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I owe much to many who contributed new perspectives, advice, patience, love, and much listening time as this book took shape.I first want to thank Patricia Troxel for our long conversations about American fiction and culture in which the idea for this book was born and began to take shape. Many others participated along the way with good ideas, helpful criticism, and an occasional admonishment to get on with it. Among those I wish especially to thank are Kathryn Reiss and Tom Strychacz, David Troxel, Vicki Reback, Bill Howarth, Karl Zender, Kevin Clark, Laura Jason, Kearnon Kanne, and the students in my course on architecture and fiction. Our literature reiterates with remarkable consistency the centrality of the house in American cultural life and imagination. In many of our major novels a house stands at stage center as a unifying symbolic structure that represents and defines the relationships of the central characters to one another, to themselves, and to the world and raises a wide range of questions starting with Thoreau's deceptively simple "What is a house?"Houses occupy this prominent place in American novels for a number of reasons. In a country whose history has been focused for so long on the business of settlement and "development," the issue of how to stake out territory, clear it, cultivate it, and build on it has been of major economic, political, and psychological consequence. Building here also meant suppressing the guilt attached to violent expropriation of land and entering a long struggle over the relations between political rights and property ownership."The American dream" still expresses itself in the hope of owning a freestanding single-family dwelling, which to many remains the most significant measure of the cultural enfranchisement that comes with being an independent, self-sufficient (traditionally male) individual in full possession and control ofaۥ 2 aۥhome and family. The seldom-realized ideal is for the householder to have designed and built this house with his own hands; Jefferson's Monticello stands on its hill in Charlottesville in stately tribute to this mythic possibility. Writers have thus frequently defined their work as demarcating, designing, and inhabiting space.
As Alfred Kazin has observed, "One writes to make a home for oneself, on paper." The blue-prints for those homes on paper are frequently borrowed directly from the world of architecture. In explaining their craft, they speak of surfaces and interiors, rooms and foyers, thresholds and windows, and furnishings. The same architectural habit of mind that designs and builds a house both to reflect patterns of life within it and to configure life in certain patterns may design a narrative to reflect and recast what the author conceives to be the essential structures of our lives.This book is an exploration of the ways in which a number of our major writers have appropriated houses as structural, psychological, metaphysical, and literary metaphors, constructing complex analogies between house and psyche, house and family structure, house and social environment, house and text.
Just as the history of the United States is a story of settling, building homes, domesticating land, and defining space, our fiction is, among other things, a history of the project of American self-definition wherein house-building, and for women, house-keeping, have been recognized as a kind of autobiographical enterprisea€”a visible and concrete means of defining and articulating the self. The semiotic significance of architecture as one of the most visible and multifaceted indices of cultural values has been heightened in the United States by our tendency to treat the visible world as a readable text, to define the structures we live in as mutable and meaningful, and to conflate aesthetic and moral categories. Fitzgerald's observation that "America is an idea" applies by extension to the way we tend to regard our social, economic, and artistic livesa€”as outward and visible manifestations of the ideas we believe bind us together as a people.The spaces we create and inhabit in our imagination are particularly fraught with significance, unlimited as they are by practical constraints of material and context but informed by the natural and architectural features of our actual environment. Space is an ideologically weighted "product," and the idea of space is a highly charged issue for theorists and artists. One of those differences lies in the characteristic tension in American culture between the project of building and settlement and the romantic image of the homeless, rootless, nomadic hero whose roof is the sky and whose bed is the open prairie, the meandering river, or the boundless sea. The "civilizing" process in this country has involved both overt and covert conflict over the tremendous psychic costs of "civilization" and domesticationa€”a conflict generating the sort of apprehension that leads Huck Finn to resolve to "light out for the territory" before the Widow Douglas succeeds in "sivilizing" him. Enclosure in a house and in the structures of town or city life runs counter to the inherent romanticism of some of our most deeply held collective values: autonomy, self-determination, mobility.
The heroic representation of nomadic life or certain forms of homelessness in our fiction can thus be seen as a powerful counterforce to the images of settlement and home-building that expresses not only the appeal of what is natural, wild, and unknown but also a deep and pervasive ambivalence about settlement. Paradoxically, in "nomadic" literature the issue of finding and defining home is, if anything, intensified.
Other structures metonymically replace the house and its formative and expressive functionsa€”for example, the ship in Melville's Moby-Dick , the raft in Twain's Huckleberry Finn , the homemade camper truck in Steinbeck's Travels with Charlie , the car in Kerouac's On the Road , or the motorcycle in Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance . In these works, too, the dwelling or vehicle becomes a home, assumes an inclusive symbolic importance, and defines the boundaries and practical challenges of a microcosmic private world.The list of works in which the house (or an analogous structure) serves as governing metaphor comprises most of the tra-a€• 5 a€•ditional canon. This book aims at placing some of those works in the context of the development of American architecture, of urbanization and suburbanization, and of the politics as well as the poetics of space: Who owns or controls domestic space? A second aim is to pay attention to the language with which Americans have referred to "home," the values implicit in that language, and the social implications of those values, particularly as they affect expectations of family life, the shapes of women's lives, and adaptation to changing social and economic conditions. The chapters that follow trace a chronological trajectory that roughly corresponds to the movement from settlement to unsettlement, from rooting to rootlessness, and from transcendental romanticism to realism, irony, and nostalgia in American culture.What unifies the novels studied here and many others in the American canon, broadly defined, is a complex of related conflicts and tensions that have been widely regarded as the defining strain in American mythology. One of the most fundamental of these conflicts is that between spiritual and material aims implicit in the convergence of Christianity and capitalism: God and mammon were never less comfortable together than in the American pantheon. Translated into secular terms, that conflict became a central principle in the development of American romanticism, where virtual worship of the ideas of nature, rusticity, and "wild" innocence coincided with an accelerating urban industrialism and a defiant cosmopolitanism that both rejected and emulated the overcivilized excesses of Europe.
