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The Roots of Preservation: Emerson, Thoreau, and the Hudson River School

Max Oelschlaeger
Professor of Humanities
Northern Arizona University
©National Humanities Center

Most obviously, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and the Hudson River School helped shape an emerging national identity. Viewed collectively, their work articulated America’s “coming of age,” a nation in the process of discovering itself as distinct from Europe. The writings of Emerson and Thoreau with the landscape paintings of the Hudson River School offered nuanced interpretations of the unique relations of the American people to the land. Clearly Emerson and the Hudson River painters believed that Nature gave proof of God’s Providence for the new nation—a theme readily understood, given the religious history of the colonists.

What is less obvious is the living legacy of the Hudson River School, Emerson, and Thoreau. The American preservation movement, which has no equal in any nation, and, much of contemporary environmentalism originates in these sources. The initial catalyst for the creation of America’s unparalleled system of national parks lies in their collective work. The representative paintings of the Hudson River School (c. 1820 through 1880) establish the present sense of canonical landscapes. Ralph Waldo Emerson, born shortly after the American Revolution (1803), is the first genuinely American philosopher, and was instrumental in encouraging the national quest for identity. His writings are the most representative expression of the ideas that moved the Hudson River painters. Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862) remains America’s most original nature philosopher. Their work continues to influence, even over determine, contemporary sensibilities.

While named for its geographical location, Hudson River School members also painted scenes from the American West, South America, Mexico, and Mediterranean countries in a similar, romantic style. However, prior to these painters, landscapes by American artists received virtually no attention (with perhaps the exception of Washington Allston).

The school’s founders lived along the Hudson River, although most were not natives. The Hudson River Valley was originally settled (c. 1600) by Dutch immigrants, especially near the Catskill Mountains (a dramatic escarpment rising nearly 3000 feet from the valley floor). Dutch landscape painting is an obvious historical forerunner of the Hudson River School, founded by Thomas Cole (1801–1848) and Asher B. Durand (1796–1886) along with Albert Bierstadt (1830–1902). While these are perhaps the most acclaimed members, the school includes many other notable artists, such as Thomas Doughty (1793–1856), Frederic Edwin Church (1826–1900), and Thomas Moran (1837–1926).

“Kindred Spirits,” 1849,
by Asher B. Durand.

Courtesy of the Crystal Bridges
Museum of American Art
Durand and other members of the school began as engravers. Durand was also a portraiturist, painting such notables as Andrew Jackson and Henry Clay. His best-known painting, Kindred Spirits, symbolizes the Hudson River School. It implies the impact of the sublime beauty of the landscape on it subjects, with a sweeping panorama of the Hudson River Valley, wonderfully detailed, yet romantically inspired. The figures in the painting are close friends, Thomas Cole and William Cullen Bryant. Bryant, a poet and politician, believed that “the wilderness is yet a fitting place to speak of God.” (Interestingly, Bryant persuaded Cole to move to the Hudson Valley from New York City.)

Virtually all members of the Hudson River School understood the sublime as a manifestation of the power of God. Durand wrote many letters exploring the concept of the sublime, especially the sense of insignificance of humankind in relation to the awesome infinity and power of nature. Nature, it is fair to say, was at least a manifestation of God’s existential presence (panentheism), if not God (pantheism).

“The Course of Empire: Destruction,” 1836,
by Thomas Cole.

Courtesy of the New-York Historical Society
Thomas Cole’s paintings also reflect these sensibilities. The titanic awe of God became an esthetic, a sensibility suffusing his paintings of rivers and valleys, forests and mountains. The timeless flux of nature, its cycles and seasons, became measures of the evanescence of human creations, and the fallibility of overestimating mere appearances. His magnificent paintings documenting “the course of empire” are the ultimate expression of this sensibility.

The Hudson River School had a strong influence on what was in the mid- to late-nineteenth century a nascent preservationist movement. Thomas Moran was active in the national parks movement, and his painting essential to the creation of Yellowstone National Park. “Yosemite Valley,” 1866, by Albert Bierstadt.
Courtesy of the Cleveland Museum of Art
Historians note that Yellowstone was as much a result of aesthetic impulses as scientific and political arguments. Cole was a conservation advocate, often speaking in public to specific issues and causes. Albert Bierstadt explored the pre-settlement West, and painted Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon as well as Yosemite.

The Hudson River School contributed to more than an emerging national identity and the “Parks Movement.” Some hold that through the “Knights of the Brush,” Americans generally, but teachers and students more specifically, can rediscover a moral topography of value. Others believe that the twentieth century, for all its achievements, represents a decline rather than triumph of the American estate. Materialism rules, with corporations more powerful than government, and affluent individuals glorified merely for their wealth. While vast acreages have been protected in national parks, forests, monuments, and designated wilderness areas (more than 100 million acres alone), the natural world is more and more an anthropogenic biosphere, increasingly at risk. Cole’s “course of empire” series readily lends itself to such interpretation.

