Thoreau's The Maine Woods: Manly Beauty and Political Economy

Gary MacDonald



Are we not reminded in our better moments we have been needlessly husbanding somewhat--perchance--our little God-derived capital--or title to capital guarding it by methods we know?  but the most diffuse prodigality a better wisdom teaches--that we hold nothing--we are not what we were--By usurers craft--by Jewish methods--we strive to retain and increase the divinity in us--when the greater part of divinity is out of us.[i]


            In his 1850 journal, Henry David Thoreau remembers his neighbors who "declared behind my back that I was a 'damned rascal' & a flibberty-gibbit or two who crowed like the old cock--shouted some reminiscences of "Burnt woods" from safe recesses--for some years after" (78).  "I have had nothing to say to any of them," Thoreau insists, but critics have noticed that Walden, in which Thoreau sometimes "crows like a cock," offers an ambivalent response to the humiliation Thoreau felt, and the anger he faced, after his errant campfire had burned over three hundred valuable acres of Concord woodlots.   "Ktaadn," Thoreau's first major publication after the fire and the first essay he completed at Walden Pond, offers a more immediate response to the incident.  Thoreau presents "Ktaadn" to fellow Concordians as a lesson in political economy, and he presents fire to them, slyly enough, as a primary agent of strengthening a commercial economy and encouraging a beautiful, efficient masculinity.

             Thoreau recognized his mistake, as David Leverenz has already noted, as an economic failure that threatened his sense of manliness:

What Thoreau fears is more than being made to feel like a thing or a machine; it's being made to feel ugly, despised, physically loathsome, and emotionally helpless. . . .

It may well have been the townspeople's vehement rage that drove [Thoreau] to Walden in the first place.  More broadly, humiliation, not reification, is the real terror of the entrepreneurial marketplace.[ii] 

What Thoreau fears, here, as Leverenz suggests, is  the humiliation of emasculation, to have shown himself unfit to fill the economic sphere culturally designated as "masculine."   As Leverenz indicates, Thoreau "has been made to feel like shit."  In "Ktaadn," Thoreau shows that men are shitty, but only to the extent that they accept his neighbors' economic assumptions--Thoreau claims that when men accept the priorities of a commercial economy they can be beautiful. 

            A standard for manly beauty, according to George L. Mosse in The Image of Man, had developed in response to Europe's rapid industrialization:  "an aesthetic idea of manliness that corresponded to one of the deepest needs of modernizing society. . . . Social hierarchies were being challenged by the new forces unleashed by the industrial revolution with its new opportunities for commerce and manufacture, its new speed of communications."[iii]  In Thoreau’s industrializing Northeast, manly beauty anchored a rhetoric of political economy that envisioned industrialization as a potentially aesthetic and "natural" procedure.  During the 1830s, 40s, and 50s, leading political economists advocated the eighteenth-century economic tenets of Adam Smith, whose most basic premise was that commerce was a fundamentally "natural" activity for men.[iv]  For example, Francis Wayland's Political Economy (1837) implies that commerce is consonant with nature and God:

God has made man a creature of desires and constituted the material world in which he lives with qualities and powers available for the gratifications of those desires.  As men advance in individual and social development, their desires are multiplied.  At the same time by their increased intelligence and ingenuity, the resources of nature are unfolded in full proportion.  Desire stimulates invention and successful invention wakes new desires.  There is no assignable limit to the development of either men's desires or nature's resources.[v]

Wayland's description of men's desires becoming multiplied by individual and social development means only that production stimulates demand as effectively as demand stimulates production--and invention.  For Wayland, commerce advances social development, social development stimulates desire for material goods, desire for material goods stimulates invention, and invention is the means by which men discover new relations to the natural world.[vi] 

            Henry Vethake's Principles of Political Economy (1844) critiques "the interference of individuals and of governments with the natural order of things" and advocates free trade as a system that leaves "things to their natural course; perfectly satisfied that, where man's wisdom is at a stand, an adequate provision will have been made by nature, or to speak more accurately, by the Author of nature, for the attainment of the greatest amount of human happiness, which, under the circumstances, is attainable."[vii]  Despite supporting some government regulation of trade, George Opdyke, in A Treatise on Political Economy (1851), reminds his readers, "almost every existing revenue law designedly conflicts with the natural laws of trade, and thus interferes with the operations of commerce," laws passed by legislators "[i]n apparent ignorance of the fact that the undisturbed action of the natural laws of trade never fails to direct commerce into the most productive channels. . . ."[viii]  These are what might be called "textbook definitions" of commerce, based on Adam Smith's well-respected economic philosophy.  Given that free trade congresses controlled the House from 1832-1848 and that every presidential election from 1832 to 1846 was won by presidential candidates who advocated free trade, I'd guess that the country agreed on the utility of free trade principles (an exception is the 1838 election, which, following the Panic of 1837, brought the resolutely opinionless Whig Harrison into office with  a free trade running mate, Tyler).  But Whiggish Massachusetts voted for none of those candidates.  It supported, not free trade, but prohibitive tariffs to protect its nascent manufacturers--to give them a virtual monopoly upon the domestic market. 

            In "Ktaadn," Thoreau dramatically returns to nature, the primeval nature of the Maine woods, to demonstrate the superiority of a “natural,” commercial economic philosophy to his recalcitrant neighbors.  Truth is, Thoreau ascribes even his motivation to enter the Maine woods to the "natural" law of supply and demand:

I think I may safely say that there was a row of ten or a dozen plates of this kind set before us two here.  To account for which, they say, that when the lumberers come out of the woods, they have a craving for cakes and pies, and such sweet things, which there are almost unknown, and this is the supply to satisfy that demand--the supply is always equal to the demand,--and these hungry men think a good deal of getting their money's worth.  No doubt, the balance of victuals is restored by the time they reach Bangor: Mattawamkeag takes off the raw edge.  Well, over this front rank, I say, you coming from the "sweet cake" side, with a cheap philosophic indifference though it may be, have to assault what there is behind, which I do not by any means mean to insinuate is insufficient in quantity or quality to supply that other demand of men not from the woods, but from the towns, for venison and strong country fare.[ix]

Thoreau is a consumer from the "sweet cake" side, drawn to the woods by what consumables it offers, and in "Chesuncook," Thoreau's first sight of the woods is "like the sight and odor of cake to a schoolboy."[x]  He is impelled to work his way into the woods by the same desire the lumbermen have to work their way out, to work for what they do not have, to consume sweetcakes in the settlements.  It's an equal trade--so true an exchange that to Thoreau the forest has ceased to be forest; it is sweetcake. 

            Thoreau's taste for commerce is more fully elaborated in the Journal version of the party's entrance onto North Twin Lake, his introduction to Maine's interconnected lakeways:

Our appearance excited no bustle amid the surrounding hills as I read that when a ships [sic] boat approaches the bay o Typee one of the Marquesan isles the news is shouted from man to man. . . and soon its whole population is on the stir--stripping off the husks from cocoa nuts--throwing down bread fruit--and preparing leafen baskets in which to carry them to the beach to sell. . . . 

I cannot help being affected by the very fine--the slight but positive relation of the inhabitants of some remote isle of the Pacific to the mysterious white mariner.  It is a barely recognised fact to the natives--that he exists and has his home far away somewhere and is glad to by [sic] their fresh fruits with his superfluous commodities. . . .

No sooner is the mariner's boat seen to put off from his vessel for the shore than the inhabitants of the remotest isles which stand like watch towers in the Pacific make haste to repair to the beach--with its fruits.

Such is commerce which shakes the cocoa nut and the breadfruit tree in the remotest isle--and sometimes dawns upon the duskiest and most ignorant savage. (Fall 1846, 2 316)

The mere ship's boat, like Thoreau's fur-trader's boat, pulling into a heretofore unvisited bay is a symbol for "commerce," so compelling a concept that the native who "shakes the cocoa nut and the breadfruit tree" becomes a metaphor for commerce, which creates and maintains the "slight but positive relation" of diverse peoples.  Thoreau finds no one with whom he may trade, but he is encouraged to prepare and perhaps to maintain the ground for the invigoration of future commercial interaction.  After crossing the lake, "we glided past the little island which had been our landmark, and fancied how contentedly we might live there to tend the light house which should guide the future voyageur" (Fall 1846, 2 313). 

            In "Ktaadn," Thoreau refines this description.  In the draft, nature is remarkable for the absence of humans with whom to trade, but in the finished version nature is remarkable for the extent to which Thoreau's entrance stimulates potential commerce. 

