Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 15. Nr. September 2004

5.7. Frontier Metamorphoses: Americanization and Otherness
HerausgeberInnen | Editors | Éditeurs: Albena Bakratcheva (Sofia)

Buch: Das Verbindende der Kulturen | Book: The Unifying Aspects of Cultures | Livre: Les points communs des cultures

The American West as Global Frontier in Henry David Thoreau's "Walking"

Richard J. Schneider (Wartburg College, Waverly/Iowa)


Historian Walter Prescott Webb observes that the word "frontier"

appears in similar form in nearly all the western European languages; and, as used in Europe, it means the boundary between two nations and is represented on maps by a thin line. It implies that the nations must not cross that line except by permission or at national peril; it is "the sharp edge of sovereignty." (2)

Hence we have the World War II terms the "Italian front" or the "Russian front" and the idea of the crossing of a frontier as an invasion of sovereignty. For Americans, however, the idea of a frontier has historically had a far different meaning. As Webb points out,

The American thinks of the frontier as lying within, and not at the edge of a country. It is not a line to stop at, but an area inviting entrance. Instead of having one dimension, length, as in Europe, the American frontier has two dimensions, length and breadth. In Europe the frontier is stationary and presumably permanent; in America it was transient and temporal. (2-3)

Another idea crucial to the American concept of the frontier was "the idea of a body of free land which can be had for the taking" (3), land not to be invaded by intruders but to be claimed and tamed by its rightful owners. Throughout the nineteenth century the American government would successfully negotiate possession of land spanning the continent. That these negotiations, particularly with the indigenous peoples, often involved coercion and violence did not dissuade most Americans from seeing the westward movement as the settling of their own land.

The American frontier was not just a national concept, however; it had global implications as well. The concept of "manifest destiny," the idea that it was God's plan for America to conquer the North American continent, was on one level a nation-building idea, but it was also viewed as America's call to leadership in the history of western civilization. I would like to explore here one source for this idea of the American West as a global frontier and the effect of that source on a major American writer, Henry David Thoreau. Because Thoreau is generally considered to be one of America's strongest voices of dissent, his acceptance of the mainstream idea of the West's "manifest destiny" as a global frontier suggests how deeply this concept lay in the minds of nineteenth-century Americans and perhaps even how deeply it lies in the minds of Americans today.

Thoreau's essay "Walking" is most famous as the source of the quote "In Wildness is the preservation of the World,"which has been adopted as a rallying cry by environmental groups such as the Sierra Club. A careful reading of the whole essay, however, reveals that it is an environmental manifesto in only a very limited way. "Walking" is Thoreau's combination of two lectures, one on "walking" and another on "the wild." His comments on walking in the first half of the essay argue for the virtues of that activity as a source of physical and spiritual renewal and for the benefit of every village's setting aside parks and greenbelts for the purposes of such renewal. His focus on "the wild" in the second half of the essay involves the recognition and nurturing of a state of mind more than the protection of a particular kind of place. "Wildness" is not "wilderness." It is not a place but a psychological state of healthy restlessness, an ongoing desire for new knowledge and new experiences. Each person has a potential, though it might be repressed by society, for a wildness within: "We have a wild savage in us, and a savage name is perchance somewhere recorded as ours" (237).

Wildness can, however, be fostered by certain wild places. In Walden Thoreau asserts the importance of "the tonic of wildness," for, he says, "our village life would stagnate if it were not for the unexplored forests and meadows which surround it" (317). Wild places are important to Thoreau not only on the local level but also on a national and global scale. In "Walking" he argues for the virtues of walking in a particular direction. "It is not indifferent to us which way we walk," he says, "there is a right way" (104). That way is west, he says, because "the future lies that way to me, and the earth seems more unexhausted and richer on that side" (105).

Thoreau's preference for the west is rooted in his reading of a book by Swiss geographer Arnold Guyot. In 1851 when he was working on"Walking," Thoreau was reading Guyot's book The Earth and Man, a compilation of Guyot's lectures at Harvard in 1849 on"comparative physical geography." Guyot summons an impressive array of scientific data to demonstrate that God has a plan for humanity. In that plan,

the civilizations representing the highest degree of culture ever attained by man, at the different periods of his history, do not succeed each other in the same places, but pass from one country to another, from one continent to another, following a certain order. This order may be called the geographical march of history (300, emphasis Guyot's).

