Thoreau’s favorite literary form was the romantic excursion

  • ramble (“Walking”)
  • trip (Cape Cod)
  • sojourn (Walden)

In this romantic excursion, he narrates a spiritual quest as it proceeds. The latter half of Thoreau’s journals had a similar form.

The excursion does not feel obligated to be detailed in its description of a specific setting. Instead, it spends most of its time providing an account of the universe as a whole from the perspective of the author.

His choice of this form may in part be due to the fact that it was a popular form in his time. Thoreau has read over 146 travel books.

Travel literature could still be instructive while still being delightful. It was more literary than factual.

Among all of the travel books he read, William Gilpin’s Remarks of Forest Scenery and Other Woodland Views was perhaps closest to Thoreau’s taste.

His favorite form, as noted earlier, is the romantic excursion: a ramble (” Walking” )or trip (Cape Cod) or sojourn (Walden) which takes on overtones of a spiritual quest as the speaker proceeds. Thoreau’s later journals have the same rhythm.

Though somewhat more controlled by the obligation to describe a particular setting, it tends to become, in effect, an account of the whole universe as it appears to the speaker

Thoreau cycled between observation and speculation

Thoreau was very good at this cycle between observation and speculation.

This comprehensiveness is due in large part to the extraordinary gift for microcosm which Emerson was the first to notice in him, the ability to infer the “universal law from the single fact” (W, X, 474). This very transcendental mode of perception gives rise to what John Broderick rightly calls the fundamental movement of Thoreau’s prose-from observation to speculation and back again-and to his breadth of allusion.

Thoreau began with his environment and tried to invest it with meaning. Temporal continuity in his writing is usualIy more important than the continuity of abstract ideas

Thoreau’s travel writing

its attempt to intermix facts and entertainment, its academic wit, and its tendency to overrefine ideas.

The center of literary interest in such writing, Curtis goes on to say, is not what the traveler sees or the adventures he experiences, but the self-portrayal of the traveller himself.

stressing the importance of the individual mind over that of empirical fact.

what “we care to read about” in travel books is not paintings and churches and rivers and mountains, “but the reflection of these in genial and original minds.”

True travel is spiritual travel, an exploration of one’s own higher latitudes.

They simply desired to make it spiritually valid, or, in Thoreau’s case, to make the best of their inability to gratify it fully. Such motives reinforced their natural literary predilection for the abstract and subjective dimensions

Thoreau interspersed descriptive sketches with verse fragments, prose poetry, and quaint bits of historical lore

In all these cases one becomes conscious of an interplay between the sequence of actual observations and the interests of a subjectively imposed mood or design. Neither dominates to the exclusion of the other; rather, the works oscillate between the two structural principles.

Thoreau had but a limited interest in the purely picturesque; but his mode of writing does resemble Irving’s in most of the ways listed here-in its descriptive, peripatetic, and miscellaneous or hybrid character: part sketch, part information, part narrative, part wit, part philosophy.

Thoreau demanded that the observer enter into a total relation with the thing observed.

Even when considered as a travelogue, Walden emerges as Thoreau’s masterpiece, of course, for not only does it carry the principle of significant travel as interior travel farther than any other Transcendentalist work, it is also more thorough and sophisticated on the level of observation than the rest of Thoreau’s writing.

Of all Thoreau’s books, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers is probably most illuminated by an understanding of the travel-writing tradition, because it presents on the surface the most perplexing mixture of subject matters and levels of style.

Thoreau’s travel writing was influenced by the trends of his day

most travelogues used one of two models: the sequential, sometimes day-by-day (Tu- dor’s “A Tour,” lrving’s Tour, Brackenridge’s Journal), or the topical (Mme de Stael’s Germany, Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, Emerson’s English Traits). Thoreau preferred the former model in general, though he used the latter in Walden. A literary travel book was not expected to have a very coherent structure; one of its pleasures, indeed, as James Russell Lowell said in his review of Thoreau’s A Week, was in its ” happy fortuity.”

A talent for observation and description was a sine qua non, but romantic travelers were expected to go beyond this and tell not simply “what has happened to them,” but ” how they have happened to the universe,” in Thoreau’s words

there were no special ground rules for the order in which a travel writer should proceed-that would depend on the order of observation or reflection, but there was an unspoken commitment to totality.

In the popular romantic excursions of the era there is, so to speak, a convention of levity, a tacit assumption that the prevailing atmosphere is going to be bucolic reverie or musing, which will furnish both author and reader an escape from business and the city into a pastoral dream-world.

Thoreau’s writing, which follows the romantic excursion, exhibit that he was not immensely concerned with literary architectonics.

the prevailing critical approach to Thoreau carries with it the somewhat misleading implication that literary architectonics was (or should have been) of immense concern to him. In fact, none of his books, not even Walden) is very tightly unified, nor probably designed to be, for the romantic excursion is as much a record of events and impressions as it is a poem. Even in the course of so analytical a work as Walden there are all sorts of meanderings and digressions

His desire to prophecy made Thoreau different from other excurion writers

The difference between Whitman and Thoreau and the popular excursion, in addition to the fact that their writing is simply more difficult, is that they refuse to do no more than daydream; they must also prophesy, whereas Margaret Fuller is largely content to remain on the level of description and anecdote. This made Whitman and Thoreau less popular but truer to Transcendentalist ideals of art.

Thoreau was a stylist, but his choice of style was governed not by literary structure but by the demands of his vision.

It is not that these passages bear no relation to the over- all drift of the book, but that their charm lies more in their heterogeneity and unpredictableness than in their contribution to an overarching whole. Like a Whitman catalogue, Thoreau’s writing is to be more appreciated as process than as product, more for its irregular flow than for any patterns which can be abstracted from it, although the awareness of such patterns naturally enhances one’s pleasure in the work.

Like all literary travel narratives, Walden is an aesthetic mongrel, a mixture of the actual and the fictive, a report of real occurrences which have been reshaped, in different degrees, by the processes of selection, reflection, ordering, heightening, and mythologizing.

What the excursion meant to Thoreau in life

This gets at the heart of what the excursion meant for Thoreau, both in life and as a literary endeavor. It was a succession of confrontations with nature, from each of which the observer is expected to extract as much as he can, the mark of success being not so much in the planning of one’s itinerary or imaginative rearrangement of events as in the way in which he runs the gamut of events as they occur.

A Week is a narrative with philosophical interpolations

A Week primarily as a narrative with philosophical interpolations which mar its unity, and those who see it as a thematic progression with certain unassimilable elements.

To Read

  • Broderick, “The Movement of Thoreau’s Prose,” American Literature, 33 (1961), 133-142.
  • Christie, Thoreau as World Traveler (New York: Columbia University Press, 1965).