2008 Northeast Modern Language Association Panels
10-13 April 2008
Buffalo, New York

Kurt A. R. Moellering
Northeastern University


"Canonizing Place: The Creation of Walden Pond"


Do not cite without permission of the author.

There is a pond in Concord, Massachusetts that is bordered by a railway, officially preserved by the state, and loved deeply and written about extensively by Henry David Thoreau. Today, it sits within a much denser wood than in Thoreau’s time, and is frequented by swimmers, hikers, and lovers of nature. In fact, if one visits Concord and wants the Thoreauvian experience of a quiet and contemplative walk through the woods near a pristine body of water, it might be wise to visit this body of water—White Pond—as it is much quieter these days than its more famous neighbor, particularly during tourist season. Just two and a half miles from Walden Pond, White Pond is, according to Thoreau, in all aspects “just like” the pond he built his house near. Today, they remain as similar as they were then—in some respects. However, while White Pond is known to locals and students of Thoreau (as he mentions it frequently in journals and in Walden) Walden Pond is a destination for thousands of literary scholars and tourists alike each year, a national symbol, and, perhaps, the most famous pond on the planet.

Most of the histories of Walden Pond posit its importance in terms of its relationship to the author of Walden: Walden Pond is important because Thoreau is important. This presentation argues for a more complicated and interesting relationship; the salient point for me is not that Thoreau wrote aboutWalden Pond, but how he wrote about it. The narrative strategies he uses in Walden, as well as in his other books, essays and journals, facilitate what I call here the canonization of Walden Pond. These strategies are, broadly, as follows: a personal, even intimate, communication with the landscape allowing for privileged authorial connection; the description of a plastic space that can be written on, read, and manipulated; facility with local, historical knowledge, allowing it to be invoked in reference to the landscape or removed from the landscape entirely; and a precise scientific vocabulary often coupled with map knowledge. These narrative strategies allow the land to be crystallized into a religious/literary relic, ensuring that Walden Pond can only ever be seen as Thoreau’s Walden Pond. Without these strategies in his work, regardless of his fame, Walden Pond could not be the icon, both natural and national, that it is today. Once canonized, as with any relic, it is there for the taking, whether it be employed as a symbol for America as “nature’s nation,” a call to arms for the environmental movement, or simply a touchstone for feelings about purity in nature. No matter who uses the canonized Walden Pond as symbol, whether it be environmentalists, nature writers, scholars, tourists, or ecocritics, the fact that it becomes symbol again and again was established in the words painstakingly chosen by Henry David Thoreau and immortalized in Walden—it is because of these that Walden Pond has been created, and constantly recreated, while White Pond sits quietly nearby.