As the frontier moved west and the ideals of innocence and freedom became more deeply tainted with economic and political compromise, our mythology of radical opposition to the European model of civilization found nostalgic expression in the apotheosis of the nomadic hero resisting the diminishing confinements of domestic life, involved as it was in a worldly economy of wages and women. And, of course, the issue of gender, now a focus of much revaluation of our cultural history, has defined a field of tension between what have been perceived as opposed masculine and feminine objectives and modes of experience, most frequently expressed as the drive toward freedom,aۥ 6 aۥseparation, and conquest in contest with the domesticating, and civilizing, impulse to put down roots and claim a spot of earth to inhabit and improve.[2]Each of these conflicts is fundamentally the same conflict cast in new terms, and in each of its changing manifestations the business of building, buying, and maintaining a home has been a focal problem. Houses give us roots but also mire us in worldly concerns; they are indices of initiative and achievement but also of capitulation to the immediacies of temporal life that divert us from the nobler pursuits of mind and spirit.
They are, after all, embodimentsa€”incarnations that threaten to become incarcerations, doubling the stakes of the precarious human condition that entraps the spirit in the corruption of the flesh and bone or wood and stone. Inseparable from theological or metaphysical issues, houses are also the stage on which the dramas of sexual politics and class warfare are played out. Houses, as much as the wide wilderness and open spaces by which we have defined the reaches of our collective imagination and identity, are the locus of the central conflicts of American life.The same ideological forces that shaped domestic architecture in the United States also shaped other forms of cultural expression, including, of course, our literature. The way we build and inhabit our houses has a good deal to do with the way we tell our stories. The history of architectural ideas in the United States closely parallels the history of literary theory or of the doctrines that define the conventions and appropriate uses of fiction and poetry. The parallel histories of these closely related enterprises can be roughly characterized as having moved from emulation of European models to the development of indigenous forms, which in revitalizing, recasting, or rejecting those models made something new of them. In both architectural and literary theory ongoing debates have focused on tensions between apparently opposed principles: beauty and utility, simplicity and decorativeness, imitation and originality, convention and experimentation. Both architecture and literature are simultaneously reflective and formative social forces.
The author's conception of the audience and the domestic architect's conception of the family have been based on similar mixtures of idealization and observation. And what Michel Foucault would call a "bourgeois ideal of single authorship," with its attendant emphasis on distinctiveness, integrity, and originality, has dominated both art forms. The iconoclastic heritage of Puritan Christianity was a significant factor in the development of architecture, as well as other arts, in the United States. In a religion that regarded economy, simplicity, and industry as the habits that led most directly to heaven, aesthetic considerations were suspect as seductive or distractinga€”likely to undermine the higher goods of utility, frugality, and discipline.
Even Americans several generations removed from their Puritan forebears have had significant difficulties separating aesthetic from moral judgment. When Emerson declaims in his poem "Rhodora" that beauty is "its own excuse for being," he is refuting the deeply and widely held theological position that only the good is beautiful and that to judge things in purely aesthetic terms, and therefore to absent moral and utilitarian criteria, is at best suspect and at worst sinful.
Moreover, Emerson's proclamation that beauty is self-justifying refers specifically to the beautiful as it occurs in nature, not to the products of manufacture. One way, therefore, to derive an acceptable aesthetic is to imitateaۥ 8 aۥnature, which comes from the hand of God and therefore offers a perfect model of beauty that deserves imitation and will edify as it delights.Insofar as religion has had to do with how people live, domestic architecture has naturally been and continues to be fundamentally related to moral doctrine and behavioral ideals. In the 1820s and 1830s Horace Bushnell, a Congregational minister, popularized the concept of "home religion." He also idealized the "age of homespun," which represented the house as the center of training, production, and consumption and as such a centripetal moral force where all energies could be channeled. The fall-to-redemption drama of salvation history was to be played out on each domestic stage. The home, in this light, was the outward form or mold for the soul of the unformed child in a precarious state of original sin.The tensions that characterized American theology found direct material expression in architecture, interior decoration, and domestic science.
Though the sacraments were attenuated in Protestant practice, the idea of the sacramental value of the material world retained considerable importance. Regarded as sacramental objects, a house and its furnishings not only reflected but formed character. Their presence and possession could "uplift" the owner and user and make him or her aspire to finer things. The tendency to allegorize and to regard the material world as emblematic lay deep in Christian tradition, and the home and its many objects and activities provided a convenient literalization of the divisions and forms of Christian life and morality.
Nevertheless, because the material world was by definition a source of temptation, possession and decoration had to be rationalized and legitimized in moral terms and the pleasure they gave represented as spiritually uplifting. But that very process of intellectual and moral justification bred its opposite, a deeply resentful and rebellious anti-intellectual senti-aۥ 9 aۥmentality about the heart as the source of truth, and an old epistemological quarrel reached a new peak in the decades of high romanticism.
