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A Defense of Thoreau

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Kathryn Schulz attempts to destroy Henry David Thoreau’s reputation, calling him, not without accuracy, a libertarian, anti-social crank and fraud who didn’t even live the anti-social life he was espousing, who had no feeling for the suffering of others, and who romanticized poverty. Even if we take all this as true, and none of it is entirely untrue, there are still concrete reasons why we may lionize Thoreau, not so much for his words (after all, we have mostly all read some Thoreau but for most people it’s been awhile), but for what he represented and why it resonates.

No one ever claimed Thoreau was an easy man to like and she says much about him personally that is correct. But who cares? How many artists are weirdos who you really don’t want to know? Many. Sometimes that gets romanticized and excused to where you end with defenders of Roman Polanski. That’s bad. But Thoreau was harmless at the worst. I really don’t care that the man was a crank. Hell, Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote a whole book on raising children after forcing his partner to give up all their kids to orphanages where they almost certainly died. Does that mean we shouldn’t read Émile? I don’t think that would be a good idea. On some of the more specific critiques:

But “Walden” is less a cornerstone work of environmental literature than the original cabin porn: a fantasy about rustic life divorced from the reality of living in the woods, and, especially, a fantasy about escaping the entanglements and responsibilities of living among other people.

What Schulz never mentions here, and I think this is the most important point to why he endures, is that this was happening at the same time as the Industrial Revolution. All of a sudden, our entire relationship to nature was transformed, especially in Thoreau’s home of Massachusetts. We can trace the first Americans romanticizing nature, in writing at least, to the writings of the Lowell Mill Girls, who grew up knowing nature one way on the farms and soon learned about nature in a whole other inside the factory. All of a sudden, they start talking about the need to return to nature. That’s hardly disappeared in the 150 years since Thoreau died. The return to nature has a lot to do with the sights, sounds, smells, and physical experience with modern work. Even after the factories begin declining, the beauty of the outdoors is an antidote to our sterile office environments, but to some extent, seeing the natural world this way is conditioned by people like Thoreau and John Muir laying the groundwork for us. That’s why Thoreau endures, primarily.

Some other points:

“Walden,” in consequence, is not a paean to living simply; it is a paean to living purely, with all the moral judgment that the word implies. In its first chapter, “Economy,” Thoreau lays out a program of abstinence so thoroughgoing as to make the Dalai Lama look like a Kardashian. (That chapter must be one of the highest barriers to entry in the Western canon: dry, sententious, condescending, more than eighty pages long.) Thoreau, who never wed, regarded “sensuality” as a dangerous contaminant, by which we “stain and pollute one another.” He did not smoke and avoided eating meat. He shunned alcohol, although with scarcely more horror than he shunned every beverage except water: “Think of dashing the hopes of a morning with a cup of warm coffee, or of an evening with a dish of tea! Ah, how low I fall when I am tempted by them!” Such temptations, along with the dangerous intoxicant that is music, had, he felt, caused the fall of Greece and Rome.

I cannot idolize anyone who opposes coffee (especially if the objection is that it erodes great civilizations; had the man not heard of the Enlightenment?), but 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”; if he did without it, he boasted, he could also drink less water. He advised his readers to eat just one meal a day, partly to avoid having to earn additional money for food but also because the act of eating bordered, for him, on an ethical transgression. “The fruits eaten temperately need not make us ashamed of our appetites,” he wrote, as if our appetites were otherwise disgraceful. No slouch at public shaming, Thoreau did his part to sustain that irrational equation, so robust in America, between eating habits and moral worth.

Welcome to the Transcendentalists! This sort of thing was hardly unique to Thoreau and I’m surprised Schulz doesn’t know this. This is same period and nearly the same place as the Mormons, the Shakers, the first American vegetarians, the Burned-over District, the rise of abolitionism, the temperance movement, the Seneca Falls Convention, etc., etc. Remember, the Mormons don’t drink coffee either and never have. Such stances were common. The rise of industrialization and the transportation revolution completely transformed life in the North. That led to a whole variety of new social movements, some of which seem mainstream today, but were all considered pretty freakish by a lot of people in the 1840s. Thoreau is not some unique crank operating on his own. He’s one of many people freaked out by the Industrial Revolution and engaging in an intellectual milieu expressing these changes in all sorts of unusual ways. It’s unfair to pick on Thoreau here without placing him in context.