There was the smoke of no log-hut nor camp of any kind to greet us, still less was any lover of nature or musing traveller watching our batteau from the distant hills; not even the Indian hunter was there, for he rarely climbs them, but hugs the river like ourselves.  No face welcomed us but the fine fantastic sprays of free and happy evergreen trees, waving one above another in their ancient home.  At first the clouds hung over the western shore as gorgeously as if over a city, and the lake lay open to the light with even a civilized aspect, as if expecting trade and commerce, and towns and villas.  We could distinguish the outlet to the South Twin. . . . (36)

The natural city Thoreau imagines here is one built upon "trade and commerce."   The lake now has a "civilized aspect"--it is inhabited by welcoming denizens: "No face welcomed us but the fine fantastic sprays of free and happy evergreen trees."  The "civilized aspects" of the pines on the strange shore, the fine and fantastic faces that do welcome the traveler, are the most natural expression of the (heretofore absent) commerce-minded native who, observing a strange sail,  shakes the breadfruit tree.


White Pines

In an early Journal entry, Thoreau claims, "We should strengthen, and beautify, and industriously mould our bodies to be fit companions of the soul.--Assist them to grow up like trees, and be agreeable and wholesome objects in nature" (1:232).  It's no mistake that Thoreau's commercial city is inhabited by evergreens.  The white pine--the primary economic product of the Maine woods--is not only the commodity that will lure future voyageurs to the woods, but it is also, in "Ktaadn" and in The Maine Woods in general, a metaphor for the "natural" masculinity that Thoreau opposes to his neighbors' unnatural and ugly helplessness. The white pine represents a "mongrel" identity derived from commercial interaction between the "dusky and ignorant savage[s]" and the "white mariners" of North America: the native Americans and the Anglo/Normans.  Thoreau distinguishes all of the trees he finds in the Maine woods by racial associations: "The hard woods, occasionally occurring exclusively, were less wild to my eye.  I fancied them ornamental grounds, with farm-houses in the rear.  The canoe and yellow birch, beech, maple, and elm are Saxon and Norman; but the spruce and fir, and pines generally are Indian" (108).   Thoreau's journey into the Maine woods explores the intriguing possibility of a white pine, a "natural" man who represents a productive commerce between Anglo-Saxon and native American.

            Thoreau is not alone in associating pines with native Americans.  For instance, as Robert Sayre argues, the pine tree was commonly associated with the Iroquois, for whom it was "a sacred tree, under which Dekanawida instructed them to bury their weapons in establishing the Great Peace of the Five Nations."[xi]  Typically, Francis Parkman extends this association to descriptions of native Americans in general, even Mene-Seela, one of the prairie-riders he admires:

His face was turned upward, and his eyes seemed riveted on a pine-tree springing from a cleft in the precipice above.  The crest of the pine was swaying to and fro in the wind, and its long limbs waved slowly up and down, as if the tree had life.  Looking for a while at the old man, I was satisfied that he was engaged in an act of worship, or prayer, or communion of some kind with a supernatural being.[xii]

It is equally common for authors simply to conflate the figures of the pine tree and a native American brave in the phrase, describing native American men as standing "tall and straight like a pine tree."[xiii]

            Thoreau's Maine wood journeys are punctuated by his unsuccessful search for the elusive white pine, his natural man.  Throughout "Ktaadn," Thoreau finds "only the stumps of the white pine here, some of them of great size, these having been already culled out, being the only tree much sought after, even as low down as this. . . . It was the pine alone, chiefly the white pine, that had tempted any but the hunter to precede us on this route" (21).  In "Chesuncook," Thoreau's party encounters two men who seek out stands of white pines for cutting, and Thoreau confesses, "I have often wished since that I was with them" (101).  By the close of "Chesuncook," Thoreau directly questions two such explorers, "two manly-looking middle-aged men":

I talked with one of them, telling him that I had come all this distance partly to see where the white-pine, the Eastern stuff of which our houses are built, grew, but that on this and a previous excursion into another part of Maine I had found it a scarce tree; and I asked him where I must look for it.  With a smile, he answered, that he could hardly tell me.  However, he said he had found enough to employ two teams the next winter in a place where there was thought to be none left.  (144)

Obviously, the man is just a hireling of the logging corporation, one whose contract or reputation prevents him from revealing white pine stands, but Thoreau's mystification of the man's motives emphasizes the symbolic importance of the white pine to Thoreau.  Thoreau's paraphrase of the man's response suggests that the man knows where the pines are, but such knowledge, it seems, cannot be communicated.  Either you have it, or you don't; the man does.  Or else, the paraphrase suggests, Thoreau has been judged unworthy of the knowledge: the man can tell where the white pines stand, but he can hardly tell Thoreau.  Either way, the man's secret knowledge of the white pine makes him seem admirable, mysterious, and manly.  Thoreau wishes that he "was with them" on forays to discover the white pine.   For Thoreau, knowledge of the white pine's locations suggests an extraordinary--an almost native American--familiarity with nature.

            Thoreau's admiration for the white men whom the lumber companies hire is reflected in his investigations of the native Americans whom he hires.  In "Ktaadn," Thoreau's native American guides fail to meet him, but in "Chesuncook" Thoreau hires Joe Aitteon as a guide, a native American whom Thoreau observes more closely than he does the woods themselves: "I narrowly watched his motions, and listened attentively to his observations, for we had employed an Indian mainly that I might have an opportunity to study his ways" (95).  Even in the stage coach to the ferry, Thoreau observes, "Besides his under clothing, [Aitteon] wore a red flannel shirt, woolen pants, and a black Kossuth hat. . . . When he afterward had occasion to take off his shoes and stockings, I was struck by the smallness of his feet" (90).  When a moose has been wounded and Aitteon follows its trail, Thoreau "followed [Aitteon], watching his motions more than the trail of the moose" (112).  Thoreau follows in Aitteon's footsteps, as if imitation and attention to detail will help him become an Anglo-Saxon version of the native American.  Unfortunately for Thoreau, "After following the trail about forty rods in a pretty direct course, stepping over fallen trees and winding between standing ones, he at length lost it . . . too soon, I thought, for a good hunter, and gave it up entirely" (112).  Unlike the white explorers who find the white pine, Aitteon gives up on the moose, and hence really cannot tell Thoreau a secret of nature.

            In "The Allegash and East Branch," the third of the Maine Woods trilogy, Thoreau hires Joe Polis, a guide with whom Thoreau was fully satisfied, as  reflected in Emerson's funeral eulogy on Thoreau, which names John Brown, Walt Whitman, and Joe Polis as the three most important influences upon Thoreau's mature life.[xiv]  Polis is a native American with whom Thoreau can trade knowledge.  Physically, Polis is described as a good example of a native American: "He was stoutly built, perhaps a little above the middle height, with a broad face and as others said perfect Indian features and complexion" (157).  Thoreau's relationship to the perfectly Indian-featured Polis is characterized by the agreement they come to early in the journey: "I told him that in this voyage I should tell him all I knew, and he should tell me all he knew, to which he readily agreed" (168).  Thoreau has set up a mutually profitable exchange, a version of "commerce" that emphasizes it conversational connotations.  Yet too commonly, when asked "'How do you do that?" Polis cannot explain.  "'O, I can't tell you,' he replied.  'Great difference between me and a white man'" (185).  Here again, Thoreau has been judged insufficient to understand knowledge--he receives the response which he'd gotten from the manly-looking men who hunt the white pines.

            Thoreau does encounter a "white hunter. . . [who] knew some of the resources of the Indian.  He said that he steered by the wind, or by the limbs of the hemlocks, which were largest on the south side. . ." (185).   This white hunter has partially accomplished what Thoreau aims at, establishing an educational rapport with a native American, and Thoreau studies him as carefully as he'd studied Aitteon: 

Their leader was a handsome man about thirty years old, of good height, but not apparently robust, of gentlemanly dress and faultless toilet; such a one as you might expect to meet on Broadway.  In fact, in the popular sense of the word, he was the most "gentlemanly" appearing man in the stage, or that we saw on the road.  He had a fair white complexion, as if he had always lived in the shade, and an intellectual face, and with his quiet manners might have passed for a divinity student who had seen something of the world. . . . The Indian [Polis] also knew him, and said to me, "the great hunter." (161)

The white hunter is as perfectly white a man as Polis is perfectly Indian.  Polis's comment upon the "fair white" man's hunting ability cites his own authority, as a perfect native American, for evaluating the man's "native American" abilities.   Ironically, the white hunter comments upon Polis' ability to earn cash: "He knew our man, and remarked that we had a good Indian there, a good hunter; adding that he was said to be worth $6,000" (162).  Polis and the white hunter have learned from each other.  It turns out that the white hunter is spoken of as "one who could endure a great deal of exposure and fatigue without showing the effect of it" (161), and that Polis commonly used the stagecoach to carry him to and from hunting spots, an example, Thoreau suggests, of "an Indian availing himself cunningly of the advantages of civilization, without losing any of his woodcraft, but proving himself the more successful hunter for it" (201). 

