Representation and Particularity in Pastoral: Some Examples from Walden
In this essay, I read Thoreau’s aspirations to public attention as an instance of the literary pastoral. This may seem a back-to-front approach to a simple task: Walden seems to us pre-eminently pastoral exactly in its rejection of ‘civilized life’ and its willingness to locate philosophical truth in nature and in solitary existence. Yet for two of the most prominent twentieth-century critics of pastoral, William Empson and Paul Alpers, this mode of writing was never, or never straightforwardly, about nature, but rather about the ways in which literary uses of language may undertake forms of cultural work. In their readings in the pastoral tradition, these critics reflect on the ways in which literary styles and devices might imply or afford ‘social ideas’ (Empson 22), and on the particular social or ethical valence of creative engagements with what Empson calls ‘the simple’ (22) – the humble, lowly, or everyday. For Alpers, as for Empson, what pastoral is finally about is the role of literary works in cultivating forms of community, communication, and ‘ethical stability in one’s present world’ (Alpers 37). Following these critics, I will focus on some of the ways in which the imaginative manoeuvres typical of pastoral – an investment in the simple and an attention to the particular, as well as an interest in the status of representative figures – might form the basis of Thoreau’s claims to exemplarity.