April 27, 2018
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I wonder if it would even be fair at this time to apply the title of “misanthrope” to someone who was judgemental of eastern societies. Many people in that time would have known next to nothing about any eastern society, and likely been mistrustful of it if confronted by it. That Thoreau makes strides to educate himself on the matter is more than most would do.
“I discovered many a site for a house not likely to be soon improved, which some might have thought too far from the village, but to my eyes the village was too far from it. “
I agree with your argument on the whole that he certainly did not hate other people; however, I would say that your observation about the town being too far from Walden isn’t referencing his lament for its physical distance. Rather, I think that he is juxtaposing the ideas of it being too far from the village, and the village being too far from it, to highlight that to him, unlike the villagers, the pond with all its simplicity represents the center of his universe. The town, to Thoreau, is simply a marginal object in his periphery, and is not at the heart of interests. This of course does not mean that he hates people: I just think this is an example of as quote that could be better interpreted in the context of the rest of the sentence.
[This is hard evidence against misanthropy]
Is it really, though? Plucking a couple of morsels of information does not constitute ‘hard evidence,’ especially considering that Thoreau wrote in ‘The Village’ that, when having to maintain appearances and socializing, he sometimes “bolted suddenly, and nobody could tell my whereabouts.” This is clearly anti-social behavior, and the fact that Thoreau noted that he was inconspicuous to the rest of the community depicts notable immaturity. Labeling Thoreau immature may seem like simple name-calling, but I believe that it is one of the underlying issues that diminish his ideas to the point to which the reader can’t distinguish Thoreau’s stance on a topic, given that he didn’t feel bound by social convention (or reason, in my opinion) to stay true to all of his ideas. Notwithstanding, such ambiguity on Thoreau’s legitimate feelings in regards to his fellow human shouldn’t exist, but it does, and thus there is no positive answer on Thoreau’s misanthropy.
I can see the logic for this argument, and you do a good job in qualifying it with the quotes you used, but is it possible that they could be interpreted otherwise? One of the points that Schulz points out is that literal distance does not define isolation, after all, we can isolate ourselves in a relatively close vicinity to others as long as we cannot make contact. Though Thoreau may have only been a mile and a half away from Concord, he had traveled far enough to be unbothered by the rest of society. Though he did not literally travel miles, he had isolated himself socially from the rest of society because he was able to ignore their lives. I believe, it is to this point that Schulz claims that Thoreau turned his back on the rest of society
This could also be because Walden is generally about what Thoreau himself did during his stay in the woods, as well as his written beliefs. He could have used “I” in saying that he believed something or describing an action he did.
While I agree that his tone gets under my skin a lot of time, I’m not so sure the bean example is his being pretentious. Thoreau seems to me the kind of guy who likes to find beauty in literally everything all the time. That being said, he is kind of meditating on the simplicity of the bean planting, linking it to society like an analogy. Similarly, he references “the Ranz des Vaches” which literally means “ranks (or rows) of cows” in French, and is a song sang in Switzerland by cowherds who are calling their cows home. This melody is literally the stereotypical “morning song,” like when Bugs Bunny comes out of his rabbit hole in old cartoons. I think that he is almost trying to be funny comparing himself and his beans to a Swedish cowherd: at the very least he is flaunting his worldly knowledge with these allusions yet again. He is saying to his reader that this is a natural human feeling of “rightness” and nurturing that has been felt around the world for centuries. He also compares a wood thrush’s song to this one in his journal, which says to me that it was on his mind, and that he was probably just putting his thoughts on paper, rather than trying to sound like a jerk.
This isn’t really a good argument. Thoreau used “I” 1818 times in a 114,634 word piece. You use “I” 15 times in a 1,229 word piece. This means you and Thoreau have a quite similar word density of “I” within your writing.
[ It is difficult not to label Thoreau as somewhat of an absurd hypocrite, given that he went home for home-cooked dinners
I totally agree that there are a number of occasions in Walden in which Thoreau seemingly contradicts a claim he made earlier (the railroad and hunting are good examples of this). However, I disagree that Thoreau was a hypocrite because he visited his family. While it is true that Thoreau went back into town often, I disagree with the claim that Thoreau was living a life contradictory to the one he describes on paper. Thoreau often points out how close Walden pond was to town, stating that his retreat was “a mile and a half south of the village of Concord”. Further, he often details his ventures into town in Walden. In the “Village”, Thoreau states that he “walked in the village to see the men and boys”. Additionally, Thoreau often details the numerous visitors he had frequenting his cabin . Thoreau visited family members in town, but he never claimed to live a life that was completely absent from the influences of the village.
