In Defense of Thoreau

He may have been a jerk, but he still matters.

Tributes left at the grave of Henry David Thoreau (liz west / Flickr)

Henry David Thoreau was an asshole, Kathryn Schulz tells us in an irresistibly polemical New Yorker essay. He was, in fact, a miserable asshole, a man of “pinched and selfish motives,” who was “narcissistic, fanatical about self-control,” humorless, consumed by “comprehensive arrogance,” and “as parochial as he was egotistical.”

And the writing he is best remembered for sucks.

Walden is “an unnavigable thicket of contradiction,” “fundamentally adolescent in tone,” which limps along with the weight of an eighty-page opening chapter that “must be one of the highest barriers to entry in the Western canon: dry, sententious, condescending.”

Schulz’s indictment opens with Thoreau visiting a shipwreck site just outside Cohasset Harbor, on the Massachusetts coast, where the deaths of some hundred Irish immigrants and ship’s crew members left him cold, and he found, after viewing the bloated bodies, that he “sympathized rather with the winds and waves.” She concludes with the crushing blow of pity: “Poor Thoreau: He, too, was the victim of a kind of shipwreck—for reasons of his own psychology, a castaway from the rest of humanity.”

Schulz’s deft flaying is not for the sake of sadistic pleasure, though readers who never liked Thoreau may take vicarious pleasure in it. Her essay is an ethical critique of Thoreau and of the country that put Walden in the canon and “made a moral paragon of its author.” Thoreau wrote as if avoiding emotional and practical entanglements with other people, asserting one’s own conscience and perspective against all social resistance, were high virtue.

Thoreau preached separation. Indeed, he wrote a paean to it, by suppressing the details of his inevitable sociability. It turns out, Thoreau could not separate himself from others. Everyone by now knows that he walked to Concord to eat at his mother’s table, hand in his laundry, and irritate his friends. As Schulz puts it, “The hypocrisy is that Thoreau lived a complicated life but pretended to live a simple one. Worse, he preached at others to live as he did not, while berating them for their own compromises and complexities.”

The problems with Thoreau’s moralizing fantasy redound to the country that has raised him high. Schulz argues that Thoreau is a kind of Ayn Rand for the high-minded: “suspicious of government, fanatical about individualism, egotistical, elitist, convinced that other people lead pathetic lives yet categorically opposed to helping them.” Thoreau appeals to the conceit that disdain and withdrawal are high forms of politics, when in fact they are symptoms of brittle moral snobbery.

Even his anti-slavery, a moral badge that Schulz fully grants he earned, was a matter of being right for the wrong reasons: moral absolutism and a hatred of anything that seemed to violate self-government, rather than a softer-toned sympathy or more open-spirited commitment to equality. Thoreau was no democrat but a notional anarchist with the temper of a despot.

Schulz is a killer writer who illuminates topics from geology to grammar with clairvoyant intelligence. So her devastation of Thoreau’s character, style, and mental health pulled me up short.

Unlike many of Thoreau’s admirers, who, as Schulz says, remember him vaguely from some classroom or associate him with well-lathed little phrases of uplift, I’ve been reading him closely for years. And I, too, have been bothered by Thoreau’s mix of self-disgust and self-righteousness, the sarcastic disdain for others, and, most of all, the very thing Schulz puts her prosecutor’s finger on: a sense that some barrier sat between Thoreau and nearly everyone else. That, and the way he made a philosophy of this separateness. For all his exuberance and physical vitality, for all his precisely limned pleasure in the natural world, Schulz’s “Poor Thoreau” strikes me as well placed.

And yet, I would not boot him from our bedside tables and reading lists. When I read Thoreau, I can’t help but think that he still has something to say to us. But Schulz forces the question: What?

* * *

Ralph Waldo Emerson recalled that his friend and protégé could be “superior, didactic,” a man who “wanted a fallacy to expose, a blunder to pillory.” Thoreau was not fair-minded when he had it in for someone. Maybe he deserves the same. And indeed, Schulz allows herself some one-sided denunciations. Emerson may have confessed, “I love Henry, but I cannot like him,” but he also called Thoreau “really fond of sympathy.” He said Thoreau was a man who “threw himself heartily and childlike into the company of young people whom he loved, and whom he delighted to entertain, as only he could, with the varied and endless anecdotes of his experiences by field and river.” Emerson noted that farmers who hired Thoreau as a surveyor usually started out treating him as an oddity, but ended by admiring him. Thoreau took a genuine interest in the lives of Native Americans, too, seeking them out for long conversations at a time when this was unusual.

But the details of Thoreau’s life and character are not Schulz’s main target: She is most interested in the literary persona he created. Her problem with that persona is not how it simplified Thoreau’s life, but how it set up an impossible simplification as an ideal for everyone. Thoreau is a hypocrite. He contradicts himself, in word and deed, but also in words alone. As Schulz says, Thoreau’s Walden is as “unnavigable thicket of contradiction.”

