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Thoreau and Privilege

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 In her essay, “Pond Scum,” Kathryn Schulz argues that the renowned American author, Henry David Thoreau, should not be revered to the extent that he is today. She explores several of his flaws, using examples of his hypocritical and misanthropic nature as well as his blindness to the privilege he had as a well-off, white male to strengthen her argument. According to Schulz, Thoreau’s attempt to sort out what experiences counted as life and which did not, while not fully understanding the realities of certain people’s situations, meant that he did not understand the privilege he had. While her claims of hypocrisy and misanthropy are intriguing, her claim that Thoreau was blind to his own privilege is especially interesting given his involvement in the abolitionist movement. If one looks at his writings from “Walden,” the language and ideas he uses point to the conclusion that he was indeed blind to his own privilege. However, when looking at Thoreau as a whole individual, his stances become more complex than they first appear.

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 The first sign of Thoreau’s privilege shows when he explains why he went to the woods in the first place. In paragraph 16 of “Where I Lived and What I Lived For” in Walden, he writes:

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach…I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 Based on this explanation, Thoreau’s reason for going to Walden Pond was to live a simple life. However, if one looks deeper into the passage, a darker meaning comes out. Thoreau wants to “experiment” with this way of life. He is choosing to eat simply and sparsely, to do all his own work, and to live at the bare minimum. He does not have to do this, he simply wants to try it. The problem with his choice here is that he is privileged enough to be able to “play” poor. Many people lived in this same manner, only they could not leave it behind after two years like Thoreau was able to. As Schulz points out, “he wanted to try what we would today call subsistence living, a condition attractive chiefly to those not obliged to endure it.” His actions show a lack of understanding about the reality of the life of the poor and the harmful nature of his reasoning for embarking for the woods, proving that Thoreau fails to comprehend the advantages he has as a person with wealth.

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 Another time Thoreau shows his blindness to his privilege is when he comments on the poor and their quality of life. He writes in paragraph 13 of “Conclusion” in Walden,

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 1 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.

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 1 Poor people do not live very independent lives; they are usually the opposite. They are very cautious on what they spend money on, and often make difficult sacrifices. Especially during Thoreau’s time, poor farmers depended on the weather for a good crop yield and the urban poor depended on factories staying open and demand staying high for the products they produced. The fact that Thoreau sees this way of life as the only way to experience what is “significant and vital” is insulting. The inability to buy books and newspapers might be seen as shameful to the poor, something Thoreau does not seem to comprehend. The imagery of sweet meat near the bone equates with a “sweet” life while living in poverty, showing that Thoreau romanticizes the poor’s way of life, and has no understanding of their struggles.

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 Not only does Thoreau showcase a lack of understanding of his financial privilege, he also demonstrates a lack of understanding of his racial privilege. Schulz uses paragraph 8 of “Economy” in Walden to show this, as Thoreau writes:

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 I sometimes wonder that we can be so frivolous, I may almost say, as to attend to the gross but somewhat foreign form of servitude called Negro Slavery, there are so many keen and subtle masters that enslave both North and South. It is hard to have a Southern overseer; it is worse to have a Northern one; but worst of all when you are the slave-driver of yourself.

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 This is one of the more problematic statements by Thoreau. By saying that both North and South are enslaved by masters, he equates the institution of slavery forced upon black people in America to the treatment poor workers in the industrialized North endured. He suggests that the struggles the two different groups faced were similar, which is an odd statement for an abolitionist to say. Not only that, he seems to think that the worst crime of slavery is that it takes away from individuality. As Schulz puts it:“His moral clarity about abolition stemmed less from compassion or a commitment to equality than from the fact that slavery so blatantly violated his belief in self-governance.” While slavery does take away from individuality, racism is deeply ingrained into the American form, which makes one must wonder if Thoreau truly understood the benefits of being white in a society where servitude and subservience was based on skin-color.

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 Many who study Thoreau will look at this evidence and disregard it. He was such a well-known abolitionist as his work “Slavery in Massachusetts” showed, and his attendance to abolitionist meetings was well-recorded. The problem with this is that it is not information well-known unless one dedicates time to studying Thoreau’s background. The only exposure that people generally have to Thoreau is “Walden,” and if that is all they read, the picture they get of Thoreau is one of a man who did not understand the privileges of being white and having a comfortable income. Despite this, we cannot disregard his actions, which show that he was committed to the abolitionist cause. Actions do speak louder than words, and Thoreau’s actions such as attending meetings, giving speeches, and helping farmers reveal that did care about his fellow human beings and understood that he could make a difference and speak for those who could not.

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 Thoreau’s lack of addressing his privilege in his works does not make him a horrible person. Today, many people still fail to admit their privilege, or simply do not understand the concept. If Thoreau is taught in schools, lessons must go more in depth and cover more than just Walden. Thoreau’s background information and political actions should be shared, as it gives a more well-rounded picture of him. Thoreau was a complex man who wrote about complex issues, and should not be reduced to a few sparing comments. He can still be revered, but his flaws should be pointed out. The individual has many sides, and if we can understand that about a famous writer, perhaps we can understand that about the people we interact with everyday.