            This is the ideal product of the mutually beneficient commercial exchange between the "dusky and ignorant savage" and the white mariner that Thoreau celebrates in his Journal.  Like the exchange of sweet cake and hard fare that lures Thoreau into the Maine woods, it is a perfect exchange: the white man now has "Indian" qualities, and the native American now has "white" qualities.  They have demonstrated what George Opdyke might call social "amalgamation":

Through its prime agents, called merchants, commerce presents to every producer and every owner of value, all the varied forms of artificial utility, and invites each to give of such of his products as he needs least, in exchange for an equivalent of such as he needs most.  By means of this simple plan, most of the varied wants and desires of mankind are in a measure amalgamated, or changed from individual to social.  It connects together all the wants and desires of the commercial world by a chain of interdependence similar to that by which the desires of an individual are woven together.  They are thus thrown, as it were, into a community of oneness, so that the possession of a commodity of value adapted to the satisfaction of a single want or desire, is thereby rendered equally available in the satisfaction of all others.[xv]

Although the white hunter and the Indian Polis are racially distinct, they have created a "community of oneness"; their white and native American productions are so freely exchangeable that their wants and desires, their very persons, are interdependent and indistinguishable .

            If these men can be seen as "white pines," as men who have combined disparate cultures to create a more economically efficient and effective identity, Thoreau's The Maine Woods suggests what Opdyke claims: that free trade philosophies best support the industries that produce such men.  Thoreau characterizes the sawmills that surround the Maine woods as wasters of the white pine.  The mills, Thoreau suggests, get comparatively little use from the separated pieces, they deform the white pine, and finally they stagnate trade.  Thoreau opens "Ktaadn" with a scathing description of the lumber mills of the Maine woods sawing white pines:

The mills are built directly over and across the river. . . . Through this steel riddle, more or less coarse, is the arrowy Maine forest, from Ktaadn and Chesuncook, and the head waters of the St. John, relentlessly sifted, till it comes out boards, clapboards, laths, and shingles such as the wind can take, still perchance to be slit and slit again, till men get a size that will suit.  Think how stood the white-pine tree on the shore of Chesuncook, its branches soughing with the four winds, and every individual needle trembling in the sunlight--think how it stands with it now--sold, perchance to the New England Friction Match Company! (5)

Thoreau denounces the domestication of the "arrowy" white pines, a reductive process that produces sizes that reflect the dubious greatness of the men doing the cutting.  The reduction of the tree, always "more or less coarse," challenges Thoreaus fantasy of a civilized city on the lake because it literally dismembers the "free and happy" inhabitants.       Thoreau's comprehensive denunciation of destructive sawmills is reminiscent of Emerson's "The American Scholar" critique of the impact of American society upon Man:

[T]his unit, this original fountain of power, has been so distributed to multitudes, has been so minutely subdivided and peddled out, that it is spilled into drops, and cannot be gathered.  The state of society is one in which the members have suffered amputation from the trunk, and strut about so many walking monsters,--a good finger, a neck, a stomach, an elbow, but never a man.[xvi]

Like Emerson's "minutely subdivided" men, Thoreau's white pines are "relentlessly sifted," "slit and slit again, till men get a size that will suit."  Like Emerson's men, who "have suffered amputation from the trunk," Thoreau's white pines have their "soughing" limbs and "trembling" needles stripped from the trunk of the tree.  Yet Thoreau's critique of the dismemberment of the white pines extends beyond a simple denunciation of a society that impinges on nature's beauty.  It is more than a condemnation of the effects of extraordinary divisions of labor upon working men.  Thoreau criticizes the mills specifically as an anti-commercial force, one which impedes commercial exchange:  "There were in 1837, as I read, two hundred and fifty saw mills on the Penobscot, and its tributaries above Bangor. . . .  No wonder that we hear so often of vessels which are becalmed off our coast, being surrounded a week at a time by floating lumber from the Maine woods (5). 

            Quite literally, the mills saw so much lumber that they actually impede shipping.  More locally, the mills impede the actual circulation of the river, merely by the dams that they require and the "more or less coarse riddle" (literally a kind of sieve), that they present.  Thus, the mills not only impede the exchange by which Thoreau's ideal men are produced, they also dismember--or break into constitutive parts-- the very white pines that Thoreau associates with effective mongrelization.  The dismemberment Thoreau describes reverses the kind of exchange effected between Polis and the white hunter because, in Emerson's terms, it isolates parts of the "unit" called "white pine" just as the state of society isolates parts of the originary "unit" called "Man."  

            The impact of the passage is especially powerful in light of "Chesuncook," in which the association of white pines and manly bodies suggested in "Ktaadn" is re-emphasized:

[T]he pine is no more lumber than man is, and to be made into boards and houses is no more its true and highest use than the truest use of a man is to be cut down and made into manure.  There is a higher law affecting our relation to pines as well as to men.  A pine cut down, a dead pine, is no more a pine than a dead human carcass is a man. . . . These are petty and accidental uses; just as if a stronger race were to kill us in order to make buttons and flageolets of our bones. . . . (121)

Here, more clearly than in "Ktaadn," Thoreau links men's bodies with white pines' bodies. Quick to discover the "man" in "manure," Thoreau notes that cutting down pines for their lumber is like reducing men to manure.  This is to "waste" the white pines by using them badly, and it is no better than wasting men.  The work of the lumber mill literalizes Emerson's metaphor; its operation is the rhetorical equivalent of killing, dismembering, and selling parts of men but wasting the vast, vital potential of men.   Recalling Leverenz's argument, the mills reduce men to manure.

            It would be tempting to imagine that Thoreau resisted all manufacturing operations, in favor of unsullied nature, but "Ktaadn"'s opening pages depict a manufacturing operation that puts white pines to good use:

   At Oldtown we walked into a batteau manufactory.  The making of batteaux is quite a business here for the supply of the Penobscot river.   We examined some on the stocks.  They are light and shapely vessels, calculated for rapid and rocky streams. . . . They are made very slight, only two boards to a side, commonly secured to a few light maple or other hard-wood knees, but inward are of the clearest and widest white-pine stuff, of which there is a great waste on account of their form, for the bottom is left perfectly flat, not only from side to side, but from end to end. . . . They told us that one wore out in two years, or often in a single trip, on the rocks, and sold for from fourteen to sixteen dollars.  There was something refreshing and wildly musical to my ears in the very name of the white man's canoe, reminding me of Charlevoix and the Canadian Voyageurs.  The batteau is a sort of mongrel between the canoe and the boat, a fur-trader's boat. (6)

Despite the fact that making batteaux is literally a business--even "quite a business"-- and although the batteaux are produced in a quantity for Thoreau to qualify the site as a manufactory, the very word "batteau" remains music to Thoreau's ears.  As "a sort of mongrel," a cross between a native American contraption and an Anglo/Norman invention, the batteau recalls the hybrid status of Polis' and the white hunter's educations: the batteau manufactory enhances cultural exchange and expedites commerce.  Moreover, the batteau factory produces boats, the primary vehicle of extended commerce.  

            Perhaps the primary difference between the batteaux factory and the sawmills is that unlike the mills, which minutely subdivide the white pine trees, the batteaux manufactury produces craft from "the clearest and widest white-pine stuff, of which there is a great waste on account of their form. . . ."  To make the waste of wood more shocking, Thoreau notes that the batteaux commonly wear out in just one trip.  The batteaux manufactury is a profligate user of white pine.  Thoreau celebrates the broad, wasteful cut; he admires the brevity of the batteaux's usefulness.  An explanation for Thoreau's delight in such seeming waste is suggested by Thoreau's description of Ansell Smith's frontier home, where a similar profligacy of white pine is apparent:

This house was designed and constructed with the freedom of stroke of a forester's axe, without other compass and square than Nature uses.  Wherever the logs were cut off by a window or door, that is, were not kept in place by alternative overlapping, they were held one upon another by very large pins driven diagonally on each side, so close up and down as not to project beyond the bulge of the log, as if the logs clasped each other in their arms.  These logs were posts, studs, boards, clapboards, laths, plaster, and nails, all in one.  Where the citizen uses a mere sliver or board, the pioneer uses the whole trunk of a tree. (125)

This house is built not from the mere lumber of the mills, but from "the whole trunk of a tree."  Although the tree has been cut down, when compared to the lumber of Massachusetts homes, the tree seems essentially "uncut."   Instead of being dissected into its various components, the tree fulfills the many functions that it can: "These logs were posts, studs, boards, clapboards, laths, plaster, and nails, all in one."  Yet, where a citizen will use "a mere sliver or board," the profligate pioneer "uses the whole trunk of a tree."  This isn't waste, so much, as delight in wholeness, and vast excess.

            That Thoreau regards this as a superior use is evident from his portrait of the trees piled into walls "as if the logs clasped each other in their arms."  Their loving cooperation in holding together this house recalls Melville's Typees' fraternal cooperation in the building of another home.  The end result of this use of the pine tree also recalls the Typees' house-raising[xvii].  Indeed, just as Melville contrasts feeble city folk and diseased Nukuhevans to the beautiful Typees, Thoreau contrasts village houses to frontier houses:  "We certainly leave the handsomest paint and clapboards behind in the woods, when we strip off the bark and poison ourselves with white-lead in the towns.  We get but half the spoils of the forest.  For beauty, give me trees with the fur on" (125).  Leaving the tree uncut provides three benefits.  It is more efficient; it allows men to get the "entire" use of the tree, rather than merely "half the spoils."  It's healthier; it prevents us from "poison[ing] ourselves with white lead in the towns."  It is more beautiful.  Never reduced to a mere shingle, the tree retains its full beauty.   That its proper use, for Thoreau, is equated with the proper use of human bodies is indicated by Thoreau's assertion, "I do not hear that there was any carpenter or tailor among the gods" (126).  Both, in short, are equally unnecessary when the bodies of men and trees are naturally beautiful, and divine.  This is the most economically efficient  and the most aesthetically pleasing use of the pine. 