Ralph Waldo Emerson’s (1803–1882) work expresses the theological and philosophical heart of the Hudson River School. Some read Emerson’s texts as a bridge between the Calvinism of the eighteenth century and modern religious views of nature. This reading holds if nature is fallen, if a ruined earth is God’s punishment for original sin. Yet earlier religious views of nature, even among those who defended the doctrine of original sin, such as Jonathan Edward in his Dissertation Concerning the End for which God Created the World, are consistent with Emerson. Nature for Edwards was a symbol of the divine. Thus the New England wilderness, alive with animals to hunt, trees to fell for timber, and wild lands to clear for pastures and fields, assured the colonists of their special relation with God.

Emerson, consistent with his Unitarian origins, believed that God is one and all, the totality. Similar in many ways to the pantheism of Baruch Spinoza (1632–1677), “Nature” is thus a dimension of the totality, one accessible to immediate experience as well as later reflection. Reflection finds in the sublimity of Nature confirmation of the awesome presence of God. Nature (1836) is Emerson’s most original work and the fullest expression of his ideas of Transcendentalism.

Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862) is a seminal contributor to American environmental thought. Arguably, Emerson is a cultural critic extolling the values of the intellectual life, and Thoreau is a nature philosopher exalting the value of wild nature (see especially Thoreau’s essay “Walking”). Thoreau inspired not only such nineteenth-century luminaries as Frederick Law Olmstead and John Muir, but also many twentieth-century figures, including Aldo Leopold and Joseph Wood Krutch. He is widely credited as an originary thinker in the philosophy of nonviolent civil disobedience. Here, too, his affect on environmentalism is evident, since nonviolent civil disobedience has been the guiding credo for environmental protest.

Thoreau, as with the Hudson River School, invites us to find a sense of meaning, of direction and purpose in life through immediate contact with the living creatures, the vicissitudes of the seasons, and the varied textures of the earth. Conventionally interpreted as a Transcendentalist work, God plays a less significant role in Thoreau’s book of nature than in Emerson’s or in the art of the Hudson River School. He places more emphasis on the importance of lived experience, rather than transcendence, as contact with nature leads to sympathy with intelligence lying outside the bounds of positive science, traditional philosophy, or conventional religiosity.

While Emerson’s writing is intellectually detailed, Thoreau’s thick description directs the reader’s attention to the book of nature, the particulars and patterns of existence obscured by the curtain of culture. He advises us to walk in the wild on a daily basis, for immediate experience reminds the walker that neither the scientist nor the philosopher, neither the merchant nor the minister, has a privileged claim on truth. For Thoreau, too often, so-called knowledge is “positive ignorance,” that is, shibboleth and dogma masquerading as eternal verity. Lived experience enables the walker to engage culture critically rather than succumb to conventional wisdom. The often quoted Thoreauvian aphorism, “in wildness is the preservation of the world,” is not so much a preservationist credo, although it is often interpreted as such, as the heart of an evolutionary philosophy of nature and culture.

Guiding Student Discussion

The extensive literature on Thoreau, Emerson, and the Hudson River School—literally thousands of volumes—inclines an approach to the material that dies the death of a thousand details. University professors, in particular, are fond of defending received interpretations, ignoring the primary sources and the importance of entering the so-called hermeneutic (interpretive) circle on one’s own.

For students, less scholarly detail is more appropriate to active learning. (Thoreau himself might say “Simplify, simplify, simplify!”) Secondary literature and conventional readings are not the point. Better to coax students into the subtleties of interpretation and reflection, to use fresh encounters with the paintings and texts as a lure to more sustained study. Facilitating student interest is never an easy task, and all the more so in a culture increasingly caught up in television and computer games.

Fortunately, in the case at hand, the materials lend themselves to the task. The paintings of the Hudson River School and the writings of Emerson and Thoreau “live” in our own sensibilities and philosophies. They are not, contrary to popular opinion, esoterica for professors, teachers, and cultural snobs. More than anything, these materials are invitations for participation. Interpretation, we might say, is a verb, not a noun, an activity performed, rather than an object cultivated.

Encourage students to pursue personal encounters with the material. Challenge them to read the texts and see the paintings for themselves, and to interpret the work with their experiences and attitudes. For example, you might suggest that they put themselves in Thoreau’s shoes at Walden Pond. Would they be happy? Or lonely? Frightened or secure? Well fed or hungry? What conveniences would they give up? What hardships would they experience? Do either conveniences or hardships fundamentally matter? Could they build a cabin themselves? Would they want to? Would their friends think they were weird? Why would anyone want to go off by him or herself?

As familiarity with the materials develop and students gain confidence in their ability to make interpretations, then more pointed questions, bringing these materials (specifically, and the humanities more generally) into relation with the present can be posed. The secondary literature generally does Thoreau’s philosophy an injustice, in part because it is dreary and pedantic while his own writings are bright and lively. After a personal reassessment of Thoreau’s enterprise at Walden Pond, the text itself comes alive in new ways. Some students will welcome the opportunity take “Thoreauvian” walks and keep a journal.

