Essay: The American Proto-Geopoetician:

Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862)* 

Mohammed Hashas

Kenneth White: The Euramerasian

Kenneth White is interested in America and some of its heritage that nourishes his geopoetics. He is a ‘Euramerasian’: ‘I am a Eurasm,’ he says in an interview with Fréderic de Towarnicki.[1] His interest in the American land does not, however, mean that he is ‘Americanist,’ unless this word is understood in its original sense. That is, he is interested in the American civilization and not in the U.S. civilization.[2] In the same interview, White says that the America that haunts him is limited in time; it did not last much; it is the America of the 1810-1960, the age of the triad: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman, and Henry David Thoreau – the most influential and the closest to White in thought. Apart from that, there are other writers that emerged on the scene some time later, and their weight is due to the fact that their contribution is contextualized within world concern,[3] or ‘world literature,’ using Goethe’s word. Such later American friends or ‘Gang of the Kosmos’ include Herman Melville, Hart Crane, Jack Kerouac, and Charles Olson, to limit the list to these. Besides these American companions, White is keen on the Amerindian and Eskimo life,‘the Amerindian culture, one of the most powerful in what concerns contact with earth,’[4] an admiration he developed when still young and which he came to realize later in his life as La Route bleue (1982) recounts.

Travel in the American tradition is associated with being in the world, with vision, and poetics. Michel Leguenne affirms in a recent Journal de bord that ‘voyage’ (‘travelling’), which is a poem according to White,[5] ‘requires ‘hardiness so as to plunge in the void,’ with the possibility of finding ‘an unknown’ universe.’’[6] Such a finding cannot be realized unless it is accompanied and supported by both thought and vision, for ‘‘voyage-voyance’ (travel and vision) go together, none can go without the other,’ White writes in Le Plateau de l’albatros.[7] The travel, ‘voyage,’ should be both mental and physical so that the mindscape corresponds to the landscape, and vice versa, which would in turn be expressed in a particular wordscape that is fraught with whiteness and desire for the white world.[8] In the briefest terms, ‘voyage’ for White should be accompanied with ‘voyance’; i.e. the know-how, ‘savoir voir,’ in movement, henceforth the term ‘voyage-voyance’[9] – a term approximately synonymous with ‘intellectual nomadism.’  This ‘voyage-voyance’ is exemplified by White’s keenness on Thoreau’s solitude and walkings.


The American Proto-Geopoetician: Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862)

Henry David Thoreau, ‘the intellectual nomad of Walden,’[10] the ‘American proto-geopoetician’[11] of his time, and ‘the poet of the world,’[12] is another significant contributor to the American transcendental poetics, and to the project of geopoetics, like his mentor and friend Ralph Waldo Emerson (18031882).

It should be noted at this stage that Kenneth White has delivered a series of talks on Thoreau’s essays, excursions, poetry, and Walden, at the Sorbonne University in 1991-92.[13] In these paragraphs devoted to Thoreau, reference is principally made to his masterpiece Walden, or Life in the Woods, published in 1854, his Journal and to his essay ‘Walking,’ published in 1862 in the Atlantic Monthly, after his death.

It is with Walden that White first introduces his readers to Thoreau in La Figure du dehors, a book in which he tries to go beyond the frontiers, and speaks to people that are beyond these frontiers.[14] Walden recounts his sojourn in a cabin near Walden Pond, amidst woodland owned by his friend and ‘teacher’ Emerson, near Concord, Massachusetts. Thoreau lived at Walden for two years, two months, and two days, to give more time to the study of the self, in solitude, and also to live his mythic childhood days and his dreams as a child. Regarding this point, White says that what Thoreau wanted was a return to his mythical boyhood, as he narrates it in his Journal (9 June 1850), and simultaneously to the ‘childhood of the world.’[15] In other words, Thoreau went to Walden to ‘mythicize’ a natural life he never encountered in literary books. He resorted to mythology that trespasses any socio-personal portrayal of Nature.[16] Life in the Woods is part of that mythical world he built in his mind; it details his daily life activities, his aspirations, and his meditations over what he does, and what the world around him does; he touches upon the human aspects of life and the titles of the sections of the essay-book illustrate this: Economy, Where I lived, and What I lived For, Reading, Solitude, The Village, Visitors, Higher Laws, etc.

