The Unifying Aspects of Cultures


Frontier Metamorphoses: Americanization and Otherness

Richard J. Schneider (Wartburg College, Waverly, Iowa, USA)
The American West as Global Frontier in Henry David Thoreau's "Walking"

Although Thoreau's essay "Walking" is most often seen as an ecological manifesto in support of the preservation of nature, it is also perhaps his most chauvinistic essay. In "Walking" Thoreau argues not only for the recognition and preservation of nature as a site for the individual psychological and spiritual refreshment offered by walking, but also for the American West as the future source of both national and global re-invigoration.

Thoreau's vision of the American West is heavily influenced by a book titled The Earth and Man by the Swiss geographer Arnold Guyot. Guyot used scientific data to argue that God's plan for human civilization was based on the migration of civilization from its origins in the Middle East to its seedbed in Europe and eventually to its full fruition in America. The American West would provide what Thoreau called "the tonic of wildness" to rejuvenate a civilization which had exhausted Europe's fertility. Thoreau quotes Guyot approvingly several times throughout "Walking" to suggest that the settling of the West is America's destiny, that the American farmer will be the hero to tame the wilderness, and that the American Indian must retreat and perhaps become extinct in the face of this national and global progress. For Thoreau the American West was a symbol of all of human progress. Thoreau's vision of America's "manifest destiny" is thus typical of a larger and persistent American attitude toward its role in human history, an attitude which can help to explain current American foreign policy.