In Defense of Henry David Thoreau

OK, Thoreau could be a sourpuss. So what? One doesn't have to be a paragon of niceness to be prophetic.
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By Jason Mark
Read the original article here. | Photo by iStock/finwal

ONE OF THE MOST WIDELY read (or at least most widely discussed) magazine articles to appear this year was titled "The Really Big One," in the July 20 issue of the New Yorker. Chances are you've heard of it: The 6,000-word piece by one of the magazine's newest staff writers, Kathryn Schulz, explained how a massive geologic fault in the Pacific Northwest will someday lay waste to Portland and Seattle, while an accompanying tsunami obliterates the coastal towns of Oregon and Washington. With clinical precision, Schulz laid out a gripping vision of seismic Armageddon. Whole towns wiped off the map. Communities cut from vital services for days, even weeks. The imagined disaster proved irresistible to the chattering classes, as well as everyone living north of California's Eel River and south of British Columbia's Fraser River.

Schulz's most recent article for the New Yorker probably won't generate the same tidal wave of attention, but it's likely to stir some conversation, especially among those who consider themselves environmentalists. Provocatively titled "Pond Scum," the essay lays out a scorching argument against Henry David Thoreau and his most famous creation, that keystone of the ninth-grade canon, Walden. Schulz uses her prodigious talents as a reader (she used to be the book critic for New York magazine) to make a case that Thoreau was a backwoods faker and an awful misanthrope. To view Walden as any kind of guide for right livelihood is a mistake, she says. Schulz writes, "Perhaps the strangest, saddest thing about Walden is that it is a book about how to live that says next to nothing about how to live with people."

Thoreau, of course, is famous for being the founding voice of American environmentalism and the pioneer of nonviolent civil disobedience. Those of us who imagine ourselves following the trail that he blazed will no doubt find the attack discomfiting. No one likes to see their hero knocked clean off the plinth.

But in the end, this takedown falls flat. As much as the essay strives to be an authoritative reassessment, it's bedeviled by the same sort of selective reading of which Schulz accuses others. Instead of "Pond Scum," the piece could just as accurately have been titled "Straw Man."

And yet, I found Schulz's deconstruction refreshing, in the full sense of the word: The essay might provide a fresh start for considering Thoreau's influence. It's past time to toss out the cartoon of the wilderness hermit many of us still hold in our minds and replace that woodcut with a picture of a more complex, more contradictory, and more confounding Thoreau.

A historical and literary revisionism of Thoreau's experience at Walden Pond might just make him more relevant to us today.

LET'S START BY GETTING some of the nastiness out of the way: Henry David Thoreau could be insufferable. He was at times condescending, judgmental, impatient and scolding. Maybe this is the unavoidable byproduct of dedicating yourself to a philosophy like transcendentalism. If you're determined to elevate yourself to a plane of reality above the ordinary, you're going to end up looking down on your fellow humans. Schulz has no problem finding passages that reveal Thoreau's stinginess toward others. She cites a line from Walden: "I confess that I have hitherto indulged very little in philanthropic endeavors." And then later: "Objects of charity are not guests." She also finds plenty of examples of his squeamishness about the corporeality of living (strange for someone who was a tribune of wild nature). With our "sensuality," Thoreau wrote, we "stain and pollute one another."

I'll admit that I've always found Thoreau's insistent asceticism annoying. I'm a confirmed hedonist (you can almost set your watch by my 6 P.M. bourbon), and Thoreau's teetotalling vegetarianism can be tiresome. "I had rarely for many years used animal food, or tea, or coffee, etc.," he writes in a chapter titled "Higher Laws." Thoreau is the original environmental public scold, a tradition that, I'm sorry to say, is alive and well. (Recently, we at Sierra received a letter complaining about our staff using the elevator to get to our fourth-story offices.)

OK, Thoreau could be a sourpuss. So what? One doesn't have to be a paragon of niceness to be prophetic.

