Thoreau’s Emersonian “Country Seat” at Walden
Wherever I sat, there I might live, and the landscape radiated from me accordingly. What is a house but a sedes, a seat?—better if a country seat. I discovered many a site for a house not likely to be soon improved, which some might have thought too far from the village, but to my eyes the village was too far from it.” ~ “Where I Lived and What I Lived For” (65).
Near the start of Walden’s second chapter, “Where I Lived and What I Lived For,” Thoreau carries on his analytical dissection of the “gross groceries” of life begun in “Economy.” He rehearses many of the same transcendental motivations and tricksterish feats of wordplay that lead him to his “country seat” in the woods of Walden Pond. In Emersonian fashion, Thoreau’s speaker locates himself at the center of a “landscape” that remains passive. While he emanates, the landscape, by contrast, is said to be “radiated” outward from his superior point of view.
As in Emerson’s Nature, the landscape that is to be the natural backdrop for Thoreau’s ideal house is reducible to the speaker’s transcendental vision (“but to my eyes the village was too far from it”). However, the beginning of the passage implies that this transcendental vision of nature is dependent upon the Poet’s mind and spirit. The importance of the Poet’s vision seems to violate the priority ascribed to nature (and proximity to it in the country seat) espoused in the final sentences of the passage.
What accounts for this paradox?
At the end, nature’s “country” seats are not simply ideal sites for Thoreau’s house, but necessary countermeasures to the corruptive influence of society, the village.
Nevertheless, the tone of the first sentence sets the stage for the central proposition of the passage—“What is a house but a sedes, a seat?”
Playing the braggart again, Thoreau’s speaker begins the passage in a reverie of self-importance. Central and radiant, he exults in that Emersonian transparency that makes him nothing less than the belly button of the universe. If wherever he sits is home and house, the speaker has achieved a perspective toward landscape akin to Emerson’s integrative view of property.
For Emerson it is not simply Miller’s farm or Jones’s farm that matters, but landscape in general–that sighting of land which belongs to no one in particular. Such a perspective permits Thoreau’s speaker an infinite range of imaginary forms of home ownership: “Wherever I sat, there I might live.” And it is from within this elevated state of unlimited acquisition that the proposal —“What is a house but a sedes, a seat?” — takes rhetorical shape.
The logic by which the house becomes a seat fulfills Emerson’s theory of picturesque language. The term used is returned to its earliest utterance to function as a picture. In this case, we are encouraged to equate the image of Thoreau seated comfortably in the woods, perhaps on a log, as the illustration of a man in an “economical” house, a transcendental house. And it would have to be an image of him seated on a log, since our speaker would not bear himself to be pictured sitting on a pumpkin. To sit on a pumpkin, he tells us later, “is pure shiftlessness.”
Yet, to enact Emerson’s Adamic language game and to reveal the etymological links between “house” and “seat” (whose Latinate derivation, sedes, inevitably connotes the word “seed”), the speaker recurs to alliterative puns that complicate matters.
The pun insists on a “country seat” as the perfect “country site” for a house. According to the OED, the term “country seat” during the nineteenth century referred to “the residence of a country gentleman or nobleman.” For someone who disparages class hierarchies as being too metaphorically close to the village, it is ironic that the speaker would pun on a sentiment that many of his fellow-villagers of Concord would agree with.
Advocating a “country seat” does not simply suggest that there’s no better home to dream of than one in the country or in nature, it also mocks the aspirations of those readers who lead “mean and sneaky lives” of “quiet desperation,”—those who relate better to the self-paralyzing fantasy of commodity culture that proclaims the very best kind of house to be a rich man’s country estate.
But this class-conscious irony dominates neither the pun nor the passage. Rather, it invites a crucial ambivalence.
Speaking as both the avaricious dreamer (that “sojournor in civilized life again” that we were told about in the first paragraph) and as the transcendental naturalist, Thoreau’s speaker fronts once again a question that has occupied him since the first chapter: “Why must the ideal house or seat be in nature?” “How exactly is nature crucial to the attainment of economy—in that larger sense of economy?”
Read closely, the final sentence of the passage represents nature as the negative correlative to the village and its vices. Logically, the country is valued not so much for any qualities essential to it, but as a counterforce to the social. In this sense, the natural world, for Thoreau as for Emerson, is most serviceable as an opposition to the commonsensical worldviews of unholy society.
Symbolic nature is a handy rhetorical tool, in other words, that casts the village and its ways as a shadowy grotesque, a type of false and foolish consciousness.
In Thoreau’s application of nature, the inhabitants of the village are transformed into inmates of a blind, incurious prison house of custom. They are constituted by Thoreau’s homily of the house as a wayward flock in need of philosophical correction, perhaps a new gospel of industry, or a new art of virtue—and these are but a few of the many Franklinesque postures taken up in Walden.
The whole book is after all a kind of kite experiment, is it not?—A transcendental experiment on the conductivity of the “country seat” as opposed to that of the village house, whose sole purpose is to discover which is the superior conductor of spiritual electricity.
But to stop here is to erroneously suppose that nature ends where it begins in the passage: as a mere tool of transcendental accounting. Whereas he was the center that nature’s radii dependently unfolded from in the opening, the final rhetorical tool marks the speaker leaves on nature clearly show it to be an origin all its own. It is ground zero for measuring the ideal. Yet, conceptually, it is always in a negative relation to the village.
Never a concept unto itself, nature remains a site of infinite dearth proportionate to the infinite surplus of the village. For Thoreau, civilization may breed unexamined ambition. And the village may be a repository of misguided movements, where failed spiritual economies multiply unchecked. But the seat of nature is finally shown to be most valuable for authorizing a necessary space apart, literally furnishing the site and sight from which Thoreau’s self-actualizing diatribe against the village radiates.