Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Thoreau, A Week, Day #2

Please feel free to respond to one, but not all of these questions--or post your questions or interests.

Thoreau seems obsessed with the place of Native Americans and what could be called their "absent presence" in the places he travels through. What do they symbolize for him and what does he seem to say about their absence?

Compare Thoreau's comments on the Sabbath and Christianity on "Sunday," with his discussion of Hinduism in "Monday."

Discuss the significance of Thoreau's experience on Saddleback Mountain, particularly his view of the landscape in the morning. Try to consider it in relation to the discussion of landscape from Mitchell.

Thoreau's encounter with Mr. Rice is, like the experience on Saddleback, not part of the trip, but somehow reflective or meaningful of the region. What does Rice and his manner tell us about New England and its people?


  1. 1. I think Thoreau's interest in and utmost respect for Native Americans (bordering on, as you said, "obsession") is only natural and logical when read in context of his romantic notions of nature. Thoreau is a strong proponent of living harmoniously with nature and respecting the immensely beautiful and complex system therein, which is so much greater and more important than any man's presence within nature. He also believes in the restorative powers of nature in relation to the human soul. Native Americans lived naturally by these moralistic and ecological guidelines, and they let nature and its course shape their lives, rather than carving out their identities into nature's face and forcing nature to deal with their decisions. It can be inferred that Thoreau thinks many of society's "uncurable" ills and "unsolvable" problems, stemming from the way humans have structured society, could be resolved or avoided entirely by a way of life more in rhythm with nature. I think that Thoreau's comment on the "absent presence" is the perfect way to describe the feeling one still gets when one looks out over a Missouri plane next to a stretch of highway. One can see how the land looks the same as it would have when Indians were roaming the plains, and it suddenly becomes clear to one that the way of life and the things we do that make up the identity of America are neither the natural way of life for this continent or the natural culture and society that should have become dominant. One can feel the absent presence of the Indians in these lands still unaffected by the touch of man because one knows that if weren't for us and our ancestors, they would be populated with Indians.

  2. I think Thoreau’s attentiveness to the absent presence of Native Americans has to do with his view of them as something opposing materialistic culture. Thoreau has an open distaste for the speed, technology, and materialism of the culture that he resides in. Native Americans are a set of people that are connected with nature, a lifestyle that it is minimalistic and in touch with nature. Thoreau admires this, and is very interested in people that are so connected to the environment that encompasses them. In Thoreau’s mind this is contrasted by the artificial or man- madeness of Christianity and American society. Native Americans have great respect and a kind of worship of the natural, while Christians have taken something spiritual and made it unnatural. A haunting moment in the novel is when Thoreau can hear the church bells ringing through a place that Native Americans once inhabited. This artificial sound has drowned out and eventually destroyed the natural sounds of human and animal life residing with and in nature. It seems as though most ideology inherently encompasses its opposite in order to achieve its ultimate goal. For example, the “civilization” of the “savages,” which Christians stated was their purpose, when getting involved with the Native Americans was more savage than the Native Americans could ever have been. It’s the idea of war, in order to achieve peace. The same concept applies. In order to civilize a group of people and convert them to your religion, you must first savagely destroy their religion and their way of thinking. I think this is what Thoreau sees when he sees the absence of Native Americans. It is the absence of a way of life, an ideal, and religions that were savagely destroyed by civilization.

  3. I found the Rice conversation to be a vital portrait in this portion of the reading. We've read several small scenes describing the history of the area and several names have been said, but in this scene Thoreau really fleshes out and gives definition to what it means to be a New England resident. I felt that this section also related to Whittier. Whittier's description of how the harsh climate creates the New England man, is reflected in the character of Rice. Rice appears to have a rough exterior, an exterior that others have passed off as rudeness. However, Thoreau is overwhelmed when he sees the hospitality that Rice shows him. This rough exterior juxtaposed against his beautiful interior seems to explain the climate of New England; how harsh winters lead to beautiful summers. This is the most important place in the work that I have seen as a clear definition of place. It is interesting as Thoreau defines place through people as well as scenery. Thoreau's ability to weave in so many motifs and themes to define place is truly amazing. Unlike Whittier who seems to focus mainly on scenery, Thoreau uses religion, philosophy, people, history as well as scenery to give a real, vivid picture of place and space in the 1839 on the Merrimack.
    The portrayal of Indians is with a sense of loss. Indians seem to be constantly associated with history, the past and the way things used to be. I get the feeling that Thoreau has almost a romantic view of the Indians. He also seems to want to promote the importance of Indians in American History. Its easy to see how the Indian way of life could appeal to the transcendentalists. A closeness to nature and overall lack of industry would be something that Thoreau would be very attracted to. There also seems to be a continuing thread that Indians are represented as a force against industry. Thoreau always speaks about battles with Indians against English settlers. This sense of rebellion against industry and increased urban life is just another example that Thoreau uses to explain civilization vs. nature. The river on which he travels can be seen as such a symbol.

