Thoreau, Henry David Entries

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.

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link to Wolves 2011 reading list
link to more disgust bibliography