Thoreau Bashing

Am I that unusual or touchy to think that “scum” is an unpleasant, if not vulgar, label to have squarely pinned to your back?

John Lautermilch, painting of Henry David Thoreau as if by the shores of Walden PondIn “Pond Scum” (The New Yorker, October 19) Kathryn Schultz does just that as she blithely presents a “misanthropic,” “horrible” Thoreau. Apart from the vulgarity of greeting him thus, the piece offers a deeply distorted picture of the iconic writer of woodlands and ponds, rivers, meadows, and mountains. As it happens, Thoreau loved people as well as ponds. He created a healthy swamp around his brother’s grave in Sleepy Hollow so that John’s nutrients could be naturally recycled.  Out of love he wanted to extend John’s life.

“The Ecstasy of Influence” (The New Yorker, September 9) gives us a revealing aside from Emerson, who speaks of his protege’s exuberant affection for kids:

Thoreau charmed Waldo [the father’s five year old] by the variety of toys, whistles, boats, popguns & all kinds of instruments he could make and mend

images-91He was famous for concocting Saturday games for the neighborhood boys.

Though he’s charged with misanthropy, Thoreau could gaze at throngs at the county fair and exclaim,

I love these sons of earth, every mother’s son of them, with their great hearty hearts rushing tumultuously in herds from spectacle to spectacle (A Week on the Concord)

And there’s this startling confession:

Even the tired laborers I meet on the road, I really meet as traveling gods (Journal, August 15, 1845)

Reconstruction of the interior of Thoreau's cabinHe loved his brother profoundly. His first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, commemorates their shared life. He didn’t forget the good friends he regularly walked with, nor the Canadian wood chopper, introduced in Walden. The two read aloud, more or less arm in arm, focused on the scene from the Iliad where Achilles and Protroclus renew their loving friendship.

Schultz is not the first to unload on Thoreau. A string of expletives – “hypocrite,” “misanthrope,” “prig” – predictably follows him like barking dogs, in print and in casual conversation. Why do critics nip at his heels?

"I went to the woods" -- lines from Thoreau's Walden, on sign near his cabin site at Walden PondFor one thing, Thoreau loves to provoke with unexpected and often unpopular sentiments. The sentiments don’t fall into a single pattern, making it easy to cherry-pick sentences likely to particularly offend the unwary.

Then again, perhaps it is Harold Bloom’s Anxiety of Influence (rather than an Ecstasy of Influence). If Thoreau gains too much cultural traction the ill-tempered watchdogs get anxious and warn us away.

An imposing cultural or political icon presents a tempting invitation to uncover clay feet. It’s a great leveling device. And it’s a sad commonplace that critical reading  is meant always to undermine, never to generously commend. The greater the stature, the greater the potential vituperation. The result? “Pond Scum,” “Horrible Thoreau,” “Misanthrope,” “Sanctimonious Hypocrite.”

Thoreau’s first published piece was an obituary in his local newspaper for an inconsequential woman who otherwise would have been forgotten. It is as if he took no life to be forgettable.

cd694f5986757dca462ecd5fc754334dNo one likes to be preached down to, but Thoreau isn’t a non-stop moralist except in his gripping political polemics — say his defense of John Brown. In writings like Walden, he is much closer to Rousseau’s reflective and mostly gentle Reveries of a Solitary Walker. Ms. Schultz is not alone in having a decidedly tin ear for Thoreau’s reverie and musing, his irony, merriment, and hyperbole.

Walden‘s well-crafted excursions in parody, hyperbole, reverie, and the like are not meant to announce doctrine or to force dogma down throats. Thoreau is a master of sly exaggeration and wicked caricature.

How much of his opening chapter, “Economy,” is a slightly-tongue-in-cheek elaboration of Franklin’s “A penny saved is a penny earned”? Another chapter, “Reading,” has him wishing that all his town folk could read classics in the original languages. He candidly calls some of the most extravagant moments in his writing “dreaming awake.”

