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Vol. 1 No. 2 (2020): Soundscapes, Sonic Cultures, and American Studies

'Language ... Without Metaphor': Soundscapes and Worldly Engagements in Henry David Thoreau's Walden

February 4, 2021


Henry David Thoreau has been celebrated for his observation of the natural world. While noting Thoreau's skills of observation in relation to the natural world and his responsiveness to sensory experience, scholars have, however, tended to privilege sight over sound. Even though Thoreau was recognized by musicians such as Charles Ives and John Cage for having an exceptionally fine ear for the symphonies of nature, sound still remains a neglected aspect of Thoreau's Walden; Or, Life in the Woods. This article is a corrective to this status quo, as it reads Walden as a transmedial project in which Thoreau frequently tuned in to the sounds encountered during his sojourn in nature in order to figure the essential parameters of his experiment and to relate to the entire world of experience. The complex soundscape of Walden engenders a multifaceted awareness of modern space, as sounds of nature, sounds of progress, and the clamor of people intersect. Accordingly, this article explores how Thoreau uses a vast array of sounds to relate to the world; how he apprehended, and even appreciated, not only the harmonies of nature, but also dissonance—within nature, as well as between nature, modernity and rurality. In doing so, this article proposes a reading of Thoreau's auditory experience as a reflection on, and negotiation with, a multifaceted world where the pastoral and the industrial coexist.


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