These tensions put architects, along with other artists and designers, in the delicate position of having to appeal to a people who wanted theory to morally justify practice and at the same time distrusted theory and were ambivalent about their own ambitions.Because aesthetic values assumed the force of moral dicta or even doctrine, and because these values were essentially based on a romantic myth of an innocent past and a desire to reclaim that innocence, it was hard to incorporate the ideal of progress that also belonged to Christian eschatological tradition.
By the time of Harriet Beecher Stowe and Catherine Ward Beecher, whose book The American Woman's Home set new standards for middle-class home economics, we see this legitimation of domestic technology at work in the equation of such values as heightened efficiency with old Puritan virtues of industry and frugality. Like their Puritan forebears, who assumed that parents would teach their children reading, writing, and religion, nineteenth-century New Englanders regarded the home as the primary locus of moral and intellectual training, an enterprise in which both parents were expected to participate.[3] The theme of home as moral and spiritual center appeared frequently in popular literature such as Mother's Magazine, Family Circle , and Happy Home and Parlor Magazine .
In 1823 John Howard Payne wrote "Home Sweet Home," which summarized sentimentalized attitudes toward the home as the seat of virtue and comfort in a dreary world.Some architects, most notably Andrew Jackson Downing (1815a€“1852), specifically undertook to "elevate" the American public by producing architecture modeled on European refinements but adapted to American sensibilities. Downing's owna€• 10 a€•writings borrow their rhetoric from sermons, often jeremiads admonishing the wayward to consider their pure origins and return to them, and the design of his houses literalizes notions of organicism, individual privacy, and the hearth as a kind of family altar. Poe's dissolute life was explained by some contemporary biographers as a result of his having been orphaned and having had no real home. Especially in punishment of juveniles, crimes believed to have resulted from a poor home environment were to be rectified by sending the young miscreants to "houses of refuge" or "houses of reform," where they lived not in dormitories but in cottages where a master and mistress presided in family style. There these juveniles were literally given refuge against the incriminating environment with the expectation that the changed surroundings would have a transformative or redemptive effect. William Alcott and other popular health reformers stressed quality of air, lighting, regulated temperature, and other factors in public buildings, schools, and prisons that had direct implications for house design. Typically, health and morals were regarded as analogous, and even in some respects synonymous, concerns.American writers have generally portrayed the structures an individual inhabits as bearing a direct relationship or resemblance to the structure of his or her psyche and inner life and as constituting a concrete manifestation of specific values.
The house is frequently treated as a schematic reiteration of the character of the central figure in a story. Bent to its owner's monomaniacal purpose, it becomes an insidious mockery of what it purports to be.Alternatively, as in Cather's The Professor's House , the house can become a three-dimensional graph of the dynamics of family life.
In that novel the upper, lower, and middle portions of the decaying Victorian dwelling locate the family members in assigned positions and establish boundaries among them that are particularly hard to transgress by climbing a flight of stairs because the different floors of the house represent the rigid separations and stratifications that have riven the family for many years. The move to a new house, which is the underlying action of this story, brings two distinct sets of values into open conflict. One of the problems that preoccupied writers and artists throughout the nineteenth century was that our collective identity had rather shallow roots; we had, as a nation, no significant past.
For that reason, artists tended to mythologize the immediate and personal past, looking at it as through the wrong end of a telescope and, borrowing a note from the Puritans who so profoundly formed our habits of imagination, regarding both American history and personal history as reiterations of the timeless cycle of salvation history.
Gaston Bachelard's The Poetics of Space assigns the house a similarly fundamental status in the psychic economy by claiming that houses, like all "great, simple images, reveal a psychic state" and by reminding us that "our soul is an abode.


And by remembering 'houses' and 'rooms' we learn to 'abide'within ourselves."[5] Moreover, just as houses embody characteristics of gender and psychic structure, so they also provide convenient diagrams of value relations. Upper, middle, and lower stories, basements and attics, niches and hallways, and thresholds and hearths allow us to situate events and people in spatial relations that dramatically express their relative importance. The basic English "hall and parlor" construction that dominated middle-class domestic architecture in England and the United States from the late Renaissance into the eighteenth century located the room with the hearth at the center of a structure that could be elaborated and expanded outward in any direction without losing its "center." The logic of this simple, functional style not only had pragmatic rationale and practical effects but also contributed to shaping domestic activity and notions of privacy, intimacy, and comfort. Dolores Hayden, in her study of housing and family life in the United States, claims that "vernacular house forms are economic diagrams of the reproduction of the human race; they are also aesthetic essays on the meaning of life within a particular culture, its joys and rituals, its superstitions and stigmas. In the United States the ideal of a self-contained and self-sufficient house, a simple, sturdy articulation of individualism and industry, early gained ascendancy over the ideal of a well-planned and structured town as notions of democracy and individualism won out over more collectively focused utopian visions. Thomas Jefferson, for instance, whom Hayden calls "the first mainstream American political theorist to attempt a schematic spatial representation of a national ideal of democracy," favored the family farm, rather than the model village, as the basic political unit.[8] Utopian experiments in collectivism have consistently failed in an environment where "independent," "self-reliant," and "self-sufficient" have been the watchwords of respectability and even heroism.
