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To Thoreau-ly Enjoy Nature

A Review of Lance Newman’s Our Common Dwelling: Henry Thoreau, Transcendentalism, and the Class Politics of Nature

Lance Newman is currently an English professor at Westminster College in Utah. He has a Bachelors in English from New College of Florida, and a Masters and Ph.D. in English from Brown University. He is also the author of two chapter books of poems: 3by3by3 and Come Kanab: A Little Red Songbook.

During the 19th century, Transcendentalism played a significant role to American Romantics who hoped to find in nature a way to redeem their broken republic. Throughout Our Common Dwelling, Lance Newman presents nature and Transcendentalism to his readers as very significant in society, then and now. He wrote, “how we think about nature can play a part in that process if it inspires us to engage in collective actions for change.” Newman proves his point by defining ecocriticism and using Transcendentalist writers and Transcendentalist critics for factual evidence of nature’s importance in life, in the world, and the consequences of a poorly treated environment.

Newman begins the first chapter by telling the reader about the first Earth day in 1970, when the gravity of the global warming issue became more clear. He then defines ecocriticism, describing it as the appearance of anxiety about the potential for institutionalization. Ecocriticism urgently  condemns the ongoing destruction of the world, also obscuring the historical specificity of that process. One law of ecology that ecocriticism would do well to consider: “the most fundamental relationships structuring the operation of natural (and social) systems are those that regulate the production and exchange of energy.”2 It insists on the independent reality of the nonlinguistic material world, and emphasizes the power of ideas to determine how society is structured and how it evolves over time. William Howarth’s definition of an ecocritic is “a person who judges the merits and faults of writings that depict the effects of culture upon nature, with a view toward celebrating nature, berating its despoilers, and reversing their harm through political action.”3 Ecocriticism tends to focus on nonfiction writing about nature, and recognizes that ecological destruction is a distinctive feature of modernity. In democracy, Transcendentalism is seen as an expression of individualism, the philosophy of it. As a movement, Transcendentalism consisted of elite radicals taking place within a period of broad ideological turmoil. Transcendentalists all had one thing in common: “a conviction that the way to redeem society was to get back in touch with the divinely ordained laws of nature.”4 This only suggested the range of ways in which “nature” was deployed within the movement in response to a sharply negative assessment of the contemporary social pyramid with its spirit of commerce, competitive institutions, and moral and spiritual dullness. Emerson called on American scholars to prepare themselves for leadership by educating themselves not only through books, but also through action and nature. Thoreau lived in the woods, planted his beans, observed the Walden pond, and sat down to write. George Ripley strived enthusiastically for the Brook Farm community, “where manual labor in nature would rejuvenate those who had been deformed by society’s unnatural division of labor.”5 The dissonance between visions of a just, natural society on one hand, and the contradictions of life in New England on the other, united elite radicals into a broad movement in which they participated in a wide range of social and ideological experiments. James McKusick, a Professor of English at the University of Montana, concluded that by “envisioning alternatives to the unsustainable industrial exploitation of natural resources, Romantic nature writers offer pathways to a better future than we might otherwise be able to imagine.”6

Not only were there terms for specific theories and ideas, but also labels for the different types of people in this period of time. Materialists are those who insist on facts and history, the force of circumstances. Idealists believe in power of Thought and Will, inspiration, and individual culture. “Every materialist will be an idealist, but an idealist can never go backward to be a materialist.”7 The most ideologically pellucid critique of Wordsworth’s politics of democracy was given by Orestes Brownson, a New England intellectual and activist. In Emerson’s lecture, The Transcendentalist, Emerson announces that the first thing people should feel the need to say is to show respect for what are called new views in New England, although they are actually the oldest of thoughts thrown into the present. Orestes Brownson reviewed Emerson’s Dartmouth College address, “Literary Ethics”, and delivered scholarly disdain for reform: “Instead of regarding the material improvements of society, efforts to perfect political institutions, and increase the physical comforts of the people, as low, sordid, mercenary, he should elevate them to the rank of liberal pursuits.”8 He maintains that Emerson’s ways of thinking about the role of scholars in society imply the formation of a literary caste, which when it is a caste, is no better than a sacerdotal caste or a military caste. Brownson also believed that the hardening hierarchy of classes resulted from invidious judgments of the relative moral and economic value of intellectual and manual labor. The people were also labeled categorized as reformers and scholars. Reformers usually had concrete experience of the class fracture in society and of the hard fight to close it. As a result, scholars were rarely pushed beyond the brahminical pale. They defended the legitimacy of their class against the demands of the increasingly organized workers; “they were united behind the proposition that attempts to directly address social problems were a distraction…”9 Emerson’s scholars painted a new scene of a wandering autodidact, working to master a very different kind of law written in his natural surroundings. The hero was a young man, a “scholar” self-isolated from the society he is destined to redeem. Emerson believed that nature was an inexhaustible source of correspondential images, where the scholar discovers the truths he will deliver to the future. It is “the present expositor of the divine mind”, and its highest function is to discipline the developing scholar. 10 On the other hand, Associationists explicitly committed to the free development of the self, and “argued it was impossible under the limiting conditions of the broader society.” stating that we can’t understand differences between environmental texts without examining the differences between the environments in which they grew in.11