  4. Thoreau is a seeker of logic and order. He sees beauty in the way the rivers flow and how beautifully nature resides all over this Earth with seeming ease. Nature is a proven system of order, nothing about its functions are artificial or grounded in something that is illogical or assumption. Thoreau praises Hinduism for this logic in understanding the world and condemns Christianity for being to inward. Thoreau likes the idea of the Hindu religion and how it seems to branch outward into the world to look for the answers to life’s mysteries and to quench the thirst or logical understanding the Thoreau desires. He dislikes how Christianity has become something so artificial and inwardly focused. There is no understanding of the world based on external influence but rather internal morals set before us especially by Christ. There is no beauty to the order; it is a blunt social revolution that has no ‘poetry’. Thoreau appreciates the beauty of the logic given by the Hindus, which can directly fit in with this idea that nature takes of order that can be proven. It is something that is tangible and something that can be discussed. It is a rare thing that Christianity is discussed. On the Sabbath, religion is not something up for discussion, but rather lectured. Thoreau does not chastise the Bible however, he sees it as a wonderful piece of literature and he finds values in the morals presented. But it is this idea of something that is more beautiful that he also appreciates. He sees value in both walks of life, he just dislikes the direction that Christianity has taken. He doesn’t want to see Christianity become so artificial that is becomes a practice based off nothing more than procedure. There is no beauty in it.

  5. I agree with what Paul Judge has to say, I think Thoreau is extremely passionate about nature and the way "things are supposed to be". Throughout the assigned readings today and on Tuesday, you can see that not only the river is something special to Thoreau but also the nature and culture surrounding it. I think you can look at this from a religious stand point too, maybe this is why Thoreau is so hesitant about the Christian culture because it is becoming more of a social affair rather than a religious one, like Professor Evelev said in class, they go to Church so people can see them going to Church rather than going to Church to actually take something from it. Also, a point I mentioned in class and which I still agree with, is I think looking back on this trip that he shared with his brother is an extremely emotional time for Thoreau which anyone remembering the sadness or grief of a certain period is also going to look at the other things that were lost within the same time. You can see within his writings that Thoreau is an extremely compassionate person but I feel he has anger with not only the death of his brother but with changing times. I think progression is not something that Thoreau appreciates and I think that is why he is so passionate about nature because yes, nature does change but I think it is something that takes more time to transform and progress than lets say society or culture.

  6. Discuss the significance of Thoreau's experience on Saddleback Mountain, particularly his view of the landscape in the morning. Try to consider it in relation to the discussion of landscape from Mitchell.

    I definitely agree with what everyone has said in terms of Thoreau's obsession and interest in the Native Americans, so I will begin my comment with his experience on Saddleback.

    As he recounts his assention to the top of the mountain he emphasizes that no man is truly lost, he simply is where he is. I think this idea is very true to Thoreau's overall views on life, traveling, nature, and man. He can find beauty, or at least something significant to think about, in everything he sees and his climb to the top of Saddleback Mountain is no different.

    The descriptive prose Thoreau uses as the sun begins to rise on the mountain is so beautiful, I felt like I was seeing this heavenly scene along with him. "As the light increased I discovered around me an ocean of mist," Thoreau said, :All around beneath me was spread for a hundred miles on every side....I found myself a dweller in the dazzling halls of Aurora." Thoreau is so taken by the beauty of the Mountain's view that a cherished memory is formed and the mountain peak is dramatically transformed from a space to a place for the author. He later writes about another mountain experience, near the time of this one in which he might "hope to climb to heaven again" but all he found was "a region of cloud and drizzling rain." It seems the experience on Saddleback resonated with Thoreau for a great deal of time.


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