Thoreau and contemporary American nonfiction narrative prose of place
Morris, Wesley A.
Doctor of Philosophy
Thoreau is read chiefly as the author of the only two books he published during his life, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers and Walden. However, Thoreau composed two other books, Cape Cod and The Maine Woods, which reveal a very different Thoreau in relation to time and place. A rhetorical analysis of the dialectic between lyrical, or metaphorical, nonnarrative and metonymic narrative in Thoreau's four books reveals a Thoreau increasingly engaged in natural and temporal human practice. By contrast with metaphorical writing's greater self-referentiality and insistence on its own mediation of experience, metonymy in conjunction with the mimesis of a narrative plot serves Thoreau simultaneously to mediate temporal human practice and yet also to point toward practice apart from mediation. In this way, metonymic narrative demonstrates simultaneously the necessity of human construction of experience and yet the contingency of human construction too. Such narrative, then, combines daring with deference to all that eludes construction. This disposition toward living and writing makes possible the articulation and exploration of crucial questions like how consciousness relates to practice, whether preservation of wilderness is necessary, and whether natural life is imperative and human life expendable. A rhetorical analysis of Thoreau's four books not only reveals a more historically engaged Thoreau than emerges when he is read as the author of only A Week and Walden, but it also shows Thoreau's rhetorical and thematic relation with several contemporary writers of nonfiction narrative prose of place. James Agee's Let Us Now Praise Famous Men perhaps more than any other single contemporary work embodies the conflict of rhetoric and purposes of all four of Thoreau's books. Looking at Agee in light of Thoreau as the author of four books illuminates within American nonfiction prose of place a persistent conflict between rhetorical strategies and related psychosexual and epistemological goals. However, the more this conflict resolves itself in favor of the rhetoric of metonymic narrative, as it does in Thoreau's Cape Cod and The Maine Woods and in William Least Heat Moon's Blue Highways, John McPhee's narratives, Ann Zwinger's Run, River, Run, and Edward Abbey's Desert Solitaire, the more salient become the themes of social criticism.