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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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):

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:

Philosopher, poet, and pond-dweller Henry David Thoreau occupies an esteemed place in America’s imagination and reading lists. But earlier this week, The New Yorker’s Kathryn Schulz wrote a scathing takedown of the writer, calling him “self-obsessed: narcissistic, fanatical about self-control,” sparking debate across the Internet. So far, my favorite characterization of Thoreau is “a genuine American weirdo,” written by Jedediah Purdy in a rebuttal to Schultz. One reader wrote in response: “I like some Thoreau. Lots of authors are dicks, just like artists of many types. Doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy their work.” Another reader:

I love Thoreau. What is piggish about living simply and deliberately, not taking more than you need, respecting individual rights, being anti-slavery and practicing Civil Disobedience? I think a lot of it comes down to extroverts being generally put off by anyone who dares to be an introvert.

Email your thoughts here. The Atlantic has a unique stake in this debate, since Thoreau was one of the earliest contributors to the magazine, publishing a number of essays here in the last years of his life. And if that experience is anything to go by, you probably wouldn’t have wanted to be his editor.