The relationship between the mental landscape of the interior and the physical landscape of the exterior is a crucial aspect of the flâneur narrator's effectiveness as a literary device; it is also a subject that is explored at length in Thoreau's essay "Walking." Here, the principles which he applies are not only applicable to his own practice of "sauntering," but can be applied to this study's definition of flânerie as well. As mentioned earlier, Thoreau was known to walk for several hours each day. In line with the transcendental belief that "a person's inner resources are sufficient to meet any challenge, that following the intuitions of one's own genius leads to unexpected success" (Smith 129), it is not surprising that someone like Thoreau would find an unplanned walk into the wilderness to be a promising way of allowing his intuitions the freedom and means necessary to work wonders in his life. Thoreau discovered these transcendental virtues "in the realities of everyday existence, primarily through sauntering, a form of walking which lead to self-discovery and spiritual renewal" (Smith 130). Each walk for Thoreau "marked an attempt to discover within himself the thoughts and intuitions which would tell him who he was, how he was to live, and what his proper relationship should be to self, nature, and God" (Smith 130-131). He considered these daily adventures to be a vital means of preserving his health, both physically and psychologically, and he developed the activity into an art form (Smith 130-131).
Thoreau begins his essay by invoking his muse, Nature: "I wish to speak a word for Nature, for absolute freedom and wildness, as contrasted with a freedom and culture merely civil,--to regard man as an inhabitant, or a part and parcel of Nature, rather than a member of society" (627). Already, in his first sentence, Thoreau blurs the line between interiors and exteriors. One does not normally think of inhabiting something as expansive and uncontainable as Nature. He goes on to define true walking as an art, a rare art at that: "I have met with but one or two persons in the course of my life who understood the art of Walking, that is, of taking walks,--who had a genius, so to speak, for sauntering" (627). According to Thoreau, the word "sauntering" has two possible origins, both coming from French. The first possible origin, and the one he favors, is the phrase, "à la Sainte Terre" (627), which means "to the Holy Land" (627). The other possibility is derived from the phrase "sans terre" (627) or "without land or home" (627), implying that one who saunters is equally at home everywhere. He claims to prefer the first definition because he believes that "every walk is a sort of crusade" (627) in search of the divinity within ourselves. In many ways, Thoreau "sauntered in the world of nature in order to pursue the world of thought" (Smith 131).
Thoreau’s first complaint with the way most people approach a walk is the way they return the same way they departed: "Half the walk is but retracing our steps. We should go forth on the shortest walk, perchance, in the spirit of undying adventure, never to return,--prepared to send back our embalmed hearts only as relics to our desolate kingdoms" (628). For Thoreau each walk should be approached as an end in itself, not as journey from which to return. The key is to cut all ties and "float freely in the present tense" (Mellencamp 60):
If you are ready to leave father and mother, and brother and sister, and wife and child and friends, and never see them again, --if you have paid your debts, and made your will, and settled all your affairs, and are a free man, then you are ready for a walk. (Thoreau 628)
Because Thoreau's sauntering is both internal and external, his mind is allowed to open up and "respond freely to the stimuli provided by the surrounding environment" (Smith 132). This keeps his mind in the present--in Nature--and far from the town and "all worldly engagements." What interested Thoreau so much about the art of walking "was not merely that walking stimulated thinking, but that it fostered a special kind of thinking--spiritual intuitions which flowed spontaneously and creatively during the sauntering adventury" (Smith 134). The openness of his mind and the rich supply of spiritual metaphors provided by nature helps the mind to achieve insight into itself (Smith 134).