In reality, Walden Pond in 1845 was scarcely more off the grid, relative to contemporaneous society, than Prospect Park is today. The commuter train to Boston ran along its southwest side; in summer the place swarmed with picnickers and swimmers, while in winter it was frequented by ice cutters and skaters. 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. He also fails to mention weekly visits from his mother and sisters (who brought along more undocumented food) and downplays the fact that he routinely hosted other guests as well—sometimes as many as thirty at a time. This is the situation Thoreau summed up by saying, “For the most part it is as solitary where I live as on the prairies. It is as much Asia or Africa as New England. . . . At night there was never a traveller passed my house, or knocked at my door, more than if I were the first or last man.”

Ah, this tired old war horse. Who cares? Probably the biggest thing you can say to damn Thoreau is that he is inspirational to misanthropes today who go out into rugged nature unprepared and then die, like Timothy Treadwell or Christopher McCandless. Thoreau’s hardly the only bad influence here–if you want a racist awful crank who also could be a pretty great writer at times, see one Abbey, Edward–but far worse than their existence today is that we romanticize those people. Kudos to Werner Herzog for seeing right through Treadwell (and bringing his own fantastic weirdness to make a film about two cranks, including himself) but the Jon Krauaker book and Sean Penn film Into the Wild go way too far in seeing McCandless as a tragic, romantic figure, when he actually rejected the many people who tried to help him and was an idiot who wandered into Alaska totally unprepared for basic survival. He may have had mental problems and OK, the problem is the romanticizing. But isn’t the real story–that Thoreau really wasn’t that distant from society–counter to Schulz’s thesis about him being a misanthrope? And doesn’t it suggest a better kind of getting back to nature than Thoreau himself wrote in Walden? To me, knowing the real story is both amusing and makes him more personable. Visiting Walden Pond, as I did a few weeks ago, does so even more. This is not the wilderness and that’s actually useful. Thoreau writing about ants and loons should have more value to us than Muir writing about the Sierra Nevada. We can watch ants and loons too! We can’t necessarily go to the deepest parts of Yosemite.

But any reading of Thoreau that casts him as a champion of nature is guilty of cherry-picking his most admirable work while turning a blind eye on all the rest. The other and more damning answer to the question of why we admire him is not that we read him incompletely and inaccurately but that we read him exactly right. Although Thoreau is often regarded as a kind of cross between Emerson, John Muir, and William Lloyd Garrison, the man who emerges in “Walden” is far closer in spirit to Ayn Rand: suspicious of government, fanatical about individualism, egotistical, élitist, convinced that other people lead pathetic lives yet categorically opposed to helping them. It is not despite but because of these qualities that Thoreau makes such a convenient national hero.

This seems highly dubious to me. We don’t really make Thoreau a hero in any particularly meaningful way, and we certainly don’t read Cape Cod or The Maine Woods, where his ideas are more fully fleshed out. Thinking of him as a cross between Emerson, Muir, and Garrison is actually pretty right, and let’s not forget that the latter was also a massive crank who had contempt for most other people he actually dealt with and who people hated, and not only for his abolitionism. Yeah, I guess you can draw connections between Thoreau and Rand. You can do the same with Jefferson or any number of other American thinkers. Yes, individualism is a major strain in American culture. But we don’t read Thoreau as a hero because of that.

Overall, this is an interesting essay. And one can not like Thoreau–Schulz presents plenty of good reasons not to do so! But what Thoreau really represents is his time, a man like tens of thousands of other Northerners in the antebellum years trying to figure out solutions to a radically transformed world, a man who could say crazy things that many people disliked, and a man whose writings could have a thicket-like density spliced with great phrasing and simplicity (see his mentor Emerson on that). he also represents a modern response to industrialization, one that resonates with us today. I for one can’t wait until my next trip into the Oregon forests. Should he be a hero, assuming he is? I don’t know, probably not. But is he an interesting and influential figure for reasons that are not entirely negative? Yes. And that’s OK.

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