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Emerson, Thoreau, and the Nature of Metonymy

            "The world is enigmatical, every thing said and every thing known and done, and must not be taken literally, but genially. We must be at the top of our condition to understand any thing rightly." - Ralph Waldo Emerson.
             A Condensation of Its Context.
             Toward the end of his notebook, "Naturalist," Ralph Waldo Emerson entered sentence (dated 1853) that marks a symbolic vision of nature familiar to his readers and, in more recent years, of concern to his ecologically minded critics: "He is the richest who has most use for nature as raw material of tropes and symbols with which to describe his life." (2) One can see why the tradition of reading Emerson's nature writing and environmental aesthetics in sharp contrast with Henry David Thoreau's--Thoreau viewed as "Emerson's earthy opposite," as Lawrence Buell characterizes this convention--has thrived, particularly in the greening of literary studies known as ecocriticism. (3) To consider an influential example, in "Natures Economy" (1994) Donald Worster locates, in Thoreau's work of the 1850's, the emergence of an ecological philosophy. He calls it a "more intense empiricism" that he predicates on Thoreau's difference from, and necessary rejection of, the transcendental idealism he first learned from an Emerson "who tended to devalue the material world except insofar as it could be put to higher spiritual uses by the human mind." "Emerson's moral doctrines could not sustain Thoreau for long," Worster concludes, "for they were aspiring branches that had no roots to support them. They were ideas that were not soiled enough." (4) Worster's figure of difference, complete with Thoreauvian pun--the spiritual airiness of Emerson's imagination can't compare to the fecal matter of Thoreau's ecological ideas--maps a path in the ecocritical reading of Thoreau by way of Emerson that remains prominent and, I would suggest at the outset, stands in need of revision.

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