The emphasis Thomas Jefferson and other early architects in this country placed on classical style had much to do with their political ideology, which envisioned the adoption of classical models for American life.The quest for a style appropriate to the new country and its ideals was quite self-conscious, especially in the erection of public buildings in the postrevolutionary decades.
The American virtue of independence idealized in the image of the settler was later transformed into new terms: home ownership became the essential symbol of an independent life. In the 1830s building and loan associations began to thrive; they gained considerable political power in the latter half of the century when the ideal of home ownership became a matter of political pride. Vernon as a national monument and symbol met with hot debate because it included slave quarters andaۥ 14 aۥwas therefore considered an inappropriate symbol of the union. Vernon bespoke an aristocratic way of life inimical to northern, more egalitarian sensibilities.These sensibilities were reflected at that time in the idiosyncrasies of utopian communities inventing new styles of communal life. In Shaker and Mennonite communities architecture bore a direct relationship to the practical needs of farming and to doctrinal constraints on sexual practices and child-raising. In the more loosely organized communities such as Fruitlands or Brook Farm, physical structures suffered rather comically at the hands of impractical idealists such as Bronson Alcott.
Since the early nineteenth century the separate, single-family dwelling has continued to be the dominant material and political objective for the upwardly mobile middle classes. Multiple-unit housing has been consigned largely to the lower classes, shelter for the "huddled masses," who presumably occupied flats rapidly degenerating into slums only as long as was necessary to build up the capital needed to acquire land to farm and build on.
The "tenant houses" of urban workers in the mid-nineteenth century that gave urbanization and multiple-unit housing a bad name were notorious breeding grounds of infectious diseases, had no plumbing, and were miserable places where, as one journalist put it, "many an owner would hesitate about quartering his horse."[11]aۥ 15 aۥAt the same time architecture became a favorite form of conspicuous consumption for those in whose hands wealth was steadily accumulating. Expensive as we are, we have nothing to do with continuity, responsibility, transmission, and don't in the least care what becomes of us after we have served our present purpose.[12]To avoid any association with images of communal housing while representing a radical diminishment of the late-nineteenth-century architectural aspirations of the nouveaux riches, the cookie-cutter suburbs that began to overtake the landscape after World War II with their tiny plots of land, tightly controlled spaces, and visible capitulation to the depersonalization of mass consumer culture were marketed as miniature versions of the "estates" of the landed gentry with whom home owners still aspired to be somehow identified. Bourgeois, capitalist values were built into these standardized, superficially stylized dwellings, where private space, albeit limited, was marketed as a primary desirable feature and planned in the form of a yard for each dwelling at the expense of shared public spaces like commons.
Hayden describes Levittown, one of the prototypical early postwar developments, in these terms:Levitt's client was the returning veteran, the beribboned male war hero who wanted his wife to stay home. Women in Levittown were expected to be too busy tending their children to care about a paying job.
The Cape Cod houses recalled traditional American colonial housing (although they were very awkwardly proportioned).
Levitt liked to think of the husband as a weekend do-it-yourself builder and gardener: "No man who owns his house and lot can be a Communist.
He has too much to do," asserted Levitt in 1948.[13]The focus on house-building or home ownership as a completion of the rites of passage into maturitya€”and, more recently, on the mortgage as a token of stabilitya€”is still with us despite the increasing percentage of the population that cannot afford housing, let alone houses. As Tom Wolfe sardonicallya€• 16 a€•reminds us, the old ideals, truncated now to the point of absurdity, survive in comic-pathetic form in suburban design with "cute and antiquey touches" and cheaply stylized facades that reproduce elements of colonial, Gothic, or European architecture out of context, aesthetic choices governed neither by necessity nor context nor informed taste.[14]American architects, as well as writers, have expressed a certain "anxiety of influence" inherent in a value system that sets great store in originality as a measure of individualism. In his romantic manifesto, The Natural House , Frank Lloyd Wright claims, in good Emersonian fashion, to "draw inspiration from Nature herself" and to be "beholden to no man for the look of anything." Borrowing his rhetoric wholesale from the transcendentalists, he declaims, "Textbook for me? If I did not like the gods now I could make better ones."[15]Wright's romantic approach to architectural ideas such as organicism borrows heavily from a fundamentally romantic idea of the relation between nature and culture that pretends to dismiss tradition while relying heavily on ita€”a posture readily recognizable to any reader of Thoreau or Emerson.
Developing ideas similarly based on metaphysical notions of wholeness and integrity, Buckminster Fuller (a descendant of Margaret Fuller of the New England transcendentalists) in his later work develops a vision of the "Architect as World Planner" and calls for "total thinking," "comprehensive designing," and "fluid geography," all notions deeply grounded in a romantic cosmology that has translated directly into orthodoxies of style in the design of lives and texts as well as of buildings.[16]The list of novelists who have concerned themselves directly with house and home is long. Cooper writes about houses in all his novels, including an 1838 novel, Home as Found ; in it an American returns from Europe to find American houses appallingly pretentious, their ostentation signifying a fall fromaۥ 17 aۥthe democratic values of the home owners' forebears.
Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin deliberately uses dwellings as tropes for social categories, and her book intensifies the debate about the nature of the American home.