Side Note: I know that this is more of Schulz’s claim then your own, but you don’t address it (other than to say that you generally agree with her), so I thought I’d throw my thoughts down. Also, you write really well by the way 🙂
I guess the real debate is in whether or not we as current American citizens are allowed to maintain reverence for an imperfect predecessor. Is it acceptable to take one element of a philosophy and incorporate it into yours out of the context of contradiction from which it comes? I don’t know if there is a definitive answer, though I would insist that any search set out for an uncontradictory human being may be endless.
For instance, are we allowed to still respect and believe in Gandhi’s philosophy if we know that he was racist? Can we believe that “all men are created equal” if the man who wrote that line certainly did not? It’s a complicated question but I would be inclined to say yes.
You comment on Thoreau’s use of Greek allusions and plant biology as evidence of romanticization and gaudiness, but is it possible you are ascribing contemporary viewpoints on a writer from 200 years ago? Not that contemporary voices aren’t valid, but to Thoreau or his (educated) readers, Greek texts were standard, and it wasn’t until the rise of realism in the 20th century that Greek became only a study of the pretentious, when the masses had something more relatable to turn to.
[The town’s poor seem to me often to live the most independent lives of any…if you are restricted in your range by poverty, if you cannot buy books and newspapers, for instance, you are but confined to the most significant and vital experiences; you are compelled to deal with the material which yields the most sugar and the most starch. It is life near the bone where it is sweetest.]
While you make an understandable point, I do not believe this was evidence that Thoreau was blind to his privilege. Perhaps this is evidence to the contrary. Thoreau takes note of how the poor live independent lives, which could be because he realizes his life is defined by and confined to his privilege, and he envies the independence those who are not privileged experience. This is much like the idea that the poor in developing countries are happier than the rich in a developed country, because their happiness comes from simple things like friendship and love and beauty, not from material wealth and meaningless possessions. I think Thoreau is simply realizing that privilege is not all its cracked up to be in this quote.
[The fact that Thoreau sees this way of life as the only way to experience what is “significant and vital” is insulting.]
Who is this insulting to? He is saying that poor people are pure- that they experience what true life is like, and that they have the realest understanding. If anything, this is a compliment, not an insult. If he’s insulting anybody it would be anyone who isn’t poor. If someone tells you, for whatever reason, that you are truly living and experiencing the most significant aspects of life, would you take that as an insult?
[He goes on to describe how his ventures into the village were as his walks into the woods, a chance to study its inhabitants. ]
Does the fact that Thoreau studies the villagers really disprove his misanthropy? Some might argue that since he “studies” them (rather than interacting with them) he is all the more aloof and distinct from (rather than a part of) society. I do see the connection in that he claims oneness with nature while studying his surroundings, therefore also identifies with the villagers while observing them, but I think this claim could be better supported.
While you were attempting to rationalize the incoherence in Thoreau’s writing in this passage, you effectively presented Thoreau’s misanthropy and finished with a weak assumption to counter the rebuttal that you envisioned (this was clearly not what you wanted to impress upon the reader). You write with authority on Thoreau’s mental state and relate it to your personal experiences, which is somewhat of a cop-out, and eerily similar to the direct revelation of Thoreau. Your intuition is yours, and that’s what makes it dually unique and frail under discourse (which, admittedly, can also describe your passage). Nevertheless, it makes sense that you would come to this point in your writing- I can’t imagine someone reading ‘The Village’ and not being confused by Thoreau’s flip-flopping.
While Thoreau does use the word “we” occasionally, he uses it significantly less than “they.” Almost 200 times less, according to Voyant Tools. I agree that this is a great example of Thoreau’s “rationale” rather than criticism, in the big picture Thoreau is more often criticizing people in a way that does not raise them up. In “Walking,” Thoreau also mentions how he observed the townsfolk as if they were prairie dogs, and he criticizes the poor for their way of life. Thoreau seems to bring people down far more often than raise them up.
ps. I love your play-on-words in the title.
