Someone once told me “Walden” was a sort of hipster bible. A young, affluent twenty-something shuns convention, builds a cabin in the woods, and reflects on the nature of being; in all likelihood he sprouts a man-beard along the way. This put me off the work for at least half a decade, until, in the throes of devouring the writings of Tolstoy, I stumbled across the novelist uplifting a particular American name and wholeheartedly praising his ideas. The name was Henry David Thoreau – that of the early American transcendentalist. It was then I pried open the pages of Walden, and discovered a work of truly life-altering scope.
“Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also prison.” These were the words that would so move Tolstoy, that would contribute to the pacifism of Gandhi, and that would heed the non-violent resistance of Martin Luther King Junior. The profound philosophy at its core arose from the mind of Thoreau, who collected his ideas and ordered them in the work “Walden”, which refers to Walden Pond near Concord, Massachusetts, where he built his cabin and lived in relative solitude. Despite its long acceptance in our nation’s literary canon, waves of aversion to the work often crest through our culture; the latest broke with last week’s edition of the New Yorker in a feature article by Kathryn Schulz, linked below.
I will confess straight away that I do not read the New Yorker habitually. Every now and then I pick up a copy, thinking that my brow might sit suitably higher on my forehead for perusing it. It seems accepted that the New Yorker represents the highest in literary critical thinking that our society has to offer. Yet, with a title only a Reader’s Digest subscriber could love, its latest proffering “Pond Scum” is little more than an exercise in nitpicking and calumny. The article, rather than examining or critiquing the core philosophy of “Walden”, chooses to go after Thoreau’s character in a flurry of petty blows. Schulz decries him as “narcissistic”, “sanctimonious”, “insufferable” and, in a generous interpretation of his old-timey photos, “cold-eyed.” Her evidence is flimsy – it consists of citing how Thoreau’s Harvard contemporaries called him “arrogant”, how his quest for truth made him occasionally wonder if he was better than his peers, and how he shunned coffee. At the last of these, Schulz, sneering with grand effeteness, writes, “I cannot idolize anyone who opposes coffee,” adding parenthetically, as if waiting for our laughter, “have they not heard of the Enlightenment?”
This ad hominem assault defeats itself. Assuming there were character flaws on the part of Thoreau, Schulz never addresses how this might impact his philosophy. Are ideas to be weighed purely against the soul of their author? This is a timeless debate to which there are many angles, but here Schulz sidesteps such thinking and fails to express the intent of her argument. Would she be happier if the texts of authors whose personal habits she disagreed with were expunged from the literary canon altogether? Perhaps a better article might have pursued the reasons why Walden was initially canonized, and then examined whether those reasons still hold modern value. Schulz only snobbishly grasps at every inconsistency and flaw.
In reality, the adoption of Walden as an American classic is easy to understand. Alternately rambunctious and leisurely, Thoreau’s work breathes with youthful yearning and unfettered frontier spirit. Dense with poetry, Classical allusion, and reflective wisdom, it draws upon Eastern philosophy to make a case for simplified living, for shunning the conventionality of society in order to discover one’s truer nature. The writing is sublime; the naturalist description utilizes an incredible passion; the imagery swirls with abundant genius. Its perfected literary form allows it to transcend the dilettantish brush with which it approaches matters of government, science, and conservationism. Yet that same brush is undoubtedly a powerful one, and has painted history with more than several strokes.
All of this is invalidated, according to Schulz, by the fact that Thoreau did not live in true solitude, but went into town to visit his mother’s house and eat her cookies, and sometimes had visitors over to his cabin, even though Walden addresses all of this in his work, and never once claims to live in true isolation. Meanwhile, the author’s central assertion of Thoreau’s “moral myopia” is instantly discharged by her omitting any mention of the work’s influence on civil disobedience movements – in fact, in an display of her own extraordinary myopia, she actually argues against the use civil disobedience. It encourages people to commit wrongs, she says, “even when law mandates better behavior” – she cites the recent episode of Kim Davis, the infamous Kentucky county clerk, as though one instance of a morally misguided woman might render inert all of civil disobedience’s vast potential for precipitating political change.
In the end, Schulz’s assault on Thoreau’s character does not hold up. In painting her one-sided picture, she chooses to ignore the compassionate man who welcomed travelers hospitably into his cabin, who stood among the abolitionists to decry slavery, who did what he could to help runaways crossing through his territory – a man who went to jail to protest the injustice of the war with Mexico.
That said, “Walden” is of course not without flaws. No work is perfect, and “Pond Scum” is not the first article to divulge a dissenting opinion. Part of the larger issue is that many of us don’t know how to approach Thoreau’s work; it has been so often labeled and relabeled that it must first battle our prejudices before it reaches our ear. My personal opinion steers me to laud Walden as a highly moving endeavor, which still stands for practical change on a societal level. But it is also the portrait of an inimitable soul, one who danced along the edges of wisdom and wonder, rebellion and longing, and always strove for a better life. For anyone who has braved long stretches of solitude, Thoreau’s writing resonates on the deepest and most personal of levels, functioning like a low candle burning through the long night of ignorance that is so often modern society.