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Schulz’s Not-So-Thorough Thoreau Analysis

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 In her article “Pond Scum”, Kathryn Schulz raises one fundamental question: Why do we continue to cherish the American writer Henry David Thoreau? Schulz is bewildered by our adoration of Thoreau, a man she believes has been placed on a pedestal, a position of which he is entirely undeserving. Schulz looks to place Thoreau in a more suitable position, defaming his character by labeling him as a misanthropic, hypocritical, self-righteous narcissist. Schulz’s characterization of Thoreau as a misanthrope presents one of the biggest upsets to those who cherish Thoreau’s work. Schulz not only characterizes Thoreau as having a god complex, but goes further to state that Thoreau was disgusted by the lives of his neighbors and the composition of Concord society, of which he desired to dissociate from entirely. While Thoreau certainly dictates some feelings that are isolationist in nature, Thoreau’s feelings towards his fellow human beings are far more complex than Schulz sets them out to be. Schulz’s characterization of Thoreau as a misanthrope oversimplifies a man who needs just as thorough of an analysis as his name suggests.

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 Schulz’s analysis of Thoreau as a misanthrope is mainly based in two lines of evidence: the fact that Thoreau desired to physically isolate himself from the rest of society and his god complex, in which Thoreau verbally sets himself apart from the rest of his neighbors. Starting with the physical separation, Schulz claims that Thoreau saw his time at Walden pond as an exile from the rest of society, “an escape from the entanglements and responsibilities of living among other people”( Paragraph 6). She brings forth the fact that Walden is subtitled a “Life in the Woods”, as evidence that Walden Pond served as a retreat from life in society so that the hermit could pursue a life in the woods instead. Additionally, Schulz claims that Thoreau viewed “civilization [as] a contaminant” and companionship as “a threat to his mortal soul”, choosing to abstain from them both (Paragraph 20, Paragraph 15). Thoreau’s time at Walden Pond served as a way for the misanthrope to live out his true fantasy, “to be the first human, unsullied, utterly alone in his Eden”(Paragraph 20). According to Schulz, Thoreau’s misanthropy is not just visible in his venture into the woods, but even more so in the verbal distinctions he often creates between himself and the common Concord man.

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 Schulz uses Thoreau’s god complex and condescending tone to convict him as a misanthrope, bringing forth a series of quotes in which Thoreau verbally sets himself above his fellow townsmen. Thoreau himself does claim to feel “more favored by the gods”, a complex which he draws upon liberally in his condemnation of the lives of others. According to Schulz, Thoreau regarded “his own particular intuitions and revelations as superior to those of other people”, “[scorned the] petty ways” of his neighbors, and looked down on his entire town (Paragraph 16). Quotes such as the famous line “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation” demonstrate Thoreau’s verbal distinction between himself and the rest of Concord society. Rather than broadening these statements to apply to everyone (including himself), Thoreau often delivers harsh critiques from the “posture of a prophet”, “obliged-to enlighten others” (Paragraph 24). Schulz utilizes this verbal separation as well as Thoreau’s physical retreat from others to condemn him as a misanthrope, a judgement that lacks consideration of all of Thoreau’s complexities. While Thoreau is a man who can be happily shoved into a tiny cabin, he cannot as easily be constrained into a restrictive classification of his character.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 Schulz’s characterization of Thoreau as that of a hermit, an antisocial misanthrope evading his townsmen, represents a superficial attempt to understand a complex man. Thoreau’s feelings towards his fellow human beings are far more intricate than falling under a singular mode of description. All being considered, Schulz’s argument is not without some merit. The idea that Thoreau often verbally elevates himself above others is somewhat well- supported. From the famous “mass of men” quote to a plentitude of criticisms beginning with “they”, the reader cannot help but perceive Thoreau as having a sort of god complex. Criticisms by Thoreau that exclude application to himself provide many readers with the impression that Thoreau views himself as a sort of deity, donning an elevated sense of moral superiority as compared to the rest of us. In Walden, he makes statements such as “ye disgrace earth” and “I aspire to be acquainted with wiser men then this our Concord soil has produced”. One can’t blame Schulz for reading these statements and feeling to a degree attacked by the Walden writer. There is no denying that Thoreau can come across as judgmental, sanctimonious, and even plain rude at times.

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 1 In contrast to Thoreau’s “they” critiques, there are several occasions in which Thoreau uses “we” statements. In “Walking”, Thoreau states, “We hug the earth,—how rarely we mount! Methinks we might elevate ourselves a little more.” These inclusive statements provide a different lens through which to understand Thoreau’s criticisms. By choosing the diction “we”, Thoreau is acknowledging that he, along with his fellow human beings, is not living up to the standards with which he evaluates the world. Thoreau’s criticisms are not meant to berate his townsmen. They are meant to act as sparks, inciting his neighbors to strive for better. Schulz’s analysis disregards these types of statements, focusing solely on quotes that accentuate Thoreau’s condescending tone. As a result, Schulz misinterprets Thoreau’s rationale for delivering criticism. While Schulz labels Thoreau as solely intending as to bring others down, she’s missing the key reason for the critique in the first place: Thoreau wants to raise people up.