Later writers point out that even Uncle Tom had a decent, simple, clean dwelling, far superior to the slum dwellings in the North. Smith writes a subsequent novel in which Uncle Tom escapes to Buffalo and dies regretting that he left his comfortable cabin, which "never seemed half so dear before."[17]It is with the transcendentalists that we can most easily begin to examine the symbolic appropriation of the house by American writers and its place in the Emersonian, romantic, transcendental tradition. This is where the present analysis begins, with Thoreau's Walden , a long meditation on building and domestic life that incorporates into those practical matters virtually the whole body of accumulated American philosophy, winnowed and honed from generations of Puritan protestantism, the pragmatism of the early settlers, and the politics of Jacksonian democracy.
Though the complications of life-style are reflected in houses of any period, I begin with Walden not only because that work is as explicit as any before or since in its allegorization of the house but also because Thoreau's pleas for simplicity of design and functionality have about them something profoundly, typically American: an urgent fear of vitiation by elaboration, a dread of the kinds of overdevelopment and overcomplication that would make civilized people lose touch with primal, vital, fundamental sources of experience. The puritanical impulsea€”the call to purification and "pruning"a€”is no more apparent in any Puritan document than in Thoreau's account of his sojourn at Walden Pond.Both Thoreau's ambivalences and his practical ideals, like Emerson's metaphysics, appear again and again in American writing and most particularly in the way his successors have used the house in the same allegorical fashiona€”as an index not only of civilization and culture but of moral rectitude and integrity, or the failure of those virtues.
Whitman, for instance, who always regretted his father's move from rural Long Island to Brooklyn, idealizes his childhood home in his poetry and less widely known fiction. His deservedly unknown 1842 novel,aۥ 18 aۥFranklin Evans; Or, The Inebriate , attributes the downfall of the young hero to his leaving his country home for the wicked city. In "Song of the Broad Axe" Whitman writes nostalgically about "the shape of the planks of the family home, and home of the friendly parents and children," and he reiterates this general theme and tone in two articles entitled "Wicked Architecture" and "Decent Homes for Working Men."[18]In numerous works by Poe, Hawthorne, and James we see a conflation of two traditions, the puritanical and the Gothic, the one essentially moral or religious, the other psychological and secular, though the latter may be seen to represent a "transposition" of the former. In both of these traditions the house is invested with far more than literal significance and in varying degrees is personified, animated, or even anthropomorphized.
In a number of Poe's stories the house not only represents the labyrinthine character of the human psyche but also replicates in grotesque fashion the anatomy of the human body.
The house can become everything from the visible hand of destiny to the self-portrait of the builder. All three of these writers represent the house as a mask and symbol of the psyche and a reflection and source of identity, and in these writers the old polarities, paradoxes, and ambivalences attaching to the tensions between material life and spiritual life are revisited.For Hawthorne, James, and Howells, moreover, the house serves as a document of social history and source of familial and social identity, as, later, Edith Wharton's New York brownstones with their detailed interiors minutely encode the fine distinctions of class and culture among their owners. In Wharton's The Age of Innocence and The House of Mirth houses are symbols of success and status, structures that reflect and maintain a fixed social order and prescribed patterns of behavior.
Wharton and Cather, among other womenaۥ 19 aۥwriters, manage to synthesize the concerns of architecture, interior decorating, and housekeeping as integral and complementary activities both in their literal sense and as applied to the activity of writing. Later women writers revisit the traditional conflicts about home ownership and freedom from a different, specifically female, point of view. Morrison's Beloved and Robinson's Housekeeping thus present old conflicts over home ownership and domestic life from startlingly different angles of vision and bring to bear on those questions shaped by postwar feminist and ethnic revisionism.The Great Gatsby and Absalom, Absalom!
The idea of the self-made man is both reiterated and subverted in these novels, as is the idea of the house as an essential part of that process of self-making. The houses in both books are monuments to the magnitude and persistence of ambitious dreams as well as signs of misplaced aspirations and ultimate defeat. In Steinbeck's Cannery Row we come to the notion of "housing," a modern word and in certain ways a modern phenomenon. In O'Neill, Cheever, and Didion, we have examples of "dream houses" in which the dream turns out to be illusion and the houses are a symbol of what Eliot called the "hope for the wrong things" that Americans are wont to recognize in their own defeats.[19]Finally, we have evolved in recent years a literature of homelessness or rootlessness, where absence of house and home becomes the significant, defining situation of the story. The westward movement of the 1840s, the closing of the frontier in the 1880s, and the suburbanization and housing crises of the 1950s and 1960s produced images of homelessness, rootlessness, and instability in literature, wherein houses became symbols of certain classes or segments of society. Kerouac's On the Road perhaps most graphically depicts the endpoint of the trajectory defined by Walden and later by Huckleberry Finn : the antihero, a nouveau Puritan in his way, again finds himself marginalized and living, this time in a car, outside the houses of the civilized, stabilized, and, it is implied, anesthetized citizens of a too-comfortable and complacent society. Weatherill, and others similarly articulate a closely defined and entrapping way of lifeaۥ 20 aۥin which the house is the public face that must be kept in repair whatever the moral disarray within. Among other things, the suburban life these writers depict embodies our profound, shared ambivalence about civilization.The equation of civilization with loss of innocence, corruption, effeminacy, and diminishment runs like a bass note through our literature. Very quickly the houses we build around ourselves become prisons, just as do the social structures, laws, and codes by which we regulate our lives and modify our freedom. We are still struggling over our own definitions of freedom, which insofar as they emphasize Thoreauvian autonomy and separateness from social constraint involve us in moral, political, and psychological double binds.In the following chapters I provide what I think of as a series of "house tours" through some of our most prominent houses of fiction. No American writer could think about houses in a morally neutral way after Thoreau invested them with such profound and inclusive significance.Under the rubric of a philosophical inquiry into the proper nature of human shelter, the book presents a rambling autobiographical chronicle of building and habitation that resembles nothing so much as an expanded sermon, complete with text, exegesis, and application. Thoreau leans heavily on a transcendental notion of the world as an endless crystalline replication of structures: elaborate analogies are drawn among the house, the life of the man within it, and the text that man writes. A house, as any architect will verify, is a text with its own peculiar grammar, syntax, and way of communicating and generating meaning. Thoreau's development of these simple but pregnant ideas provides a point of departure for understanding their appropriation by his literary successors.The houses of early nineteenth-century Massachusetts that were the foils against which Thoreau measured the simplicity ofaۥ 24 aۥhis cabin at Walden Pond were by most standards neither ostentatious nor overfurnished.
