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Misanthrope? Nope

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 In her essay “Pond Scum,” Kathryn Schulz makes a lot of claims about “Walden” writer and famed transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau. Schulz interprets Thoreau as the narcissistic, misanthropic, hypocritical, and holier-than-thou, that can come fairly from the dry texts full of long sentences and philosophical musings. These interpretations can be reductive to Thoreau’s true nature, as a contradictory man with many unique facets to his personality. Schulz’s characterization of Thoreau as a misanthrope especially misses his rich history of engagement with society and a call for humanitarianism. Thoreau had a strong distaste for many societal conventions and a deeply introverted nature, but he enjoyed the company of others, and any sense of misanthropy created by his writing is perhaps unfairly emphasized.

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 There are many easy ways to come to the conclusion Thoreau is an incurable misanthrope. Thoreau is creating a philosophical manifesto in “Walden,” offering up his take on what makes life worthwhile. His most eye-catching, and therefore most misunderstood quote, “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation” can be seen as a dismissal of complexities in other people around him. This sort of moralizing does create the impression Thoreau has a disdain for these masses. “By what method, one wonders, could a man so disinclined to get to know other people substantiate an allegation about the majority of humanity?” Schulz asks. Schulz also points out that Thoreau claimed a personal distaste for these masses. Thoreau seems to take no pleasure in the company of others, moving to solitude, and that he despised charity work. In Schulz’s view, Thoreau hates the poor, the rich, and even the concept of society.

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 2 So, if not due to his overwhelming hatred towards humanity, what is the reserved Thoreau writing for? What does “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation” mean? Well, firstly, it’s an honest assessment of living conditions during Thoreau’s time. Kathryn Schulz takes offense to the claim that Thoreau makes, that “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.” Despite Thoreau missing the spirit of the difference between slavery and wage slavery, conditions in the North during this time, especially in factory work, were terrible. Likewise, those landowners who maintained farms had to work grueling hours to maintain their estates, Thoreau goes so far as to assert that “our houses are such unwieldy property that we are often imprisoned rather than housed in them.” That sort of intensive labor and mistreatment does sound like a life of toil and desperation. Rather than coming from a place of racism or misanthropy, addressing financial inequality and a move toward workers rights might have inspired the statement.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 Her next claim is that Thoreau takes little if any pleasure in the company of others, choosing instead the life of a hermit. This is a very weak argument because throughout “Walden” Thoreau is entertaining guests and socializing.“I think that I love society as much as most, and am ready enough to fasten myself like a bloodsucker for the time to any full-blooded man that comes in my way.” He describes visits in great detail, lovingly painting theses guests as close friends. He describes the visit of a friend as “[making] that small house ring with boisterous mirth” and describes his other friend quiet fondly as “quiet and solitary and so happy withal.” Besides this, he kept up letter correspondence with many friends even while away. His ability to really observe his friends, to dive deeply into what makes them individuals, why they interest him in particular and a manner of other intimate observations made are not the recordings to a man who hates people. Rather they are that of a man with a deep love for individuals to which he devotes much of his time and energy.

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 Thoreau admittedly comes across as an introvert, preferring the company of a select few choosing to live in a more remote area. This is not because of some great hatred of people, but due to a joy at being alone in nature. The idea that he hates people as a collective is also very reductive. Thoreau entertained parties in his cabin, and returned to town every day or so to hear gossip. That sounds like a man fully entrenched in even the arbitrary and meaningless parts of the society he comes from. And Schulz knows this, even mentioning how Thoreau “kept going home for cookies and company.”

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 Schulz utilizes an example of Thoreau’s response to a shipwreck to show his inability to care for others. Upon seeing dead bodies at a beach after a shipwreck, Thoreau had remarked that he was less impressed or moved by them but rather left in awe of the oceans ferocious might. At this startling show of indifference, Schulz asks: “Who was this cold-eyed man who saw in loss of life only aesthetic gain, who identified not with the drowned or the bereaved but with the storm?” And perhaps it is fair to say that this assessment reads as unsympathetic. Why not care for those dead, for those who would be informed of the death of a loved one? The next part of Thoreau’s observations read “I saw that corpses might be multiplied, as on the field of battle, till they no longer affected us in any degree… It is the individual and private that demands our sympathy” (Thoreau, “Cape Cod”). Thoreau understands what he himself is experiencing as a detachment of sorts. Rather than seeing the dead as the dead they are, he sees them as a mass. He realizes his difficulty in empathizing with those suffering is due in part to a sort of empathetic exhaustion human beings experience when presented with tragedy. We comprehend the grave sadness of the death of an individual, but find it hard to wrap our head around a vast number of suffers. He recognizes that response within himself, and it is this self-awareness and reflection that makes the difference. Thoreau cares about people but is experiencing the same sort of stagnation in emotional processing many people do today after terrorist attacks or hurricanes.

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Schulz also claims Thoreau has a deep hatred for helping his fellow man, citing his professed distaste for charity work and the poor. Despite the claims Thoreau makes to not “agreeing” with philanthropy, it would be ridiculous to assert Thoreau hated helping his fellow man. In his journal, in an excerpt from October 12, 1853, Thoreau describes his experience of “borrowing money for a poor Irishman who wishes to [send for] his family…” and then berates his neighbors for not similarly lending a hand. Considering national distaste for Irish immigrants at the time, Thoreau extending this much of a hand to his neighbor is shocking. Besides this, Schulz points out Thoreau’s career as an avid abolitionist but dismisses it due to some racist conclusions Thoreau draws about slavery. This sort of dismissal is simplistic because, despite the racism ingrained in him from his time, Thoreau strived towards bettering his society and helping the oppressed. Also, it makes the claim of misanthropy much easier to prove if you find a simple way to disregard one of the nicest and most humanitarian things someone did in their life. To dismiss all this entirely based on some weaker elements to his politics is to dismiss the way Thoreau’s radical abolitionist actions shaped the emancipation movement, and later the civil rights movements.

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 Of course, nobody is perfect. Thoreau makes some truly heinous claims about the poor, “the poor man is not so cold and hungry as he is dirty and ragged and gross. It is partly his taste, and not merely his misfortune. If you give him money, he will perhaps buy more rags with it.”It is one of his weaker bits of human understanding, it, unfortunately, minimizes the other ways in which Thoreau extends warmth towards his fellow man. But people are complicated, and hating and misunderstanding the poor is something many Americans still do today. And this sort of contradictory nature is inherent in humans and is no different in Thoreau, something he was painfully aware of, calling it “chaff which I find it difficult to separate from my wheat, but for which I am as sorry as any man.” It does not make that element of him dismissable, but it certainly doesn’t nullify the other areas in which he excels at caring for others.

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 Certainly in some areas, he does appear judgmental, maybe even confrontational towards his peers, but then again so are we. Partaking in gossip is something we all do, as Thoreau did, despite knowing it’s rude and likely rife with false information. We all partake in the selective enjoyment of people; there’s nobody alive who likes everybody. Thoreau had complaints about the government, about the way people lived, about his neighbors’ inability to commit to helping others, slavery, and many other things. Everybody has complaints about the government, their jobs, their neighbors, and ethical lapses. To say Thoreau is a misanthrope simply because he does not care for certain people, activities, or behaviors is fine, as long as we agree every other person on the planet is a misanthrope as well.

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 Schulz’s article draws on a lot of sources to reach the conclusion that Thoreau must hate other people. However, with careful observation, one can see the many ways in which Thoreau enjoys the company of, cares for, and fights for his fellow human beings. Thoreau, despite his flaws, is not a misanthrope. He is a complicated, multifaceted man with a deep respect for humanity.