The immediate engagement of students with the paintings of the Hudson River School, rather than scholarly interpretation by the teacher, is also a risk taking but potentially rewarding approach. Students can be encouraged in their interpretive activities through a few simple questions. Are there places like this where I live? Or are such places only in National Parks? Does Disneyland do it better? Have I been in such natural places? What did I see? Think? Did I feel the presence of something larger than myself? Something transcendent? Did I share my experience with someone else? Would I rather photograph such a scene than paint it? Would a photograph convey a different sensibility?

Selection of the paintings and the texts, in the context of the semester, is crucial. One or two paintings, selected individually and studied intensely by a student, offers educational possibilities differing from those of “the survey.” Similarly, reading and re-reading some of Walden, or all of “Walking,” offers different outcomes than reading 500 pages of Thoreau. Clearly, there are various schools of thought concerning pedagogy. Consider, however, that our students are not “art historians” or “literary critics” in training. A single positive experience with a painting or text where he or she “gets it”—makes an insightful, interpretive breakthrough—can change that student’s life.

Scholars Debate

One thing is sure about contemporary readings of Emerson, Thoreau, and the Hudson River School. There is a great variety, and these readings are often inconsistent if not contradictory.

How important are the works of Emerson and Thoreau to the preservation movement and American environmental attitudes? Emerson clearly had a greater influence in his own time than Thoreau. For example, John Muir, a giant of the American preservation movement, carried a well-worn copy of Emerson’s essays with him. His work deeply influenced many others as well.

Yet Thoreau’s reputation is in its finest hour. Typically Thoreau is read as a lesser intellectual figure than Emerson, following largely in his mentor’s footsteps, especially Transcendentalism. However, Joseph Wood Krutch, one of Thoreau’s leading expositors, argues that Transcendentalism is moribund as a philosophy, thus implying that there is little point to reading Thoreau as an “Emersonian.” Oelschlaeger’s The Idea of Wilderness advances a reading of Thoreau, as a thinker who begins from an Emersonian-transcendentalism, becomes a proto-evolutionary thinker— and then an American scholar posthumously. Ultimately, Oelschlaeger ironically realizes Emerson’s dream for his student. Emerson’s eulogy reveals his disappointment with Thoreau, asserting, “He had no greater aspiration than to be captain of a huckleberry party.”

Although little known in environmental circles, Cornel West’s The American Evasion of Philosophy offers fresh insights into Emerson’s attitudes toward nature. While West agrees that Emerson celebrates nature as a source of the self and American culture, West adds an interesting interpretive twist. He notes that Emerson, unlike many of those who influenced him, such as Thomas Carlyle, reconciles himself to the burgeoning nineteenth-century market economy, which enables the “Progress of the Nation.” Thus, under market domination, nature ultimately becomes little more than a commodity, a supply of raw material, and/or a goad for the activities of the vaunted Emersonian self, the self-reliant individual.

Roderick Nash, best known for Wilderness and the American Mind, argues that whatever the difficulties inherent in the idea of wilderness, it has played a pivotal role in the American mind. Thoreau, more than Emerson, was a leading expositor of the idea of wilderness. Emerson’s Nature is chapter and verse Transcendentalism, where natural processes and objects are themselves best understood as a catalyst for a higher, spiritual understanding. Thus, the nature lover becomes a “Transparent Eyeball,” the appearances of Nature removed she stands unclothed before Man. A merely transcendental relation to nature died, Nash contends, on Thoreau’s trip to Mt. Katahdin.

Louise Westling offers another reading in The Green Breast of the New World. She follows the standard interpretation of Thoreau, claiming that he is not so much an original thinker as one who simply advances Emersonian ideas. In Westling’s account, Emerson and Thoreau fall prey to the past, ultimately neither can relinquish man’s (the male of the species) privileged position—a spiritual relation—over and above nature, itself associated with woman. In part, Emerson and Thoreau are subject to what she calls “American’s innocent inheritance of the landscape.” The emergence of women in national cultural affairs is troublesome especially for Emerson, who shunned the nineteenth-century women’s movement.

The diversity of interpretations, and the lively debates among readers, implies that on final analysis there is much life yet in these nineteenth-century writings and paintings. Increasingly under the influence of the mass media, Americans too easily succumb to Henry Ford’s imprecation that “History is bunk.” Some historians succumb to the press of circumstance, retreating to the safe haven of antiquarianism. Those who realize that we are in the woof and warp of history know that only by re-interpreting the past can we actively embrace the future. The Hudson River School, Emerson, and Thoreau truly live.

Max Oelschlaeger is a Professor of Humanities at Northern Arizona University. He is the author of The Idea of Wilderness: From Prehistory to the Age of Ecology (Yale, 1991), Caring for Creation: An Ecumenical Approach to the Environmental Crisis (Yale, 1994), and Texas Land Ethics (Texas, 1997), co-authored with Pete Gunter.

Address comments or questions to Professor Oelschlaeger through TeacherServe “Comments and Questions.”

Illustration credits

To cite this essay:
Oelschlaeger, Max. “Emerson, Thoreau, and the Hudson River School.” Nature Transformed, TeacherServe©. National Humanities Center. DATE YOU ACCESSED ESSAY. <>


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