— Brent Staples (@BrentNYT) October 13, 2015
May I recommend a damning critique of Thoreau (“Why Do We Love Henry David Thoreau?”), written by Kathryn Schulz?
Banish Thoreau from the canon, it urges; he was a rotten thinker and a hypocrite; a good nature writer, yes, but a fabricator of lies and a pontificator on society who cared none for his fellow man, a comfortable curmudgeon whose ability for self-deception knew no limits. I have no love for Thoreau, I haven’t read his work, except for in high school, but I found it interesting to feel myself through her essay, which I found myself agreeing with and disagreeing with in some different respects.
Near the beginning, it cites Thoreau’s writing in Cape Cod (1865) about the experience of seeing some shipwrecked Irish on the beach along with their dead. He feels only a sense of dull disappointment at the spectacle, no sense of empathy for the plight of the poor persons, nor a sense of wonder as he might feel “If [he] had found [only] one body cast upon the beach in some lonely place.” Schulz opens the essay with this moment in Thoreau’s thought as being exemplary of what a moral monster Thoreau must have been, and even seems to suggest an (implicit) parallel with the our present historical moment, as desperate Syrian refugees are landing on the shores of the Mediterranean probably as I write — but there is a severe lack of historical context in the way Schulz cites this moment. In the late 18th and 19th centuries, it was common for poets, writers, artists, and painters under Romanticism’s sway to seek out the picturesque sublime. The inhuman forces of nature were looked on as the source of sublimity, and for the picturesque effect to be just right, it was always important that the human element not intrude too much, or be absent altogether. It’s this valorization of the sublime that makes possible Thoreau’s indifference to the plight of the shipwrecked — and it’s not necessarily callousness I don’t think, unless we want to apply our standards of judgment and our language of moral description to someone living in a different historical era, in another culture.
It certainly takes some seeing to imagine how relativistic our perceptions are, or what great cultural gap separates us from Thoreau, but taking some account of the powerful hold of the picturesque sublime on the 19th century imagination would go a long way to mitigate our perception of Thoreau standing on the beach of Cape Cod. (To pass definitive judgment on the souls and writings of men who have been dead for 150 years: what a way to spend one’s time.)
Another interesting question the essay raised in my mind was whether or not Thoreau (always) wrote in a way that always reflected his true thought and his character. May be; however, as I read through the quotes Schulz marshalls, I thought I perceived a lot of rhetorical shading, and some intentional ironies. I don’t want to be overgenerous to Thoreau; and again I think we get into a problem of historical perspective, a problem of incommensurability.
For example, one section begins, “Only by elastic measures can Walden be regarded as nonfiction.” Surely true, but, to Thoreau and his contemporaries the idea of a mutually exclusive classification of some books containing veridical truth, and other books of pure invention, would not have been as we know it today. (And today, that separation exists only as an idea, or an illusion.) So here we are treated to an inventory of the many gross liberties Thoreau took in distorting the “truth” (or, as Schulz has it, “the facts”).
At any rate, the great pleasure of this essay is how it shows Thoreau to be an idiot. Which is no small pleasure, because Thoreau appears to have been no small idiot. (I am using the term somewhat affectionately, thinking of the countless idiots Pierre Senges catalogued in L’idiot et les hommes de paroles, and which appear in his fictions. The idiot may be contemptible, but at least he’s relatively harmless! Moreover, like the clown, he is a source of laughter — tonic balm!) For instance:
At one moment, Thoreau fulminates against the railroad, “that devilish Iron Horse, whose ear-rending neigh is heard throughout the town”; in the next, he claims that he is “refreshed and expanded when the freight train rattles past me.”
How human is it to contradict oneself !! – And ever so briefly, I also caught a passing glimpse of that townsquare idiot-curmodgeon Diogenes, dear Diogenes living in his tub:
“I used to see a large box by the railroad,” he wrote in Walden, “six feet long by three wide, in which the laborers locked up their tools at night”: drill a few airholes, he argued, and one of these would make a fine home.
Is there not a dose of irony here, or at least some rhetorical intent (as opposed to literal meaning, earnestness)? A touch of self-exaggeration, self-parody, yes — but is it a self-aware tendency, or an entirely unconscious one? I found myself curious to see what Schulz would make of how irony enters into Thoreau’s declarations, how humorous and delicious his contradictions can be. Was he so blind to them? What a motley mess of a man. I get the feeling that there’s been a missed chance to see Thoreau the comedian at work. (Thoreau the joker, the fool, the jester.) But no doubt I am bringing my own obsessions to bear on this old killjoy.
It’s terrific (and rare) to see bold, provocative long-form critiques of much-revered and little-read 19th century American writers in a mainstream publication like The New Yorker. Bravo!