Essay Mondays: Thoreau


(Each week I read four essays from Philip Lopate's anthology The Art of the Personal Essay, and write about the one I find the most compelling.)

Well, my friends, here we are. I wanted to avoid another essay-related diatribe so soon after my E.M. Cioran post, but as my other three options this week were simply amusing bits of fluff (though the Thurber one really was very enjoyable), I feel I have no choice but to explain to you just what it is I find so objectionable about Henry David Thoreau. Blog-buddy Richard has poked fun at me on a number of occasions for an old LibraryThing post in which I called Thoreau a "sophomoric douchebag," and while I stick by that comment one hundred percent, I could perhaps outline more eloquently just why he makes my blood boil. And although the particular essay I read this week—"Walking"—is not quite as offensive as the whole Walden boondoggle, it'll do well enough for my purposes.

So, "Walking." From the title, one might expect a description of how the author experiences his habit of going for walks; things he notices; why such a habit has value in his life. Indeed, he does—eventually—work round to all these things. After a short introductory paragraph, however, Thoreau begins thusly:

I have met with but one or two persons in the course of my life who understood the art of Walking, that is, of taking walks...

And again:

We have felt that we almost alone hereabouts practised this noble art; though, to tell the truth, at least, if their own assertions are to be received, most of my townsmen would fain walk sometimes, as I do, but they cannot...Some of my townsmen, it is true, can remember and have described to me some walks which they took ten years ago, in which they were so blessed as to lose themselves for half an hour in the woods; but I know very well that they have confined themselves to the highway ever since, whatever pretensions they may make to belong to this select class. No doubt they were elevated for a moment as by the reminiscence of a previous state of existence, when even they were foresters and outlaws.

Here, right off the bat, are two of the things that drive me insane about Thoreau. In the first place, he takes an age getting around to any discussion of his actual experience, because he is so distracted with snide asides designed to reveal how much more enlightened and liberated he is than anyone else in the greater Massachusetts area. It's somehow not enough, for him, simply to describe his relationship with walking; he must define his own virtue at the expense of his neighbors. True, he does occasionally tease the reader into thinking he will speak about himself and his enjoyment of walking, as in the paragraph beginning "My vicinity affords many good walks," but within a few sentences he has regressed into deriding human folly yet again ("Nowadays almost all man's improvements, so called...simply deform the landscape"). When he finally condescends, in the last few pages of this 25-page essay, to describe his own impressions of nature, he is admittedly quite good; I especially liked his description of the shafts of sunlight at Spauling's Farm. There are, however, plenty of skilled writers on the natural world who do not require the reader to slog through twenty pages of self-satisfied, self-indulgent, self-congratulatory claptrap in order to arrive at the payoff.

And what claptrap it is! Why should I be convinced by his professed "knowledge" that his townsmen have spent the last decade confined to the highway, never exploring the woods? Why should I be charmed by his patronizing imaginations of an era when "even" his philistine neighbors had a bit of wildness, or by his dismissal of another man's "half an hour" of connection with nature as insufficient to join Henry David's Little Club of Walkers? I do not, and I am not. It chills my blood to remember that Thoreau was a minister My mistake; he was a Unitarian but not a minister. Which makes me feel slightly better about the state of the Concord congregation: his attitude toward other humans, especially humans whose values diverge from his own, is so condescending and dismissive that I shudder to think what he might have told someone who came to him for solace. Here he is again, continuing to discourse on the soul-dead ignorance he imagines to characterize his townsfolk:

I confess that I am astonished at the power of endurance, to say nothing of the moral insensibility, of my neighbors who confine themselves to shops and offices the whole day for weeks and months, ay, and years almost together. I know not what manner of stuff they are of,—sitting there now at three o'clock in the afternoon, as if it were three o'clock in the morning. Bonaparte may talk of the three-o'clock-in-the-morning courage, but it is nothing to the courage which can sit down cheerfully at this hour in the afternoon over against one's self whom you have known all the morning, to starve out a garrison to whom you are bound by such strong ties of sympathy.

Moral insensibility. Wow.

