In Defense of Thoreau

You’ll never live like common people

You’ll never do what common people do

You’ll never fail like common people

You’ll never watch your life slide out of view, and dance and drink and screw

Because there’s nothing else to do.

When Pulp sang about a rich girl who was trying to slum it, they might as well have been singing about Henry David Thoreau. I wrote about him in passing yesterday and Velissima posted a really interesting link (thank you!) to an article on Thoreau in the New Yorker titled Pond Scum, Henry David Thoreau’s Moral Myopia. It’s an interesting article, go and read it if you haven’t already.

http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/10/19/pond-scum

There are several points made in this article, but since I don’t want to drag on, I’ll focus on the most salient points. The ones that made this interesting article read more like a hate letter. The article begins by stating that:

The real Thoreau was, in the fullest sense of the word, self-obsessed: narcissistic, fanatical about self-control, adamant that he required nothing beyond himself to understand and thrive in the world.

These are harsh words in my opinion. I’m not a big Thoreau fan and I’m certainly not an expert, but I thought the treatment given him was unfair. So I just had to write out my stance on it.

The writer describes Walden as “a fantasy about escaping the entanglements and responsibilities of living among other people” and disapproves of Thoreau for aiming for an ascetic lifestyle, apparently both on the grounds of not really being ascetic enough and on the grounds of being too ascetic. Thoreau didn’t eat meat, take coffee, tea or alcohol, and tried to live with as little sustenance as he could. Most people these days would consider this a rather brave way to look after your health and the planet.

The author’s biggest peeve seems to be that she blames Thoreau for turning his back on society, stating: “Few things will thwart your plans to live deliberately faster than those messy, confounding surprises known as other people”. But Thoreau did not go to the woods and forsake human race for all time. He lived in the woods for a relatively short period (roughly 2 years according to the Wikipedia) and then came back.

While he was living in the woods (or 3km from town, as Thoreau himself mentions in the book), he gathered material for one of the classics of world literature. A book that has helped countless people live a more fulfilled life and be more conscious of the decisions they make. We might only remember a few quotes, but how many world classics there are in the non-fiction genre of which you couldn’t say the same thing? Thoreau did not turn his back on society, he was merely doing what many great thinkers throughout time have done and engaged in solitude and asceticism to gain a sharper view of life.

If you denounce Thoreau’s attraction to solitude and simplicity, you should probably denounce Jesus, Buddha, and the whole concept of mindfulness, too. They all encourage turning inwards on occasion to find treasures that can simply not be found by busying yourself with the outside world. Religious people the world over have been known to seek out privacy, sometimes in an organized setting (as in a monastery) and sometimes as a personal choice (Jesus went to the desert for 40 days). Thoreau was not religious, but I don’t see why he shouldn’t be allowed to seek solitude and spirituality in this age-old tradition.

The author wonders how Thoreau can make a distinction between what is authentic living and what is not. Yet millions of people in the world seem to somehow miraculously know what Thoreau is talking about. So many people feel that life is only drudgery, one hour of work melting into another, weeks turning into years and before you know it, you are old and life is almost over. Most people instinctively understand what Thoreau means when he says “not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” Thoreau doesn’t make the rules, he merely shakes us up to live our lives before it is too late.

The author continues:

The most telling thing he purports to abstain from while at Walden is companionship, which he regards as at best a time-consuming annoyance, at worst a threat to his mortal soul. For Thoreau, in other words, his fellow-humans had the same moral status as doormats.

Thoreau was an introvert, as am I. I think this is central to understanding why he felt the need to escape polite society into a hut that few people frequented, and preferred to spend his time writing. That’s what we introverts do. That does not make us into evil people-haters. It only means that our capacity for social interaction is limited. Needing some time alone does not mean that we view other people as doormats. Anyway, the idea of him seeing others as doormats is in dire contrast with the fact that Thoreau was visited regularly by his family and friends and quite enjoyed the occasional run-ins with the locals.

The author thoroughly misrepresents Thoreau’s stance on charity.

