In his 1854 masterpiece Walden, the U.S. writer and naturalist Henry David Thoreau invites us to ‘wedge our feet downward…till we come to a hard bottom and rocks in place, which we can call reality.’ Geologist Robert Thorson obliges, focusing on Thoreau as a flinty amateur geologist to reinject science into his literary legacy. Thoreau, Thorson persuasively argues, was as grounded in rock as he was in the elemental understanding of the cosmos sought by the Transcendentalist movement.
American Literary History
Walden’s Shore is a daring, passionate, and impressively learned book. It sets out to reframe the significance of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden and his Journal...There is much to admire about Walden’s Shore. Thorson writes better than many literary scholars. His 421-page geology course, which covers the geologic history of New England, especially Concord, and “Lake Walden,” is engaging, artful, and at times pedagogically conversational in tone….To be sure, literary and cultural scholars can learn a great deal from Thorson’s recovery of his geo-Thoreau.
Thorson uncovers a Thoreau who is a capable geoscientist, arguing that Walden is as much concerned with the physical nature of Walden Pond as it is with representing that nature through mythology and literary language. Examining both Thoreau’s understanding of geology and how this understanding shaped Walden, he affirms that Thoreau verged on discovering a scientific law that laid bare the glacial origins of the Concordian landscape. In making this argument, Thorson is intervening against what he sees as “a recent trend in ecocriticism that refracts science through literature without being scientific.”
What emerges from Walden’s Shore is a portrait of Thoreau in transition, pulled in one direction by the force of his poetic genius and keen eye for humanity’s foibles, on the one hand, and, on the other, a thinker whose insights make him more of a ‘curiosity-driven scientist’…Whereas many of us are used to literary critics sticking their toes into scientific waters–sometimes to their discomfiture–it is rare to find a scientist who knows and appreciates a literary masterpiece the way Thorson does and can write about it with aplomb. Thorson’s affection for the book and its author is clear.
Thoreau Society Bulletin
Fascinating… Thorson presents the strongest version yet of the argument that, by the time he reached his early thirties, Thoreau was a scientist. Thorson provides a vivid core sample of Thoreau’s middle career, a dense, compelling vision of the geodynamics of Walden Pond, and an unexpectedly personal picture of Thoreau’s relation to nineteenth-century science… The great strength of Walden’s Shore, then, lies in its absorbing analytical presentation, through geo-scientific eyes, of topographies familiar to Thoreauvians—of Walden Pond, the Journal, and Walden itself—all lucidly explained for a nontechnical audience. Those of us who have become devoted to the place, the book, and its author owe Robert Thorson a debt of gratitude along with a heap of royalties.
The New England Quarterly
Robert Thorson, in Walden’s Shore, is deeply impressed with Thoreau’s methodological rigor: beneath the polished surface of Walden, he sees a scientist seeking theoretical explanations for seemingly unrelated observations, converting them into predictive models, and testing them quantitatively. …..Thorson’s book is teeming with a convert’s passion. … part of the book’s charm is Thorson’s conversational, heart-on-sleeve approach: his voice always rises from the page, speaking directly to us…. Taken on its own terms, then, Thorson’s book is exemplary as a three-way hybrid. First, it is a book of science…. Second, it is a book about the doing of science, told by someone eager to show how the scientific process is deeply creative….. And finally, it ends as a book of literary criticism, venturing, on this bedrock of geological truth, to erect a new interpretation of Thoreau’s literary dance with science …Thorson’s overriding point is one that Thoreau himself would have appreciated: beware the fortress mentality of the siloed academy,
Laura Dassow Walls
Transatlantica (An International Journal of American Studies)
We are fortunate to have geologist Robert M. Thorson’s Walden’s Shore….which makes a persuasive case for Thoreau as a physical scientist….Thorson’s impressive survey of ecocriticism on Thoreau leads him to conclude that it has been to “biocentric” in its approach. [His book] shows what a scientifici eco-, or rather geocriticism looks like…..Thorson takes us through his scientific material in a fascinating and accessible way…. Walden’s Shore is to my knowledge the first study by a research scientist to engage ecocritical studies of Thoreau with such care and depth.
Journal of the Early Republic
As Thorson explains, Thoreau scholars have erred in stressing his biophilia at the expense of his geophilia. The very shape and texture of the land, he argues, is the heart of Walden, and this simple substitution—geocritical for ecocritical—deserves the serious attention of those interested in literature and science….Walden’s Shore ultimately helps us understand that Thoreau’s geophilia was a mature fulfillment of his natural philosophy.”
