English, Department of


Date of this Version

October 1997


Published in Weber Studies 14.3 (1997): 38-48. Also available online: http://weberstudies.weber.edu/archive/Vol.%2014.3/14.3Lynch.htm Copyright 1997 Thomas Lynch.


Thoreau's "Allegash and the East Branch," from the Maine Woods collection, provides a particularly useful excursion on which to examine his wilderness ideology. It is one of the final works in the Thoreau corpus and hence suggests his mature vision. On ths trip he spent significant time in intimate contact with what he considered to be wild nature; and he did so in the company of Joe Polis, a sophisticated Penobscot Indian who was literate in white culture as well as an expert in his own culture's ways of being at home in nature. Polis lived on Indian Island in the Penobscot River, across from Oldtown. Thoreau remarks with some surprise that "his house was a two-story white one, with blinds, the best looking that I noticed there, and as good as an average one on a New England village street" (215). Polis had served his tribe as a representative to Augusta and Washington D.C., and when in Boston had called upon Daniel Webster (269).

Polis's ability to straddle the divide between white and Penobscot culture challenged Thoreau's ideas about the place of humans in nature. As Robert Sayre has demonstrated, Thoreau's ideas of Indians are constrained by the limited categories of savage/civilized available to him. William Rossi suggests "just as it was impossible to imagine Thoreau's writing apart from the categories of 'wild' and 'civilized' that so deeply informed his thinking. so was it virtually impossible for Thoreau himself to think about native peoples outside of the territory these categories defined" (11). Linda Frost proposes that, due to his literacy, "Polis complicates Thoreau's conception of nature itself, his access to written texts of Anglo culture actually upsetting the nature/culture dualism" (37). And this is certainly true, but I would further argue that a comparison of Thoreau's notion of the Maine woods as a wilderness with Polis's notion of it as a home illustrates even more clearly how Polis effaces the nature/culture (or wild/civilized) duality that serves as a basis for both Thoreau's, and by extension from him, contemporary wilderness ideology. Furthermore, Thoreau's polarized categories had a debilitating effect on hs experience in Maine. For in spite of Polis's efforts to teach him differently, Thoreau maintained a notion of wilderness that led hm to remain more alienated from the natural world and less at home there than he needed to be and hence limited the richness of his experience.