A tour of Concord today, which may include a number of the houses Thoreau frequented, might lead one to wonder what elicited his hue and cry against over-adornment, redundancy, and loss of simplicity. Downing himself wrote an article that appeared in Horticulturalist , entitled "Moral Influence of Good Houses." Elsewhere he claimed, "ABSOLUTE BEAUTY lies in the expression, in material forms, of those ideas of perfection which are universal in their application. So long as men are forced to dwell in log huts and follow a hunter's life, we must not be surprised at lynch law and the use of the bowie knife.
But, when smiling lawns and tasteful cottages begin to embellish a country, we know that order and culture are established" (v-vi).aۥ 25 aۥThoreau himself rarely separates aesthetic from moral issues, though his conclusions about what constitutes the good life almost diametrically oppose Downing's notions, which Thoreau regards as sentimental, effete, and dangerous.
Building the cabin and writing the book symbolically reiterate the simultaneous enterprise of designing and defining the author's life: "simple and sincere" statements of a "simple and sincere" man.
Thoreau's biographer William Howarth views the whole body of Thoreau's work in light of the author's frequent architectural metaphors and writes of the cabin itself that "in all his days Henry Thoreau had not built a piece of writing as sound and tight as this small house. The whole process of constructiona€”a place, a plan, a set of new uses for old materialsa€”resembled his compositions, but here the form and function were consonant."[4] The book, like the cabin, unites a rustic style with a sophisticated and highly articulated transcendental philosophy. The building is a philosophical statement that in its medium of wood and stone sidesteps the complexities of language that "building" his book enmeshes him in.The governing idea in Walden is that the material is always a manifestation of and a conduit to the spirituala€”a construction of that relation that challenges old iconoclastic notions of the material world as a source of temptation and illusion.
It is to solve some of the problems of life, not only theoretically, but practically" (13).
The house built with his own hands is just such a practical solution to the problems of life and a means to understand them. It is intended as a kind of sacramenta€”"an outward and visible sign of inward and spiritual things"a€”a vehicle for forming the self, and a self-portrait. Furthermore, the building of a house is a practical educationa€”and Thoreau's house at Walden was not his first lesson in the construction of houses.
As a young man he had worked as handyman for the Emersons, and in the fall of 1844 he helped his father build a new house west of the Concord railroad tracks for which Thoreau's mother had chosen the site and drawn up plans.So in the opening pages of Walden the writer asks us to recognize and contemplate the house as the fulfillment of a pedagogical and spiritual agenda. Building his own house is a step in his training as a philosophera€”a practical exercise in problem-solving and an attempt to integrate material and spiritual life, which are so prone to the kind of fatal disjuncture that produces the many social, political, and spiritual ills Thoreau identifies in his frequent jeremiads.


Howarth takes Thoreau's ownaۥ 27 aۥnotion of his purposes a step further, pointing out that "the building of a house at Walden Pond is a positive, constructive act that liberates Thoreau from youthful solipsism. Once achieved and fully embraced, that way of life can sustain itself in other places, having become internalized; the outer structures of daily life shape the patterns of the psyche and the grooves of habit.
The house is a prop, or an aid, in a spiritual journey whose end is to rise above dependency on setting and circumstance. Eventually, he leaves his cabin, having taught and been taught by it, having "other lives to live."Like the cabin, the book produces an impression of organic simplicitya€”almost of haphazardness at first glancea€”until the details of construction come under the scrutiny of an attentive reader. Characteristically, Thoreau challenges his readers to abandon conventional notions of appropriate form and to contemplate the implications of his radically unconventional textual strategies. The four seasons of the year, like the four walls of the cabin, define and encompass a private but complete universe.
House and text are both microcosms, closed systems within which all of life is symbolically contained and signified. The "breathing room" that the one-room cabin is designed to create is reflected in the text as well, where themes interpenetrate and ideas are not obtrusively partitioned into discrete categories.
Just as the single open room allows for interpenetration of private and public life, a blending of domesticity with intellectual and social pursuits, so the loosely structured chapters of the book allow such intermingling of various modes of discourse, and we move easily, with no thresholds to cross, from the anecdotal to the analytic to the contemplative.