Thoreau went to the woods to ‘suck the marrow of life’ and to ‘live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach.’ With his ‘extra-vagance,’ his unusual way of life, he tried to explore the self, ‘Explore Thyself,’ and to look inside it, thus putting the words of William Habbington whom he quotes into execution:

Direct your eye right inward, and

You’ll find

A thousand regions in your mind

Yet undiscovered. Travel them,

And be

Expert in home-cosmology.[17]

The call for doing the primordial ‘home-cosmology’ and mental travelling originates from the poet’s belief that those who practice this exercise are not numerous. The self for Thoreau is a continent that behoves exploration and intellectual nomadism: ‘be a Columbus to whole new continents and worlds within you, opening new channels, not of trade, but of thought.’[18] White says that Thoreau went in his thought so far as to delve into the farthest and most silent corners in the mind, corners that appear to have gone beyond Chinese and Sanskrit depths.[19] Thoreau seems sure of where his world leads, a path that is not charted yet by any daring nomad or reader: ‘there is not one of my readers who has yet lived a whole human life.’[20] Thoreau’s world is not explored yet, and his road resembles Heidegger’s, the nulle part, the nowhere, that is why it received applause from White. Nonetheless, Thoreau does not say that his world is impossible to reach. By the end of his Walden (like golden!) experience, he gives clues of the world he likes:

‘I learned this, at least, by my experiment: that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.  He will put some things behind, will pass an invisible boundary; new, universal, and more liberal laws will begin to establish themselves around and within him; or the old laws be expanded, and interpreted in his favor in a more liberal sense, and he will live with the license of a higher order of beings. In proportion as he simplifies his life, the laws of the universe will appear less complex, and solitude will not be solitude, nor poverty poverty, nor weakness weakness. If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.’[21] [The italics are mine]

The simplicity Thoreau had always chanted came to realization in Walden. He had a ‘dream’ and he walked out for it to ‘put foundations’ under it. His Journal is also part of that dream, the dream of an original life and ‘real world’: ‘So think of our life in nature – the daily show of the substance, the contact with it – the rocks, the trees, the wind on our cheek! […] The real world! The common sense! Contact! Contact! Who are we? Where are we?’[22] Until the desired contact is carried out, man is still unable to locate nor to identify himself on earth. It is contact with the earth that develops the common sense in man and leads him to recognize himself. If the Chinese Lin Yutang called him ‘the American most Chinese,’[23] White steps further to say that the inhabitant of Walden ventures  towards a world that is neither Puritan, nor Indian, nor even Chinese. His target is a world beyond that:

Under the American Puritan of the 19th century there was an Indian, under the Indian a Chinese, under the Chinese a being that had no name. It is the latter that Thoreau, in his extravagant walk, wanted to realize.[24]

That world, is the ‘real,’ ‘new,’[25] and ‘savage’ world[26] to which he likes to travel especially at night, ‘those who travel at night interest me,’ as he writes in Journal (2 July 1851).[27] The turn is to this idiosyncrasy.

Travelling and walking are primordial aspects of the ‘real’ world. They are what make of Thoreau an ‘extravagant’ wanderer, extravagant in its original sense, stresses White, which comes from the Latin extra vagare, i.e. to wander out.[28] Outdoors tempts him. He is ‘the man of outdoors par excellence.’ Against the habits of his society, he would, for example, wander out on Sundays with Walden Pond Association members, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Bronson Alcott, Frank Sanborn, and Ellery Channing, instead of being in the Church.[29] His walks were ‘intelligent,’ ‘mythological’:’ ‘he practised the intelligent walking,’ ‘the ambulatory yoga,’ to ‘live the original life’ – la vie originelle, la vie principielle.[30] Below is a visit to the original text of Thoreau, ‘Walking,’ to do with it what he did in and with Walden: to suck its marrow.

Walking for Thoreau ‘is an art,’ and the walkers are the vagabonds that inhabit the earth without possessing it, a fact which gives them more freedom, more sensation, and more trajectories to space out. Thoreau equates it with sauntering whichis beautifully derived from ‘idle people who roved about the country, in the middle ages, and asked charity, under pretence of going à la Sainte Terre’—to the holy land.’ The practitioner of sauntering is called ’a saunterer—a holy-lander.’[31] Thoreau takes the word seriously; he does not mean it is for idlers; the saunterers for him are those who really walked to the Holy Land.  Such an enterprise is akin to ‘a crusade,’ ‘every walk is a crusade,’ waged against the ‘infidels’ [to the earth], an enterprise to recover the lost dimensions of space and being on earth which ‘we hug.’

