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Sarah Orne Jewett’s story “A White Heron” seems reminiscent of various passages in Henry David Thoreau’s famous piece of nonfiction prose titled Walden: or, Life in the Woods. Both works celebrate the ideal of humans living in harmony with nature, and it is even possible that Walden, published in 1854, may have been read by Jewett by the time she was writing her story, which was published in 1886. Walden, in fact, is mentioned at least a hundred times in Paula Blanchard’s biography of Jewett.
One passage in Walden that seems especially relevant to Jewett’s tale involves Thoreau’s recommendation that “it might be worth the while to keep a cockerel for his music merely, as a singing bird.” Thoreau clearly takes pleasure in his closeness to these birds, just as Sylvia (who is, by the way, also a visitor to the woods she loves) takes pleasure in the beauty of the heron. Both Sylvia and Thoreau enjoy the idea of humans living in harmony with nature, and in fact Sylvia seems even more willing than Thoreau to imagine nature living free from any necessary contact with people. She never imagines “keep[ing]” the heron; she is content merely to observe it.
Later, Thoreau writes of cockerels that
if they could be naturalized without being domesticated, [their song] would soon become the most famous sound in our woods, surpassing the clangor of the goose and the hooting of the owl.
The phrase “without being domesticated” is important: just as Sylvia wants the heron to preserve its life and independence, so Thoreau imagines what it might be like if cockerels were not domesticated, even if he does imagine them being “naturalized.”
Yet Thoreau notes that cockerels were in fact domesticated in order to be eaten, just as Jewett’s story describes the heron being pursued so that it might be killed, although for a far less practical purposes than to be eaten. Ultimately, Sylvia refuses to cooperate in the process that would lead to the bird’s death, so that her commitment to nature in its total freedom seems, if anything, even firmer than Thoreau’s commitment to the wild cockerels. It is Thoreau, after all, who says of the cockerel,
No wonder that man added this bird to his tame stock—to say nothing of the eggs and drumsticks.
Something extra: Both Jewett's story and Thoreau's narrative invite attention from the theory of literature known as ecocriticism. As its name implies, ecocriticism studies the relations between literature and the natural environment. It looks at the assumptions that humans make about physical nature and also looks at the ways in which nature is depicted in literary works. Since both Walden and "A White Heron" are explicitly concerned with such issues, they are texts that seem particularly relevant to ecocritical analysis. Biographical criticism also seems relevant to the study of these two texts. It would be interesting to know if in fact Walden was an undeniable influence on the composition of "A White Heron." It would be particularly interesting to know whether Jewett owned Walden and, if so, whether her copy of the book survives, perhaps with her annotations next to particular passages.
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