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 1 Schulz has one major misstep in her analysis: She classifies Thoreau’s criticism as an indicator of his disdain for other human beings. Schulz makes a seemingly logical correlation, but one that doesn’t have to exist. One can complain about society, without feeling the need to abandon the entity completely. Thoreau can offer critical commentary to his fellow townsmen, without desiring to leave behind human civilization itself. Thoreau directly addresses his relationship with society in “Visitors” when he states, “I think that I love society as much as most.”: “ I am naturally no hermit.” 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. Yet, Thoreau doesn’t do this. Thoreau’s commentary seems to demonstrate a lack of antipathy towards his fellow human beings. He desires for his neighbors to live a life that truly constitutes living. Thoreau states that each individual is a kind of “[sculptor] and [painter]”. “Our material is our own flesh and blood and bones.” Thoreau indicates his views clearly stating, “Every man is tasked to make his life, even in its details, worthy of the contemplation of his most elevated and critical hour.” Thoreau desired for his neighbors to reawaken, to take the time to truly sculpt and shape their lives, and to find true fulfillment on this Earth.

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 In addition to verbally separating himself from the rest of his townsmen, Thoreau’s physical retreat into the woods is cited by Schulz as evidence of his misanthropy. According to Schulz, Thoreau ventured into the woods “to escape the entanglements and responsibilities of other people”(Paragraph 6). He desired “to be the first human, unsullied, utterly alone in his Eden” (Paragraph 20). In reality, there is little validity in the idea that Thoreau was actually isolated from other human beings. Schulz picks up on the flaws in her analysis when she coins Thoreau’s story as being largely fabricated and disingenuous in nature. Schulz states that “Thoreau could stroll from his cabin to his family home, in Concord, in twenty minutes”, a walk which he made “several times a week.” (Paragraph 33). Within her article, Schulz goes from claiming that Thoreau utilized Walden Pond as an escape from other human beings to stating that he frequently ventured into town, “lured by his mother’s cookies or the chance to dine with friends” (Paragraph 32). In addition to frequently making stops in town, Thoreau hosted visitors in his cabin, “sometimes as many as thirty at a time” (Paragraph 32). Schulz tries to convince her readers that Thoreau was a misanthrope who abstained from companionship. Yet she details the same man hosting over 30 guests in his home and frequenting town by the end of her piece. Schulz’s argument that Thoreau looked to physically isolate himself from others is torn apart in the context of her own analysis. Thoreau can’t be a misanthrope and avidly seek the companionship and comradery of his fellow townsmen.

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 When looking at the evidence collectively, it seems as though the rigid term misanthrope is far too constricting to describe the fluctuations and complexities present in Thoreau’s character. Someone who avidly seeks out the companionship of friends and family, while at the same time desiring for the betterment of his fellow neighbors does not seem like a likely match for the characterization that Schulz presents us with. Yet, Schulz is not wrong to develop the impression that Thoreau can often come across as dissatisfied and even appalled by the lives of his fellow human beings. In Thoreau’s journal entries, Thoreau doesn’t hold anything back stating “I will not consent to walk with my mouth muzzled, not till I am rabid.” “I would like to suggest what a pack of fools and cowards we mankind are” (Selections from the Journals, Harding). Further, in “Resistance to Civil Government, Thoreau comes off as extremely bitter stating:

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 “I saw to what extent the people among whom I lived could be trusted as good neighbors and friends; that their friendship was for summer weather only; that they did not greatly purpose to do right; that they were a distinct race from me by their prejudices and superstitions.”

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 From these lines, one can understand the rationale behind Schulz’s analysis. Thoreau’s tone is extremely bitter in this passage. However, documented moments of exasperation do not necessarily translate into misanthropy. Schulz’s analysis is guilty of cherry-picking, using specific selections of text to denigrate Thoreau, to label him as a castaway, an outsider to the rest of humanity. While there is no denying the tone of these passages, Schulz’s analysis holds Thoreau accountable to an unreasonable standard. Venting about his grievances with other human beings does not make Thoreau a misanthrope. It makes him even more human.

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 Schulz’s analysis is too superficial to truly envelop the character that is Henry David Thoreau. The term misanthrope is far too constrictive, lacking the ability to account for all of the nuances in Thoreau’s character. Schulz condemns Thoreau for his inability to understand “that life itself is not consistent”, a pitfall she ironically falls into when trying to force Thoreau into the singular category of misanthrope (Paragraph 26). Schulz herself states that “Our image of [Thoreau] has become simplified” (Paragraph 5). Indeed, it could not be more well said. It’s time to complicate our interpretation of Thoreau and at long last be truly thorough.

Source: https://commons.digitalthoreau.org/sunygeneseohonr202s18/2018/04/25/schulzs-not-so-thorough-thoreau-analysis/