One of the conditions of being involved in the enterprise of walking is to dissociate the self from the humdrum of society:

‘If you are ready to leave father and mother, and brother and sister, and wife and child and friends, and never see them again; if you have paid your debts, and made your will, and settled all your affairs, and are a free man; then you are ready for a walk.’[32]

This condition is followed by physical hardiness, like the one Rimbaud had, so as to saunter with pleasure and ease in mind, for the time devoted to that is not short:

‘I think that I cannot preserve my health and spirits unless I spend four hours a day at least —and it is commonly more than that—sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields absolutely free from all worldly engagements.’[33]

Once outdoors, Thoreau hardly thinks of a destination, since his ‘heavenly’ intuition guides his steps ‘into a nature such as the old prophets and poets Menu, Moses, Homer, Chaucer, walked in.’ He trusts where nature, with its wilderness and wildness, leads: ‘I believe in the forest.’ Nature leads to goodness, ‘how near to good is what is wild!’, to the preservation of the genuine traits of life: ‘In Wildness is the preservation of the world.’ The wildness, Wildness with a capital ‘w’, Thoreau is haunted with is (in) Nature, and more precisely (in) the West where ‘the future’ and ‘a right way’ lie. As to the West, its presence in Thoreau’s peregrinations refer to the Wild – ‘the West of which I speak is but another name for the Wild’[34]– but also alludes to his gaze over the East, Asia, from America, as would do his compatriot Walt Whitman in his poem ‘Facing West from California’s Shores.’


*This is an excerpt from my MA thesis entitled ‘Kenneth White’s Geopoetics: A New World Opening,’ (June 2008), under the supervision of Dr Omar Bsaithi, English Department, at Mohamed I University in Oujda, Morocco.

[1] Michèle Duclos, ed. Le Poète cosmographe: vers un nouvel espace culturel. Bordeaux : Presses Universitaires de Bordeaux, 1987. 79; 196.

[2] Tony McManus. The Radical Field: Kenneth White and Geopoetics. Dingwall: Sandstone Press, 2007: 104.

[3] Op., cit., 196.

[4] Kenneth White, L’Esprit nomade, Paris: Grasset, 1987. 259.

[5] Ibid.,  161.

[6] Ibid.,  160.

[7] Ibid.,   262.

[8] Kenneth White, La Figure du dehors, Paris: Grasset, 1982. 146.

[9] Duclos, Le Poète cosmographe, 53.

[10] Kenneth White, The Wanderer and His Charts, The Wanderer and His Charts – Exploring the Fields of Vagrant Thought and Vagabond Beauty. Edinburgh: Polygon, 2004. 16.

[11] Ibid., 241.

[12] Kenneth White, Le Plateau de l’albatros: introduction à la géopoetique. Paris: Grasset, 1994. 210.

[13] Kenneth White, Carnet de bord, ‘Carnet de Bord.’ International Institute for Geopoetics. Issue 3, Spring 2005. 10-11.

[14] La Figure du dehors, 18.

[15] Le Plateau de l’albatros, 199.

[16] Ibid., 198-9.

[17] Henry David Thoreau, Walden, ed. Owen Thomas (New York: Norton and Company, 1966) 211. The poem is a quote from William Habbington’s (1605-1664). Thoreau modernized the spelling and changed ‘eye-sight’ to ‘eye-right.’ See the note to the same page.

[18] Ibid., 212.

[19] Le Plateau de l’albatros, 203.

[20] Thoreau, Walden, 218.

[21] Ibid., 214.

[22] Le Plateau de l’albatros, 210.

[23] Ibid., 182.

[24] La Figure du dehors, 83.

[25] Op, cit., 209.

[26] La Figure du dehors, 78.

[27] L’Esprit nomade, 25.

[28] The Wanderer and His Charts, 241.

[29] La Figure du dehors, 78.

[30] Ibid., 80-81.

[31] Henry David Thoreau, ‘Walking,’ in Bradford Torrey, The Writings of Henry David Thoreau (New York: Houghton, Mifflin and Co., 1906) 205.

[32] Ibid., 206.

[33] Ibid., 207.

[34] Ibid., 214-224. Note: The use of the indefinite article ‘a’ in ‘There is a way’ shows how Thoreau is open to other possible ways.