Great Eastern Railway (GER) Class Y14 class of 0-6-0 steam locomotive [GER Class Y14 LNER Class J15]; shown here with a demonstration freight trainA freight train heard across the pond is an indication of suspect commercialism (not to say noise) but also, as in a dream, it unravels

its steam cloud . . . like a banner streaming behind in golden and silver wreaths

A page further he muses amazed at the heroic delivery elsewhere of loads of intriguing goods. Each boxcar of bundles has unexpected meanings:

This carload of torn sails is more legible and interesting now than if they should be wrought into paper and printed books

Mishearing subtle tones of voice, their registers and modulations, leads to wildly mistaken attributions. We needn’t buy into Kids Traveling To A Boarding School Through The Himalayas, Zanskar, Indian Himalayas; photo by Timothy Allen“Saint Henry,” but the alternative needn’t be a sour and trashy “Horrible Henry.”

Thoreau leads us over and over to unexplored and bracing depths of human desire and to alluring, achingly marvelous possible perceptions. When the path gets tangled or the ascent too rough, some quit the walk and write a complaint.

After these pointed words, this rather whimsical thought occurs: Maybe understanding Thoreau is like understanding a journey around the world; you understand him one day at a time, and try to keep up with the conversations as they change and dart this way and that, like kids at play. And remember that for all the changing scenery, there’s a thread — however hard it is to recreate short of starting the journey again.  Of course his travels stopped short of going much beyond Maine, Minnesota,  Staten Island, and Mt. Greylock. But they covered worlds.

—Ed Mooney, Zeteo Contributor

See his Excursions with Thoreau: Philosophy, Poetry, Religion, Bloomsbury, 2015, and Lost Intimacy in American Thought: Recovering Personal Philosophy From Thoreau to Cavell, Continuum, 2009. – See more at:

Citations: For the shallow swamp around John Thoreau’s grave, and for his obituary of an otherwise unknown woman, see Branka Arsić’s, Bird Relics: Grief and Vitalism in Thoreau (Harvard, 2015), pp. 385–7. See obituary for Anna Jones, Yeoman’s Gazette, 1837, discussed in Arsić, pp. 340–6.  Harold Bloom’s The Anxiety of Influence (Oxford, 1975) considers poets suffering under the crushing accomplishments of forebears, but why not suppose that critics suffer under the accomplishments of original writers? Thoreau’s defense of John Brown is found in almost any collection of his essays. For “hearty hearts,” see  A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (Princeton, 1980) p. 358. See Walden, ed. Jeffrey Cramer, (Yale, 2004): for “dreaming awake,” “The Ponds,” p. 185 [para 21]; for his extensive and shifting view of freight trains, see “Sounds.” Also, see The Journal of Henry D. Thoreau, Bradford Torrey (ed.) (Houghton Mifflin, 2006) Vols I–XIV, available on-line: The Writings of Henry David Thoreau: The Digital Collection. Oil painting of Thoreau imagined, by Walden Pond, painted by John Lauthermilch. Photograph of kids traveling to a boarding school through the Himalayas, photo by Timothy Allen.


  1. Daniel D'Arezzo

    Kathryn Schulz threw down the gauntlet and Ed Mooney has picked it up, and I’m glad he did. I thought that Schulz’s version of Thoreau was mean-spirited. Just because Thoreau has been “sainted” doesn’t mean that he offered himself up for sainthood. Schulz says Thoreau was a hypocrite. Well, who isn’t? Was Thoreau inconsistent? Yes, of course he was. I think that his poem “I Am a Parcel of Vain Strivings Tied” (a knotted poem that I don’t pretend to understand fully) expresses his self-doubt and humility. He was not the arrogant prig Schulz makes him out to be but rather a man trying to make sense of his brief sojourn on Earth. Because he did a better job than most of us, his work rewards our reading.

    I was sure that Schulz would make hay out of “A Plea for Captain John Brown,” in which Thoreau writes that a man divinely inspired to free slaves is a hero, even though it comes down to breaking the law and killing others. This seems a far cry from the man who inspired “passive resistance” in Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. I happen to think that Thoreau was dead wrong about Brown and I am likely never to be on the side of someone divinely inspired. But Thoreau was passionate about abolition and correct that the government of the United States was in the hands of a criminal cabal of slave drivers. Schulz passes over Thoreau’s plea in silence.