Guyot accepts a common origin for all of humanity in Western Asia (i.e. the Middle East), a suitable place to give rise to civilization because of "its gigantic proportions, the almost infinite diversity of its soil, its central situation," which "render it suitable to be the continent of germs [i.e. seeds]" for humanity (30, emphasis Guyot's). He then describes in detail the progress of civilization from that origin to Greece to Europe and eventually to America. He emphasizes that this is a movement toward the temperate climates, which are most suited to the development of complex civilizations because

in the temperate climates all is activity, movement. The alterations of heat and cold, the changes of seasons , a fresher and more bracing air, incite man to a constant struggle, to forethought, to the vigorous employment of all his faculties (269).

If the Middle East is the seedbed of civilization, Europe becomes its nursery, nurturing progress with its continual challenges of varied landscapes and varied seasons. "Nowhere on the surface of our planet," Guyot asserts, "has the mind of man risen to a sublimer height; nowhere has man known so well how to subdue nature, and to make her the instrument of intelligence" (31) as in Europe.

Europe has served the progress of humanity well, Guyot argues, but by the nineteenth century it has reached its fullest potential and has no room for further development. Civilization must send a vanguard of pioneers to a new, more spacious continent with a similar temperate climate and similarly varied topography. "And to what continent?" he asks. "The geographical march of civilization tells us, to a new continent west of the Old Worldto America" (321). To the west lies America "glutted with its vegetable wealth, unworked, solitary. Its immense forests, its savannas, every year cover its soil with their remains, which, accumulated during the long ages of the world, form that deep bed of vegetable mould, that precious soil, awaiting only the hand of man to work out all the wealth of its inexhaustible fertility" (231). America is for Guyot civilization's promised land where humanity can reach its full maturity using the abundance of fresh resources which only the New World can offer. Guyot's vision of America's role in God's plan for civilization was a widely popular one. His book rapidly ran through multiple editions and became one of the main supporting texts for Americans' sense of their own "manifest destiny."

In reading Guyot's book in 1851 Thoreau clearly found a text supportive of his own ideas about wildness. For Thoreau, in walking west the individual walker reenacts symbolically the movement of civilization. In "Walking" he says that he prefers walking west because "the future lies that way to me and the earth seems more unexhausted and richer on that side" (105). Echoing Guyot, he observes that to migrate west "is the prevailing tendency of my countrymen. I must walk toward Oregon, and not toward Europe. And that way the nation is moving, and I may say that mankind progress from east to west" (106). With typical American optimism, Thoreau can "believe that the forest which I see in the western horizon stretches uninterruptedly toward the setting sun, and there are no towns nor cities in it of enough consequence to disturb me" (105-106). Thoreau clearly believes in "American exceptionalism," the idea that North America was an extraordinarily fertile and healthy place well-suited to be the next stop on the march of civilization. "Where on the globe," he asks, "can there be found an area of equal extent with that occupied by the bulk of our States, so fertile and so rich and varied in its productions, and at the same time so habitable by the European, as this is?" (108).

For expert evidence of America's unique qualities Thoreau then offers quotes from European authorities: first Michaux, then Guyot's mentor Alexander von Humboldt, and then Guyot himself. He quotes Guyot at length, emphasizing Guyot's affirmation of America's special place in human history:

"As the plant is made for the animal, as the vegetable world is made for the animal world, America is made for the man of the Old World. . . . The man of the Old World sets out upon his way. Leaving the highlands of Asia, he descends from station to station towards Europe. Each of his steps is marked by a new civilization superior to the preceding, by a greater power of development. Arrived at the Atlantic, he pauses on the shore of this unknown ocean, the bounds of which he knows not, and turns upon his footprints for an instant."

When he has eventually exhausted the rich soil of Europe and reinvigorated himself, "then," Guyot says, he "'recommences his adventurous career westward as in the earliest ages' So far Guyot" (Thoreau 108-109, Guyot 233). Positioned as it is in the heart of Thoreau's parade of authorities, this quote from Guyot is clearly one which Thoreau finds compelling.

