In Cape Cod, a book by Thoreau that is popularly thought of as a travel book, Thoreau goes a long way in changing the notion of American exceptionalism, emphasizing that the country is great not because God says it is, but because it is constantly recharged by people looking to reinvent America, to make their own exceptional voyage into the future of a new place. Here is a related take on what makes, or maybe ought to make, American exceptionalism, exceptional:
(via Professor G. Brewer, via the Daily Dish)
The Thoreau You Don't Know staff was recently buttonholed at a party, and presented with the following statement: "I heard that Thoreau was never went out in the real wilderness, that he was no John Muir." There is a lot for the staff to say about this, including, bt not limited to the following: Thoreau was writing about a "partially cultivated wilderness" (i.e., his local farming, lumbering, village shop- and artisan-filled community); Thoreau hiked with friends; Thoreau did in fact do a little Muir-like time in Maine; Muir liked Thoreau, or his work, anyway. But what should also be pointed out was that Muir was no Muir, or at least not what we might call the Pure Nature Guy. What we mean is he dealt with the corporate interests in the world at the time, which were substantial, to create parks, the first National Parks, in essence. Here's this from an excellent piece, by Robert Pogue Harrison, on Muir in the March 12, 2009 issue of the New York Review of Books, which seems to indicate that conservationists might work more closely with economic interests to fashion new kinds of 21st Century conservation:
Muir became a fixture of the steady tourist traffic to Yosemite in the early 1870s, an eccentric guide and congenial raconteur who impressed Emerson and P.T. Barnum, just as he would Theodore Roosevelt many years later. Part of the fascination of Worcester's account ["A Passion for Nature: The Life of John Muir," by Donald Worster, Oxford University Press] is to see how Muir's concerted conservation work emerged only in 1889 when he was already in his fifties, as part of the sudden wave of progressivism that swept America toward the end of the Gilded Age, and how this conservationism oddly sought corporate allies during its first flush of grassroots organization, accommodating itself to pragmatic, utilitarian, and commercial pressure, utilitarian, and commercial pressures of many kinds.
Muir's life and work is an example of how quickly things can change, how much affect a small group of passionate people can have on the government and society, how a good idea (national parks) has legs. Something Thoreau used to say, by the way, was, "[T]hank God they cannot cut down the clouds."