But Schulz is out to make a bigger claim. Thoreau wasn't just a pain; he was also a hypocrite. On Walden's very first page, Thoreau says he will provide a "simple and sincere account of his life," but then he presents an account (10 years in the writing) that is anything but. "He preached at others to live as he did not," Schulz complains, "while berating them for their own compromises."

This is probably the most long-standing critique of Thoreau -- that even as he celebrated a life of independence and solitude, he was, in fact, often hanging out with neighbors, friends and family, whom he relied on for both physical and spiritual sustenance. The complaint is so common that, in just the last few years, it has prompted writer Rebecca Solnit to write not one, but two spirited defenses of Thoreau (see here and here). My copy of Walden includes an appreciative essay written in 1954 by famed New Yorker contributor E.B. White. Seventy years ago, White complained that the book "baffle[s] and annoy[s] the literal mind."

Exactly right. The criticism that Thoreau misled his readers about his intentions has two problems. First, the complaint is, as White points out, overly literal. Like many memoirists, Thoreau blurs the lines between his personal story and his authorial persona. Such blurring wouldn't pass the fact-checkers at the New Yorker, and it does reveal a failure of self-awareness on the part of the writer. But is it really the character flaw that Schulz claims it to be?

And does it matter? I'd like to imagine that a conscientious high school English teacher could point out the discrepancy between Thoreau the man and Thoreau the writer, and that today's young readers would mostly shrug and still find something to appreciate in the text. Having been raised on reality TV, they know how malleable and contingent identity can be.

Second, and more to the point, Thoreau makes very clear that he is not offering a universal prescription for living. "As for the rest of my readers, they will accept such portions as apply to them," he writes. "I trust that none will stretch the seams in putting on the coat, for it may do good service to him whom it fits." Or, in 21st-century speak: If the coat doesn't fit, don't wear it. Walden isn't a sermon; it's a scrapbook of one man's experimentation with life.

This scrapbook (cut and pasted as it is) is open and honest about the tensions between individualism and community. Schulz writes that what Thoreau "really wanted was to be Adam, before Eve -- to be the first human, unsullied, utterly alone in his Eden."

Really? When it comes to the subject of his relationships with people during his two-year tenure in the woods, Thoreau is transparent about how close he lived to others.

In the book's very first sentence, Thoreau mentions his proximity to the village of Concord: "A mile," which would have been no more than a half-hour walk for a rambler like him. There is a whole chapter titled "Visitors," which is populated with oddball characters. Thoreau reports, "I had more visitors while I lived in the woods than at any other period of my life." And, later: "Every day or two, I strolled to the village to hear some of the gossip." He mentions supping with others, and at one point says he hosted a gathering of dozens of people at his tiny cabin (it was an abolitionist meeting). At times he's downright gregarious: "I have found it a singular luxury to talk across the pond to a companion on the other side."

The problem isn't that we misunderstand Thoreau. It's that we misremember him.

Thoreau did not live -- nor did he recommend to others -- a life completely detached from society. Rather, he was trying to figure out some way to balance his own requirements for solitude with the requirements (and the joys) of living with others.

On close inspection, it becomes apparent that Thoreau's views on nature and civilization were more complex than the caricature of the wilderness recluse. For Thoreau, wilderness was a spiritual and intellectual tonic best taken only occasionally: "The poet must, from time to time, travel the logger's path and the Indian's trail, to drink at some new and more bracing fountain of the Muses, in the far recesses of the wilderness."

Thoreau liked his wilderness in mild doses, and he was more a fan of the pastoral ramble than of trailblazing. Eventually he concluded that humanity's relationship to nature should be a kind of middle path: permanent residence in a "partially cultivated country," with occasional excursions into the city and the wilderness as touchstones for art and spirit. "For my part, I feel that with regard to Nature, I live a sort of border life, on the confines of a world into which I make occasional and transient forays only," he wrote in his essay "Walking."

