Masters Thesis

All America behind him: transcendental aesthetics, natural religion, and American phenomenology in Henry David Thoreau's Walden & Cape Cod

This thesis is built on the assumption that in order to be a serious Thoreau scholar, one must move away from Walden (1854) and read his other works. Walden is, to be sure, Thoreau’s most studied book and remains an iconic example of 19th-century American transcendentalism. As I come to terms with this foundational text, I argue that Walden is a product of Emerson’s influence and mentorship, and as such, is an amalgam of Emersonian and Thoreauvian transcendental aesthetics. Emerson gave Thoreau the raw materials for his philosophical development, but ultimately Walden is an outlier in Thoreau’s progression as a writer. Fundamentally, young Thoreau and his mentor Emerson are divided by an epistemological disagreement the likes of young Aristotle and his mentor Plato. Is knowledge, thereby transcendence, to be found in the experience of nature itself? Or is nature merely a reflection of innate truths, that the physical world must be transcended to glimpse? In order to get at a more true sense of Thoreau’s project, I turn to his final and least studied work, Cape Cod (1865). My position is that Cape Cod is an important transcendental work that deserves further study. As it stands, it is a singularly unique example of American phenomenology. For Thoreau, knowledge is found in the experiential journey toward nature, to see our limits transgressed through consideration of the sublime, but not, in fact, to transgress those limits ourselves. For to transcend the boundaries of the natural world necessitates death, physical and spiritual.

This thesis is built on the assumption that in order to be a serious Thoreau scholar, one must move away from Walden (1854) and read his other works. Walden is, to be sure, Thoreau’s most studied book and remains an iconic example of 19th-century American transcendentalism. As I come to terms with this foundational text, I argue that Walden is a product of Emerson’s influence and mentorship, and as such, is an amalgam of Emersonian and Thoreauvian transcendental aesthetics. Emerson gave Thoreau the raw materials for his philosophical development, but ultimately Walden is an outlier in Thoreau’s progression as a writer. Fundamentally, young Thoreau and his mentor Emerson are divided by an epistemological disagreement the likes of young Aristotle and his mentor Plato. Is knowledge, thereby transcendence, to be found in the experience of nature itself? Or is nature merely a reflection of innate truths, that the physical world must be transcended to glimpse? In order to get at a more true sense of Thoreau’s project, I turn to his final and least studied work, Cape Cod (1865). My position is that Cape Cod is an important transcendental work that deserves further study. As it stands, it is a singularly unique example of American phenomenology. For Thoreau, knowledge is found in the experiential journey toward nature, to see our limits transgressed through consideration of the sublime, but not, in fact, to transgress those limits ourselves. For to transcend the boundaries of the natural world necessitates death, physical and spiritual.

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