[In an odd way, Thoreau’s unpleasant criticisms almost prove his love for his townsmen. He cares about the faring of his neighbors. If Thoreau was truly a misanthrope, he would have left his fellow townsmen behind, disappearing into the woods, to never be heard from again. ]
I like this argument but I do have a few queries. First, I don’t think that Thoreau could’ve left Concord even if he had wanted to due to his involvement in the pencil company. Also based on his devotion to his family, I doubt that he would have disappeared without ever contacting them again, so that language might be a bit strong. I also wonder if his comments reflect an egocentrism. While in “Reading,” he points out the illiteracy of his fellow townspeople, he also mentions a desire to know those with a higher intelligence. Going back to your statement earlier about Thoreau’s complicated nature, I think part of this is due to his desire to communicate with people on his level. As far as a “love for his townsmen,” I don’t think it was as much of a love as it was an appreciation. He had truly been a hermit, there would not have been the same population to interact with and study.
*and I agree with Hannah. Love the title 🙂
[What does “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation” mean? ]
I am not sure that a meaning is reached and I am also not certain that it is really needed to support the argument that you are making. It is a cool note as to why Thoreau may have written, however, it almost takes away from the main argument. In contrast to the rest of the paragraph, without an explanation, this quote is more confusing than helpful.
I don’t necessarily disagree with your assessment of “the mass of men…,” but I wonder if you are giving the people of the time too much credit in recognizing their own suffering. We, from a 21st century perspective, may view the “grueling hours” they worked on the farm as as desperate, back-breaking work, but at the time that would have been normal to them. Would we say we lead lives of quiet desperation? Or would that only be to someone 200 years in the future, when they do much less work than we do now?
I definitely agree that Thoreau is not a misanthrope and that Schulz ignores his contributions to his fellow citizens. However, by saying that he only spends time with “those he finds to be worth his time,” doesn’t that prove the opposite? People naturally click with certain people, but for someone like Thoreau who has such clear ideas and beliefs on how people should act it seems like he would make swift judgments and only have a few friends. Maybe it is the wording of the sentence, but using the term worth contradicts the point you are trying to make about him not being misanthropic.
[Moreover, Thoreau directly addresses the accusations of arrogance in declaring, “I do not wish to … set myself up as better than my neighbors”.]
I hate to use a cliché, but I will. What one says, does not always translate into what one does. While Thoreau may claim that his intentions were not to set himself above others, I can agree with Schulz that Thoreau has the tendency to come off as doing just that (in a few occasions). “When I compare myself with other men, it feels as if I were more favored by the gods than they”.While a statement like this can be jarring to read, it is also understandable. We are all human. Realistically, we have all had moments in which we felt extremely confident, perhaps a bit too full of ourselves. Yet Thoreau’s claim that he doesn’t set himself apart from his neighbors is not fully accurate. He may not intend to, but he is verbally documented doing just that.
It may interest you to know that Schulz is also taking the passage Thoreau wrote in reaction to the shipwreck more than a little out of context. He’s having a complicated, admittedly shocking reaction, but not out of the norm after such an event. In fact, he’s experiencing something that we, as modern purveyors of violence Thoreau probably couldn’t imagine in his wildest dreams (atomic bombs, mass shootings, plane bombings), experience more frequently than he does. An inability to comprehend or sympathize with violence experienced by a group rather than an individual.
I agree that Thoreau’s writing sometimes comes across as “preachy”, and the sentences may be a little lengthier and more complicated than need be, but I disagree that his use of the word “I” is unsettling.
In “Economy” paragraph 2 Thoreau outlines the reasons for his writing in the first person narrative, saying, [In most books, the I, or first person, is omitted; in this it will be retained; that, in respect to egotism, is the main difference. We commonly do not remember that it is, after all, always the first person that is speaking. I should not talk so much about myself if there were any body else whom I knew as well. Unfortunately, I am confined to this theme by the narrowness of my experience. ]
Thoreau acknowledges, right off the bat, that he might be taken as egotistical, and he expresses his regret (however brief) of having nothing else he might write about. As I was reading, the word “I” felt more intimate and less haughty than a lot of readers (like Schulz) seem to take it. I think it would certainly be more pompous to use “one” or “man” or any variation. Thoreau establishes himself as a person, on the same level of whomever might be reading his work, and I find that to be stronger evidence against his arrogance than in support of it.
May 9, 2018 at 10:21 pm
See in context
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