Here are two more things that grate on me about Thoreau, and we are not even on Page Four. In the first place, he fails utterly to recognize his own privilege and how that allows him to lead the life he chooses, nor that other, less privileged people have fewer options. This is especially infuriating in Walden, where he seems to think that anyone could do as he does, failing to acknowledge that while he has been invited by his wealthy friend to live rent-free on the friend's property, the mill-hands and mule-drivers of Concord probably don't have this option open to them. But this attitude is equally apparent in "Walking": in the above passage, he wonders how laboring people, shop people, can stand to shut themselves up inside, when for many of them this choice is made easy by the real specter of hunger if they don't. In a similarly bourgeois moment, he goes on to assume that the reason the women of the town don't spend their afternoons meandering up and down the countryside, is that they're all napping. Not, you know, playing with, teaching, or disciplining their children; or feeding or clothing their families; or cleaning, mending, or organizing their households, to name only the tasks expected of a conventional woman in Thoreau's day.

But another assumption in the above paragraph is even more frustrating to me, and it has to do with that line about endurance and moral insensibility. Thoreau has a terrible tendency to identify the things he finds valuable in his own life, and then assume that those who don't value those same things are asleep, insensible, morally backwards, ignorant, foolish, or all of the above. He absolutely does not respect the idea that some people might feel more awake, alive, and stimulated inside their houses than outside in the woods. Because HE feels more alive in the woods, because HE starts to stagnate if he stays inside too long, he assumes that everyone else who stays inside all day must be experiencing a similar feeling of stagnation. He even dismisses the benefits of walking, if a person is not walking in the same way Thoreau likes to walk. It's really quite bizarre.

Let's look at an analogous situation from my own life. Two of my great friends are women I have known since we were all six years old; we grew up within a few blocks of each other, and are still close. The three of us have taken vastly different paths in life: Sara lives in Manhattan and works as a bonds trader for a huge financial company; Leah was just ordained as a Unitarian minister and is now searching for a long-term congregation; and I work an admin job half-time to support my various art projects, on which I also make a small amount of money. If I were somehow required to live either Sara's life or Leah's, I know I would quickly go mad—in the one case from pressure and over-stimulation; in the other, from constant contact with other people and a lack of religious feeling. But it would be a ridiculous fallacy for me to look at my two friends and assume that THEIR feelings about their lives are the same as mine would be were I living them. On the contrary, Sara thrives on the challenge of her high-pressure job and the bustle of the big city; Leah finds great fulfillment in her ministry and in her large community of friends and congregants; I glean meaning from quiet moments of crafting objects with my hands, in getting into the flow of creation. All three of us are doing what we feel called to do, even though those things are very different.

Henry David Thoreau was doing what he felt called to do too, but he assumed that if other people only shook off their "moral insensibility," they would all feel called to do the same thing as him. He is, not so much a male chauvinist or a white chauvinist (though I think he is, to some degree, those things as well1), but a Thoreauvian chauvinist, smirking at the ignorant delusions of the philistine masses. I have known too many people in real life who fall into this same trap—and, more importantly, too many real-life people who successfully avoid it—to want to waste my energy reading another one.

Up next week: F. Scott Fitzgerald, E.B. White, M.F.K. Fisher, or Mary McCarthy. Given the presence of E.B. White on that list, I feel guaranteed a more positive Essay Mondays post next time.


Badge photo courtesy of Liz West:


1About the theft of the land of the American continent from the people who already lived here, for example, he writes:

I think that the farmer displaces the Indian even because he redeems the meadow, and so makes himself stronger and in some respects more natural.

And again:

The very winds blew the Indian's cornfield into the meadow, and pointed out the way in which he had not the skill to follow. He had no better implement with which to intrench himself in the land than a clam-shell. But the farmer is armed with plough and spade.

No white people of Thoreau's generation were likely to know this, but the agricultural sophistication of native tribes on the Eastern Seaboard prior to white conquest far outstripped that of their white conquerors, including as it did the planting of complementary crops, the rotation of fields, and many other techniques that white folks chose not to see because said techniques did not fit in with the white idea of the "savagery" and "ignorance" of the American Indians. Thoreau is simply repeating the casual racism of his day; he is no worse than most on this score. On the other hand, jingoistic passages such as these (he goes on to celebrate the westward expansion of the enlightened United States) do little to endear me to an already-offensive essay.


  • Oh Emily. When I first saw Thoreau pop up in my Google Reader, I cringed and considered not reading the post. I loathe him to the point that it pains to me to find a book blogger praising him. But then your first paragraph caught my eye, and pretty soon I was doing an intellectual dance of joy! This whole post makes me so happy! He is a sophomoric douchebag. And I love how you skewered him. :D So yay! That's all I have to say.

