As the political cycle swings nearer to election time, 'tis the season for "smear pieces." These are the articles in which the actions and pronouncements of a given candidate or political insider—Bernie Sanders, the Koch brothers, or whomever—are selectively examined and relentlessly skewered, which can be great fun if the subject happens to be someone you dislike.
But I never thought I'd be reading a smear piece on an individual who died a hundred and fifty years ago. Yet this is what New Yorker staff writer Kathryn Schulz gives us in her recent article, "Pond Scum: Henry David Thoreau's Moral Myopia."
The article would have been better had the author stopped to actually consider the question she raises. It's right there, in italics, under the author by-line: "Why, given his hypocrisy, sanctimony, and misanthropy, has Thoreau been so cherished?"
It's a fact that Thoreau's works have been cherished by generations of readers. Schulz describes it as "cabin porn," but Walden is firmly ensconced in the American canon. It's often pointed out that his writings had a profound influence on Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi. How could these giants of integrity and compassion have been so thoroughly duped?
Schulz never answers that question. Instead, she cherry-picks a litany of criticisms in defense of the argument that his work should never have been canonized, is not worth reading— and the sooner we open our eyes to the fact, the better.
None of her criticisms are new. Generations of readers have been informed of the fact, or discovered it for themselves, that Thoreau had a misanthropic streak. (Many writers do.) By assembling the most callous, holier-than-thou remarks by Thoreau she can find into a single screed, Shultz makes him sound smug and priggish indeed. But that isn't the effect one gets when reading Walden, Cape Cod, or Maine Woods.
Schulz has entirely missed Thoreau's sly and subtle humor. And she's insensitive to his language, which is astonishingly modern. I would argue that Thoreau is the greatest American prose stylist of the nineteenth century, and also its greatest poet. I'm not referring here to the man's verse, which is weak, but to the poetry of his prose. Time and again, when reading Thoreau, we feel that we're in the presence of a surrealist avant la lettre.
Walden isn't a book to be read in a single weekend, or even in a single month. It's a collection of essays, in fact, and the reader can turn to the chapter on ponds, or the village, or sounds, and be immediately engaged in Thoreau's descriptions and also his musings, which compare favorably with Montaigne's. That's why you so often see people carrying Walden along to the cabin or the campground. A few sentences, absorbed at random, send one's thoughts off in exactly the right direction.
Schulz at various points describes Thoreau as narcissistic, egotistical, and arrogant, none of which adjectives can be squared with his extraordinary capacity to attend to and describe the things he sees and hears all around him, or the personal devotion he inspired in his own time and continues to inspire today. If he's unhappy with his neighbors, it's usually because he feels they've lost the capacity to attend to life's quotidian marvels. No doubt the lives of "quiet desperation" he criticized so pithily also had virtues of which he was unaware, but readers from his day to ours have been inspired by his work to reexamine their values and ideals.And that's a good thing. He can be harsh and condescending, but it's also clear that he's well aware of the histrionic and absurd elements in the persona he's cultivating.
In his book TheThoreau You Don't Know, Robert Sullivan paints an attractive portrait of Thoreau's personality and social life, well researched, convincing, and entirely dissimilar to the badly lit Instagram Shultz has given us. The gist of her article seems to be: I don't like Thoreau, and I don't see why so many others do.
Well, that's not much of a story.
I opened my copy of Walden just now—I've never read the whole thing—and came upon the following passage on the first page of the chapter on sounds:
"But while we are confined to books, though the most select and classic, and read only particular written languages, which are themselves but dialects and provincial, we are in danger of forgetting the language which all things and events speak without metaphor, which alone is copious and standard. Much is published, but little printed. The rays which stream through the shutter will be no longer remembered when the shutter is wholly removed. No method nor discipline can supersede the necessity of being forever on the alert. What is a course of history, or philosophy, or poetry, no matter how well selected, or the best society, or the most admirable routine of life, compared with the discipline of looking always at what is to be seen? Will you be a reader, a student merely, or a seer? Read your fate, see what is before you, and walk on into futurity."