“On the whole,” he wrote, “it was not so impressive a scene as I might have expected. If I had found one body cast upon the beach in some lonely place, it would have affected me more. I sympathized rather with the winds and waves, as if to toss and mangle these poor human bodies was the order of the day. If this was the law of Nature, why waste any time in awe or pity?” This impassive witness also had stern words for those who, undone by the tragedy, could no longer enjoy strolling along the beach. Surely, he admonished, “its beauty was enhanced by wrecks like this, and it acquired thus a rarer and sublimer beauty still.”
Who was this cold-eyed man who saw in loss of life only aesthetic gain, who identified not with the drowned or the bereaved but with the storm? This was Henry David Thoreau
I read something this week that I thought was pretty lazy. It’s called “Pond Scum” by Kathryn Schulz in the New Yorker. It is a spectacular list of reasons about why Thoreau was not, in a word, worthwhile. The author does a good job of pointing out a lot of information about Thoreau’s thoughts and his way of expressing himself by quoting his writing, at first, but the essay quickly devolves into less of an essay and more of a defensive position, such as the kind a very large army fighting a smaller army might take upon a hill. There is no real reason, other than vanity, to put a phalanx on the hill.
In general, I do not agree with the tack of surrounding the entire life’s work of an author and firing weapons at it. If you ask me in five years I may have changed my mind; I have not read all the authors of the past to see just how bad-to-the-bone they were. I can’t say. In any event, that is what this person has done in her essay. Here is one of the stranger excerpts:
Thoreau went to Walden, he tells us, “to learn what are the gross necessaries of life”: whatever is so essential to survival “that few, if any, whether from savageness, or poverty, or philosophy, ever attempt to do without it.” Put differently, he wanted to try what we would today call subsistence living, a condition attractive chiefly to those not obliged to endure it. It attracted Thoreau because he “wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life.” Tucked into that sentence is a strange distinction; apparently, some of the things we experience while alive count as life while others do not. In “Walden,” Thoreau made it his business to distinguish between them.
I do believe that most people I know, and I will cautiously include myself here, make distinctions and distinguish between them when it comes to what counts as life, whether consciously or not. I also believe that people have thoughts, and write them down, for purposes other than to please other people who may someday write for The New Yorker. I have carried out experiments in hunger and abstinence. I have pushed my body to extreme physical limits. I have been, unwisely, vegan. I have camped far from a shower. I have gone without styling my hair for years at a time. I have, also, chosen thrilling hobbies that make me feel more alive. I have watched dozens of episodes of Forensic Files on Netflix in the dark of night when I am alone. I have eaten large slices of cake. All of these things, Spartan or not, give me joy and make me feel alert. When my friends go skydiving, or SCUBA diving, I don’t choose to join them. They are making it their business to map out and tentatively define the parameters of life that make them happy. I could not be more delighted for them. As they go whipping through the air with their hair and cheeks flapping strangely or sinking heavily to the depths of the sea with their mouths wrapped around large plastic implements, they are either sucking out the marrow of life or transplanting it with some other, more vivid, marrow. When they describe these adventures to me, I will not warn them that they are making distinctions. I will just listen.
While calling Thoreau’s morality “myopic,” the author herself has drawn so uncomfortably close to the outline of his proscriptions and musings that she, herself, may now need to put on a strong pair of glasses when she looks away. “I cannot idolize anyone who opposes coffee ,” she says, while going on to call into question Thoreau’s asceticism part and parcel, as if to try and temper one extreme with a tincture of hedonism to which we might all grudgingly and guiltily relate. This is a truly strange and malformed position to take. When I read Jane Eyre, for instance, I don’t tend to stop and say “I cannot idolize anyone who puts his wife in confinement in an isolated wing of a large house.” I tend to say “oh my” very quietly and go on reading. When I read, in general, I do not stop and think about which parts of what I’m reading are good and bad. There is one exception: essays about Henry David Thoreau’s legacy in the canon.
It appears, then, that Schulz has made the grand mistake of taking either insult or offense to the mind of another person. This is clear because, in the wake of her slew of examples that pinpoint the incorrect ways in which Thoreau’s principles are counted as American, she allows her depiction of his work and her suppositions about his beliefs to veer completely away from curiosity and examination and well into the auspices of the Not In My Mental Backyard organization. It is this new American tradition—not the traditions of duality and harmony with nature and individualism that Schulz dislikes— that I do not particularly care for, the one that makes me stop reading and say “I don’t agree” – the art of passing judgment on every last unit of an author’s work with the wave of one’s modern, social index finger. If this approach is to be taken seriously much longer, we will soon have to give new and young writers a test before they are allowed to continue with even their most unambitious projects. We will have to do away with writing done by people who might like to discuss living simply or quietly lest their recommendations make us uncomfortable in the morning when our donuts and coffee are firmly in hand or at night when we are drinking quartinos of wine and looking at pictures of our friends online. We will have to stop ourselves from reading most things that are not perfect.
It might do us some good to advocate a style of reading and writing that is slightly more permissive of things that are interesting. (I would go so far as to say that Thoreau (the writer, not the person) is “interesting.”) Here is what Schulz says at one point:
This comprehensive arrogance is captured in one of Thoreau’s most famous lines: “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” It is a mystery to me how a claim so simultaneously insufferable and absurd ever entered the canon of popular quotations.
I do not believe her when she says that. It is not a mystery to see how an astute observation that clearly draws on varied experience from within and without (she argues against this, saying that Thoreau never experienced anything to do with people) and uses crisp syntax to express its amazing point has entered the canon of popular quotations. Whether Thoreau intended it as such or not, it is a sentence that makes its reader reflect. Why must we excoriate an author for having made people reflect on themselves, whether in agreement with him or not?
A better approach — one that doesn’t imply that a writer must painstakingly take every possible reader and stance into account before beginning to put his or her words on paper, must do social good in the world, and ought to finish only one perfect book per lifetime — could be to discuss things with a conscience ever so slightly less subject to outside influence.