After quoting again from Michaux to emphasize America's position as a global meeting place, Thoreau sums up Guyot's geographical version of history by coining a Latin phrase: "Ex oriente lux; ex Occidente FRUX. From the East light; from the West fruit." This phrase extends one of the metaphors crucial to Guyot's argument, that history is a process of the dispersion of cultural seeds or "germs." Guyot says that "the Old World is the world of germs; the New, the fruitful bosom giving them increase. Europe thinks; America acts" (238). Thoreau's Latin phrase, it turns out, is simply a paraphrase of Guyot. Thoreau, following Guyot, believes that the seeds of civilization transported from Europe to America will blossom into the most fully mature fruit that civilization has ever seen. He reaffirms Guyot's crucial assumption about the relation between climate and culture: "I believe that climate does thus react on man,--as there is something in the mountain air that feeds the spirit and inspires. Will not man grow to greater perfection intellectually as well as physically under these influences?" (110). This creed becomes crucial to Thoreau's vision of America: "Else," he asks, "to what end does the world go on, and why was America discovered?" (111).

At this point in "Walking" Thoreau connects the American West to his concept of wildness: "The West of which I speak," he says, "is but another name for the Wild; and what I have been preparing to say is, that in Wildness is the preservation of the World" (112). It should be clear by now that the "World" to which Thoreau is referring is not just the natural world but also the civilized world. For civilization, "wildness" is the desire for more space and more resources for improving the quality of life. It is the restlessness of the individual extended to society at large: Thoreau says that "something like the furor which affects the domestic cattle in the spring . . . affects both nations and individuals, either perenially or from time to time"(107). That furor in Thoreau's day was the westward movement, which Guyot describes as "a perpetual movement, a fever of locomotion" which "rages from one end of the continent to the other" (323-24).

Thoreau and Guyot both agree that the result of such restlessness for America and for civilization is the westward movement, led not by mountain men with guns but by farmers with their plows. Thoreau silently quotes Guyot on the crucial role of the farmer: "It is said to be the task of the American 'to work the virgin soil," and that 'agriculture here already assumes proportions unknown everywhere else'" (118, Guyot 236). Although Thoreau is not usually known for generous praise of either farmers or technology, here he praises the pioneering role of both:

The weapons with which we have gained our most important victories . . . are not the sword and the lance, but the bushwhack, the turf-cutter, the spade, and the bog hoe, rusted with the blood of many a meadow, and begrimed with the dust of many a hard-fought field (118).

And so, with confidence that American farmers and their plows are literally on the cutting edge of civilization, Thoreau can conclude his essay with optimism: "So we saunter toward the Holy Land," he says, "till one day the sun shall shine more brightly than ever he has done, shall perchance shine into our minds and hearts, and light up our whole lives with a great awakening light, as warm and serene and golden as on a bankside in autumn" (135-36).

It might be surprising to find Thoreau, the great American dissenter, the critic of materialism and conformity, supporting a chauvinistic sense of manifest destiny. But there he is, and his assent to the idea of the American frontier as the destiny not only of America but of human civilization suggests how powerful that idea is in American culture. The physical frontier of open land would be declared by Frederick Jackson Turner to be settled by 1890. But while the uniquely American frontier has disappeared, Americans have never quite lost their need for frontiers and their sense of America as a global unifying force. One suspects that this sense of global mission lies somewhere behind the American presence in such far-flung "frontiers" as Afghanistan and Iraq. Would Thoreau approve of these redefined frontiers? Given his opposition to such specific events in the westward movement as the Gold Rush of 1849 and the American invasion of Mexico, it seems unlikely. But even he would have to admit that the sense of global mission on these frontiers is very American.

© Richard J. Schneider (Wartburg College, Waverly/Iowa)

Portions of this paper were published previously in different form in the essay "Climate Does Thus React on Man": Geographical Determinism in Thoreau's 'Walking'" in Thoreau's Sense of Place: Essays in American Environmental Writing. Ed. Richard J. Schneider. Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 2000.


Guyot, Arnold. The Earth and Man: Lectures on Comparative Physical Geography, in Its Relation to the History of Mankind. Translated by C. C. Felton. Boston: Gould and Lincoln, 1851.
Thoreau, Henry David.
Walden. Ed. J. Lyndon Shanley. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1973.
"Walking," in Writings of Henry David Thoreau. Vol. V. Ed. Bradford Torrey. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1906.
Turner, Frederick Jackson. The Frontier in American History. 1920. Reprint, New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1962.
Webb, Walter Prescott. The Great Frontier. Austin: U of Texas P, 1952.

5.7. Frontier Metamorphoses: Americanization and Otherness

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For quotation purposes:
Richard J. Schneider (Wartburg College, Waverly/Iowa): The American West as Global Frontier in Henry David Thoreau's "Walking". In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 15/2003. WWW:

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