Henry David Thoreau and Walden came early into my life, thanks to my mother, a boldly independent career woman who must have felt oppressed by her era’s strictures of feminine married domesticity. She had a favorite quote from Walden that she would paraphrase liberally whenever the topic of housework came up: “Why should I dust the furniture, when the furniture of my mind is still undusted?”
I always appreciated the spirit of this phrase, and later found the exact quote in the book:
I had three pieces of limestone on my desk, but I was terrified to find that they required to be dusted daily, when the furniture of my mind was all undusted still, and threw them out the window in disgust.
Thoreau is still one of my mother’s favorite writers, though she doesn't share Thoreau’s interest in nature or rustic living. I don’t think my mother has ever spent a night camping outdoors, and my guess is that she’d just as soon dust some furniture. So why would Walden be one of my mother's favorite books?
I’m pretty sure it’s because she found a bracing empowerment in Walden, a bold, brash and funny critique of mid-19th Century New England society that somehow contains enough freshness to feel relevant to generations beyond the 19th Century, and far from the United States of America. Walden is a book about nature, but only secondarily so.
Walden is primarily a satire about polite society, which Thoreau disturbs by carrying out an experiment loosely inspired by Jean Jacques Rousseau's notion of the noble savage. The book had a great story: young Henry David Thoreau, a brainy and intense Harvard graduate from a middling family in Concord, Massachusetts, leaves his comfortable home to return to nature and live in a cabin for two years. Walden is Thoreau's book about the experiment, and is filled with funny stories about the reactions he gets from his bemused neighbors while conducting this experiment.
As the record of a fiery non-conformist's two year "prank", the book has an obvious appeal to other non-conformists, and there may be no better "manual for non-conformists" in the world than Walden: A Life in the Woods. This is why I personally love and adore the book, and I think it's why my mother loves it too. A few years ago I made a speech at my mother's 75th birthday party and thanked her for not only for living her entire life bravely and fearlessly, but also for training me to do the same. “It’s what you got from Thoreau,” I said in this speech, “and what you passed on to me.” My mother knew exactly what I meant.
It’s a distraction to Thoreau’s great legacy that he is often mistaken for a nature writer. His most important text was not Walden but Resistance to Civil Government, popularly known as On The Duty of Civil Disobedience. This essay establishes Thoreau as a major ethical philosopher — a lofty term, but one that the writer credited as an essential inspiration by Leo Tolstoy, Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King well deserves. It’s because Thoreau is not a nature writer at all that he is often criticized for doing such an odd job of it. That's one of several errors committed by a strangely glum and destructive "takedown" of Henry David Thoreau by Kathryn Schulz that appears in this week’s New Yorker.
This is a stern and angry article, and it seems to add up to a very unfair appraisal. It contains several howling errors, like the claim that Thoreau had no sense of humor. This is sort of like saying that Henri Matisse’s paintings have no color.
In fact, every page of Walden sparkles with comic insight, and a reader who doesn’t hear the dry sarcasm in Thoreau’s voice isn't reading him at all.
Thoreau's prose style confuses some readers, because his elegant sentences are dense and "golden-tongued". He did not write like a nature writer; he wrote like a New England orator. This confounds some readers, and it helps explain why Thoreau is not for everybody. You have to get the hang of reading Thoreau; he is off-putting at first glance. But, once you begin to follow the lengthy sentences he constructs, you begin to see that irony and humor are the primary glue in these constructions.
Please witness this truly beautiful passage about the expectation of feeding house guests, from the chapter of Walden called "Visitors" and see if you agree with this New Yorker article's claim that Thoreau was a humorless writer.
My "best" room, however, my withdrawing room, always ready for company, on whose carpet the sun rarely fell, was the pine wood behind my house. Thither in summer days, when distinguished guests came, I took them, and a priceless domestic swept the floor and dusted the furniture and kept the things in order.
If one guest came he sometimes partook of my frugal meal, and it was no interruption to conversation to be stirring a hasty-pudding, or watching the rising and maturing of a loaf of bread in the ashes, in the meanwhile. But if twenty came and sat in my house there was nothing said about dinner, though there might be bread enough for two, more than if eating were a forsaken habit; but we naturally practised abstinence; and this was never felt to be an offence against hospitality, but the most proper and considerate course. The waste and decay of physical life, which so often needs repair, seemed miraculously retarded in such a case, and the vital vigor stood its ground. I could entertain thus a thousand as well as twenty; and if any ever went away disappointed or hungry from my house when they found me at home, they may depend upon it that I sympathized with them at least. So easy is it, though many housekeepers doubt it, to establish new and better customs in the place of the old. You need not rest your reputation on the dinners you give. For my own part, I was never so effectually deterred from frequenting a man's house, by any kind of Cerberus whatever, as by the parade one made about dining me, which I took to be a very polite and roundabout hint never to trouble him so again.
