Why do we love Thoreau? Because he was right.
A recent New Yorker article by Kathryn Schulz is already being called a “thorough Thoreau takedown” online. Fair enough. It is thorough. Ms. Schulz is a talented writer and her piece is easy to read — and she also seems readily familiar with Thoreau’s work. But it is also wrong.
The excellent illustration, under the title “POND SCUM” at the opening of the piece, shows a mangy Thoreau sinking into a bog. The caption poses this question: “Why, given his hypocrisy, sanctimony, and misanthropy, has Thoreau been so cherished?” It is a surprise that Schulz, seemingly so familiar with Thoreau’s work, is unable to answer this question with any honesty. The answer is: whatever Thoreau’s flaws (and there are far fewer than her “takedown” attempts to suggest), his message rang true, and rings true louder and louder as the decay of civilization marches on.
Schulz’s polemic opens with her description of a shipwreck which Thoreau bore witness to in his Cape Cod. She appears amazed that Thoreau is so unsympathetic to the death and destruction he sees, and this is the first shot across the bow on the “misanthrope” line of criticism. Yet Thoreau is best read as an exemplar of an idea, and in that role Thoreau does not fail in this episode. Surely, you or I would do as she later suggests Thoreau’s more gregarious contemporary, Walt Whitman, would have done: “tending the wounded and sitting with the grieving and the dying.”
It is perhaps self-flattery to suppose that your average person, myself, Schulz, or any other reader, would actually react in such a humane way, but let us allow it anyway for the sake of argument. Is it a mortal sin that Thoreau did not respond this way?
Thoreau is not as well known as we think, Schulz writes, as she explains our surprise at Thoreau’s seemingly cold reaction to the shipwreck. On this count, she is more than correct. He is not well known, apparently, even by Schulz. For some, his ideas and life are obscure because they never really read him in high school. This is understandable — despite Schulz’s assertion that Walden is a book for adolescents, the reality is that for most high school students it is impenetrable. It is in fact a book for adults, and the initial reaction to Schulz’s piece seems to be a chorus of: “I knew I hated him in high school!” “He’s such a boring writer!” An adolescent understanding of a mature book will surely miss the mark.
But more disappointing than this, I think, is that Thoreau’s significance is often even missed by the serious readers of his work, as Schulz appears to be. Reading every word Thoreau wrote is apparently not a guarantee of understanding what made him tick, and why it matters. And indeed, throughout her piece, Schulz cites a long line of writers and critics who have been rubbed the wrong way by Thoreau, and because of this superficial distaste for his temperament, miss the truly life-changing message in his work. They, in effect, do not understand why we cherish Thoreau.
“Another reason we cherish “Walden” is that we read it selectively,” writes Schulz. Yet it is she who has been selective with her criticism.
Moving into the specifics of her gripe, Schulz gives us a brief biography of Thoreau, and then introduces his Walden Pond “experiment.”
“Thoreau went to Walden, he tells us, “to learn what are the gross necessaries of life”: whatever is so essential to survival “that few, if any, whether from savageness, or poverty, or philosophy, ever attempt to do without it.” Put differently, he wanted to try what we would today call subsistence living, a condition attractive chiefly to those not obliged to endure it.”
This is the first major point where Schulz gets frustratingly close to comprehension, then gives up on the last lap. She is correct that Thoreau was interested in subsistence living. She is fundamentally incorrect and indeed ethnocentric in her opinion that subsistence living is “a condition attractive chiefly to those not obliged to endure it.”
Thoreau is so well-loved precisely because of his insight that, to be happy, we only materially need, well, what we need, and the rest of life’s joy, Thoreau’s “marrow,” come from our non-material experience, or the still-mysterious relation or contact with the natural world that we experience continuously, but usually do not appreciate. The nature writing which Schulz is so quick to praise is only so sublime because Thoreau is at liberty to explore the sublime, relatively free from consumerist obligation. This represents a radical and fundamental critique of the main lines of Western imperialist culture, and it has deservedly earned Thoreau a reputation as a cultural iconoclast — but it should be noted that other human societies and people across the planet through time and place have hit upon the same principle: material pursuits beyond what is necessary to be healthy merely cloud the purpose of life, which is to experience it.
This miscomprehension leads directly into the charge against Thoreau of sanctimony. “Food, drink, friends, family, community, tradition, most work, most education, most conversation: all this,” Schulz sneers, “he dismissed as outside the real business of living.” This is a fine example of that selective reading mentioned earlier. She is literally wrong on each count — except perhaps tradition. Thoreau’s work is replete with examples of his genuine, and yes even (in his own words) “animal” enjoyment of all those material things. Thoreau acknowledges his need for them, and since he was concerned with jettisoning all but the necessaries, he retains them, and lives by them.