            It is also an example of what Thoreau would call the white pine's "highest use."  Such a use may actually reverse the inefficiency and deformity of misusing the pine:

I realized that the former were not the highest use of the pine.  It is not their bones or hide or tallow [of the tree] that I love most.  It is the living spirit of the tree, not its spirit of turpentine, with which I sympathize, and which heals my cuts.  It is as immortal as I am, and perchance will go to as high a heaven, there to tower above me still. (122)

For Thoreau, recognition of and sympathy with the living spirit of the tree "heals my cuts."  The language suggests, first of all, that Thoreau's sympathy with the tree reverses the damage which his cutting of the tree--for lumber, or turpentine or whatever--might inflict, that he may now have free use of it.  The language also suggests that Thoreau's "sympathy" for and love of the "living spirit" of the pine marks the tree as a reflection of himself, that his love of the pine heals the "cuts" upon his own body.  It makes him feel less like lumber, buttons, or manure.   This exchange is reminiscent of Polis' exchange with the white hunter.  Thoreau suggests that this relationship to the white pine, and by extension to other men, actually reverses the devaluation that the mill inflicts.  Thoreau implies that using each other as living spirits can actually transform pines and men from what Emerson calls "so many walking monsters" to something as beautiful and as pleasing as the white pine tree.[xviii] 

            The passage founds Thoreau's elucidation of the relation men should have to nature and to one another.  No wonder Thoreau attacked James Russell Lowell, editor of the Atlantic Monthly, so bitterly when Lowell struck the line describing the white pine's probable ascent to heaven: "I have just noticed," Thoreau wrote to Lowell, "that that sentence was, in a very mean and cowardly manner, omitted.  I hardly need to say that this is a liberty which I will not permit to be taken with my MS."[xix] 


Lessons of Fire

Thoreau's record of his journey to Mt. Ktaadn dramatizes the narrator's growing recognition that he can, productively and conveniently, step back from a political economy that makes him feel ugly and disjointed to one that heals and beautifies him.  Even Thoreau's comprehensive condemnation of the sawmills' action marks the possibility for the sawmills' redemption.  Thoreau's surprising expostulation, "--sold, perchance, to the New England Friction Match Company!" seems to climax his condemnation of the sawmills' production of lumber, but the dash may also mark a change of heart.  It certainly marks an alternative for the white-pine tree.  The tree will not become the mere materials for an ugly, wasteful, and unhealthy eastern house, and so it may serve an alternative economy.  The friction match, with its promise of fire, augurs a "wasteful" consumption of the white pine[xx].  Through the rest of the text, Thoreau distinguishes matches from mere lumber--they are a means of drawing divergent people together rather than of keeping them apart. 

            Thoreau's estimation of the uses of the friction match resonates with common metaphors for the opposition to prohibitive tariffs.  Debow's January of 1846 "Foreign Commerce" section points out that "[t]he policy of [Great Britain] appears to have undergone a change.  There has been an increasing influence of the principles of free trade, stimulated by the works of her political writers from Adam Smith down.  The object appears now to be to build up commerce in every possible way."  Debow's expresses its approval of Great Britain's move by recalling the grand and mythic history of commerce:

"The first seats of commerce were also the first seats of civilization. . . . Exchange of merchandize leads to exchange of ideas, and by the mutual friction was first kindled the sacred flame of humanity."  This is a striking and graphic expression of a great truth.  Commerce began by an interchange or barter of the mere necessaries of life.  The planter of the river's side offered bread in exchange for the sale and dried flesh of the hunter of the desert.  But to this market of food, those who had none to offer, brought to obtain it spices and frankincense, and gold and silver, and precious stones, as they could obtain them.  What can be more evident than that the desire for all these in turn was suggested from without, was a matter of reciprocal education--a step in civilization.  Here, it was clearly the supply that created the demand; the demand reacting has increased the supply. . . .  As love, in the most exquisite German stories, created a soul in Undine, so a new want gives a new life to whomsoever feels it, provided it can be

gratified. . . .[xxi]

The similarities between this description of the civilizing influences of commerce and and Thoreau's descriptions of the civilizing influences of the friction match are surprising.

            For Thoreau, the friction match functions like commerce to distinguish between savage and civilized states.  The Journal draft of "Ktaadn," which records Thoreau's thinking about Herman Melville's Typee, focuses on the scene in which Kory-Kory struggles to light a fire for Tommo.  Kory-Kory's labor provides Thoreau an opportunity to observe that the production of matches distinguishes civilized from savage states:

The savage & civilized states offer no more striking contrast than when referred respectively to the element of fire-- Fire is the white man's servant and is near to him, and comes at his call.  He subdues nature by fire--steam powder [sic] the forge--the furnace--the oven--he draws down lightning--and with heat comes enlightenment and all amelioration & maturation-- It is genial and cordial--it imparts flavor & comfort--  With the friction of a match the master calls his servant.

   But how far from Fire stands the savage--cold--and dark--how ineffectual his authority.  With what pain & sweat he rubs his two sticks together, before the fire will come. (Fall 1846, 2 316)

Thoreau's appreciation of fire leads him to extol the virtues of the forge, the furnace, the oven, and even that icon of non-agricultural production, steam power.  These he links to other "civilized" traits: enlightenment, amelioration, maturation, flavor, and comfort.  And Thoreau attributes to fire two words whose entymological roots he frequently plays upon.  First, he describes fire as "genial," suggesting that fire's warmth is both amiable and generative ("contributing to propagation or production" and "enlivening; contributing to life and growth").  Second, fire is "cordial" ("relating to the heart" and "that which revives the spirits. . . a refreshing medicine that stimulates the heart").  The manufacture of a match, and the access to fire that it allows, marks civilized man's access to physically and spiritually invigorating energies.  It both "civilizes" him and allows him to power the machinery that extends his (re-)generative power[xxii]. 

            In "Chesuncook," too, Thoreau demonstrates the "striking contrast" that friction matches create between civilized and savage men.  When a native American named Sabattis informs Thoreau that the moose ears Thoreau had placed in the fire to dry and preserve must be skinned and cured to prevent the hair from falling off, Thoreau counters with knowledge of his own:

I asked him how he got fire; and he produced a little cylindrical box of friction matches.  He also had flints and steel, and some punk, which was not dry; I think it was from the yellow birch.  "But suppose you upset, and these and your powder get wet."  "Then," said he, "we wait till we get to where there is some fire."  I produced from my pocket a little vial, containing matches stoppled water-tight, and told him, that, though we were upset, we should still have some dry matches; at which he stared without saying a word. (140)

Sabattis' prior knowledge of matches seems to throw Thoreau, but he simply changes tactics.  He de-emphasizes Sabittis' "little" box of friction matches and draws attention to Sabattis' flints and steel, and his uselessly wet punk.  In order to demonstrate, and to share, his superior access to fire, Thoreau must pull an ace from his sleeve: the water- tight bottle which preserves his access to fire despite a dunking.  Who knows what Sabattis thinks of Thoreau's revelation, but Thoreau implies that Sabattis has been overmatched. 

            That Thoreau designates the friction match and fire as a mark of civilized states and that Debow's links "the first seats of civilization" to "mutual friction" and the "flame of humanity" may or may not be mere coincidence.  Both pun upon "striking," as in striking a match or a light, in the phrases "striking contrast" and "striking and graphic expression."  Moreover, Debow's infuses civilizing commerce with qualities rhetorically associated with Thoreau's description of fire as "cordial" and "genial."   DeBow's suggests that superfluous goods generate demand, that supply acts like love to vitalize the soul, that it propagates "new life."  Commerce becomes a spiritually invigorating force which prompts men to profitable "interchange," a strangely Thoreauvian-sounding play upon "exchange."  Like Debow's, Thoreau links fire to external and internal conditions--cordiality, geniality, camaraderie, enlightenment, humanity, and civilization.

            "Ktaadn" is, in fact, a lesson in using fire economically, aimed at Concordians, the people who felt so awful about the burning of their lots.  "Ktaadn" demonstrates a way of life which would allow them to live profusely and productively, rather than by scrimping and saving.  "Ktaadn" also aims to teach Concordians the means by which commercial relations can be made genial and cordial so that commercial interchange makes participants feel better, not worse.  On the whole, "Ktaadn" reads like Walden's economic lesson to John Field, a man Thoreau describes as being so bogged down by a futile attempt to accumulate goods that he has to work the harder to sustain himself in his work.  But "Ktaadn" commonly addresses Concordians directly, in this case, to contrast them to the anti-John Fieldian, George McCauslin: 

He entertained us a day or two with true Scotch hospitality, and would accept no recompense for it.  A man of dry wit and shrewdness, and a general intelligence which I had not looked for in the backwoods. . . . If I were to look for a narrow, uninformed, and countrified mind, as opposed to the intelligence and refinement which are thought to emanate from cities, it would be among the rusty inhabitants of an old-settled country. . . in the towns about Boston, even on the high road in Concord, and not in the backwoods of Maine.