Elsewhere in her sophomoric New Yorker article, Schulz actually takes Thoreau to task for being a "hypocrite" because the cabin in which he lived for two years by the shore of Walden Pond was not far from civilization at all.
Thoreau could stroll from his cabin to his family home, in Concord, in twenty minutes, about as long as it takes to walk the fifteen blocks from Carnegie Hall to Grand Central Terminal. He made that walk several times a week, lured by his mother’s cookies or the chance to dine with friends. These facts he glosses over in “Walden,” despite detailing with otherwise skinflint precision his eating habits and expenditures.
Kathryn Schulz actually thinks this makes Thoreau a false memoirist, apparently ripe for the kind of debunking that has greeted James Frey and JT Leroy:
Begin with false premises and you risk reaching false conclusions. Begin with falsified premises and you forfeit your authority. Apologists for Thoreau often claim that he merely distorted some trivial facts in the service of a deeper truth.
The writer who deeply inspired not only Tolstoy and Gandhi and Martin Luther King but also Willa Cather, Marcel Proust, Ernest Hemingway, Jack Kerouac, Richard Brautigan, Rachel Carson and Don Henley hardly needs an apologist. But it should be known that Walden refers constantly to the fact that its hero is living in a cabin near a refined town. That's the point of the experiment. It doesn't make him a hypocrite.
Thoreau was a man of the town, and never pretended to be anything but a man of the town. Why would he? He was trying to establish himself as a writer, and struggling hard to do so. He strove constantly to connect with and communicate with others, as all writers do. He was gradually succeeding in his difficult task, and it's tragic that his early death from tuberculosis at 44 prevented him from ever enjoying the fame he would eventually reap.
In Kathryn Schulz's defense, she is not the first to make the mistake of believing that Thoreau pretended to be a hermit or a true naturist — and then boldly condemning him for falling short of the ideal. This objection is a descent into triviality, yet it's a common enough misunderstanding that I addressed it once before in an earlier Litkicks blog post about Walden from 2007:
Walden takes place in a cabin in the woods, but Thoreau's goal in life was to be a social reformer, and this is a book about society. If you don't believe me, please consider the fact that Thoreau did not actually retreat from civilization to live in the woods, but rather built a cabin in the woods right in the middle of Concord, Massachusetts. In fact, Walden Pond was on the property of Ralph Waldo Emerson, one of the most popular and well-known intellectuals of 19th Century America. Emerson had constant visitors, including many important intellectuals of this age, and Thoreau's purpose in building a cabin to live in for two years on Emerson's property was to make a spectacle of himself. (It's certainly to Emerson's credit that he allowed, and even encouraged, this experiment).
Thoreau could have left civilization behind if he wanted to. He knew where to find the much deeper forests of Maine and New Hampshire, where for all we know other Harvard graduates may have disappeared into lives of true solitude and never been heard from again. Thoreau had no intention of never being heard from again. To build a cabin and live "like a savage" in the center of a celebrated and prosperous New England town is a pronouncement. It's like sitting down on the floor of a fancy party and going into a fetal position; you only do it if you want attention.
Why did Thoreau want attention? Because he had something to say.
It's the something he had to say — about politics, about war, about human rights — that made Thoreau a literary giant, and his message was a thoroughly joyous and life-affirming one. Kathryn Schulz's strange article cherry-picks many sour and negative paragraphs from his extensive writings, and opens with a disturbing scene of a Cape Cod beach where families of the victims of a shipwreck are gathered in suffering as Thoreau strikes a distant and uncaring pose.
Who was this cold-eyed man who saw in loss of life only aesthetic gain, who identified not with the drowned or the bereaved but with the storm?
Thoreau does indeed experience a moment of cosmic detachment at this shipwreck scene, and he opens his book Cape Cod with this cosmic vision so he can examine it for psychological meaning. It's probably a good bet that many people stand at disaster sites and feel something other than sadness, yet feign the appropriate emotions.