Although Thoreau does "appreciate the beauty and glory of architecture, which itself never turns in, but forever stands out and erect, keeping watch over the slumberers" (630), the walks that he values the most take place in the woods and preferably towards the West. In fact, he considers the woods and the fields to be the most natural place for a walk. To him, walking within the confines of a city or a garden defeats the purpose. Walking is about freedom. He is not concerned with the details of Poe’s acutely observant narrator in "The Man of the Crowd." He would never have been satisfied with a walk through nocturnal London. Even had the surroundings been pleasant and sunny, he questions in his essay, "what would become of us, if we walked only in a garden or a mall?" (632). Perhaps this is because Thoreau did not live in a city, but in a "village," and a village is less of a solid entity as it is "a sort of expansion of the highway, as a lake of a river. It is the body of which roads are the arms and legs,--a trivial or quadrivial place, the thoroughfare and ordinary of travelers" (634)--not a place one inhabits. Another thing that separates Thoreau from the other flâneur narrators in this thesis is his perception of the newness of America at the time of his writing. In the mid-nineteenth century, America was an expanse of wild land stretching for miles, a span so broad as to shame the mere plots taken up by the institutions of human society (Thoreau 636). Nature had not yet been bullied and tamed. The woods were still a dangerous, adventurous place to go, a fact which might explain why Thoreau did most of his walking during the day.
Thoreau also believed that Nature would intuitively guide the walker in the direction he needed to go: "I believe that there is a subtle magnetism in Nature, which, if we unconsciously yield to it, will direct us aright" (637). According to Thoreau, there are walks we need, walks "never yet taken by us through this actual world, which [are] perfectly symbolical of the path which we love to travel in the interior world; and sometimes, no doubt, we find it difficult to choose our direction, because it does not yet exist distinctly in our idea" (637).
This noted relationship between the insides of our minds and our surroundings is what makes this text essential to the discussion of the flâneur narrator. Thoreau believed that the things one sees, in his case a great deal of nature, have a lot to do with the way one thinks; it is also the source of his explanation for the supposed superiority of America over the rest of the world:
For I believe that climate does thus react on a man, --as there is something in the mountain-air that feeds the spirit and inspires. Will not man grow to greater perfection intellectually as well as physically under these influence? Or is it unimportant how many foggy days there are in his life? I trust that we shall be more imaginative, that our thoughts will be clearer, fresher, and more ethereal, as our sky, --our understanding more comprehensive and broader, like our plains, --our intellect generally on a grander scale, like our thunder and lightning, our rivers and mountains and forests, --and our hearts shall even correspond in breadth and depth and grandeur to our inland seas. (642)
Although the above quotation seems ethnocentric and chauvinistic, it remains a solid indicator of Thoreau’s faith in the influence of environment on the thought processes. Excusably, his excessive patriotism came at a time when America was still young and full of promise. In fact, much of the reasoning behind Thoreau’s patriotism is related to his admiration of the sun and his belief that the West is the dwelling place of the future: "every sunset which I witness inspires me with the desire to go to a West as distant and as far as that into which the sun goes down" (639). For this reason, he saw the East as a place one goes "to realize history and study the works of art and literature, retracing the steps of the race" (638)--as in the case of the twentieth-century American expatriate writers who will be discussed later. Thoreau saw the Atlantic ocean as "the Lethean stream, in our passage over which we have had an opportunity to forget the Old World and its institutions" (638).
For Thoreau, the walk is as much an activity of the spirit as it is an activity of the body. He admits, in times of distraction with the business of life, to finding himself detached from his walk: "I am alarmed when it happens that I have walked a mile into the woods bodily, without getting there in spirit. . . . But it sometimes happens that I cannot easily shake off the village. The thought of some work will run in my head and I am not where my body is,--I am out of my senses" (632). This phenomenon of being "out of one's senses" is like reading without comprehension. One is too focused on the past or the impending future to simply exist in the present tense: Thoreau says, "Above all, we cannot afford not to live in the present. He is blessed over all mortals who loses no moment of the passing life in remembering the past" (662). This way of thinking is much in line with flânerie. Instead of living "deliberately," the flâneur walks "deliberately," taking from his surroundings all the nourishment he should ever need for intellectual growth and cosmic understanding. If it is through grassy hills and glistening streams that he walks, those brightly shining elements will provide the vocabulary for his thoughts; if he crawls through sordid streets of disease and filth, his thoughts will be as diseased and filthy as his surroundings. According to Thoreau, we pull our metaphors from what we see; so, in our walks and in our minds,
[W]e saunter toward the Holy Land, till one day the sun shall shine more brightly than ever he has done, shall perchance shine into our minds and hearts, and light up our whole lives with a great awakening light, as warm and serene and golden as on a bankside in autumn. (663)