   Supper was got before our eyes, in the ample kitchen, by a fire which would have roasted an ox; many whole logs, four feet long, were consumed to boil our tea-kettle--birch, or beech, or maple, the same summer and winter. . . . Everything here was in profusion, and the best of its kind.  Butter was in such plenty, that it was commonly used, before it was salted, to grease boots with.  (23)

McCauslin's wit and intellect, which distinguish him from some Concordians, seem linked to his capacity for prodigality.  He has enough of everything to give it away, to let visitors actually butter their boots, and to use any wood he wants any time of the year, in lengths of four feet, to boil one pot of tea.  Concordians, who lamented Thoreau's careless destruction of their woodlots and economized their woodlots year in and year out, must have envied such a prospect, but like John Field, Concordians would complain that they did not have the means to live like George McCauslin. 

            Thoreau exaggerates this theme mercilessly throughout "Ktaadn" and "Chesuncook."  In "Chesuncook," Thoreau claims,

It was worth the while to lie down in a country where you could afford such great fires. . . . We had first rolled up a large log some eighteen inches through and ten feet long, for a back log to last all night, and then piled on the trees to the height of three or four feet, no matter how green or damp.  In fact, we burned as much wood that night as would, with economy and an air-tight stove, last a poor family in one of our cities all winter.  It was very agreeable. . . . (104)

To a people who maintain woodlots or who buy their fuel, the burning of so much wood must seem an extraordinary luxury and Thoreau makes the most of it; he demonstrates that he can "afford" the great fires that Concordians cannot, and he actually "[gets] up once or twice and put fresh logs on the fire, making his companions curl up their legs" (105).  Thoreau portrays fire similarly in "Ktaadn," describing the fire as "the main comfort of a camp. . . . as well for cheerfulness, as for warmth and dryness. . . . [W]e had a fire some ten feet long by three or four high, which rapidly dried the sand before it" (39).  And, again, although this fire is "calculated to burn all night," Thoreau rises in the night to "[bring] fresh fuel to the fire" (40). 

            In "Ktaadn," Thoreau's extravagant consumption of wood is prefaced by a lesson on economy.  He first describes the mode of clearing and planting land in Maine,

[F]ell the trees, and burn once what will burn, then cut them up into suitable lengths, roll into heaps, and burn again; then with a hoe, plant potatoes where you can come at the ground between the stumps and charred logs, for a first crop, the ashes sufficing for manure, and no hoeing being necessary the first year.  In the fall, cut, roll, and burn again, and so on, till the land is cleared. (14)

The ashes, at least, function as manure, but Thoreau complains that the wood could be better used: "Here were thousands of cords, enough to keep the poor of Boston and New-York amply warm for a winter, which only cumbered the ground, and were in the settler's way.  And the whole of that solid and interminable forest is doomed to be gradually devoured by fire, like shavings, and no man be warmed by it" (17). 

            The fault is not with the settlers who burn the forest, but with the people who resist traveling to a land where they could "afford such great fires," people who complain that they do not have the means to live extravagantly.   The land is available, but people do not make use of it.  Immediately after describing the ease of clearing the land, through burning, Thoreau exclaims, "Let those talk of poverty and hard times who will, in the towns in the cities;  cannot the emigrant, who can pay his fare to New-York or Boston, pay five dollars more to get here,--I paid three, all told. . . and be as rich as he pleases, where land virtually costs nothing" (14).  No wonder that when Thoreau finally gains a view of the Maine woods, he concludes, "When the country is settled and roads are made, these cranberries will perhaps become an article of commerce. . . . It was a large farm for somebody, when cleared" (66).  These descriptions might lead settlers to make the economic decision to "burn"  the five dollars required to reach Maine in order to harvest the profusion of marketable produce available in the Maine woods.  The reason, in short, that people do not have riches is that they will not part with their poverty.  In terms of DeBow's description of commerce's civilizing influence, the land has been supplied but the people will not react to increase the demand.  They resist their education. 


Economic Prospects: From Blindness to Insight

The sequence of events that climax "Ktaadn"-- Thoreau's ascent to the summit, his wild ride down a mountain stream, and his dramatic disorientation when confronted with "primeval, untamed, and forever untameable Nature" near the mountain's base in a burnt-out clearing--is the culmination of Thoreau's lesson in political economy and the uses of fire.  The double climax of the text dramatizes Thoreau's reactions to the Maine woods as that of a typical Concordian--at first Thoreau resists the same lesson they resist.  And it finally  presents his melodramatically surprised recognition that nature could be vastly productive if people would simply put it to use.

            In ascending Mt. Ktaadn, Thoreau extends and literalizes Emerson's metaphors; he travels upstream from the dismembering mills and follows the Abolnagesic River to what he claims is its source, the "original fountain of power" for the mills, the clouds atop Mt. Ktaadn, and plunges in.  At the very summit of Mt. Ktaadn and the source of one of the rivers flowing into the sawmills, Thoreau discovers another manufacturing site: "It was like sitting in a chimney and waiting for the smoke to blow away.  It was, in fact, a cloud-factory,--these were the cloud-works, and the wind turned them off done from the cool, bare rocks" (64).  Literally, the cloud factory is an example of manufacturing springing up "naturally."  Cloud production at this factory is regulated only by the law of supply and demand; the factory turns out clouds in precise relation to the pace at which the winds take them away.  More dramatically, Thoreau experiences a figurative dismemberment even at this natural manufacturing site: "Some part of the beholder, even some vital part, seems to escape through the loose grating of his ribs as he ascends.  He is more lone than you can imagine. . . . Nature has got him at disadvantage, caught him alone, and pilfers him of some of his divine faculty" (64).  Thoreau is robbed, less divinely inspired, more merely embodied, lone and waste/manure, as if "a stronger race" had made "buttons" of his bones. 

            But Thoreau is also blinded here, quite literally by the clouds--"all objects were obscured by them.  Now the wind would blow me out a yard or sunlight, wherein I stood; then a gray, dawning light was all it could accomplish. . . " (63).  The drama of Thoreau's loss of sight and spirit atop the mountain is, it seems to me, a bit too dramatic; but it clearly illustrates the condition that his text suggests men should pull themselves out of.  Blinded atop the mountain, Thoreau feels shitty and worthless-- threatened by nature, robbed of his divinity, disjointed.  Yet the Journal version of "Ktaadn" suggests, "Your epic poets must all be blinded first ere they can see the Elysium of nature and the divinity in man" (325).   Faced with a divine prospect, Thoreau does not see it.  He falls victim to the  ailments he would have experienced at the sawmills, as if he had not made the trip to the summit at all.

            The recognition of blindness--Thoreau's inability to gain perspective atop Mt. Ktaadn--is a beginning in itself.  The dramatic loss of sight is a prelude to the resurrection of Thoreau's prospects; he regains his sight and transforms his body by plunging into the stream which feeds the very factories he could hardly see before.  He descends the mountain in the very torrent which tumbled down, "literally from out of the clouds" which had blinded him (59).  To add to the sense of invented melodrama atop the mountain, even this invigorating swim is presaged by Thoreau's fishing in the same river the night before.  The party catches a number of what Thoreau describes as "flowers," fish swimming in the Abolnagesic River rushing down from Ktaadn:

Instantly, a shoal of white chivin, (leucisci pulchelli,) silvery roaches, cousin-trout, or what not, large and small, prowling thereabouts, fell upon our bait, and one after another were landed amidst the bushes. Anon their cousins, the true trout, took their turn, and alternately the speckled trout, and the silvery roaches, swallowed the bait as fast as we could throw in; and the finest specimens of both that I have ever seen. . . were heaved upon the shore, though at first in vain, to wriggle down into the water again, for we stood in the boat; but soon we learned to remedy this evil; for one, who had lost his hook, stood on shore to catch them as they fell in a perfect shower around him--sometimes wet and slippery, full in his face and bosom, as his arms were outstretched to receive them.  While yet alive, before their tints had faded, they glistened like the fairest flowers, the product of primitive rivers; and he could hardly trust his senses, as he stood over them, that these jewels should have swum away in that Aboljacknagesic water for so long, so many dark ages;--these bright fluviatile flowers, seen of Indians only, made beautiful, the Lord only knows why, to swim there! (53-54)

The man's posture, arms wide to receive the trout, models an attitude toward nature's prodigal produce which enables the narrator to transform the gruesome image of wet fish raining on his head and chest into a rain of flowers, like a celebratory parade--he is ready for anything wonderful.   He accepts a kind of riches, "the product of primitive rivers"--not only dinner, of course, but also the flowery beauty of the fish, like swimming jewels.  Although the enrichment relies upon Thoreau's ability to value the product, the beauty of the fishes relies upon their continued circulation.  Thoreau's punning upon flower, like an orchis, and a flower, like a river or a trout in a river, is obvious here--the trout are "fluviatile flowers," which is to say that they swim flowingly in the river but they are also as beautiful as flowers.   Moreover, they are only flowers when they are swimming.  When taken from the river, they lose their tints[xxiii]. 

