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511. Thoreau and the Limits of the Human

Wild Apple Journalizing: Thoreau’s Vegetal Aesthetics

“The noblest of fruits is the apple,” Thoreau says in his journal, in which references to apples, specifically to wild ones, by far outnumber any other botanical entry. The paradoxical nobility of wild apples stems, as Thoreau explains in Wild Apples,from their having reversed the standard trajectory of cultivation: instead of having its wild nature subjected to domestication, apple had “migrated to this New World” fully cultivated, only to eventually “run wild … amid the aboriginal trees,” where it appears as “a natural growth, like the pines and oaks,” no longer dependent “on our care.”

It is their strange capacity to “run wild,” to “commemorate” through they appearance what they have “witnessed,” and in doing so to “acquire a new character” (in October, for example, they look “like pictures of banian-trees”) that fueled Thoreau’s life-long fascination with apples. In charting this fascination, my essay uncovers an essentially vegetal quality to Thoreau’s writerly aesthetics. As early as January 1841, when he began keeping his journal, Thoreau defines the process of writing as “journalizing”: a “confused heap” of ideas in which nothing is qualified (”predicated”) as good or bad as such, wherein “a festoon of dried apples” may eventually prove to be “a string of Brazilian diamonds.” In thus allowing the apples to become diamonds—to run wild from predication—Thoreau’s conception of writing, enacted in his own Journal and elsewhere, reveals a unique aesthetics that defies form and definition. It also executes a strange yet meticulously documented philosophy of the vegetal as a kind of life that disavows predication.

MLA 2020: Thoreau Society: Thoreau and the Limits of the Human
Submission Title: “…I tremble to meet them”: Thoreau’s Impersonal Bodies
Author: Ryan Heryford, Assistant Professor of Environmental Literature, California State
University, East Bay

Abstract: This paper considers Thoreau’s concerns with preservation alongside, what Sharon Cameron refers to as, the impersonal, or, “the uncompromising nature of writing about the precariousness of personal identity measured at the moment of its disintegration,”1 emerging in his journal throughout the 1850s. With specific attention to his later surveys of the Concord River, as well as his technical consultation for the River Meadow Association in 1859, this paper begins by placing Thoreau’s ethic of eco-social entanglement alongside his broader, abstract vision of a posthumanism, wherein the writer estranges and problematizes supposed fundamentals of human ontological distinctiveness. I will further argue, however, that such transcendent visions of an impersonal, indistinct self cannot be isolated from Thoreau’s concurrent writings about preservation of the Penobscot Nation, as well as his reductive visions of “national preserves” wherein “even some of the hunter race, may still exist, and not be ‘civilized off the face of the earth'”.2

By reading these two, oft-separated, strands of Thoreau’s thought contrapuntally, I articulate a vision of Thoreau’s impersonal-self inherited from the writer’s ambivalent concerns with race and colonization. These contradictions between the disintegration of the individuated self and the socio-cultural preservation of human communities are best located, I argue, in Thoreau’s writings about the body. While Thoreau’s discursive renderings of the human body rarely signify toward particular personages, but rather mark material presence devoid of any notable uniqueness, they are likewise most often tied to images of Native peoples. Such eclipsed connections, I ultimately argue, invite our attention to critical race and decolonial theory when considering nineteenth century constructions of the posthuman.

1 Sharon Cameron. Impersonality: Seven Essays. (The University of Chicago Press, 2007): viii. 2 Henry David Thoreau. “Chesuncook” Walden, The Maine Woods, Collected Essays and Poems. Ed. Robert F.
Sayre and Elizabeth Hall Witherell. (Library of America, 2007): 313.


Thoreau’s Imperceptible Economic Beyond

For Thoreau, where the human ends, the economic begins. But we might say that the economic for Thoreau is not exactly the nonhuman—perhaps it is better understood as the supra-human: as something still fundamentally human but simultaneously beyond it. In this paper, I argue that Thoreau’s project in Cape Cod and Walden—two texts that share a close compositional history—is to retrain the senses through literary form to help us become sensitive
to the relation between economics and death that has been rendered imperceptible by global capital. My analysis centers on the opening chapters of the two texts, “The Shipwreck” and “Economy,” to consider how Thoreau’s concern with waking his neighbors up in Walden is further developed in Cape Cod through literary form itself by juxtaposing the wreck of the St. John with the seaweed harvesters on the beaches of Cohasset. We find death juxtaposed with economic processes in these opening pages, and Thoreau calls upon us to learn how to read these seemingly dissimilar moments as being structurally related to one another. I argue that Thoreau seeks to make legible the death that constitutes this space of the beyond-the-human of economic processes. Making this death legible offers a staunch challenge to the primacy of human exceptionalism: while economic processes are built upon human action, Thoreau shows us how we have not only become subject to these processes, but further, how we are unable even to perceive them at work. Building off the work on perception by Laura Walls, Kristen Case,
Michael Jonik, and H. Daniel Peck, I argue that perception in Thoreau is determined relationally, and that turning our focus to economics from a strict concern with the natural world helps us to recuperate such under read texts as Cape Cod into Thoreau’s corpus.


Dec 03 2019


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