    Any writer whose fate it is to have been taught in a high-school English class (that is, to have become a classic) will, of necessity, have to be rescued from his or her admirers and detractors. The best way to do that is to reread the work. After the passage of years, I guarantee that it will seem utterly fresh, as if you’d never read it before (which, of course, most likely you didn’t).

    P.S. The first chapter of Walden is “Economy.”


  2. Ed Mooney

    Amen!! Thanks, Daniel! Bad stuff is everywhere, but somehow I didn’t think we’d find it so prominently in the august New Yorker. Live and learn.


  3. Steve Webb

    Kathryn Schulz’s thesis, as stated in her fifth paragraph, is that Thoreau’s self-preoccupation (narcissism) leads to a “deeply unsettling” political vision that slights “the entanglements and responsibilities of living among other people.” In my opinion, this is a perfectly valid line of inquiry. What exactly is the ethical import of Thoreau’s categorical injunction “Explore thyself” and what specifically does it mean for a person’s social and political involvements, if any? Unfortunately, Schulz’s animus toward Thoreau is so extreme that her inquiry becomes little more than a hodgepodge of accusations, many of which are based on misquotations and a sly avoidance of all contrary evidence. A simple example of misquotation is her use of Thoreau’s famous line from “Civil Disobedience”: “That government is best which governs not at all.” In Thoreau’s essay, that line does not end with a period, as Schulz and others seem to think, but with a semicolon; and what follows the semicolon is a crucial qualification: “…when men are ready for it…”! One might well make the case that Thoreau was a “libertarian verging on anarchist,” as Schulz suggests, but it is unfair to characterized him as a witless Utopian. He explicitly stated that he was not to be classed among the “no-government men.”

    A far more important example of Schulz’s tendentious reading is her claim that Thoreau adopted absurdly narrow rules of conduct and demanded that everyone else follow them. Summarizing her indictment, Schulz writes: “To reject all certainties but one’s own is the behavior of a zealot; to issue contradictory decrees based on private whim is that of a despot.” Seven paragraphs later, in a sweeping parenthesis, she goes on to say that Thoreau’s “claim that he doesn’t want others to imitate him can’t be taken seriously…[because he] dismissed all other lifestyles as morally and spiritually desperate….” She makes this astonishing and quite erroneous assertion only be shunning the very passage that she’s referring to, a passage that plainly states the specific reasons why Thoreau discouraged imitators: “I would not have anyone adopt my mode of living on any account; for, beside that before he has fairly learned it I may have found out another for myself, I desire that there may be as many different persons in the world as possible; but I would have each one be very careful to find out and pursue his own way….” These reasons are far too important to be slighted.

    “Walden” repeatedly stresses the importance of maintaining a second-order or critical perspective on one’s life and of always keeping oneself open to novelty and the possibility of self-revision. Indeed, to start over again and discover oneself anew is a primary lesson of the entire book. And of course Thoreau did leave Walden and commence a new life. Why? “I left the woods for as good a reason as I went there. Perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one. It is remarkable how easily and insensibly we fall into a particular route, and make a beaten track for ourselves.” If there is one unpardonable sin in Thoreau’s teaching, it is to permit oneself to grow bored with life. Ennui, he plausibly claimed, was nothing less than a kind of death (which satisfactorily explains his, according to Schulz, “strange distinction” between life and not life.) Thoreau’s willingness to critically review his life and to change it as experience demands includes, naturally, those “puritanical” and “ascetic” prescriptions that Schulz finds so very objectionable. It’s baffling that she altogether ignores his candid admission: “But to tell the truth, I find myself at present somewhat less particular in these respects. I carry less religion to the table, ask no blessing; not because I am wiser than I was, but…[because] with years I have grown more coarse and indifferent.”