One of Thoreau’s letters to Harrison Blake (May 1848) serves tidily to disprove Schulz’s unaccountable notion that Thoreau was “a dualist all the way down.” Using words like “body” and “soul” and personifying Nature and our relationship and contact with it, by the way, are not implicit endorsements of the indefensible idea of dualism, but are rather realities of our language. To imagine that Thoreau is a dualist because he at times speaks of his “body” in opposition to his “mind” is to have a staggeringly shallow understanding of the philosophy of Thoreau. For instance, one core reason that Thoreau feels comfortable trusting his own intuition and perception, is that he believes it is not separate at all from the nature and matter it perceives, and thus, in his view, must be a true reflection of it. To Blake he writes:
“What nature is to the mind she is also to the body. As she feeds my imagination, she will feed my body; for what she says she means, and is ready to do. She is not simply beautiful to the poet’s eye. Not only the rainbow and sunset are beautiful, but to be fed and clothed, sheltered and warmed aright, are equally beautiful and inspiring.”
His chapter in Walden called “Reading” serves as a rebuttal to the idea that he rejects “most education.” “With a little more deliberation in the choice of their pursuits,” he writes in the opening line, “all men would perhaps become essentially students and observers.” I don’t know if I can under-labor the point that Thoreau’s entire ethos can probably be summed by the mantra: “Pay Attention.” How this is a rejection of education, I cannot be certain, except to wonder if Schulz did indeed ever make it past the long first chapter, which she calls “one of the highest barriers to entry in the Western canon: dry, sententious, condescending, more than eighty pages long.”
His chapter called “Visitors” undercuts the idea that he was anti-social and devalued his friends, family, or community. “I am naturally no hermit,” he writes. Is this his supposed “disingenuousness” coming to the fore? If we read on, we see that there is an explanation for his apparent preference for solitude — it turns out not to be so much of a preference: “For my own part, I was never so effectually deterred from frequenting a man’s house, from any kind of Cerberus whatever, as by the parade he made about dining me.” His clear point in this chapter is that true friendship, true companionship or community, disregards the encumbrances of material goods that accompany it as trivialities and distractions from the most important thing about these things: the connection of one human soul or mind with another, the shared experience of the miracle of life.
And, on food, his lately-published Wild Fruits is literally an entire book devoted to the subject of seeking out and sampling fruits in nature. Perhaps Schulz has not read it.
“Man at length stands in such a relation to Nature as the animals which pluck and eat as they go. The fields and hills are a table constantly spread. Diet drinks, cordials, wines of all kinds and qualities are bottled up in the skins of countless berries for the refreshment of animals, and they quaff them at every turn. They seem offered to us not so much for food as for sociality, inviting us to a picnic with Nature. We pluck and eat in remembrance of her. It is a sort of sacrament, a communion — the not forbidden fruits, which no serpent tempts us to eat.”
Does this sound like a man who believes that “the act of eating bordered, for him, on an ethical transgression”? Or does it sound, rather, like Schulz is missing the point?
Yet, she does make an accurate connection in Thoreau’s thinking between “eating habits and moral worth.” In today’s world of the anthropocene, meat consumption is a leading driver of the climate change disaster facing our species, and tropical crops like cocoa and coffee are produced in slavery or exploitation conditions in countries (“Banana Republics”) with neocolonial relationships of exploitation to consumer countries like the United States. And in the linked case of coffee, the relationship is explicitly based on colonial conquest — our colonial possession, our Banana Province, Hawaii, was the site of exploitation of coffee farmers as recently as 2013. Does any literate person now fail to acknolwedge the deep connections between eating habits and morality? Would any not applaud Thoreau’s attempts to eat more simply — rejecting meat, rejecting gluttony, and “going local” before we had even gone fully global?
While Schulz crows in the near-dystopia of 2015 that she “cannot idolize anyone who opposes coffee,” Thoreau in 1845 declared:
“[The Irish immigrant Thoreau had met] had rated it as a gain in coming to America, that here you could get tea, and coffee, and meat every day. But the only true America is that country where you are at liberty to pursue such a mode of life as may enable you to do without these, and where the State does not endeavor to compel you to sustain slavery and war and other superfluous expenses which directly or indirectly result from the use of such things.”
