Thoreau Bashing

Am I that unusual or touchy in thinking that “scum” is an unpleasant, if not vulgar, label to have squarely pinned to one’s back?

images-2In “Pond Scum” (The New Yorker, October 19th) Kathryn Schultz blithely presents a “misanthropic,” “horrible” Thoreau. Apart from the vulgarity of the greeting, the piece offers a deeply distorting picture of the iconic writer of woodlands and ponds, rivers, meadows, and mountains.  As it happens, Thoreau loved people and as well as ponds. He created a healthy swamp around his brother’s grave in Sleepy Hollow so that John’s nutrients could be happily recycled.  Out of love he wanted to extend John’s life.

The Ecstasy of Influence” (The New Yorker, September 9th) 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).

images-1He loved his brother profoundly. His first book, A Week, 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 follow him like barking dogs, in print and in casual conversation. Why?

For 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.

imagesAn 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.

No 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, Thoreau 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 and hyperbole.

Walden‘s well-crafted parody, hyperbole, and reverie 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, “Economics,” 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. He freely calls extravagant moments in his writing “dreaming awake.”

images-3A 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.

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 wild mistakes in attribution. We needn’t buy into “Saint Henry.” Surely the alternative is not the childish “Horrible Henry.” Thoreau leads us over and over to unexplored and bracing depths of human desire and alluring possible perceptions.

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2 comments on “Thoreau Bashing

  1. efmooney says:

    Paul Muench made nice mention of this piece on face book, prefaced by his intimation that maybe a lot of people don’t understand the guy — he just seems, to many, just all over the place. But this thought just came to mind:

    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. But for all the changing scenery, there’s a thread — however hard it is to recreate short of starting the journey again.

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