Oura€• 28 a€•attention is drawn first to the interior and then to the exterior life, the intimate relation of the two always emphasized, thereby underscoring an ideal of absolute equilibrium, equivalence, and permeability between the outer man and the inner, between life within and life without, so that the conscious life might ultimately come full circle and attain the simplicities of the unconscious natural world.Thoreau initially focuses his ruminations on a question of practical necessitya€”what does a person need to live? Anything not necessary is suspect: "Most of the luxuries, and many of the so-called comforts of life, are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind" (13). Here, for the first of many times in the course of his reflections, the writer encapsulates his Christian asceticism in an aphorism that points to an inflexible opposition between creature comforts and spiritual life.
In the interests of "elevation" Thoreau attempts to establish a definition of necessity that is useful as a rule of life. The design of his house, the choice of his furniture, and the establishment of his daily routine are all efforts to put that standard to a test. He considers, in turn, whether food, clothing, and shelter, those things weaۥ 29 aۥhave traditionally taken to be basic necessities, are really necessary. Probably, man did not live long on the earth without discovering the convenience which there is in a house, the domestic comforts, which phrase may have originally signified the satisfactions of the house more than of the family" (24). He grudgingly acknowledges the necessity of housing, almost pronouncing it a necessary evil. Thoreau's romantic fancy reaches a new poetic pitch here, which is tempered with characteristic, almost comic haste by the next passage, where poet and philosopher turn historian and craftsman: "However, if one designs to construct a dwelling-house, it behooves him to exercise a little Yankee shrewdness, lest after all he find himself in a workhouse, a labyrinth withoutaۥ 30 aۥa clue, a museum, an almshouse, a prison, or a splendid mausoleum instead. Consider first how slight a shelter is absolutely necessary" (25).If we must build houses, he reasons, let us minimize the offense against nature. The examples that follow of what forms of shelter are "absolutely necessary" border on the ludicrous if taken to be literally prescriptive but serve to expand the spectrum on which he seeks to locate a definition of necessity: the "skin bags" of the Laplanders, the wigwams of the Penobscot Indians, Adam and Eve's bower, the caves of prehistoric men who suddenly found a handy solution to cold in the hollow of a rock. The more extreme they become, the more vividly these examples of "practical solutions" to the problem of how to live serve to measure the complexities and, ultimately, corruptions of civilized life.The dangers of perversion increase, Thoreau suggests, in proportion to the complexities of life that come to bear on the design of our houses.
Labyrinth, museum, almshouse, prison, and mausoleum constitute an inventory of grotesque caricatures that houses might resemble if their purpose is not rightly understood.
Certainly the homes even of the wealthiest New England patricians of the time were hardly labyrinthine except by the severe standard of architectural simplicity Thoreau adopted when he declared that the whole of the home and the life within it ought to be apparent on crossing the threshold.
The "vastness" is important as well, being an attempt to approximate as closely as an enclosing structure can the open spaces of the out-of-doors. The one complaint the writer ventures to utter about his own little house is that a place so small does not lend itself to "great thoughts," which need room for expansion: "One inconvenience I sometimes experienced in so small a house, the difficulty of getting to a sufficient distance from my guest when we began to utter the big thoughts in big words. Our sentences wanted room to unfold and form their columns in the interval" (127a€“128).This genuinely hospitable desire for good company and conversation runs throughout the pages of Walden, counterbalancing the paeans to the solitary life and the general deprecations of civilized society. While the ascetic eschews as excesses what most would deem necessities, he retains the hope that visitors will come and share his solitary and simple pleasures with him, on his terms, claiming that real contact may be enhanced, rather than inhibited, by his style of entertaining. When visitors came in larger and unexpected numbers there was but the third chair for them all, but they generally economized the room by standing up. It is surprising how many great men and women a small house will contain" (127).Several times the writer wistfully observes that his challenge goes largely unmet. Far from museum or mausoleum, this house would resemble more closely a kind of all-purpose outhouse designed to service bodily needs for food, rest, and shelter and to put as little obstruction between the indwellers and the ground beneath their feet as possible.
For separation from nature is to be feared: it vitiates a man's powers, which Thoreau believes to be derived from direct contact with the earth and sky.
The stable old families that had lived in and around Concord for several generations had accumulated possessions in excess of those usable in daily life and had kept them for their sentimental value or as measures of status.
As a sacred refuge from the world of commerce and society, the walls of the home were not to be indiscriminately permeable to society; they were to be a protective barriera€• 33 a€•from the demands of social intercourse. The idiosyncratic selectivity of Thoreau's own charity and hospitality were regarded rather wryly by his contemporaries.The ways in which a house may become a prison are manifold, and Thoreau's recognition of the imprisoning qualities of domestic life prefigure a good many women writers who find their homes to be prisons and who locate the source of their problems precisely where Thoreau doesa€”in the perversities of a civilized life whose artificial structures are no longer grounded in the balances of nature but in an artificial hierarchy of capitalistic values.
You could sit up as late as you pleased, and, whenever you got up, go abroad without any landlord or house-lord dogging you for rent. Many a man is harassed to death to pay the rent of a larger and more luxurious box who would not have frozen to death in such a box as this. But the equation of freedom with dispossession invites serious contemplation of the relation between the two.The "nothing but" formula strips the idea of house down to its bare bones in exactly the fashion Thoreau has attempted toaۥ 34 aۥcarry out in the design of his cabin.
But how happens it that he who is said to enjoy these things is so commonly a poor civilized man, while the savage, who has them not, is rich as a savage? When the structure that enables and protects becomes a burden, a set of obligations, something that consumes rather than enhances freedom, peace of mind, and time for contemplation, it has become an evil.