This book mentions particular people who are well-known as Transcendentalists, such as Henry Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, and William Wordsworth. In addition to these people, he mentions those from the opposite perspective. William Wordsworth was admired by reviews “for others believe the scholars’ theory was inadequate as an account of how individuals develop.” 12  He and other reformers thought nature a potentially sacred material world that incarnated natural law. Emerson and the scholars looked to “discipline of nature in the woods for the symbols of the laws of human nature.”3 George Ripley and others founded the Brook Farm Institute of Agriculture and Education to insure a more natural union between intellectual and manual labor, to combine the thinker and the worker. The members built an inventive and playful communal culture, although it was commonly regarded as “a kind of historical freak, an isolated group of intellectuals.”4 David Mazel, a grounded culturalist rejoinder, believes nature is a powerful site for naturalizing constructs of race, class, nationality, and gender, especially as it reveals itself as an exclusionary matrix producing the national subject and the ‘natural’ body of the environment. The claim that traditional environmentalism’s focus on nature has often led it to undermine its most progressive aims by obscuring and allowing the economic, political, and historical relationships at the root of both environmental destruction and human oppression. Glen Love, who actively practiced ecocriticism before the term existed, published Practical Ecocriticism, a book whose allusive title announces an ironic antitheoretical bent. He argues that in a real world of increasing ecological crisis and political decision making, to exclude nature except for its cultural determination or linguistic construction is also to accept the continuing degradation of a natural world that is most in need of active human recognition and engagement. William Ellery Channing, “bishop” of the “new school” of Unitarians, universalized the faith’s emphasis on human perfectibility. He won a lot following among urban sections of the ruling class with his confident and optimistic refutation. He developed the idea of likeness to God into the foundation of his self-culture doctrine. Sam McGuire Worley argued that the Emersonian scholar is an “immanent critic” of society who observes and advises from the authority of a position within a culture rather than a position of superiority of detachment outside it. Ecocritics hoped to open up space for cultural work to engage meaningfully with the history of ideas.

In addition to those people mentioned, others wrote books or poetry about nature. For example, Daniel Hawthorne’s Molineux “cement[s] the analogical crisis and the national one contemporary with its composition.”15 His book includes agrarianism: “a way of establish an ideal form of valuable labor that other forms might be distinguished: the office-bound labor of the new bourgeoisie produces wealth indirectly and is morally damaging, whereas manual labor in nature directly produces usable goods and ethical experiences free of the degenerative influence of the market.”16 Hawthorne believed in virtuous leaders that could galvanize the common people and direct their power in progressive directions. Margaret Fuller’s Summer on the Lakes, a narrative of disappointed hopes, records the desire to imagine another kind of solution to class war. She believed it was her duty “to see the pure, ideal world behind the grubby, material one.”7 It was structured by the tension between a vision of a just society rooted in nature and the reality of America’s westward expansion. Fuller wrote it so that it was focused on isolation and alienation, including details about the social destruction the settlers left, displacing and impoverishing native tribes. In Thoreau’s Wild Fruits, he “develops and makes even more explicit the materialist analysis…of the way that capitalist social and economic relations have destroyed humankind’s immediate collective relationship with nature.”8 Wild Fruits contains information relevant to the ongoing relationships between humans, plants, and the seasons. Thoreau organized his entries chronologically by date of fruit production, so that it is in effect a botanical almanac, and is focused on the human significance of uncultivated plants. It also envisions a potential alternative to capitalist ecosocial relations. While Walden offers an idealist and organic individualist solution, Wild Fruits offers a process for transforming ideas into motivating collective experiences and therefore into material forces for change. Thoreau saw understanding as a moment of active integration with the world, instead of one of contemplative separation or abstraction.