  • "snide asides designed to reveal how much more enlightened and liberated he is than anyone else"

    Haha! I must apologize, for when I expressed my desire that you choose Thoreau this week, I actually haven't read any of his works yet. I was expecting something more delightful from him, like the works of Emerson whom I've heard was his friend (I loved his essay "Love"). But then I read Thoreau's piece "Life Without Principle" and was surprised to find out he was, well, rather haughty and tended to make "snide" remarks. Like you, I got the feeling the feeling that he hated others who didn't share his life's principles ;)

    And he was a minister? Hmm, interesting, hehe.

    Well I hope you have a much more delightful one next week. Never heard of White before. Next week should be exciting :)

    Oh, by the way, whatever art you might find pleasure in crafting during your quiet moments, I think it does you good. All these musings you share (even when in ranting form, hehe) are certainly interesting to read :)

  • Hang on - when was Thoreau a minister? Are you thinking of Emerson? Thoreau was a teacher. And pencil maker.

  • Your rant was very entertaining. Though I'm with Amateur Reader, I don't think Thoreau was ever a minister. He was a teacher and hated it and worked for many years in his family's pencil making business the results of which - inhaling lead dust - contributed to his early death.

    If it is any consolation to you, Emerson was often frustrated by what he saw as Thoreau's laziness and was always poking at him to write more or go on the lecture circuit much to Thoreau's great annoyance.

  • Eva: Ha, glad to encounter another anti-Thoreauvian. :-) I don't quite understand how he has achieved the status of secular nature saint, but I can't stand the man.

    Mark David: No apologies, I was really trapped into writing about him by the lack of meat in my other three essays this week! But, glad to hear my impressions are not at odds with your own, and thanks as always for the nice words. :-)

  • Amateur Reader: You seem to be right! I was steered wrong by my overly-zealous Unitarian friend; I've corrected above. It's actually a real relief to me to realize that the congregants of the Concord area wouldn't necessarily have been subjected to his contempt. :-) Thanks for the correction.

    Stefanie: Corrected above; glad you found the rest of the entry entertaining. It does make me feel slightly better to imagine Thoreau being prodded to action. :-)

  • I'm with Eva - this post just makes me so happy! I haven't read enough of Thoreau to really have on opinion, but what I have read has utterly underwhelmed me. Now I feel that I can confidently shove a thorough perusal of his works farther into my distant future. Thanks for a very interesting and entertaining post!

  • Emily, ha ha, I see the cat is finally out of the "sophomoric douchebag" bag! Awesome! Have to say that I find much of Walden (and prob. "Civil Disobedience," too, but I read that far too long ago to remember exactly) inspiring on some the same time as I think you're quite right to take grumpy old entitlement-taker Thoreau to task for all of the stuff in your post. He certainly can't be defended on any of the points you mention. On the other hand, as much as I like CĂ©line's writing in Journey to the End of the Night, I'm not sure I'd want to pal around with him either. For altogether different reasons, of course. Have you been to Walden Pond yourself? The pond itself is unimpressive (much like the Alamo and other famous monuments), but the Concord area is quite lovely even to a city slicker ex-Californian like myself.

  • Sarah: Oh good, glad you enjoyed it. :-) Yeah, I would definitely not prioritize the collected works of old Henry David, but then that's just me.

    Richard: You know, I think one reason he bothers me so much is that I'm so close to agreeing with him, so close to being able to find Walden inspiring. It's like, I don't know if you've tuned musical instruments, but there's this point when you're tuning a guitar when the tone you're adjusting gets close to the tone you're trying to match, and they make this dissonant, hurts-your-head noise because their frequencies are just off. That's how I feel about Thoreau—I mean, I AGREE that walking in the woods is great; I AGREE that it would be helpful in many cases to simplify our lives. But I can't access that stuff because I'm so put off by his arrogance. Oh well. :-) But yeah, there are plenty of writers whose work I love, who I wouldn't want to hang with in real life.

    And I haven't visited Walden Pond, but my partner David, who grew up in the Boston area, went skinny-dipping there with a former girlfriend and was then routed by the authorities! Ooh la la.

  • One of my college professors used to teach classes in a men's prison. She had them read Walden and they absolutely despised it and were furious that someone would deliberately choose to lead a hard life, when most of them were born into it or suffered setbacks that landed them in a bad living situation. That really did make me think about the privilege issue when it comes to people like Thoreau or Christopher McCandless (the guy who ended up starving to death in the Alaskan wilderness). It's the romanticization of poverty or "primitive living," related to the "noble savage" ideal. I guess we can blame Rousseau?