A person can ultimately either devote that measure of "life" to the inner dwelling place, the nurturing of soul and body, or to the house of bricks and boards "where moth and rust doth corrupt" (Matthew 6:20). I know one or two families, at least, in this town, who, for nearly a generation, have been wishing to sell their houses in the outskirts and move into the village, but have not been able to accomplish it, and only death will set them free. Key ideas of freedom, true wealth, and consciousness are reasserted, as is the paradox of possession: that when it has ceased to be vigilantly purposeful, it becomes a form of dispossession. Attention to the material world, once separated from attention to matters of the spirit, produces a dangerous imbalance that has individual as well as social and political consequences: "While civilization has been improving our houses, it has not equally improved the men who are to inhabit them. The argument reiterates the body-soul dichotomy as opposition: focus on the outward material shells that house the inner life is always presumed to inhibit nurture of the life within, the soul, which is the thing of true value.
Architectural ornament, therefore, is a dangerous distraction from essentials, appropriate only if it is designed and crafted by the person who is to dwell with it and can thus be "read" as an extension of that man's aesthetic impulses arising from his "true self": "Much it concerns a man, forsooth, how a few sticks are slanted over him or under him, and what colors are daubed upon his box. Indeed, the body itself is in like fashion that part of the physical world an individual is responsible for designing and bringing into congruence with the soul: "Every man is the builder of a temple, called his body, to the god he worships, after a style purely his own, nor can he get off by hammering marble instead. We are all sculptors and painters, and our material is our own flesh and blood and bones" (199). Aesthetics are therefore always tied to utility: what is unnecessary is inappropriate, and only what is appropriate is beautiful. Thoreau describes his own house as "a sort of crystallization around me" that "reacted on the builder" (77).This belief in the formative influence of the material environment, the reciprocity of effect between man and the world he fashions around himself, binds Thoreau's aesthetics inseparably to his morality. And it has conspired to obscure the relation between a man and his work or between work and its just rewards.
Building should be at the hand of the dweller so that the value of the act is not lost in indirection:There is some of the same fitness in a man's building his own house that there is in a bird's building its own nest. Who knows but if men constructed their dwellings with their own hands, and provided food for themselves and families simply and honestly enough, the poetic faculty would be universally developed, as birds universally sing when they are so engaged?
I never in all my walks came across a man engaged in so simple and natural an occupation as building his house. The notion that architecture and house-building are "simple and natural" occupations falls strangely on the ears of a modern audience, as indeed it must have even in Thoreau's time. Specialized expertise, he implies, tends to vitiate initiative to the point where men do not trust themselves to care for their own needs.
Thoreau's distrust of specialists is like his distrust of the other aspects of the civilizing process he has mentioned: they are a manifestation of the disintegration of human functions, so that a man is finally incapable of independence, or even of true interdependence, but is reduced to servile dependence by his own cultivated ignorance of processes that ought simply to be extensions of ancient instinctive drives like rooting and nesting.
Thoreau waxes sarcastic on the subject, suggesting that even the best architects are not worthy of their calling because, being specialized, their work is not "whole" or true:True, there are architects so called in this country, and I have heard of one at least possessed with the idea of making architectural ornaments have a core of truth, a necessity, and hence a beauty, as ifaۥ 38 aۥit were a revelation to him. All very well perhaps from his point of view, but only a little better than the common dilettantism.
By a simple technique of juxtaposition of opposites, the palace and the hut establish a spectrum of inequities that indicts the democratic ideal. Furthermore, such inequities generate a false sense of relative values that deceives men into desiring what they do not need: "Most men appear never to have considered what a house is, and are actually though needlessly poor all their lives because they think that they must have such a one as their neighbors have" (31a€“32).
Houses introduce competition, and competition alienates men not only from one another but from themselves and a true relation to their own needs, so that they can no longer distinguish what is appropriate to their character and way of life. Competition militates against contentment, and only retreat from the competitive economic matrix makes it possible to restore the perspective necessary to pursue real contentment rather than continue the race toward unnecessary and inappropriate objects of artificially generated desires. Why should not our furniture be as simple as the Arab's or the Indian's?" (32).The rhetorical question here serves as a window onto much wider issues than furniture. To illustrate the point that "less is more," Arab and Indian are used somewhat indiscriminately asa€• 39 a€•primitivesa€”noble savages who have not yet been corrupted by possession, whose wisdom is presumed to lie in their nearness to the earth and to natural things.
In Thoreau's zeal to articulate an ideal of simplicity, he sees material goods as bordering on positive evil because they consume precious energy, or "life": "A lady once offered me a mat, but as I had no room to spare within the house, nor time to spare within or without to shake it, I declined it, preferring to wipe my feet on the sod before my door. The word evil once again throws so simple a thing as a doormat into the realm of universal ethical principles. Imbalance between inner and outer life, distraction, anxiety over material things, are to be shunnedaۥ 40 aۥas besetting sins because they upset the wider complex economy of relations between the individual and his environment.
The parallel between the mansion and the tomb presents another grim paradox reemphasizing the displacement of spiritual goods by material ones. It is only good as a means to a higher end, in the service of the ends of nature and of enlightenment. He claims not to be involved in the outward-spiraling economy of acquisition that ultimately consumes the individual's energies and resources and leaves him in a state of impoverishment and indebtedness, a deficit economy based on multiple mediations between object and owner and between maker and consumer.



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