Lance Newman uses profound vocabulary, ideas, and facts to prove his statement. Nature was important to society, and still is now. He also wrote that Thoreau’s “writing records the lived experience of ecocentric consciousness compelling an ethical stance toward nature.”19 Newman believes that the social order that produced specific trends can be overturned. That means that people can change their ways, certain things just need to happen, and it will be easier to protect nature everywhere and go green.

In the Foreword, Newman starts out by discussing a 2004 blockbuster Hollywood disaster film, The Day After Tomorrow, which had “ignited new interest in global warming and its potential effects on human life on earth.”20 Our Common Dwelling was written just one year after the movie was released. The movie influenced Newman’s perspective and added to his motivation and inspiration to write this book. The director of the film, Roland Emmerich said: “[The movie] says to be a little more concerned about what we’re doing to our environment, to think about tomorrow, and the day after.”21 Newman strongly agrees with Emmerich’s statement and the point of Newman’s book is the same as Emmerich’s – to inform the public about the importance of caring for the nature around and consequences of a destroyed environment. Hurting nature will not help anyone in the long run. The effects of global warming and the public’s sudden awareness of it were big influences on why Newman wrote this book the way he did.

The author wrote this book in order to portray to all readers how much of an impact Transcendentalism and nature have on life in general. It is necessary for nature to be a part of everyone’s lives. If the destruction of nature is continued, even if gradually, there will be severe consequences that not even one human will understand or have the capability to fix. “When we set out to recuperate texts that are so richly multivalent, we should see ourselves as engaged in critically selecting those elements that can most help us in the present.”22

According to Robert Dorman and K.P. Van., this book is a “persuasive, stimulating, and provocative study, one of great value not least because it puts to rest some of  the common critical misapprehensions about the  transcendentalists.”23 In order to be heard, “politicians needed to articulate a message that was largely ideological, and to deliver that message from recognized positions of authority.”24

This book reflects American values because of how the author wrote about Transcendentalism, westward expansion, and ecocriticism, in just America. He does mention England’s conditions during a certain period within the 19th century, but only for factual evidence and to support his statements. Transcendentalism’s effect was seen as both a positive and a negative impact on people and on society in general. Transcendentalism, and its writers and followers, brought the public to realize how serious global warming and such things were getting. It revealed to them the gradual consequences that would begin to occur if the atmosphere or the environment got worse, if people did not start to act quickly to prevent any more serious damage. To this day though, the world is still being hurt by pollution, carbon dioxide, and other chemicals and even things that may seem of small importance but are really important to the survival of nature, which is the survival of the human race. The author “believe[s] that wildernesses and wilderness recreation are natural features, so to speak, of capitalism. They are parts of a cultural tradition that has evolved within an in response to capitalism over the course of the last two and a half centuries…and depend on an imaginary geography in which a degraded and oppressive society is opposed to a pure and free wilderness.”25

As a clarifying work, Lance Newman’s book provides many reasons for readers to believe and understand why nature is such an integral part of society, and that they need to take better care of it. As Thoreau said, “the true man of science will know nature better by his finer organization; he will smell, taste, see, heart, feel, better than other men. His will be a deeper and finer experience.”26

1. Newman, Lance. Our Common Dwelling: Henry Thoreau, Transcendentalism, and the Class Politics of Nature New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005. XI.
2. Newman, Lance. 199.
3. Newman, Lance. 2.
4. Newman, Lance. 42.
5. Newman, Lance. 42.
6. Newman, Lance. 5.
7. Newman, Lance. 107.
8. Newman, Lance. 116.
9. Newman, Lance. 112.
10. Newman, Lance. 118.
11. Newman, Lance. 153.
12. Newman, Lance. 99.
13. Newman, Lance. 119.
14. Newman, Lance. 129.
15. Newman, Lance. 48.
16. Newman, Lance. 51.
17. Newman, Lance. 59.
18. Newman, Lance. 192.
19. Newman, Lance. 175.
20. Newman, Lance. IX.
21. Newman, Lance. IX.
22. Newman, Lance. Our Common Dwelling: Henry Thoreau, Transcendentalism, and the Class Politics of Nature New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005. 135.
23. Dorman, Lance. Anglen, K. P. Van. "The New England Quarterly, Vol. 79, No. 3." JSTOR. The New England Quarterly, Inc., Sept. 2006. Web. 28 May 2012. <>.
24. Dorman, Robert L. "The American Historical Review, Vol. 111, No. 2." JSTOR. University of Chicago Press, Apr. 2006. Web. 28 May 2012. <>.
25. Newman, Lance. Our Common Dwelling: Henry Thoreau, Transcendentalism, and the Class Politics of Nature New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005. XIV.
26. Newman, Lance. 165.