I bet we’ve all done so at times, so it's odd that Schulz would damn a writer for writing truthfully about a feeling that must be nearly universal among us all. The most beloved episode of the "Mary Tyler Moore" TV show is the one about laughing at a funeral. Ken Kalfus’s bitterly funny novel A Disorder Peculiar to our Country is about an unhappy husband and wife who both work separately at the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001 and are disappointed when they return home and find each other still alive.
Kalfus is a satirist, of course, and so is Thoreau. But it's worth noting that Thoreau was one of the first Western authors to write of Hindu philosophy and the Bhagavad-Gita (which he called the Bhagvat-Geeta) and may have been reaching for a grand cosmic theme about the universe's vast indifference in this opening passage to Cape Cod. The small section of text that Kathryn Schulz objects to is the beginning of an extended thought, and from this cold beginning Thoreau then reaches for more empathetic tones, unmentioned by Kathryn Schulz, culminating here:
All their plans and hopes burst like a bubble! Infants by the score dashed on the rocks by the enraged Atlantic Ocean! No, no! If the St. John did not make her port here, she has been telegraphed there. The strongest wind cannot stagger a Spirit; it is a Spirit's breath.
Kathryn Schulz's cranky article often frames a phrase from a book by Thoreau as if the phrase were a complete thought, thus missing the strong sense of dialectic that pervaded the Transcendentalist style of argument, which Thoreau clearly picked up from his mentor and role model, the brilliant Ralph Waldo Emerson. The basic structure of an Emerson or Thoreau argument requires not a single phrase but rather several paragraphs to complete. It goes like this: HERE is the conventional wisdom, and now HERE is a different way of thinking about it.
Schulz's article often quotes Thoreau's opening gambit in a complex argument as if it were his conclusion, and often takes a humorous remark about evil doormats or wanting to live in a railroad box on face value, completely missing his frequent ironic tone. She writes:
Thoreau never met an appetite too innocuous to denounce. He condemned those who gathered cranberries for jam ("So butchers rake the tongues of bison out of the prairie grass") and regarded salt as "that grossest of groceries".
Schulz ought to rest assured that Thoreau did not actually have a philosophical problem with berry gathering — he enjoyed going "a-huckleberrying" himself enough to brag of it often — and it's a good bet that he used salt whenever he damn well felt like it.
Schulz also seems to miss the context of his many cutting remarks against European society, and uses his declarations of independence from European influence as evidence of Thoreau's dispassion for life itself:
Thoreau could not have been less interested in how the mass of men actually lived. On the contrary, he was as parochial as he was egotistical. (He once claimed that Massachusetts contained almost all the important plants in America, and, after reading the explorer Elisha Kane’s best-selling 1856 account of his Arctic journey, remarked that "most of the phenomena noted might be observed in Concord.") His attitude toward Europe “almost reached contempt,” Emerson wrote, while "the other side of the globe" was, in Thoreau’s words, "barbarous and unhealthy."
In fact, the theme of America's cultural independence from Europe loomed gigantically among New England intellectuals, and Thoreau was picking up on a theme from Emerson when he boasted of the varieties of plants that could be found in humble Concord. To read Thoreau's puckish and playful barbs against Europe as if they expressed real contempt is to intentionally misread and prosecute. All a reader must do to properly understand Thoreau's sentences as they were intended to be understood is to imagine a person speaking these words with a pleasant smile on his face.
Henry David Thoreau had much to smile about, after all. He was a junior member, a "shorty", along with Louisa May Alcott, of a circle of older Massachusetts writers who called themselves Transcendentalists. These bright adults ran a magazine called the Dial, and gathered often in restaurants and parties. The Concord writers were a vibrant, chatty and famous subcircle that often interacted with the larger literary circles of nearby Cambridge and Boston.
Thoreau, for all his legendary awkwardness, was a member of this lively social swirl. It's obvious that Thoreau must have had a pleasant personality, because it's impossible to imagine Bronson Alcott or Margaret Fuller or Lydia Emerson suffering a fool or a bore gladly.
The great New England Transcendentalists would not allow into their circle a harsh and humorless haranguer, but it's a harsh and humorless haranguer that Kathryn Schulz presents in this New Yorker piece. If only Kathryn Schulz had paused to realize that, just as Franz Kafka was known to laugh uncontrollably while reading aloud the texts that would eventually become his starkest novels, Henry David Thoreau's rhetorical barbs and arrows were meant to be read in the spirit of a rhetorical game.