            The beautiful trout are an example for Thoreau's party to follow.  Down this same river the party journeys from the summit of Mt Ktaadn to the Burnt lands below.  And by the time he reaches the Burnt lands, Thoreau has been transformed by the pleasure of his journey down the river from which he fishes the beautiful trout:

We thus travelled about four miles in the very torrent itself, continually crossing and recrossing the stream down falls of seven or eight feet, or sometimes sliding down on our backs in a thin sheet of water. . . . It was a pleasant picture when the foremost turned about and looked up in the winding ravine, walled in with rocks and the green forest, to see at intervals of a rod or two, a red-shirted or green-jacketed mountaineer against the white torrent, leaping down the channel with his pack on his back, or pausing upon a convenient rock in the midst of the torrent to mend a rent in his clothes, or unstrap the dipper at his belt to take a draught of the water. . . . The cool air above, and the continual bathing of our bodies in mountain water, alternate foot, sitz, douche, and plunge baths, made this walk exceedingly refreshing. . . . (67-68)

Here, as in the description of the fish shower, the narrator becomes a third-person participant in the action.  Given his sympathy with the perspective, he is almost certainly "the foremost," the one who turns to see the others following him.  He functions as both the seer and the seen, a part of the spectacle which he invites us to imagine.  He frames his invitation to objectification by insisting that it is a "pleasant picture" to see these men hurtling down the mountain in the midst of the torrent.  This isn't simply a nature scene--the men are not pictured utopianly as "part" of nature but are juxtaposed to it, in distinct, practical relations.  One mends his ripped clothing, one slips a dipper into the stream, and another leaps, with his backpack on.   Thoreau had been blinded, but now he sees the "Elysium of nature and the divinity in man."

            These men are pleasant to look upon, part of the scene, because of their immersion in the torrent .  "I would fain be the channel of a mt brook," Thoreau complains.  "I bathe me in the [Concord] river--I lie down where it is shallow--amid the weeds over its sandy bottom but it seems shrunken & parched--I find it difficult to get wet through" (3 327).  If Thoreau suggests that Concord River lacks water, lacks current, he describes this mountain stream repeatedly as the reverse: it is torrential, the movement down it precipitous.  The result of such rapid and uncertain movement is that each man takes constant baths: "alternate foot, sitz, douche, and plunge baths."  The various baths in a mountain stream could be counted on to promote physical circulation.   "We regard bathing," O. S. Fowler asserts, "and especially in the cold water bath (when the constitution is sufficiently vigorous to produce reaction,) as almost a specific both in preventing and curing colds. . . . To those who take little exercise, the bath will be of special service by in part supplying the deficiency in promoting circulation."[xxiv]  The variety of baths are certain also to get the men "wet through," as if the stream itself had entered their bodies and is literally circulating in them, as it does in the trout who breathe it.[xxv]  The picture of one man, dipping into the stream for a drink, emphasizes this relation.  Finally, the four baths clean and purify the men, especially the sitz bath, which encourages the elimination of waste.  The men become a "channel" for circulation, and given this environment, as the stream flows through them, the men are easily described as pleasant to look upon.  The constant activity of these male bodies makes them orchis-like, liable to transform the waste of their bodies into something beautiful, civilized, circulateable, and useful.  Thoreau's inclusion of himself in the picture suggests that the distress he had felt atop Mt Ktaadn has been countered by his immersion in this rushing stream. 

            When next he encounters the primitive and pilfering matter of titanic nature, in the Burnt lands, Thoreau has reason to believe that he can transform them, as he has transformed himself.  Nonetheless, Thoreau dramatizes the moment of recognition, and significantly enough for reading Concordians, Thoreau "discovers" the terms of his political economy in a forest that is no worse for having been once burned over:  "We were passing over 'Burnt Lands,' burnt by lightning, perchance, though they showed no recent marks of fire, hardly so much as a charred stump, but looked rather like a natural pasture for the moose and deer. . . . I found myself traversing them familiarly, like some pasture run to waste, or partially reclaimed by man" (70).  Initially, Thoreau does not recognize where he is.  He engages the familiar assumptions that he would employ in, for instance, a burnt Concord lot, imagining that the burnt land is "partially reclaimed by man," but largely "run to waste."  He expects a "proprietor to rise up and dispute my passage" (70).  He feels dispossessed of the land and, simultaneously, that the land has "run to waste."  It holds nothing for him.  That perspective shifts when Thoreau makes the seemingly difficult transition to imagining that the "Burnt Lands" are not possessed by any man: 

It is difficult to conceive of a region uninhabited by man.  We habitually presume his presence and influence everywhere.  And yet we have not seen pure Nature, unless we have seen her thus vast, and drear, and inhuman, though in the midst of cities. . . . Here was no man's garden, but the unhandselled globe.  It was not lawn, nor pasture, nor mead, nor woodland, nor lea, nor arable, nor waste-land. . . . It was Matter, vast, terrific. . . . (70)

The recognition that the land is unowned, or at least well outside the presence and uninfluenced by man, allows Thoreau to recognize the Burnt lands as neither wasted woodlot nor pasture run to waste--he recognizes it as "vast, and drear, and inhuman."  Re-imagining the property as "no man's garden, but the unhandselled globe" leads Thoreau to postulate the presence of unowned property not only out in the wilderness but also even "in the midst of cities."  All property suddenly seems up for grabs, no longer "waste-land"-- merely "Matter, vast, terrific."

            The disjointed unraveling of Thoreau's thinking on the burnt lands merely dramatizes the logic he unfolds in his Journal, as he recalls the time he "once set fire to the woods" :

                        Hitherto I had felt like a guilty person--nothing but shame & regret--but now I settled the matter with myself shortly--& said to myself--who are these men who are said to be the owners of these woods & how am I related to them?  I have set fire to the forest--but I have done no wrong therein--& now it is as if the lightning had done it.  These flames are but consuming their natural food.  So shortly I settled it with myself & stood to watch the approaching flames.  It was a glorious spectacle & I was the only one there to enjoy it. (After May 31, 1850; 75-76)

The conclusion that had been dramatically surprised out of Thoreau by his confrontation with the primitive Maine woods is arrived at "shortly" in the midst of the fire in Concord woods--those woods, too, had been burned, "perchance by lightning."  The Concord woodlots, too, are "no man's garden."  They also are owned by "so called owners," men "who are said to be the owners" of the land. And the Concord woods, it can be inferred, are not waste-land, but "Matter, vast, terrific," a glorious spectacle.  The Burnt lands passage dramatizes, even melodramatizes, an earlier event.

            On the Burnt lands, Thoreau reaches the same conclusion that he reaches in his Journal.  There, he claims that fire

is without doubt an advantage on the whole.  It sweeps and ventilates the forest floor, & makes it clear and clean.  It is natures [sic] besom.  By destroying the punier underwood it gives prominence, it gives prominence [sic] to the larger & sturdier trees. . . . When lightning burns the forest its director make [sic] no apology to man--and I was but his agent.  Perhaps we owe to this accident partly some of the noblest natural parks. (after July 1, 1850; 91)

Here, he notes that already the burnt lands "showed no recent marks of fire, hardly so much as a charred stump, but  looked rather like a natural pasture for the moose and deer . . .  with occasional strips of timber crossing them, and low poplars springing up, and patches of blueberries here and there" (70).  The fire's consumption of the land's production has accomplished what anyone who is well read in political economy would expect--it has encouraged the land to productivity, sometimes to nobler productions.

            Thoreau's understanding of the Burnt lands reverses the feelings of worthlessness, that "[some] part of the beholder, even some vital part, [has seemed] to escape through the loose grating of the ribs as he ascends" (64).  The heart becomes a major metaphor in "Ktaadn" not only because it is richly metaphorized as an agent of love and/or gusto in its own right, but also because it is the fundamental agent of bodily circulation.  Thoreau's demonstration of the means for recovering his heart carries particular importance for his relation to his neighbors in Concord (literally "with heart").  On Mt. Ktaadn, Thoreau has, metaphorically, lost heart--he quails.  In the Burnt lands, however, which have suffered the genial and cordial influence of fire, Thoreau rediscovers his sense of humor and a new relationship to his actual heart:

            I stand in awe of my body, this matter to which I am bound has become strange to me.  I fear not spirits, ghosts, of which I am one,--that my body might,--but I fear bodies, I tremble to meet them.  What is this Titan that has possession of me?  Talk of mysteries!--Think of our life in nature,--daily to be shown matter, to come in contact with it,--rocks, trees, wind on our cheeks!  the solid earth! the actual world! the common sense! Contact!  Contact!  Who are we?  where are we?

