Report // Julien Nègre, “Cute Berries and Dead Indians: Thoreau’s Environment,” 2 February 2024

Link to original event here.

Excursions are known to be Henry David Thoreau’s privileged mode of travelling and writing. In “Cute Berries and Dead Indians,” Julien Nègre (ENS de Lyon) followed this concept across Thoreau’s unpublished manuscripts, more commonly known as the Indian Notebooks, paying particular attention to the parallels between Thoreau’s explorations of the plant world and his encounters with the last representatives of decimated Indian tribes. The heterogeneous information amassed in the Indian Notebooks, such as references to Thoreau’s journal entries, original and copied maps, transcribed passages from colonial-era historical accounts, makes it an unstable, yet compelling text, all the more so as Thoreau’s intended use of it remains uncertain to this day.

Thoreau’s excursions are spurred on by the desire to learn more about his “neighbors” (“neighborliness” is yet another important concept in Thoreau’s work). Nègre argued that for Thoreau, “neighboring” is not simply a question of shared space but also of interactions between species across time. Nègre thereby shifted the focus away from the human towards plant and animal life. In Thoreau’s writing, he showed, excursions that take for their goal engagement with plants are imbued with purpose, all the more so as they are retrospectively aggrandised, politicised and historicised, as is the case in the European cranberry passage. Thus excerpt describes his excursion in search of the “European” cranberry (which, unbeknownst to Thoreau, is actually native to the Americas) that grows in the vicinity of his Concord home. The passage, Nègre showed, evokes colonial practices, namely land occupation, with its use of military vocabulary and an explicit allusion to the violent civil confrontations collectively known as Bleeding Kansas.

History is indeed not absent from Thoreau’s excursions. Thoreau’s mapping practices, Nègre showed, were largely inspired by a combination of his plant-centric excursions and his engagements with Native American history. For example, Thoreau diligently marks Native American heritage sites that are not present on the source maps from which he copied. In his talk, Nègre compared the language Thoreau uses to document his encounters with members of indigenous communities with the terms and epithets that appear in the accounts of his botanical excursions. Nègre particularly focused on two journal entries: those of October 1855 and June 1856. Encounters with Native Americans are characterised by a greater amount of verbal violence, he showed. Information is forcefully extracted rather than volunteered. Nègre argued, however, that Thoreau distanced himself from this violence by removing his characteristic heroic “I” from these passages and representing himself as the silent witness to his friend’s, Daniel Ricketson’s, aggressive interrogations of the surviving members of the local tribes. At the same time, as in the European cranberry passage, Thoreau often defers to a fixed lexical corpus of conventional images to describe the indigenous individuals he encounters. For instance, he reuses the same epithet–“half an acre of face”—to describe both the strangers he meets out on the lake, who self-identify as Native Americans, and later Martha Simons, a woman belonging to the dying Narragansett tribe.

While Thoreau’s portraits of Native Americans may be formulaic, Nègre also showed that Thoreau’s writing forges a strong connection between indigenous people and animality. Thoreau treats the former both as repositories of knowledge on the local flora and fauna and as themselves akin to animals. While discussions on the topic of the natural world—such as when Thoreau and Ricketson converse with the strangers about fish, or with Martha Simons about huskroot—create opportunities for cultural exchange, these moments of sincere communication are often undercut by Thoreau’s demotion of his interlocutors, such as when he makes a note of Simons’ reticence to talk to white men and describes her “vacant stare.”

Nègre concluded by commenting on the widespread fascination among the white middle-class men in Thoreau’s milieu with representing the last members of indigenous communities. These last Native American survivors of settler colonialist violence posed a particular representational challenge to the white artists wishing to portray them, Nègre remarked, as these individuals came to involuntarily signify the totality of their tribes. As these tribes’ only living members, their individuality was at once emphasised and undermined, lost in the collective identity of the group to which they formerly belonged. This fascination, manifested in Thoreau’s own journals through constant references to “dead Indians” or “last Indians,” naturalised the view of Native Americans as figures firmly rooted in the nation’s past, always already gone, explaining the communicational breakdown that characterises white men’s exchanges with living members of indigenous tribes, such as the ones documented in Thoreau’s journals. Thoreau’s maps, which register the locales that were significant to the local Native American communities, such as the Indian graveyard and “Betty’s Neck,” likewise contribute to this white supremacist worldview, Nègre suggested: these place names and the territories which they denote become ancient monuments, relics of bygone history rather than signs of America’s persisting indigenous presence.

Led by Nègre’s respondent, Michael Jonik (University of Sussex), the audience discussion primarily focused on the ethical questions surrounding the cultural work that Thoreau’s Indian Notebooks performed during his lifetime and continue to perform today. Although they are inevitably implicated in the appropriation of indigenous cultures, the Notebooks also memorialise instances of Native American resistance to white people’s violence by verbal extraction. They have likewise helped unearth previously lost indigenous topologies, which have since been put back on contemporary maps, emphasising today the very presence that they once used to deny.

Citer ce billet
Anna Shmatenko (2024, 2 avril). Report // Julien Nègre, “Cute Berries and Dead Indians: Thoreau’s Environment,” 2 February 2024. A19. Consulté le 21 juin 2024, à l’adresse

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A propos Anna Shmatenko

Anna Shmatenko holds a BA in English from the University of Cambridge and an MA in Anglophone Studies from Sorbonne Université. She is interested in the representations of liminal states between life and death in the literature of the nineteenth-century United States.

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