And yet, to me, Thoreau has always seemed to sport his contradictions like roses, not get caught in them like briars. Emerson thought Thoreau reflexively “put every statement in a paradox,” which led to a habit Emerson disliked, of “substituting for the obvious word and thought its diametrical opposite.” Emerson thought Thoreau a rather heavy ironist.

This is the opposite of Schulz’s view, that Thoreau wrote sincerely and in doing so, inadvertently displayed his own incoherence in a bedlam of conflicting opinions that were unified only by their priggish spirit. But if Emerson was right, then Thoreau was somewhat the master of his contradictions. Thoreau wrote in Walden of his“doubleness,” a sense of observing his own life from alongside. If this self-observer recognized that he contradicted himself, then he seems less likely to have intended each and every one as the moral bottom line for imagined disciples.

Take Thoreau’s severe anti-sensuality, his decrying “this slimy, beastly life, eating and drinking,” his worry about “the generative energy, which, when we are loose, dissipates and makes us unclean,” and his startling pronouncement, “Nature is hard to be overcome, but she must be overcome.” These lines demolish a certain fond image of Thoreau as a genial hippie, which is probably what many readers think they remember from high school.

But elsewhere, Thoreau writes, “This is a delicious evening, when the whole body is one sense, and imbibes delight through every pore.” When spring comes, Thoreau stands beside the thawing, slipping, half-liquid soils of a railroad cut and feels that all of life is linked in a flow of matter slipping from pattern to pattern, from rivers to his veins, twigs to his fingers, as easily as the seething mud: Watching dirt change shapes, he says, “is more exhilarating to me than the luxuriance and fertility of vineyards.”

A reader cannot be sure whether Thoreau gloried in these contradictions as life-affirming or, as Schulz argues, extruded them from moralizing narcissism. But the more you think that Thoreau was self-aware, deliberately tracking his movement among contrary perspectives, the less puzzling or disappointing it is that people still read him. It is the difference between a writer who could hardly stand being human and one who recorded the strange variety of his own perspectives.

* * *

One question where Thoreau did not contradict himself was slavery, so his reasons for radical, unstinting abolitionism are important. Was he was a bad citizen who happened to be right for the wrong reasons on the most important question of his century?

Thoreau was very clear: Slaves were human beings, and if his readers could see this clearly, they would also see that slavery is an atrocity, a massacre repeated every day. “I think that we do not even yet realize what slavery is,” Thoreau wrote. “The government pretends to be Christian and crucifies a million Christs every day.”

Thoreau normally avoided talk of violence and mocked American militarism. But, writing a defense of John Brown, the leader of the failed anti-slavery revolt at Harper’s Ferry, he wrote: “It was his peculiar doctrine that a man has a perfect right to interfere by force with the slaveholder, in order to rescue the slave. I agree with him. They who are continuously shocked by slavery have some right to be shocked by the violent death of the slaveholder, but no others.”

He continued with sentences that, save the syntax, would fit a Black Lives Matter rally: “We preserve the so-called peace of our country by deeds of petty violence every day. Look at the policeman’s billy and handcuffs! Look at the jail! Look at the gallows! Look at the chaplain of the regiment! We are hoping only to live safely on the outskirts of this provisional army.”

Thoreau wasn’t necessarily a bad citizen, either. True, he didn’t care for democracy when the majority denied the humanity of millions of people living under its law. He preferred to stand apart.

But, contrary to Schulz’s conclusion, his “signature act” was not “to turn his back on the rest of us.” He did not sit by the pond and try to forget about South Carolina—which would have been easy enough to do; most people did, minus the pond. To imagine him retreating is to forget the most obvious fact, which is why we remember him at all: that he was, consummately, obsessively, a writer. He turned to his fellow citizens again and again, in essays, lectures, and books. He could not forget about them.

The writer who professes solitude is always involved in a displaced kind of sociability, and the writer who denounces his time is always helping people toward imagining a different one. Obstreperous citizens are not bad citizens, though we must know better than to take them at the word when they say they want no part of us.

Schulz contrasts Thoreau with Whitman, sensuous and open-spirited, and with the larger minded and less reactive Emerson. But the difference is more of style than anything else. Each of these man was massively self-certain, and believed he had much to teach a young, crude, and unjust country. Each could move from strong feeling to a peculiar distance, what Whitman called being at once “in and out of the game.”

Whitman made himself a shaman of American enlightenment: ecstatic, spontaneous, an embodiment of the enriched democratic feeling he celebrated. Emerson was its priest: remote, theological, reliably bringing his sermons to some instructive point.

Schulz calls Thoreau a prophet, but he seems just as much to have wanted to be a New England version of a Hindu renunciate, withdrawn from society while staying near it, purifying himself so he can teach those who will listen. Like many Romantics of the early nineteenth century, Thoreau was fascinated by Hinduism, and there are many points in Walden where he says something like this: “We are not wholly involved in Nature: I may be either the driftwood in the stream, or Indra in the sky looking down on it.” This was his way of understanding the distance between the world and him, and between himself and his neighbors.