Schulz sneers that "Thoreau's retreat at Walden was a desperate compromise." The compromise is exactly what makes his experience instructive. No, Thoreau didn't live in some far-off wilderness. He lived among his sisters, his mentors, his neighbors. A misfit, he enjoyed the company of other misfits. He gave succor to slaves when most other Americans wouldn't. Thoreau was firmly a part of the world -- the world of family and friends and mutual obligation.

The takeaway message of Walden is not -- as the CliffsNotes version might have it -- that one should strive to live alone, detached from friends, family, and community. Rather, the core idea is that by living frugally, you can have more time to spend as you like. Simplicity can allow us a richer life, filled either with quiet moments in wild nature or spent in the company of other people.

TO ME, THE STRANGEST PART of Schulz's critique is its narrowness. Schulz nods to the importance of Thoreau's ecological thinking: "It is true that Thoreau was an excellent naturalist and an eloquent and prescient voice for the preservation of wild places." She compliments his prose, which she declares "first-rate nature writing." She acknowledges he is "rightly famous" for his outspoken abolitionism.

Then she waves it all away: "Any reading of Thoreau that casts him as a champion of nature is cherry-picking his most admirable work while turning a blind eye to the rest." Her premise is like saying that Saul Bellow's The Adventures of Augie March is total rubbish, except for all the parts about Chicago.

Doesn't any selective reader -- especially a book critic -- cherry-pick? Especially when it comes to the literary landmarks of more than a century ago? I'll admit I cherry-pick Marx, and I cherry-pick Freud, too. An author's insights come as they may, often scattered among lesser epiphanies and gross errors. I have huge respect for Thoreau's groundbreaking ideas about civilization and nature. But as an erstwhile farmer, I would never think of following Thoreau's prescriptions on agriculture. They sound daft, especially coming from a guy who hoes his fields barefoot. (Though I'm tickled that the bean field is one of the few places where Thoreau displays a flash of irony: "Some must work in the fields if only for the sake of tropes and expression, to serve as a parable-maker one day.")

Thoreau, as far as I can see, isn't guilty of much more than a certain lack of self-awareness. The new revisionism, then, is productive insofar as it provides a more full-bodied image of Thoreau. The revisionism might make Thoreau less likeable, but it could make him more sympathetic -- just another person trying to navigate the differences between his aspirations, his pretensions, and his instincts.

Like many idealists, Thoreau loves humanity (why else risk arrest to free peoples he's never met?), but he's not always a big fan of actual humans. He is both curmudgeonly and convivial. In short, he contains multitudes.

Altogether -- given its many parenthetical compliments -- Schulz's hit piece may have been intended as a nuanced affair. But in our 140-character age, most people will only grab the top line. Thoreau -- what a jerk. I can imagine the haters snickering as the New Yorker confirms their biases.

But I was born an optimist. Perhaps this new, harsh take will spur some people to revisit Thoreau and make the extra effort to check out what I would consider his most admirable work: the seminal nature essay "Walking," the antislavery polemic "A Plea for Captain John Brown," and the quirky travelogue "The Allagash and East Branch." There's some wonderful cherry-picking (or, better yet, huckleberry gathering) to be done in those pages. For example, Thoreau's humility: "The highest that we can attain to is not Knowledge, but Sympathy with Intelligence." His flashes of ecstatic joy: "The world seemed decked for some holyday or prouder pageantry, with silken streamers flying ... Why should not our whole life and its scenery be actually thus fair and distinct?"

Maybe some folks will even go back to Walden and reread it for the first time in years, if not decades. If so, they'll be reminded of Thoreau's irrepressible childlike wonderment when Walden Pond freezes over: "You can lie at your length on ice only an inch thick, like a skater insect on the surface of the water, and study the bottom at your leisure, only two or three inches distant, like a picture behind glass." Even, at times, his humor: "Finally, there were the self-styled reformers, the greatest bores of all."

I think the rewards will outweigh the annoyances. For me, it was a thrill to return to the original text for the first time in a long while. For that, I guess, I have Kathryn Schulz to thank.

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