Joy W. Ackerman (PhD)

Core Faculty, Director of Self-Designed Studies Concentration
Department of Environmental Studies

Walden: A Sacred Geography

In this study, I explore Walden as a place of pilgrimage. Walden Pond is located in Concord, Massachusetts, a place associated with Henry David Thoreau, a 19th century icon of American environmentalism. The site of his simple dwelling (and the focus of his book by the same name) is now a state park and national landmark that receives over half a million recreational users and tourists each year, in addition to visitors with a particular interest in Thoreau’s life and writing. I took two approaches to Walden’s sacred geography, using phenomenological methods to explore the poetics of pilgrimage and a hermeneutic reading of the landscape to interpret Walden’s sacred space. In-depth interviews of ten Walden pilgrims provided the basis for a hermeneutic phenomenological approach to eliciting themes of pilgrim movement and connection. I further explored the themes of journey, ritual and stillness; and person, place and text in the pilgrim experience. I approached the politics of place through a critical hermeneutic reading of the historic and contemporary landscape. Here, Chidester and Linenthal’s conception of the production of sacred space provided the basis for reading Walden’s sacred geography in terms of ritualization, interpretation and the contested politics of place. The theme of person, place and text was taken up again from the gatekeeper perspective. This dissertation contributes to the literature of pilgrimage and place by bringing the perspectives of poetics and politics together in the study of Walden. By drawing on both a hermeneutics of suspicion to explore the production of space, and a hermeneutics of recollection to recover the phenomenal experience of pilgrimage, we move beyond the mystical naiveté of a purely poetic perspective and the nihilism associated with a solely political approach to understanding sacred space.

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