    The freedom that Thoreau allowed himself, he fully granted to others as well. The particulars of Thoreau’s regulation of his body were entirely his own and highly flexible; they were not intended to have universal reach. “Every man is the builder of a temple, called his body, to the god he worships, after a style purely his own….” A more secular-minded person may well dislike the idea of spiritual body-building, but the point is that, for Thoreau, such matters are entirely up to each person to determine for herself according to her own life plan. There are few things about which Thoreau is more insistent than the value of human diversity. In his essay “Walking,” he expresses his tolerance in almost teleological terms, as if diversity were nature’s design for humans: “Men are different that they might be various.” The problem with Thoreau is clearly not in his supposed moral zealotry and despotism, but in his extreme individualism, i.e., in his (and Emerson’s) idea that a person is to seek personal ethical direction solely by looking to himself. The polestar by which he navigates is ultimately to be determined by what he likes, and this, the mere liking, “is sufficient guidance for all [his] life.” Again: “If one listens to the faintest but constant suggestions of his genius, which are certainly true, he sees not to what extremes, or even insanity, it may lead him; and yet that way, as he grows more resolute and faithful, his road lies.” Exaggerations aside, these and similar propositions—and there are many of them—are at best dubious. However, they are not merely contemptible; they have considerable interest, in fact; and they merit a fair and balance examination. Schulz, sad to say, can’t manage that level of generosity, and the result is a shrill and carelessly documented rant.


  4. William Eaton

    I thank Ed Mooney, Daniel D’Arezzo, and Steve Webb for their reflections on Thoreau. And I am afraid we must thank Ms. Schultz, too, for provoking them, though I cannot help feeling that she has done more writing about Thoreau than reading of his work. (To thousand-dollar international airplane seats, some number of people now bring books, articles, and e-readers, and half an hour after takeoff 98 percent of the cabin is either watching movies or trying to sleep. These are the people who Schultz is hoping will — instead of returning to their high-school editions of Walden — will read her “Pond Scum”?)

    Meanwhile I have been reading a classic work of American history, Perry Miller’s The New England Mind: From Colony to Province (Harvard UP, 1953), a book highly recommended in another classic: Richard Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (Knopf, 1963). Miller’s work describes social dynamics of long, long standing, along with tired (at times Medieval) metaphysics and dogma which continue to play large roles in our public policy debates, ruminations about ethics (about how to live), and judgments as to what constitutes right and wrong thinking. The book stays focused on the particular period (the seventeenth century) and people (New England Protestant religious leaders) that are its subject, but toward the end Miller does offer this on how “engines of piety” become “engines of conformity”: “[T]he man who would go aside by himself, into profanity or to Walden Pond, who would breach a controversial topic or refuse to be pawed by reforming institutions, would stand before the community absolutely convicted of antisocial propensities.”

    One piety that has come to bind and absorb Americans is that the United States is the greatest country, our Constitution and democracy, our “free” markets, movies, pop music, iPhones, etc. Though all this may feel quite barren, day to day it is easy enough to play along, content with our routines and favorite diversions, thankful if we have a job or a pension, and perhaps some kind of mate. We know that such lives — our lives — are not all they’re cracked up to be. The barrenness comes with various lazinesses and an inability to see much of anything ahead besides a bigger or smaller house or bottom line, a next vacation.
    In such an environment, it would seem, Thoreau, among others, is ripe for a bashing. He writes beautifully, and certainly has a knack for the clever analogy, a bit of nature carefully observed. But is this of any help! And as for calling our attention to the limits — the seemingly unnecessary limits — to our lives, tastes, and ways of thinking — we hardly need help with that.

    In Walden Thoreau argued that, as opposed to the normal way, a different way of life might be easier and less expensive, in several senses of those adjectives. Millions of Americans, generations, have now read at least some of Thoreau’s arguments and have smiled and nodded their heads and gone on about their lives. Perhaps what he really failed to understand — what is almost incomprehensible — is how the several engines we fuel — engines not only of piety and conformism, but also of metaphysics and dogma, of competition and cooperation, of capitalism — are insatiable. (And then there’s cowardice and laziness, which have trouble seeing themselves and rarely like what they see.)

    “Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members,” Emerson wrote. He was ahead of Schultz.


