Tag Archives: Thoreau

The Spiritual vs. the Corporeal in the American Renaissance

In Nature, Emerson defines Nature as everything but the human mind/spirit: “Strictly speaking, therefore, all that is separate from us, all which Philosophy distinguishes as the NOT ME, that is, both nature and art, all other men and my own body, must be ranked under this name, NATURE.” Emerson includes even his own body as part of Nature. Emerson does not entirely denigrate all things physical, as he sees the natural world as corresponding to the spiritual. Nevertheless, his thought is, broadly speaking, Platonic in privileging the spiritual over the physical.

Similarly, in “Resistance to Civil Government,” Thoreau describes the night he spent in jail for refusing to pay taxes that would, however indirectly, support the Mexican War. Thoreau follows Emerson in defining his body as incidental to his identity: “As they could not reach me, they had resolved to punish my body.”

Melville seems to share Emerson and Thoreau’s feelings toward embodiment in Moby-Dick. Despite dramatic differences between Ahab and Ishmael, both privilege the spiritual over the corporeal. Early in the novel, Ishmael says, “Methinks my body is but the lees of my better being. In fact take my body who will, take it I say, it is not me.” On the second day of the Pequod’s doomed encounter with Moby Dick, Ahab laments that his body’s strength does not match his iron will: “Accursed fate! that the unconquerable captain in the soul should have such a craven mate!” Starbuck thinks Ahab is disparaging him, but he clarifies that the “craven mate” is his body. Ahab depicts his soul as a fearless captain and his body as a cowardly first mate who cannot execute his captains orders.

Against Civilization

A major theme of much 19th century American literature is the rejection of “civilization,” usually construed as the norms adopted by the wider community. This stance is epitomized by Huck Finn’s decision to “light out for the territories,” as well as his dislike of sleeping indoors, wearing uncomfortable clothes, and attending Sunday school. Similarly, Thoreau’s rejection of conformity throughout Walden reflects a desire to redefine civilization in radical different terms from those understood by his Concord neighbors. Thoreau has no patience for commercial success. He has an ascetic tendency that rejects the desire for fine food, excess clothing, and elaborate shelter. He lives at the edge of town, at Walden Pond, much as Huck seeks the frontier. According to Stephen Railton, we might also include James Fenimore Cooper’s Natty Bumppo, Melville’s Bartleby, Kate Chopin’s Edna, and Faulkner’s Ike McCaslin in this category of protagonists.