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WALDEN'S SHORE by Robert M. Thorson


Henry David Thoreau and Nineteenth-Century Science

by Robert M. Thorson

Pub Date: Dec. 16th, 2013
ISBN: 978-0-674-72478-5
Publisher: Harvard Univ.

Thorson (Geology/Univ. of Connecticut; Beyond Walden: The Hidden History of America's Kettle Lake and Ponds, 2009, etc.) follows up his earlier work by establishing Henry David Thoreau's own scientific credentials.

The author adds depth to the iconic image of Thoreau, revered for his contributions to the American literary renaissance and his role as a social reformer. Thorson uses Thoreau's journals as a source for his contention that he had a keen interest in geology and the emerging theories of geological evolution reflected in Charles Darwin's Journal of Researches (1851), which Thoreau read with great interest. He cites notations predating The Origin of Species that anticipated Darwin's theory of natural selection—e.g., how “individual fitness, adaptation, co-evolution, and competition” shaped the evolution of animals and plants. Thoreau accepted the correct view of Swiss paleontologist Louis Agassiz about how glaciation shaped the geology and ecology of the region—a view rejected by American geologists for theological reasons. Thorson explains that his purpose is “to counterbalance what strikes me as a recent trend in eco-criticism that refracts science through literature without being scientific.” He seeks to dig deeper than the “wave of marketing Thoreau as the symbolic ‘green man,’ ” in which his scientific interests are often overlooked. The author takes issue with such authors as Leo Marx, who reduced the inner meaning of Walden to “the dialectic tension between industrial progress and the timeless beauty of nature." Marx and others often bypassed Thoreau's intellectual connection to the ideas that were animating Darwin and the geologists, such as Charles Lyell, who helped shape Darwin's thought. Thorson suggests that seasonal change and the contrast in Walden Pond between summer and winter is a metaphor for Thoreau's own mind, which “toggled [between] poetic and scientific.”

An intriguing academic book best read in conjunction with Walden.