It may rub Schulz the wrong way when she picks up on the fact that Thoreau considered himself a prophet. That’s understandable, I guess. But, in this case, the shoe fits. A prophet he was. Why do we love Thoreau? Because he was right.
This point, that Thoreau was sanctimonious, is one on which he has been criticized endlessly. Some of it is certainly deserved — his tone is undeniably smug. And so, I would give any sincere reader a pass for deciding they do not love Thoreau, nor even like him. It was well-documented that few in his own time loved him either. So if this is the chief point Schulz is making, I concede it.
But I suspect rather that she is implying not only that he does not deserve love, but that he does not deserve respect. This, to be charitable, is nonsense. Certainly the air of an intelligent person who is certain of his or her own correctitude can be offensive to others similarly inclined (I will not make the unwarranted claim that Schulz is one such, though it does cross the mind), but to use this impression as a means to bury the content of their words is intellectually dishonest, and is even a fallacy. Thus, Schulz’s idea that “no ethical principle is emptier than one that does not apply to its author” is demonstrably false.
But even then, we should be careful to take a sympathetic look at Thoreau’s judgments, which are often expressly not intended to be smug, but rather careful and incisive. Schulz quotes Robert Louis Stevenson who criticized Thoreau for “abstain[ing] from nearly everything that his neighbors innocently and pleasurably use.” But what if they are innocently and pleasurably using slave chocolate, or even slave labor, God forbid?
Schulz’s implicit reaction is that she is uncomfortable feeling judged by Thoreau. Yet this is the point of Thoreau. He is a critic of our imperialist, consumerist culture that we needed then in 1845, and need even more now. If he comes across as slightly sanctimonious, it is hard to blame him, given how hostile people were to his ideas in his own time. Sometimes being radically right means being radically outcast, especially when your society is radically wrong.
And the same goes for his boasts, which he at one point even apologizes for, aware that an uncharitable reader might assume he held himself above all mankind.
“If I seem to boast more than is becoming, my excuse is that I brag for humanity rather than for myself; and my shortcomings and inconsistencies do not affect the truth of my statement. Notwithstanding much cant and hypocrisy, — chaff which I find it difficult to separate from my wheat, but for which I am as sorry as any man, — I will breathe freely and stretch myself in this respect, it is such a relief to both the moral and physical system; and I am resolved that I will not through humility become the devil’s attorney. I will endeavor to speak a good word for the truth.”
If Schulz suspects Thoreau of lying here, then once again I argue she simply does not understand what made the man tick. This makes clear that he does not, first of all, consider himself perfect, but rather a work in progress: “My actual life is a fact in view of which I have no occasion to congratulate myself, but for my faith and aspiration I have respect. It is from these that I speak (Letter to Blake).” Thoreau, in his own life, and in his writing, urged himself and all his readers to follow their conscience: “We should endeavor practically in our lives to correct all the defects which our imagination detects.”
“I learned this, at least, by my experiment: that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.”
Was he self-involved? Absolutely. Was he elitist? Absolutely not. If we go back and read all the seemingly off-putting brags of Thoreau that Schulz quotes with this above caveat in mind, with an open and sincere heart rather than a cynical and self-assured one, we see that Thoreau is telling the reader as much as himself what a miracle his or her existence is. “Sometimes, when I compare myself with other men, it seems as if I were more favored by the gods than they.” Thoreau had no monopoly on transcendentalism — indeed, the whole ethos of transcendentalism is that no one has a monopoly on it; that we should each for ourselves explore our inner and outer lives and experience the miracle of life without an obligatory intermediary like a priest, or even like Thoreau.
Now we move somewhat into Thoreau’s supposed misanthropy, which should help us understand his reaction to the shipwreck from the start. The first, and most easily refuted point is on his parochialism. It is clearly true he was parochial, but not in an ignorant or xenophobic way. He loved Concord and Massachusetts because that was where he found himself. He respected that other people had other homes, but for him, this was home, and it should be enough. He sought out to prove that it was enough, and that happiness did not depend on “bon mots gleaned from London circles” as Emerson described. He would just as readily have done this if he had found himself living in Jamaica or Tasmania, yet he did not find himself there, so he did not constantly long to be somewhere he was not. Despite this, he did not shut out the outside world, instead, he was a pioneer in America in reading Hindu scriptures and other eastern texts, because he believed there were ancient truths to be found in them.