Unsurprisingly, this thoroughgoing misanthrope did not care to help other people. “I confess that I have hitherto indulged very little in philanthropic enterprises,” Thoreau wrote in “Walden.” He had “tried it fairly” and was “satisfied that it does not agree with my constitution.” Nor did spontaneous generosity: “I require of a visitor that he be not actually starving, though he may have the very best appetite in the world, however he got it. Objects of charity are not guests.”

Taken out of context these quotes might seem callous. But here is the entire quote of the first sentence:

I confess that I have hitherto indulged very little in philanthropic enterprises…. While my townsmen and women are devoted in so many ways to the good of their fellows, I trust that one at least may be spared to other and less humane pursuits. You must have a genius for charity as well as for anything else. As for Doing-good, that is one of the professions which are full.

The objects of charity not being guests refers not to Thoreau not wanting to feed poor people, but rather to his dislike of the way people do philanthropism. Thoreau, quite sensibly, objects to the fact that poor people are turned into hapless victims who are then “saved” by the rich people, thus making the rich look good without incurring any real loss for them. He even states that he tried to help some poor people in the village, but they wouldn’t have any of it. I can imagine how that would make an introvert react.

Thoreau elsewhere on charity: “If I knew for a certainty that a man was coming to my house with the conscious design of doing me good, I should run for my life.” And this from a man who isn’t supposed to have a sense of humor, according to the author.

The author allows Thoreau a bit of leeway due to him being an abolitionist. But she manages to find some fault with this too, since Thoreau was against shackles in general, not just the ones enchaining black people. I don’t agree with what Thoreau said about the worst slavery being when you are the slave-driver of yourself, but I don’t think that one exaggeration makes him into a callous person. He was a member of the Underground Railroad, and he wrote a book against slavery during a time when few others did. He was imprisoned (albeit briefly) for boycotting a government that collaborated with the slave owners. How can anyone call a man like this a misanthropist, merely because he tried to make his fellow-men see that their liberty from obvious slave-masters is not necessarily genuine liberty?

Without doubt Thoreau has written many things that might come across as silly. He, like anyone else I’ve ever come across, was not perfect. Self-governance for example, if taken to its logical conclusion anarchism, is not a good political system. The writer also objects to Thoreau romanticizing poverty. There really is nothing romantic about it and Thoreau was not in a position to speak about being poor. Like the girl in the Pulp song, if he called his mommy he could stop it all. And when he did call mommy, they had some cookies. Who could blame him for it?

Whew, that turned into a bit of a rant. As said, i thought this was a good article and I’m all for conversation about iconic figures and making people see them as more multi-faceted individuals rather than some kind of idols. What I objected to was the fact that this article seemed to purposefully misrepresent some aspects of Thoreau, blaming people at large for seeing him from only a certain viewpoint and then painting another diametrically opposed picture. But then i guess that’s how you sell articles.

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6 thoughts on “In Defense of Thoreau

  1. I agree that the writer of the article seems to misrepresent Thoreau. It’s been quite some time since I’ve read him though. I was living in a mud hut in the middle of Africa at the time, so perhaps I need to reread him in a different context.

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    1. I’ve read him when I was a teenager, but I had a browse through after I read this article. I still like him, although I agree with the writer of this article that some parts of him are more readable than others. Living in a hut would probably make for an entirely different reading experience 🙂

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  2. It has been more than a good time since I have read him, if at all. I’ve a feeling that I’ve only read bits and pieces. How about abbreviating this a bit and sending it off to the New Yorker, and/or the author? You have obviously put thought into it, and it seems begging for the discussion to continue. I’ll take both sides on board, and find a copy of Walden with a purpose.

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    1. That sounds a bit intimidating, but why not. I don’t think it’s a good thing if such a valued publication as the New Yorker publishes articles that misrepresent authors like this. Although, I’m really not an expert. If I read everything Thoreau’s ever written, perhaps I’d see this differently. But at least the example of charity is a blatant misrepresentation. If you read the passage where he discusses it, the whole passage gives a completely different impression than the cherry-picked sentences in this article. I just think it’s insulting considering all the positive actions Thoreau did take in his life. Underground railway, come on! What kind of misanthropists are most of mankind if that kind of activism isn’t enough?

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