   Ere long we recognized some rocks and other features in the landscape which we had purposely impressed on our memories, and quickening our pace, by two o' clock we reached the batteau. (71)

Here, Thoreau's loss of heart is sardonic.  The exaggerated fear, trembling and anxiety which he expresses, culminating in two desperately intoned questions, "Who are we?  Where are we?" is straight-facedly and suddenly dismissed by the simple recognition of some landmarks.  The party had been literally lost. 

            Critics of "Ktaadn," I would add, have commonly been more seriously lost when faced with this passage.  James McIntosh and Sherman Paul are most widely recognized for suggesting that Thoreau is suddenly at odds with nature, but according to John Tallmadge "[a]ll [Thoreau critics] ask how deeply Mt. Katahdin shook [Thoreau's] faith in nature's humanity. . . ."[xxvi]   Robert C. Cosbey  unsettles critiques of Thoreau "as a writer [who] has often been described as skilled only in the construction of sentences, not in the handling of larger units" (21).  Such assumptions seem to undergird critical assertions that Thoreau's "Contact!" passage is most significant for what it says of Thoreau's loss of control, but Tallmadge and I agree that the passage demonstrates Thoreau's extraordinary authorial control rather than any real confusion or dismay.  Tallmadge suggests that Thoreau includes what he calls the "Contact!" passage for aesthetic reasons: "Because it vastly complicates the relations among author, narrator, text, subject, and reader, the passage opens up new artistic ground for a writer who has discovered that Wordsworthian nature writing cannot be transported to North America" (147).  I would say that the passage is revelatory because it is particularly typical of Thoreau.  To an author whose sense of humor led him, as Michael West notes, to describe himself doing his "business" in the woods, such (literal) misdirection must have been a fine, sardonic joke. 

            Like most of Thoreau's humor, the joke makes a serious point.   In fact, Thoreau has been leading us to this point throughout the text--and it is a potential crisis, but only for the reader. Those who have no faith in man's relationship to nature and divinity (flibberty-gibbits?) will identify with the disorientation but miss the immediate and obvious re-orientation--they will continue to be lost.  Those who have faith in man's relation to nature and divinity will never have been lost, and they may recognize the authorial control with which Thoreau depicts the confusion--the best evidence that Thoreau was never lost either.  He has been leading readers, trying to show others that they are lost.   Typically, Thoreau provides himself as a guide who offers no explanations for readers who are frightened to follow.

             The Maine Woods delineates a means by which Concordians who feel shitty about the "loss" of their woodlots could begin to feel good about themselves.  The fact is, Thoreau suggests, they are shitty, because they are not "wasteful" enough.  To become otherwise, they must truly embrace the law of supply and demand.  Rather than manipulating their demands, and storehousing their supplies, they must educate themselves to demand what the earth provides.  They must burn what wood they have, if only because scarcity of fuel will force the population to migrate to the Maine woods, where the product is plentiful, the demand low, and much is wasted.              Formed and fashioned, but "unhandselled," the Burnt lands await the hand of man.  Those who seek its values have discovered "the charm of invention and discovery," which, as Thoreau explains in his journal draft of "Ktaadn," is

[t]o find out the relation of something in nature to man.  On which side to place it that the light may fall upon it aright-- To put things in their place-- To play a tune and put an end to discord.  The savage splits the fibre of the breadfruit leaf and inserts his head in it--and is naturally delighted with his 'superb head-dress'--for he has discovered a slight use of nature or relation to himself in her works. (317)

Nature's matter encourages such consumption; in their turn, such uses stimulate nature's regeneration.   Hoarding the land, however, stifles or slows invention, discovery, and production.  The great user of woodlots, consummate consumer of wood, fire's demand for wood always meets the supply, and its action reminds us that "Burnt lands" are "not lawn, nor pasture, nor mead, nor woodland, nor lea, nor arable, nor waste-land."  A Burnt land is not a waste land precisely because it is unlimitedly generative, and open to broad possibilities. 

            "Ktaadn" is a means for Thoreau to turn a defeat into a victory, and to antagonize his angry neighbors rather than apologize to them.  To the Concord farmers whose living depended upon strict economy and the maintenance of a dependent factory population in Boston, Thoreau advocates a policy that might decimate the factories and encourages the farmers to sell out, move to Maine, and live as high on the hog as Thoreau had for a week.[xxvii]

            This advice, from the fellow who had recently burned the very woods that Concordians relied upon to stay warm in winter, had to rankle, if only because it was evidence that Thoreau was off on holiday when he could be home, paying people back.   Meanwhile, Thoreau busily scribbled antagonistic parables that he hoped would illustrate his neighbors' confusion.  "Chesuncook" closes with such a moral tale--back from the woods, Thoreau stops in a native American settlement: "An Indian who was making canoes behind a house, looking up pleasantly from his work,--for he knew my companion,--said that his name was Old John Pennyweight.  I had heard of him long before, and I inquired after one of his contemporaries, Joe Fourpence-ha'penny; but, alas! he no longer circulates (119). 


[i] Henry David Thoreau, The Writings of Henry David Thoreau  ed.  Robert Sattlemeyer (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1984; three volumes to date), 178.  Subsequent referents will be given parenthetically in the text.

[ii] David Leverenz, Manhood and the American Renaissance (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1989) 24.

[iii] George  L. Mosse, The Image of Man (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), 39. The standard, Mosse indicates, derived from Johann Joachim Winckelmann's descriptions of modern manly beauty based on Greek statuary:  

Supreme beauty for Winckelmann was male rather than female.  Examples of supreme beauty such as the Apollo of Belvedere, Antonius, or Laocoon are never androgynous but are "real men" because female influences are excluded . . . . Supreme beauty for Winckelmann was male rather than female.  Examples of supreme beauty such as the Apollo of Belvedere, Antonius, or Laocoon are never androgynous but are "real men" because female influences are excluded. (34)

Mosse traces the impact of Winckelmann's ideas on Johann Gottfied von Herder, Goethe, Friederick Schiller, and Karl Philip Moritz; "For these men of the Enlightenment," Mosse asserts, "the manly beauty of Greek youths not only provided an example for those who sought Bildung but was a part of nature and nature's laws, a steady base in a rapidly changing world" (36).

[iv]  Robert Fanuzzi, "Thoreau's Urban Imagination," American Literature 68.2 (June, 1996), 321-346.  Much has be written about Thoreau's philosophies of political economy. Richard A. Grusin, "Thoreau, Extravagance, and the Economy of Nature," American Literary History 5.1 (Spring, 1993), 30-50; Leonard Neufeldt, "Thoreau's Political Economy," New England Quarterly Review 57.3 (July, 1984), 359-82 and The Economist: Henry Thoreau and Enterprise (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1989); Michael Warner, "Thoreau's Erotic Economy" Comparative American Identities,  ed. Hortense Spillers (New York: Rutledge), 157-74.   I haven't space to address each critic's thinking here, but suffice to say that most associate Thoreau's thinking with more radical, creative, and esoteric influences than I do.   Robert Fanuzzi claims that Thoreau re-invigorated an eighteenth-century economic rhetoric; Richard Grusin argues that Thoreau advocated a native American gift economy; Leonard Neufeldt suggests that Thoreau re-invented an eighteenth-century republican vocabulary; and Michael Warner suggests that Thoreau promoted an "erotic economy" that undermined the bourgeois assumptions of capitalism.  I think that a good case can be made that Thoreau's resistance to a manufacturing economy piloted by Massachusetts reflected the national debate (important to the elections of 1842, 44, and 46) over whether the country would promote manufacturers with prohibitive tariffs or embrace the tenets of free trade.  As an anti-tariff man, Thoreau found opposition among his Whig neighbors, but much support nationwide, particularly in the Democratic South. 

[v]  Francis, Wayland, D. D.,  The Elements of Political Economy 1837.  ed. Aaron L. Chapin  (New York: Sheldon & Company, 1886) 4-5.

[vi] For more on Thoreau's attitude toward labor, see Joe Boyd Fulton, "Doing 'Pioneer Work': The Male Writer in Thoreau's Week and Walden," Emerson Society Quarterly 41.4 (4th Quarter, 1995), 289‑305; Nicholas Knowles Brommel, By the Sweat of the Brow: Literature and Labor in Antebellum America (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1993); William Gleason, "Re‑Creating Walden: Thoreau's Economy of Work and Play," American Literature 65.4 (December, 1993), 673‑701; Michael Newbury, "Hawthorne, Thoreau, and Middle-Class Fitness," American Quarterly 47.4 (December 1995), 481-514; David M. Robinson, Robinson, David M. "'Unchronicled Nations': Agrarian Purposes and Thoreau's Ecological Knowing," Nineteenth-Century Literature 48.3 (December, 1995), 326-40; and William L. Stull, "'Action from Principle': Thoreau's Transcendental Economics," English Language Notes (December, 1984), 48-62.