  • This made me laugh! Have this very smart but curmudgeonly friend who always swears that nature has been appropriated by the green cultural elite. He then points to my over-priced granola girl sandals, and continues to rail about the high cost of simplicity. But he has great points. And so do you of course.

    Like you, I find that Thoreau appeals to me in theory but when I actually read him, I am annoyed. So condescending. Just know he was no fun to drink with.

  • EL Fay: Oh, that's interesting. That's a whole other take on the privilege issue that wouldn't necessarily have occurred to me - that "slumming it" can be offensive to people who don't have a choice! I am on board with blaming Rousseau; always a likely candidate. :-)

    Frances: Ha, so many things in my life would provoke your friend's ridicule as well, but yes, he does have a good point. And your last bit really makes me wonder what kind of a drunk Thoreau WAS - so curmudgeonly in his writings; maybe he got super-affectionate, or even weepy. I like to imagine so.

  • I have to say for the record that I LOVE HD Thoreau and Walden is my bible. But all the same, you present a very persuasive critique! My only defense - maybe he's being metaphorical.

  • Marieke: You're definitely not alone! :-) I'm sure there's a compelling charm to Thoreau if you come at him from some angle, but for me personally I haven't hit upon it yet. As for metaphorical - could be...but I don't know, I can't really think of a way that the addition of metaphor could transform his self-righteousness into something I'd want to read... :-/

  • This is one of my all-time favorite posts of yours. I just love your opinions!

  • Cynthia: Haha, opinions: I got 'em. :-) Glad you enjoyed this one.

  • It would be a little hard for me to hate Thoreau, as Hobgoblin adores him and has written extensively about him. The truth is, though, that I haven't read Thoreau in a very long time, and didn't read him attentively when I did pick him up (for school). It would be an interesting exercise to read him again to see what I really think :)

  • I honestly always felt kind of bad about not really likeing Thoreau. I mean, you know, the image you get is sort of this proto-hippie, guy who was all about love and earthiness and granola and what not. And Then I read him, and, kind of like you, just felt like he was a dick. Pardon the language. And he quotes well! There are individual LINES he's said that I find lovely and meaningful. And the thing is, I LOVE so much of the transcendentalist authors of the time (Moby Dick! Our Lady Margaret of the Dial!) and even when I disagree with them, I can love them. But Thoreau just felt snide and dismissive and like... well, like a senator. Pretending to argue when in fact they are just putting out their canned responses, you know? Thanks, I feel better. If the Great Emily of Evening All Afternoon doesn't like Thoreau, maybe I'm not just a horrid reader...

  • Dorothy: Oh yes, that would make things awkward, wouldn't it? But perhaps would be an interesting experiment to revisit him at some point. I actually keep revisiting him thinking my own perspective will have changed and I'll feel more positively toward him, hasn't happened yet.

    Jason: Oh heavens, you are much too complimentary! However, I'm very glad I could help alleviate any bad feelings you were having about not liking Thoreau, which is a TOTALLY valid opinion! It's interesting that you say "even when I disagree with them, I can love them": I feel like Thoreau is almost more of a "even when I agree with him, I still detest him." On the other hand, I can really relate to finding somebody a crank and still sort of lovable, which I think some folks feel about Thoreau. Eh, to each their own. :-)

  • Hey! I know this thread is a little old by now, but I just wanted to say that I really enjoyed your post. By luck, I have recently run across a string of different references to Walden from many different sources and a few authors that I really enjoy. For the most part, the references were uniformly glowing and so I decided that I was depriving myself by not giving his book a read. But almost immediately upon picking up the book I found his writing almost totally insufferable. I really can't get past the thick layer of smugness that coats every sentence. I too, can agree with many of his premises and yet find him to be totally detestable anyway. He just feels to me to be the kind of person we've all suffered through a dinner or cocktail hour that is just full of opinions about the most trivial parts of life and is determined to judge everything around him as flawed and backwards. Which of course is only made worse by knowing the privileged circumstances under which he wrote the book.

    Thanks for the post, it made me feel better that I wasn't getting as much out of the book as I had hoped.

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    link to Wolves 2011 reading list
    link to more disgust bibliography