  5. Steve Webb

    Despite Thoreau’s trenchant criticisms of antebellum American society, ultimately his nostrums have almost no relevance to the multiple and gathering crises of our own. This, I take it, is the gist of William Eaton’s recent comment on Ed Mooney’s “Thoreau Bashing.” Not only Thoreau’s criticisms but also his experiments in simplified living are mostly ineffectual for bringing about real social change. Thoreau has been read by countless high school and college students and is today the focus of a significant academic industry; yet his influence has been pretty much confined to personal edification, nature appreciation, and “spirituality.” His writings do not valorize the permanent duties of citizenship and he encourages political action only under the most extreme circumstances. Even when he himself acts—his political essays do count as political acts in my estimation—he usually does so grudgingly, always making clear that he has a principled way out if he wants to take it. We might well ask whether this iconic nonconformist, by eschewing politics to the extent he could, was not unconsciously, or maybe even consciously, supporting the status quo. Consider this from “Civil Disobedience”: “I do not wish to spit hairs or make fine distinctions…. I seek rather, I might say, even an excuse for conforming to the laws of the land. I am but too ready to conform to them. Indeed, I have reason to suspect myself on this head…[,] to discover a pretext for conformity.” Many of us can easily recognize ourselves in that, I think.

    I don’t wish to speak for William, but I get the impression that his use of Perry Miller’s phrase “engines of piety” might be referring, in its updated application, to something like our unconscious allegiance to the underlying dynamics of consumer capitalism and the military-corporate state. Through a combination of habit, self-deception, distraction, apathy, and simply not knowing what else to do, we are all of us manipulated into serving the impersonal forces that dominate our lives. The clothes we buy, the electricity we use, the water we squander, the packaging our food comes in, the fossil fuels we burn, the beef and pork we eat—every aspect of our everyday lives implicates us in the inexorable playing out of late capitalism (according to sundry Marxist at any rate). Thoreau, from this perspective, provides at best a mental holiday from our ceaseless complicity. In fairness to him, he is no different in that respect from any other poet. Yes, people “die every day for lack of what is found there,” spiritually speaking, but most of our pressing social problems—actual hunger, exposure, disease, waste, greed, and violent death—have to do with the baseness of matter. That is why some people insist, however unpleasant it may sound, that economics and politics must come before poetry. Is this perhaps truer in our day than it was in Thoreau’s?

    Thoreau’s defenders (I am one of them about every other week) will naturally point to “Civil Disobedience” and mention Gandhi and Martin Luther King. Case closed. Unfortunately, we rarely take a careful look at what “Civil Disobedience” says. Nor do we ever ask ourselves such simple questions as what those two heroes of mass resistance borrowed from that essay and what they dropped, or—is it possible?—failed even to notice. A simple example: “There is but little virtue in the actions of masses of men.” Really! Would Thoreau have advised Gandhi and King to focus on developing their individual characters rather than leading men and women in collective action? The answer is: not necessarily, not if leading men and women was the true expression of the would-be leader’s authentic “genius” or character. But the would-be leader should make very sure of that, not just assume it. Again from “Civil Disobedience”: “It is not a man’s duty, as a matter of course, to devote himself to the eradication of any, even the most enormous wrong; he may still properly have other concerns to engage him; but it is his duty, at least, to wash his hands of it, and, if he gives it no thought longer, not to give it practically his support.” Either there was a lot less cross-contamination in Thoreau’s day or the soap they used then was much stronger than our own.

    Finally, from Thoreau’s brilliant ten-paragraph essay on selfishness and philanthropy, which concludes the first chapter of “Walden,” we have this: “Probably I should not consciously and deliberately forsake my particular calling to do the good that society demands of me, to save the universe from annihilation….” Well, he does say “probably.” Is it possible, then, that he might make himself available to do the good that society does NOT demand of him; namely, the hard work of breaking through society’s insidious, self-enforcing rationalizations and actively bringing about its transformation? I have my doubts, mainly because Thoreau really did believe that individual reform, the exploration and development of one’s Self, was the only true path to social redemption. A person’s goodness, he said, “must not be a partial and transitory act, but a constant superfluity, which costs him nothing and of which he is unconscious.” It is by each of us making our private life “a blessing to mankind,” and by the inadvertent influence of our example through a kind of moral “contagion,” that the world will be elevated. I think William might say that this is just the sort of pious talk that keeps the systemic problems of modern life largely repressed and unchanged. Despite all that I have just adduced, I remain on the fence.


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