Open Letters Monthly: An Arts and Literature Review
Utterly fascinating…. Thorson is steeped in the actual content of Thoreau’s 1854 classic, and he provides as many nature-quotes as any Walden fan could want, but re-reading his book in paperback emphasizes even more sharply that Thorson’s own nature-insights are the main attractions here. He can take his narrative into the oldest history of the planet, to Earth billions of years ago, and make it every bit as intriguing and evocative as Thoreau could make an acorn in his path…. Thorson opens up Walden from its sometimes insular grandeur and grounds (so to speak) its mytho-poetics in the physical properties of the place Thoreau made famous. It’s a pleasure to welcome the book back in paperback.
Walden’s Shore is a serious, substantial, and impressively erudite entry into the field—a model for how interdisciplinary approaches can bring original and revelatory perspectives to bear on even the most well-worn texts… Thorson’s careful reconstruction of Thoreau’s likely knowledge of landscape formation and glacial theory is especially impressive, and constitutes a comprehensive account of Thoreau’s relation to what was apparently a major scientific controversy of the mid-19th century.
Thorson’s fresh approach to Walden looks beyond the work as literary artifact and philosophical treatise, showing it from the perspective of a geologic scientist. What emerges is a fascinating study of Thoreau’s close attention to geology and an exploration of his interest in theories of geological evolution.
ISLE (Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment
Walden’s Shore represents an important contribution to the fields of Thoreau studies, environmental humanities, and new materialism… Thorson, a geologist by trade, advances fresh readings of both the Journal and Walden. This is no mean accomplishment, for Thoreau and his works have long been central to American ecocriticism…. All told, Thorson certainly makes a compelling case for what he calls “geo-Walden.”
Most people know Thoreau as an environmental essayist, a 19th-century naturalist, and a commentator and an essayist on social and political matters. Through a detailed reading of Thoreau’s Journal and Walden, Thorson shows that Thoreau was a competent scientist with expertise in limnology, geology, hydrology, and ecology. He also had a fundamental understanding of the effects of glaciers on landscapes.
Thorson (Geology/Univ. of Connecticut; Beyond Walden: The Hidden History of America’s Kettle Lake and Ponds, 2009, etc.) follows up his earlier work by establishing Henry David Thoreau’s own scientific credentials. The author adds depth to the iconic image of Thoreau, revered for his contributions to the American literary renaissance and his role as a social reformer. Thorson uses Thoreau’s journals as a source for his contention that he had a keen interest in geology and the emerging theories of geological evolution reflected in Charles Darwin’s Journal of Researches (1851), which Thoreau read with great interest. He cites notations predating The Origin of Species that anticipated Darwin’s theory of natural selection–e.g., how “individual fitness, adaptation, co-evolution, and competition” shaped the evolution of animals and plants. Thoreau accepted the correct view of Swiss paleontologist Louis Agassiz about how glaciation shaped the geology and ecology of the region–a view rejected by American geologists for theological reasons. Thorson explains that his purpose is “to counterbalance what strikes me as a recent trend in eco-criticism that refracts science through literature without being scientific.” He seeks to dig deeper than the “wave of marketing Thoreau as the symbolic ‘green man,’ ” in which his scientific interests are often overlooked. The author takes issue with such authors as Leo Marx, who reduced the inner meaning of Walden to “the dialectic tension between industrial progress and the timeless beauty of nature.” Marx and others often bypassed Thoreau’s intellectual connection to the ideas that were animating Darwin and the geologists, such as Charles Lyell, who helped shape Darwin’s thought. Thorson suggests that seasonal change and the contrast in Walden Pond between summer and winter is a metaphor for Thoreau’s own mind, which “toggled [between] poetic and scientific.” An intriguing academic book best read in conjunction with Walden.
HARVARD PRESS REVIEWERS
Walden’s Shore has no predecessor in the field of Thoreau studies. It is a welcome addition and a needed reassessment of an iconic figure.
Jeffrey S. Cramer, Curator, Thoreau Institute
The work of an extraordinary mind… Thorson seeks to ground what is arguably the greatest piece of non-fiction produced in America, and one of the world’s classics, not in the field of language where it has long been situated but rather in the material universe with which Thoreau extensively interacted and on which he long meditated. He stunningly succeeds in this effort.
Wayne Franklin, University of Connecticut
PRINT MEDIA AND BLOGS
Thorson says that literary types haven’t had the scientific chops to recognize, among other things, Thoreau’s ‘genius for river channel hydraulics’ and how close he came to discovering glacial theory (then unformed, now proved) to explain his terrain of erratic boulders and kettle ponds. Thorson says that Thoreau changed from ‘science light’ to ‘science heavy’ around 1851, and his writing shed much of the ecstatic divine metaphors for a style closer to field notes.
Review: Katherine Whittemore
“Thoreau’s botanical records have long been admired by naturalists, but what’s been less well known is his grasp of geology.”
Boston Literary News: Jan Gardner
Photo: One of two mahogany “geological” specimen cases built by Thoreau, and which may have held his own specimens at one time. Later given to the Reverend Charles Osgood of Cohasset. Opportunity to take this photo was courtesy of David Wood at the Concord Museum.”