[vii] Vethake, Henry. The Principles of Political Economy 1844 (New York: Augustus M. Kelly, 1971), 298, 303.

[viii] George Opdyke, A Treatise on Political Economy 1851 (Clifton: Augustus M. Kelly Publishers, 1973), 199, 203.

[ix] Thoreau, Henry David.  "Ktaadn," 1848  The Maine Woods.  ed. Joseph J. Moldenhauer (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. 1972), 11-12.  Subsequent references will be made parenthetically in the text.

[x] Henry David Thoreau, "Chesuncook, " 1856  The Maine Woods  ed. Joseph J. Moldenhauer (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1972), 86.

[xi] Robert Sayre,   Thoreau and the American Indians (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. 1977), 170.

[xii] Francis Parkman,  The Oregon Trail  ed. John Seelye.  (New York: Penguin Books, 1982), 330.

[xiii] William Gilmore Simms,  "The Last Wager," The Wigwam and the Cabin (Ridgewood, NJ: The Gregg Press, 1968), 131.

[xiv] Sayre, 184.

[xv] Opdyke, 46.

[xvi]  Ralph Waldo Emerson, "The American Scholar," Selections from Ralph Waldo Emerson  ed. Stephen E. Whicher (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1957), 64.

[xvii] For more on Thoreau's uses of Typee, see Robert Sattlemeyer's "Thoreau and Melville's Typee," American Literature: A Journal of Literary History, Criticism, and Bibliography 52 (1980): 462-68.

[xviii] On Thoreau's reactions to manly beauty, see Michael Warner, "Thoreau's Bottom," Raritan 11.3 (Winter, 1992): 64-65; and Walter Harding, "Thoreau's Sexuality." Journal of Homosexuality 21.3 (1991): 23‑45.  Warner suggests that Thoreau's appreciation of manly beauty undermines the heterosexual assumptions of bourgeois individualism, and Harding speculates that Thoreau was homosexual, an observation that has been widely accepted.  But Adam Smith recognizes manly beauty as a force that stimulated trade, and, as is well known, categories of homo- and heterosexual identity were not linguistically available until after the Civil War--antebellum sexuality was commonly classified as "natural" or "unnatural."  It seems to me that twentieth-century prejudices encourage us to link capitalism with heterosexuality and aggressive individualism, but  antebellum capitalism accepted as natural some behaviors that twentienth-century readers might recognize as "homosexual."  For more on nineteenth-century sexuality, see Jonathan Katz, The Invention of Heterosexuality  (New York: Penguin Books, 1995).

[xix] Henry David Thoreau, Correspondence of Henry David Thoreau.  ed. Walter Harding. (Washington Square: New York University Press, 1958), 515.

[xx] As Harper's Monthly Magazine notes, the lucifer match was in 1850 a recent and much heralded triumph of mass manufactures.  It made indispensable fire convenient and inexpensive for a broad swath of Americans.  The Journal draft of "Ktaadn" suggests that Thoreau may encourage the production of friction matches as a vehicle of commerce, just as he does the production of batteaux.  The Journal version of the line reads even more uncertainly than the published version: "They are they slit and slit again till you get a size that will suit for the ship or house or lucifer match" (Fall 1846, J2 282).   The terms here are similar to those in the published version, a distinction between the lumber of a house and the timber for a boat, or ship.  How is the lucifer match aligned with those distinctions? 

[xxi] "Foreign Commerce," Debow's Commercial Register. 1.1 (January, 1846), 86.

[xxii] On Thoreau and fire, see William Stull, "'Action from Principle': Thoreau's Transcendental Economics," English Language Notes (December, 1984), 55-56.  Stull notes the importance of fire in "Ktaadn" first as "betoken[ing] human civilization," as a "'good citizen of the world,'" and as an agent of Prometheus, "the civilizer"  Stull suggests that fire becomes a starkly destructive, negative force by "Ktaadn"'s end, but I believe that Thoreau merges what seem opposites, that he links fire's seeming wastefulness to its civilizing potential.

[xxiii] The primary metaphor for Thoreau's physical transformation is not, in this case, the white pine, but a related image--a flower, specifically the orchid: 

The wilderness is simple, almost to barrenness. . . . A civilized man, using the word in the ordinary sense, with his ideas and associations, must at length pine there [in the wilderness], like  a cultivated plant, which clasps its fibres about a crude and undissolved mass of peat. . . .

   But there are spirits of a yet more liberal culture, to whom no simplicity is barren.  There are not only stately pines, but fragile flowers, like the orchises, commonly described as too delicate for cultivation, which derive their nutriment from the crudest mass of peat.  These remind us, that, not only for strength, but for beauty, the poet must, from time to time, travel the logger's path and the Indian's trail, to drink at some new and more bracing fountain of the Muses, far in the recesses of the wilderness. (156)

A merely civilized man, "using the word in the ordinary sense," will not know how to absorb and transform the simplicity of the wilderness--he will "pine" there.  A "super-civilized" man, however, what Thoreau calls a spirit "of a yet more liberal culture," may be nourished by the very simplicity/barrenness which seems insufficient to others.  Rather than "pining," he will be like one of the wild's "stately pines" or "fragile flowers," will look not merely "for strength, but for beauty."  That effort will reflect upon himself, giving him strength and beauty.

[xxiv] O. S. Fowler, M. D.  ed.  The Principles of Physiology  (Boston and Philadelphia: Fowlers and Wells, Publishers, 1855), 89.

[xxv] For more on Thoreau's concern for physiology, see James Armstrong, "Thoreau, Chastity, and the Reformers," Thoreau's Psychology: Eight Essays  ed. Raymond Gozzi. (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1983); and Michael West, "Scatology and Eschatology: The Heroic Dimensions of Thoreau's Wordplay," PMLA 89 (1974): 1043-64.


[xxvi] See James McIntosh, Thoreau as Romantic Naturalist: His Shifting Stance Towards Nature (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1974) and Sherman Paul, The Shores Of America: Thoreau's Inward Exploration (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1985).  For more descriptions of Thoreau's loss of control in "Ktaadn," see Stephen Adams and Donald Ross, "Thoreau's 'Ktaadn': 'The Main Astonishment at Last,'" English Language Notes  20.3‑4 (Mar.‑June, 1983), 39‑47; John Blair and Augustus Trowbridge, "Thoreau on Katahdin," American Quarterly 12 (1960): 508-517; Ronald Wesley Hoag,  "The Mark of the Wilderness: Thoreau's Contact with Ktaadn." Texas Studies in Literature and Language 24.1 (Spring, 1982), 23‑46; Lane Lauriate, Jr., "Thoreau's Response to the Maine Woods," Emerson Society Quarterly 47 (1967), 37‑41; Lewis Leary, "Beyond the Brink of Fear: Thoreau's Wilderness," Studies in the Literary Imagination 7 (1974), 67-74; Lewis Miller, Jr., "The Artist as Surveyor in Walden and The Maine Woods,"  Emerson Society Quarterly  21 (1975), 76‑81; Kevin Radaker, "Henry Thoreau and Frederic Church: Confronting the Monumental Sublimity of the Maine Wilderness," Yearbook of Interdisciplinary Studies in the Fine Arts 1 (1989), 267‑88; and others.  All agree that Thoreau was defeated, disappointed, shocked.   Some critics emphasize the victims of Thoreau's loss of equilibrium: Linda Frost, "'The Red Face of Man,' the Penobscot Indian, and a Conflict of Interest in Thoreau's Maine Woods,"  Emerson Society Quarterly 39.1 (1st Quarter, 1993), 20‑46; and Gregory Pfitzer, "Thoreau and Mother Nature: 'Ktaadn' as an Oedipal Tale," American Transcendental Quarterly. 2.4 (December, 1988), 302‑311.  Frost suggests that Thoreau posits nature as a maternal adversary that he must defeat.  Pfitzer describes "Ktaadn" as an Oedipal tale--Mt. Ktaadn becomes the mother he must not have and must have.  In both Frost and Pfitzer, native/natural Americans suffer from Thoreau's conflict with mother nature. 


[xxvii]  For more on socioeconomics, see Philip Yanella, "Socio-Economic Disarray and Literary Response: Concord and Walden," Mosaic 14.1 (Winter, 1981): 19.  Yanella suggests that, according to historical data, Thoreau is correct in "Economy" to characterize the Concord community as significantly impinged upon by economic pressures. Concord reflected the characteristics of the industrializing Massachusetts economy such as 

great disparities in the distribution of local wealth, a small core population which possessed the wealth, the high status occupations, and its supportive kinship network, and a volatile, mobile immigrant and native American population that was young and propertyless.

See also Robert Gross, "Culture and Cultivation: Agriculture and ociety in Thoreau's Concord," Journal of American History 69 (June, 1982): 45.  These studies imply that as Thoreau concentrates upon Concord's socio-economic organization he also cites and interposes in debates over the socio-economic organization of the state and nation.