What about his aversion to charity? Here, Schulz’s criticism rings somewhat true, and it is the essence of my criticism of Thoreau as well. He believed in individualism and his individualism is valuable, but he did not see the full implications of this individualism. He came close: as Schulz says, “His moral clarity about abolition stemmed less from compassion or a commitment to equality than from the fact that slavery so blatantly violated his belief in self-governance.”
Yet Schulz misses that her statement is redundant. Self-government taken to its logical conclusion is equality, and self-government extended to all people constitutes the most thorough compassion and trust available in politics. This is indeed moral clarity, but Thoreau, it is true, failed to apprehend its implications completely. As Schulz points out, he was a proto-anarchist, but of the individualist stripe. Anarchists contemporary to Thoreau and in the decades following his death would quickly realize that the allied principles of self-government, equality, and compassion entailed an obligation and responsibility to the needs of our fellow people.
Thoreau, who disliked being too entangled in society’s behemoth problems, mostly shirked this, and we are right to impugn him for it. He did sometimes help the Irish poor, and it’s widely known that he was a conductor on the Underground Railroad, not to mention his famous stint in jail to protest the war of conquest against Mexico. But He seems not to have had enough compassion for the poor, for women, for any of the oppressed in society, and the quotes Schulz singles out are indeed ones where I find my disagreement with Thoreau emerging strongest too. Yet, his moral sense was right on target. If it were me, I would have Thoreau be an activist, a little more being John Brown, a little less pleading for him, but in the end this is a point on which Thoreau can be pretty easily forgiven. His moral clarion call from America’s earlier days has proved more materially worthy in moral terms than much of anything a quiet reformer might have done.
Yet this is not the explanation for his reaction to the shipwreck. Indeed it does not even mean that Thoreau was without sympathy and love for fellow-humans. He simply saw humans as animals, and was factually correct to do so, and so, looking at the shipwreck and the scene it produced, he felt it was a scene of nature taking its course, which is exactly what it was. This is cold, yes, and Whitman’s hypothetical reaction is superior. But it is not hateful of fellow humans, merely contemplative. Thoreau often viewed himself as a dispassionate observer of humanity and its connection with nature, and was right to feel that such a role was valuable, even if it meant that he personally was the object of much derision for his detachment.
I have at times considered myself a new kind of Thoreau, as my fascination with transcendental philosophy has grown, and when I differ from Thoreau, I emphasize the new. So although I can learn a lot from Thoreau’s assessment of human life as an animal life, doomed to die down just like a storm or a wind dies down, I differ with him in that I believe one can pursue that train of thought even as we rush to help the victims of a disaster. The best Thoreau would have done both.
That being said, though, Schulz badly misconstrues Thoreau’s morality. Thoreau realized, correctly, that morality is ultimately something that springs from the inner self, and his emphasis on personal morality is at least as valuable as his lack of emphasis on interpersonal morality is regrettable. In truth, one needs both of these moralities. But in that Thoreau was such a master of the introspective kind of morality, it would be a grotesque and childish error to discard his views on conscience and right living based on disagreements with his social temperament.
“It is hard to have a Southern overseer; it is worse to have a Northern one; but worst of all when you are the slave-driver of yourself,” quotes Schulz, intending to produce shock or disgust in the reader that Thoreau’s priorities are so inverted. Yet, here again, Thoreau is right. His prescient observation is that all global and social forms of slavery and oppression are born of greed, and greed is born of this self-enslavement to outward material possession that Thoreau consistently critiques. This, I suppose, would be Schulz’s “romanticizing of poverty” that was in fact a challenge to greed and private property. We find in Thoreau’s morality and politics the prefiguring of an anarcho-communism whose only missing piece is the idea of solidarity.
Yet perhaps is it anarchism that Schulz finds discomfiting. She implies as much with this oxymoron: “This is not the stuff of a democratic hero. Nor were Thoreau’s actual politics, which were libertarian verging on anarchist.” Perhaps Schulz doesn’t know what “democratic” means, or perhaps it is “anarchism” she misunderstands, but I won’t belabor the point here.
The last charge Schulz pursues with vigor against Thoreau is another classic: hypocrisy. I will simply dispense with the first attack, which is that Thoreau takes liberties with facts in his writing of Walden. Anyone that had the impression that the book was some kind of scientific record probably didn’t even read the Cliff Notes.
