I admit that in saying these things I am reading Emerson’s essay with a fair amount of hindsight, considering “Nature” in the light of later essays such as “Circles” and “The Poet”. The movements I have traced are precisely the sort of drawing of ever-expansive circles discussed in the essay of that name. It is possible Emerson did not fully realize he was doing that. Perhaps he genuinely saw himself as writing a sort of treatise outlining a coherent worldview. Nevertheless, in the style of his rhetoric, in the way he consistently modifies his images (and not in a straightforwardly progressive way), he is already pointing toward his later development.
Thoreau’s two famous symbolic actions, his two years in the cabin at Walden Pond and his night in jail for civil disobedience , represent his personal enactment of the doctrines of New England Transcendentalism as expressed by his friend and associate Emerson, among others. In his writings Thoreau was concerned primarily with the possibilities for human culture provided by the American natural environment. He adapted ideas garnered from the then-current Romantic literatures in order to extend American libertarianism and individualism beyond the political and religious spheres to those of social and personal life. “The life which men praise and regard as successful is but one kind. Why,” Thoreau asked in Walden , where his example was the answer, “should we exaggerate any one kind at the expense of the others?” In a commercial, conservative , expedient society that was rapidly becoming urban and industrial, he upheld the right to self-culture, to an individual life shaped by inner principle. He demanded for all men the freedom to follow unique lifestyles, to make poems of their lives and living itself an art. In a restless, expanding society dedicated to practical action, he demonstrated the uses and values of leisure, contemplation, and a harmonious appreciation of and coexistence with nature. Thoreau established the tradition of nature writing later developed by the Americans John Burroughs and John Muir , and his pioneer study of the human uses of nature profoundly influenced such conservationists and regional planners as Benton MacKaye and Lewis Mumford . More important, Thoreau’s life, so fully expressed in his writing, has had a pervasive influence because it was an example of moral heroism and an example of the continuing search for a spiritual dimension in American life.
Works included in this anthology.
RALPH WALDO EMERSON: Art, Character (with authentic cover), Circles, Compensation (with authentic cover), Concord Hymn, Divinity School Address (with Harvard sketching), English Traits (with authentic cover), Experience, Friendship (with authentic cover), Gifts, Heroism, History, Intellect (with authentic cover), Literary Ethics, Love, Man the Reformer, Manners, Nature, New England Reformers, Nominalist and Realist, Politics, Prudence (with authentic cover), Nature (with authentic cover), Representative Men (with authentic cover), Letters of Social Aims, Self-Reliance, Spiritual Laws, The American Scholar (with authentic cover), The Conservative, The Method of Nature, The Over-Soul, The Poet, The Transcendentalist, The Young American, Conduct of Life (with authentic cover), English Traits (with authentic cover) Letter and Social Aims, and Society and Solitude (with authentic cover).