Education,” which worried that the place of the land in education rested on economic utility: career preparation or policy formulation. As a result wildlife education was largely rooted in the uses of the science. Of course, by this point, Leopold was done with such concerns. Instead he view that wildlife education should aim “to teach citizens the function of wildlife in the land organism.” (466) He even foreshadows the growing influence of ecology in other disciplines. Of course now, scholars in fields as far afield from biology as history and philosophy have discovered that their work is enriched by incorporating the ecological. Leopold juxtaposes wildlife education (what we may now call ecology) with “conservation education,” which is concerned with the preservation of one small part of nature for human use, often at the expense of others. “The basic fallacy in this kind of ‘conservation’ is that it seeks to conserve one resource by destroying another. These ‘conservationists’ are unable to see the land as a whole.” (528) In other words, these conservationists are unable to “think like a mountain.”

Seeing like a state. A Tennessee Valley Authority project

Seeing like a state. A Tennessee Valley Authority project

Leopold’s turn away from the state as an agent of conservation can be seen in another essay, “Land-Use and Democracy,” published in 1942. At this point he is able to look back at the entire New Deal project and its role in conservation. What he sees are the accoutrements of conservation with little meaningful movement toward a revision of our relationship with the land. “Just so we deal with bureaus, policies, laws, and programs, which are the symbols of our problem, instead of with resources, products, and land-ises, which are the problem. Thus we assuage our ego without exposing ourselves to contact with reality.” (476) This should certainly be familiar to us. As we are driving off the cliff of climate change and extinction it would be hard to find a government that does not claim to be moving toward responsible resource use (or sustainability or whatever euphemism is popular now). And what of the concerned public. Most, Leopold points out, are content voting for politicians who promise to back conservation or sending money to groups engaged in good work. That is, laying responsibility on “bigger and better laps.” (477) Democracy seems ill-suited to change the use of the land. As individuals our ecological decisions are often horrifying (putting a dead tree with many years of life ahead of it in our homes for the holidays or eating wheat produced through the destruction of the prairie), even if our sentiments are with the land. If the public cannot be trusted, it is up for government (technocracy) to mitigate our worst tendencies. Yet, government makes a hash of it. Either government simply has no power over what is most necessary to pay attention to (such as the day to day use of land involved in agriculture) or taking well-meaning and even beneficial actions that simply do not help much (artificial reforestation, regulating game fish populations, or rodent control.

For Leopold, the conclusion is that meaningful conservation must come from the bottom up: “collective self-renewal and collective self-maintenance.” (482) For this to happen, perhaps we need to accept that moral or cultural change is a prerequisite.

While most people will likely only read A Sand County Almanac as a record of Aldo Leopold’s vision, I think there is an important lesson that comes from looking at the evolution of his thought from the beginning of his career until the publication of that monumental text. In Leopold we have a state conservation worker who learned that the state looks at wildlife with one set of eyes (to use James Scott’s phrase, conservationists tended to “see like a state”). These days we still tend to look to governments (or now transnational governing institutions) to act to fight climate change. This is precisely what Leopold was warning against when he argued that conservation must come from the bottom up.