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"A More Perfect Indian Wisdom": Transcultural Exchange in the Writings of Henry D. Thoreau
Theses and Dissertations
  • Jessie Nichole Bray, University of South Carolina
Date of Award
1-1-2010
Document Type
Campus Access Dissertation
Department
English Language and Literatures
First Advisor
Laura Dassow Walls
Abstract

"A More Perfect Indian Wisdom" radically re-envisions the work of Henry D. Thoreau while also examining additional nineteenth-century authors to investigate the relationship between transcultural performance, exploration, and literature in the United States during the antebellum period. In a nation simultaneously freeing itself from colonial influence yet perpetuating similar nationalistic tendencies in order to territorialize the uncharted West, revolutionary authors such as Herman Melville, Susan Fenimore Cooper and Margaret Fuller construct narratives that overturn hegemonic paradigms and participate in a culture of dissent that reconceives U.S. American identity in a cosmopolitan sense. Henry D. Thoreau functions as a central figure in this culture of dissent because he most effectively transcends the cultural paradigms of oppression holistically, calibrating his sense of ethical rectitude via sympathy with his human and non-human neighbors.

In the first chapter, "Finding the `Points of Compass': The Performance of Mapping in Typee and Walden" I show that Melville and Thoreau put emphasis on qualitative as opposed to quantitative metrics for evaluating their subject; as a result, each author appreciates the specificity of location and how it impacts the cultural history of a region. As a product of this understanding, both authors interpret their respective landscape performatively, via their passage through and survey of it, engaging in participant-observation science as a result. In addition, by publicizing this personal relationship with their subject, they suggest a revised model for culture that embraces biocultural ecology and a revised sense of history.

Chapter Two, "Human History as Natural History: Cooper, Fuller, Thoreau and Nineteenth-century Exploration" traces the relationship between science and culture and how this relationship shaped the U.S. frontier, comparing how Rural Hours, Summer On The Lakes, and Wild Fruits initiate social and environmental reform through re-envisioning the relationship between humans and nature. Cooper's agrarian pastoral, while a progressive domestic narrative, becomes mired in the dogma of tradition, which Fuller escapes from. Although Fuller seems to point the way down this path toward cultural commensuration and hybridity, Thoreau's Wild Fruits seems to step further toward a cosmopolitan sense of exploration and, by representing a broader confluence of social and biological intersections, succeeds to a greater degree than Cooper or Fuller in subverting the imperial objectives of exploration.

Chapter Three, "Nature, Language and Myth: The Archetypal Hero in Thoreau's The Maine Woods" examines compares mainstream historical writing in the Antebellum era and how these writings transform North America's past into U.S. national myths. I compare the contributions to the national narrative offered by James Fenimore Cooper's Last of the Mohicans (1826) and Ralph Waldo Emerson's Representative Men (1850) to Thoreau's the re-envisioning of the American heroic archetype in The Maine Woods. In doing so, I contend that Thoreau is engaged in a historicizing process that rejects the appropriation of Indians in the formation of an American archetype, deconstructing the mythology of Manifest Destiny.

Chapter Four, "A Fact Flowered into Truth: Thoreau's Indian Books," demonstrates how these factbooks behave as a kind of ethnographic survey similar to the topographic surveyThoreau engaged in with Walden, bringing less quantifiable aspects Amerindian culture (religion, social relationships, etc.) into concert with more obviously quantifiable elements of history and their survival. Thoreau attempts to create a multifarious representation of Amerindians that is truer to life than popular representations--both positive and negative--that orientalized Indians for their non-Western attributes. In this process, Thoreau's Indian Books show not only an evolution of Thoreau as author and thinker but also how his views on Native Americans took shape over various literary and chronological epochs of his life. Additionally, the Indian Books offer a productive view into alternative models for constructing histories and ethnographies in the nineteenth century.

Citation Information
Jessie Nichole Bray. ""A More Perfect Indian Wisdom": Transcultural Exchange in the Writings of Henry D. Thoreau" (2010)
Available at: http://works.bepress.com/jessie_bray/1/