The quips and insults are an eager Harvard graduate's parries and thrusts as he attempts to duel with great minds like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Walden is a chatty and loose book, though word for word it is tightly composed. It's a string of stories with punchlines, though a reader must read attentively to get the punchlines. The parlor and tavern conversations this young man had with his friends in Concord and Cambridge and Boston about his outdoor adventures became the written anecdotes that eventually became Walden: A Life in The Woods. It's a book that was born in storytelling, a book naturally structured to entertain.
Like Mark Twain, like Jack London, Thoreau exaggerated a lot, and he became bigger than life. So what? Like Ralph Waldo Emerson, he spun biblical fantasias that are hard to swallow today. Like nearly every 19th Century or 20th Century or 21st Century genius, he was arrogant and sometimes obnoxious. So what? He was a human being; he did not manage to be perfect. But we're going to keep Henry David Thoreau in the canon, whether everyone likes it or not.
I mention the canon because I truly sense an effort in this article called Pond Scum to remove Thoreau from our literary pantheon, and I detect a dull and careless complicity with this mission in the immediate reaction on Twitter and elsewhere to Kathryn Schulz's article. A blog post at Bibliomanic includes a screenshot of this tweet by Brent Staples of the New York Times: "Kathryn Schulz burns Henry David Thoreau to the ground. Nothing left but ashes." This tweet has been favorited more than 100 times.
Nothing left of Thoreau but ashes? This is supposed to be a good thing? Over my dead body does Henry David Thoreau leave the pantheon — I'll go with him instead if I have to, and I won't be alone.
Kathryn Schulz's article overreaches in its ambition, and sadly the purpose here is not to promote a writer but to discourage future readers away from a writer. Some of these young people might need Thoreau. This can only be a mistake.
That the writer we are being discouraged from reading was a principled idealist, pacifist and gentle intellectual — and an early political activist whose other "prank" or "stunt" was to go to jail to protest the Mexican war and African-American slavery — pushes the fact that the New Yorker published this poorly considered article into the realm of the truly incomprehensible.
The worst paragraph in Kathryn Schulz's article is this one:
Poor Thoreau. He, too, was the victim of a kind of shipwreck—for reasons of his own psychology, a castaway from the rest of humanity. Ultimately, it is impossible not to feel sorry for the author of "Walden," who dedicated himself to establishing the bare necessities of life without ever realizing that the necessary is a low, dull bar; whose account of how to live reads less like an existential reckoning than like a poor man’s budget, with its calculations of how much to eat and sleep crowding out questions of why we are here and how we should treat one another; who lived alongside a pond, chronicled a trip down the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, and wrote about Cape Cod, all without recognizing that it is on watering holes and rivers and coastlines that human societies are built.
Poor Thoreau. Ahem. He'll be fine, but we may not be.
The article is titled “Pond Scum”, and it includes the trite and trendy phrase “cabin porn”. Most disturbing of all, there is a suggestion throughout this piece that Thoreau was somehow cruel or sociopathic, and this suggestion nearly amounts to slander.
I’ve read two biographies of Henry David Thoreau. He appears to have been a gentleman all his life, and I can recall no record of him ever treating another person badly.
Thoreau was a shy man, an INTJ. He tried to fall in love at least once and maybe twice, but appears to have been too shy to press his case. This is poignant … but it’s not malignant. The portrait of Thoreau that Schulz paints reduces Thoreau to some creepy mix of Jonathan Franzen and Bill Cosby.
I am angry about this article, and I find it shocking that it met the New Yorker's quality standards. I can only imagine that Harold Ross, Katherine Angell, William Shawn, Dorothy Parker, John Hersey and John Updike are turning over in their graves right now.
This is not because Thoreau himself is being injured, but because readers of the future will be injured if they miss the chance to read Walden, a book that may not have been bettered since 1854.
Thoreau is not to everybody's taste, and there's nothing at all offensive about the fact that Kathryn Schulz has no use for him. But I cannot understand the nasty and accusatory tone of this article, and I do not see the positive purpose the New Yorker will serve by using its powerful reputation to discourage future readers from discovering Henry David Thoreau. It's hard to imagine how losing a great book about how to live as a nonconformist can help the world.
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