From facts to truth: Henry Thoreau's metaphorical use of geography

Date of Completion

January 1993


Geography|History of Science|Literature, American




Geography, according to Robert E. Dickinson and J. O. R. Howarth, two respected twentieth-century geographers, is both the description of the earth and the science of the interrelation between nature and humans. "As the description of the earth," they point out, it "is the oldest" discipline in the human pursuit of knowledge, and "as the science of the interrelations between man and his environment, one of the youngest" sciences of our time. By both its oldest and newest definitions, geography is arguably one of the main concerns of Henry David Thoreau, whose major works can be read as, among other things, geographical descriptions of nineteenth-century New England. Running through the works is his attempt to experience nature directly so as to achieve and represent a transcendental vision of the ideal interrelation between humankind and the natural environment. This dissertation is the first comprehensive interdisciplinary study of Thoreau's interest in and use of his contemporary geography.^ Chapter One reviews the sources of Thoreau's geographical information, showing that his interest in science requires a more comprehensive system than natural history and his ecological ideas owes much to his sympathy with the "new geography" of his time. Chapter Two discusses how Thoreau uses geographical metaphors to organize his early essays spatially. Chapter Three studies the interaction of the various landscapes and the cultures they represent in A Week on The Concord and Merrimack Rivers. Chapter Four examines Thoreau's ideal science and Humboldt's scientific theory and practice. The final chapter analyzes how in Walden Thoreau uses geographical metaphors and discovers his transcendental truth through a minute study of physical facts. ^