This gives the lie, too, to the charge that he was parochial. When Thoreau disdained Europe and claimed that most of the phenomena reported by Arctic explorers could be observed in Concord, he was expressing his universalism, and his belief that consciousness was all. Take a blunt mind to the ends of the earth, and you might as well be at home. Take a keen and receptive mind to a worked-over pond near a railroad track, or to a melting mud-slope, and you will see the universe.

* * *

And what about that shipwreck near Cohasset, where chilly-eyed Thoreau sympathized with the wind and waves? Schulz is right: It is a strange and unpleasant passage. It compresses several of Thoreau’s obsessions and weaknesses. But it is not bad in quite the way that Schulz argues. When Thoreau expresses indifference, he has already spent several pages carefully and—it seems to me—respectfully describing the terrible condition of the corpses and the bleak state of the survivors. He is reporting his own dulled emotional response with the same unsettling candor that Emerson did when he wrote that the death of his son, Waldo, had touched him less than it should have.

Thoreau’s observation, his refusal of sentimental piety, leads him to a point that social psychologists confirm today: Suffering moves us less as it increases. One death is a murder, a million a statistic. “I saw that corpses might be multiplied … till they no longer affected us in any degree.” If this is monstrous, it is a report on a widely shared horror. And in fairness to Thoreau, this was not the only time he wrote about death at sea: In his lecture on John Brown, he chillingly envisioned America as a vast slave-ship whose crew tossed the dead overboard while moderate leaders prattled about gradual reform.

Another line about the shipwreck touches Thoreau’s great fixation: “A man can attend but one funeral in the course of his life, can behold but one corpse.” The beholder is a self-observing second self, who, Thoreau wrote in Walden’s passage on doubleness, departs at the end of life, untouched. He returned to this theme in his defense of John Brown, after he had argued for the legitimacy of violence against slaveholders: “It seems as if no man had ever died in America before; for in order to die you must first have lived… The best of them fairly ran down like a clock. Franklin,—Washington,—they were let off without dying: they were merely missing one day.”

Schulz is right: Thoreau was a fundamentally religious thinker, who believed it is possible to fail at living, to live a life that is no life at all. He may not have believed in quite the same soul as his puritan ancestors and neighbors, but he believed his soul was at stake in his relation to nature, America, and himself. He was not sure it was possible to get these relations right. That must have been a devastating thought, when he allowed himself to hold it.

Schulz calls it a “strange distinction” that “some of the things we experience while alive count as life while others do not.” Certainly it is a distinction that takes life as a question rather than a fact, and draws a line between what is and what might be. Schulz is quite right that you cannot make sense of Thoreau without it. Whether it was an unproductive mistake is another question.

Canonical works tend to be patterns, even thickets, of contradiction. Far from teaching consistent lessons, they establish themes, from which successors prove many inconsistent things. Think of the Bible, with its themes of community and redemption, or the Constitution, with its themes of liberty and equality, and the many uses these have had. In keeping or discarding these old books, the question is which themes are still worth the work. Dismissing Walden as not just self-contradictory, but “unnavigable” is a way of saying the theme has died for us, that its contradictions are no longer generative.

That may be right. Thoreau has been the standard-bearer for anti-authoritarian and anti-conformist generations who resisted American complacency in the early twentieth century and elevated “Civil Disobedience” against the Vietnam War in the 1960s. Today, as Schulz wisely points out, our problems lie more with runaway individualism, with libertarian narcissists, from Silicon Valley to Wall Street, who see no need to care for others and are happy to opt out of whatever constraint ill-fits their soul.

And, we are less charmed by the Harvard man who takes it on himself to speak for the injured and excluded: What once seemed heroic, from Thoreau to James Agee, now rings preening, or at least obtuse. We would rather hear from those who know the injury first-hand. This is not Thoreau’s time.

But some of our problems are not so different from his. Recall Thoreau’s (communitarian rather than individualist) idea that injustice in the community touches everyone. Doesn’t Ta-Nehisi Coates’s brilliant book ask readers—obliquely and with a certain diffidence that does, it turns out, echo Thoreau—to feel in their own bodies the harm an unjust system does to the bodies of others? Doesn’t climate change implicate us all, in our comfort and security, in global destruction that becomes visible only when we rouse ourselves and see it clear? Isn’t there a difference between being what Coates calls “Dreamers,” people who think our country and time make an unproblematic home, and being awake? Is it fair to call that that the difference between living and not living? Maybe so.

Henry Thoreau was a genuine American weirdo. He did not believe in niceness, or even civility, but in justice. He believed his soul was at stake in it, even though he was not sure his true self was part of this world at all. Most of us move, like him, between engagement and detachment, between feeling the justice and wrongs of our communities as our own and becoming insensate to them. Thoreau is no model, but he is a useful and difficult conversation partner across the centuries, a difficult friend as he was a difficult citizen. He did not solve any of our problems, but he felt their extreme poles so acutely that he still casts his broken shaft of light on them today.