Reporter's Notebook

Why Thoreau Matters
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Below are all the writings from our readers and others on Henry David Thoreau, one of The Atlantic’s most illustrious contributors.

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Why Thoreau Matters

Many readers are responding to our look back at Atlantic essays written by Henry David Thoreau, as well as Kathryn Schulz’s recent smackdown of the transcendentalist writer. Regarding the latter, a reader writes:

I never understood the accusation of “contradiction” of Thoreau. Should we throw away a whole philosophy because he didn’t always practice what he preached? That’s silliness. Also, I think what many people identify as contradictions are in fact misunderstandings of his ideas. For example, he enjoyed solitude and he enjoyed company. Those are not mutually exclusive in life, just at any given moment.

I would never recommend him as a standup comic, but there is humor in his writing. It is all tongue and cheek, but it’s there.

Most of all, Thoreau had far more guts than most people and questioned everything. In a time where people are being squeezed harder and harder financially, and when the latest electronic gadgets are considered to be a necessity rather than a luxury, Thoreau is a must read. He would have raged against our compulsion to respond instantly to every beep and buzz from our phones. Our devices have gone from convenience to burden.

On that note, the photo seen above was taken today by a good friend of mine, “one last pic before I hand over the phone” to begin a long meditation retreat located, as it happens, in the woods of Massachusetts less than an hour from Walden Pond. Another reader provides a meditation of sorts on Thoreau:

Addressing the many points and quotations Schulz’s essay takes out of context goes well beyond the scope of a letter. Instead, I offer this partial counterpoint, perhaps just as willful in its misreadings, but known and felt from years of reading and teaching Walden:

Some remaining thoughts from readers on the lovable crank, Henry David Thoreau. Here’s Dr. Mark Yakich, an English professor at Loyola University:

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In reply to the ongoing discussion about Thoreau and his contradictions, I’d like to highlight his Journal. When most of us think of Thoreau, we think of Walden and Civil Disobedience and perhaps an essay such as “Walking.” What all those texts have in common, in fact, is his journalthe two million words he wrote over 20-some years and mined continually as he wrote his more formal essays and lectures. There are numerous abridged versions of the journal, which has never been published in its entirety, the latest and, I believe, the best was published by New York Review Books and edited by Damion Searls.

As to Thoreau’s contradictions, which other readers have rightly noted are often our own internal contradictions, I can offer two examples nearly at random, thumbing through my underlined copy of the Journal. On the one hand, we have this (from p. 257, April 13, 1854):

On the evening of the 5th the body of a man was found in the river between Fair Haven Pond and Lee’s, much wasted. How these events disturb our associations and tarnish the landscape! It is a serious injury done to a stream.

And then this (from p. 418, December 3, 1856):