The literary corners of the Internet have spent much of the last week debating the relative priggishness of our nation’s most divisive pseudo-hermit: Henry David Thoreau. The racket started when The New Yorker published Pond Scum, a 5,000 word smackdown courtesy of Kathryn Schulz, who poses the question: “Why, given his hypocrisy, sanctimony, and misanthropy, has Thoreau been so cherished?”
Schulz proceeds to offer a compelling prosecution of Thoreau, indicting him on charges of narcissism, misandry, hypocrisy, elitism, Ayn Randian-individualism, and, most confusingly, insensitivity. She calls Walden an “unnavigable thicket of contradiction” which extends a “social and political vision that is deeply unsettling.”
The reaction online was predictably swift. The Atlantic, to which Thoreau contributed essays late in his life, responded with In Defense of Thoreau, an even-handed assessment that adopts many of Schulz’s premises to reach an entirely different conclusion. Thoreau was not a moralizing hypocrite, argues Jedediah Purdy, but a “master of contradictions.” That he was snobbish and self-righteous is a given, but he could also be humble and affectionate and, in the rarest of moments, unsure of himself.
Purdy, adopting the tone of a transcendentalist, elaborates on these contradictions in the essay’s final paragraph:
“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.”
Next came a response from The New Republic, whose reaction to the clamoring can be summarized as, “Well, duh.” Donovan Hohn rightly points out that disparaging Thoreau is well-trodden territory by now, concluding that “Schulz’s heresy turns out to be more orthodox than she thought.” We learn from Hohn that high-minded writers—James Russell Lowell, Garrison Keillor, Bill Bryson, and Jill Lepore, to name a few—have long enjoyed drawing a caricature of Thoreau’s flaws, so we can all just chill out about this already.
But The Boston Globe didn’t want to chill out, instead publishing a full-throttle defense of all things Henry, entitled Sorry New Yorker, Thoreau is more relevant than ever. Written by two academics, their focus here is on Thoreau’s naturalist contributions, his timeless legacy as both an observer and advocator of wilderness spaces. The authors agree with Schulz that Thoreau’s legacy has been misconstrued, but they contend “he deserves to be raised a peg.”
I’d argue that there are elements of truth in each of these polemics (Thoreau, the staunch absolutist, might not agree). But far more more interesting than debating his personal merits, as far as I’m concerned, is what this slate of reactions says about our relationship to his work. Perhaps more than any other member of the Western canon, Thoreau seems to consistently inspire extreme reactions from his supporters and detractors alike.
Take this financial planner who, upon reading Walden, sold her possessions and ditched her husband for the simple life. Or this poor sap who’d studied to be an accountant until “Walden had the approximate effect of a 2x4 thwacking [him] between the eyes.” But not everyone has a bailed on the good life after encountering the author, as countless authors have cashed in on the self-deprivation stunt, from Colin Beavan’s No-Impact Man to Judith Levine’s Not Buying It. And of course there’s Chris McCandless, said to have modeled his asceticism after the self-disciplined author.
Like any affected millennial worth his salt, I too can trace a Thoreauvian shadow along certain moments of my life. When I first read excerpts of Walden during my sophomore year of high school, I quickly identified a brother-in-angst. Quotes like “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation” might as well have been lifted from the chorus of a Conor Oberst ballad, and I treated them as such—that is, as gospel.
Three years later, under the guidance of a passionate, radical Freshman Lit professor, I’d read Civil Disobedience and promptly join the burgeoning Occupy movement. About half of my classmates did the same. “It is the fault of the government itself that the remedy is worse than the evil” still makes for a pretty good conceit of that autumn’s events.
Fast-forward another three years (if you can stomach one last diary entry) and I’d fallen victim to the other side of Thoreau’s radical simplicity. My then-partner, having just finished Walden, became enamored with the subsistence lifestyle, which soon grew incompatible with my nightly desire to binge on cheap beer and red meat. I’m willing to shoulder some of the blame here—really, I didn’t need all those cheeseburgers—but at the time I cursed Thoreau for encroaching on my precious consumption. My one-time hero had turned his back on me, and soon my girlfriend would do the same.
This is all to say that Henry David Thoreau, for better and worse, has a habit of wriggling into the contemporary conversation, of asserting his 160-year-old ideas from beyond the grave in a way that resonates with people for all sorts of reasons, be it political, environmental, personal, or literary. His lingering spirit extends past the high-brow subscribers of The New Yorker and The New Republic—though, clearly, it lives there too—and into the everyday concerns and interactions of so many.
John Updike touches on this in his introduction to the 150th anniversary edition of Walden:
“A century and a half after its publication, Walden has become such a totem of the back-to-nature, preservationist, anti-business, civil-disobedience mindset, and Thoreau so vivid a protester, so perfect a crank and hermit saint, that the book risks being as revered and unread as the Bible. Of the American classics densely arisen in the middle of the 19th century…Walden has contributed most to America’s present sense of itself.”
Maybe this is a good thing, maybe it is not. Maybe Thoreau was an insufferable sourpuss, maybe he was not. But the fact that these arguments keep reappearing speaks to the outsize influence of the man on our contemporary landscape. To me, that’s a good enough reason to keep reading.
Feature image via Library of Congress