But moving into slightly more substantive critiques of his supposed disingenuousness, Schulz complains that Thoreau misrepresented his sojourn as a lonely stay in the wilderness. This too would have been avoided if she had read the Cliff Notes, or even the first sentence of Walden: “When I wrote the following pages, or rather the bulk of them, I lived alone, in the woods, a mile from any neighbor…” Is Schulz perhaps unaware how short a mile is? Of course not. She is simply complaining that the popular conception of Thoreau’s cabin is that it was in remote wilderness. This is not Thoreau’s fault, it is the fault of a misinformed public.
So when he writes: “For the most part it is as solitary where I live as on the prairies…” we would be stupid, given the opening lines and continued detailed descriptions of his environs, to take him literally in a shallow sense. This is not the sense Thoreau intended. He wanted to show how nature, solitude, and a quieter life exists even in the margins of our human world, in neglected between-spaces like the strip between the sidewalk and the street, and not simply on the windswept Canadian Shield or in the Australian Outback.
In Wild Fruits Thoreau remarks: “Most of us are still related to our native fields as the navigator to undiscovered islands in the sea. We can any afternoon discover a new fruit there which will surprise us by its beauty or sweetness.” In Walden, he was making a specific and central point by finding nature within a mile of his native town, and it is a point Schulz has completely missed. Or perhaps she has not missed it — at this stage, I am beginning to suspect that a critic as intelligent as Schulz may be guilty of disingenuousness herself.
If Schulz wanted a corrective to Thoreau, she could have looked to Anne LaBastille’s Woodswoman, directly inspired by Thoreau, which was a kind of more intense and modern update to his experiment. But a corrective is not necessary. To drive this point further home, Thoreau would later write specifically on the subject of “true” wilderness when he visited one, the backwoods of Maine on his trip to climb Mount Katahdin. There, he had the primeval sensation one gets in all the dangers and wonders of wilderness, and concluded that this was no abode for man — a balance between nature and humanity such as he had found at Walden Pond was more ideal for a human life. It is worth quoting a passage from Ktaadin in full:
And yet we have not seen pure Nature, unless we have seen her thus vast and dread and inhuman, though in the midst of cities. Nature was here something savage and awful, though beautiful. I looked with awe at the ground I trod on, to see what the Powers had made there, the form and fashion and material of their work. This was that Earth of which we have heard, made out of Chaos and Old Night. Here was no man’s garden, but the unhandselled globe. It was not lawn, nor pasture, nor mead, nor woodland, nor lea, nor arable, nor waste-land. It was the fresh and natural surface of the planet Earth, as it was made for ever and ever, — to be the dwelling of man, we say, — so Nature made it, and man may use it if he can. Man was not to be associated with it. It was Matter, vast, terrific…
There was there felt the presence of a force not bound to be kind to man. It was a place for heathenism and superstitious rites, — to be inhabited by men nearer of kin to the rocks and to wild animals than we. We walked over it with a certain awe, stopping, from time to time, to pick the blueberries which grew there, and had a smart and spicy taste. Perchance where our wild pines stand, and leaves lie on their forest floor, in Concord, there were once reapers, and husbandmen planted grain; but here not even the surface had been scarred by man, but it was a specimen of what God saw fit to make this world. What is it to be admitted to a museum, to see a myriad of particular things, compared with being shown some star’s surface, some hard matter in its home! I stand in awe of my body, this matter to which I am bound has become so strange to me. I fear not spirits, ghosts, of which I am one, — that my body might, — but I fear bodies, I tremble to meet them. What is this Titan that has possession of me? Talk of mysteries! — Think of our life in nature, — daily to be shown matter, to come in contact with it, — rocks, trees, wind on our cheeks! The solid earth! the actual world! the common sense! Contact! Contact! Who are we? where are we?
Do these sound like the words of a “dualist all the way down” who hates his body? Do these sound like the words of a man who is not aware of the ancient native occupants of his native land, and is disrespectful of their animist cosmology? Does it sound like a man who is not aware, while in his hometown, that Nature is far more vast and terrifying than what is found in the confines of his township? Thoreau was a monist, was a mysticist, and was a moralist. These are the things he is celebrated for, and these are the things we still need him for.
Schulz’s belittling sympathy for “poor Thoreau,” lonely and antisocial, would be irritating if she did not engender, unwittingly, a similar kind of sympathy for herself to her readers familiar with the actual Thoreau. She calls necessity a “low, dull bar,” and accuses Thoreau’s attempts to simplify his life as a big lie, a cover up of his complexities. In doing so, she reveals herself to be hopelessly mired in her own attachments to materiality, regarding sincere spiritual seekers with the tired eye of a soulless cynic. Poor Schulz.