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Thoreau, the Rather Pretentious Humanist

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 In her article “Pond Scum,” Kathryn Schulz explains her belief that Henry David Thoreau, the American transcendentalist and writer of Walden, hates his fellow man. Beginning with a description of his apathy toward dead children, Schulz sets the precedent for the average Walden enthusiast, or innocent owner of a ziffy quotation-covered mug, to hate the author in turn. In labeling Thoreau a misanthrope, she calls forth the more unsavory aspects of his writing style, the tone and delivery of which frequently comes across as superior and coldly detached. While this is true, I would argue that beneath the surface of these sentiments is a man who cared deeply for the well-being of his neighbor’s soul. Using his mental faculties to explore the purest form of humanity and our connection with nature, he sought to jar the sleeping spirit of society he was a part of, even if it was done in a condescending and judgmental way.

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 Starting with the literal bang of bodies against rock, Schulz asserts that Thoreau was determined to live entirely separate from society. Introducing Thoreau as a self-obsessed “narcissist” content with only his own company, she paints Walden as merely “a fantasy about escaping the entanglements and responsibilities of living among other people.” Interspersed amid comments regarding his hyper-restricted dietary regimen while at the pond, she also highlights his disdain for the culture of Concord, quoting his thoughts in saying “Our reading, our conversation and thinking, are all on a very low level, worthy only of pygmies and manikins.” Schulz is similarly irked at Thoreau’s disinclination towards helping or even listening to his fellow man, explaining that philanthropic enterprises proved not to his liking, nor newspapers or anyplace outside of Concord, calling them “barbarous and unhealthy.” In acknowledging the divine preference of his own mind over others, and including some contradictory statements about locomotives, Thoreau seems to have left Schulz feeling completely excluded from any insight he placed in Walden, leading her to believe his “deepest desire and signature act was to turn his back on the rest of us.”

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 1 To be entirely clear, the pretentious tone that Schulz hears that so pervades all of Thoreau’s work is impossible to ignore, and difficult to palate even for the most practiced Thoreau scholar. His preaching tone starts to come across as judgmental and just plain rude, particularly in such texts as “Walking,” in which it seems that every other sentence is a proclamation of the reader’s shortcomings. First he attacks the ability of the average man to take a simple walk. Then, in the first chapter of Walden, his eating habits, then his very need for shelter against the elements. This amount of stripping down that Thoreau seems to demand of the reader in proclaiming what is necessary and what is not, comes across as superior to say the least. This reading is bolstered by the sheer number of times that Thoreau appoints himself as the only person to practice life in the proper way, setting himself apart from the herds of men he describes in “Walking.” Syntactically, the way in which Thoreau writes is specifically formulated to convey a complex and nuanced proclamation, as a preacher does on a pulpit: in this case, using sentences with many commas that just so happen to include the word “I” an unsettling number of times. Thoreau’s constant assertions that he represents the epitome of human perfection, be it in speaking of his walks (“I spend four hours a day at least [walking]”or “How vain, then, have been all your labors, citizens, for me!” regarding the comforts of beautiful homes and clothing.) This setting apart of himself as morally superior to the rest of society makes one question, initially, just how much of a deity Thoreau sees in himself , giving ample fodder to the misanthropic views of Schulz toward the author.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 The irritatingly blunt nature of Thoreau’s writings does indeed come as an unwelcome surprise to those who had pictured the author as a wizened old hermit, sitting in the woods spouting old-timey wisdom; however, the intent of this tone, which frequently shuts off the modern reader, is meant to wake up the sleeping masses who are in need of a verbal slap. At his core, this transcendentalist fears for the masses of men who simply walk through life relying on others. He openly states that he wants to get under the skin of his readers, alluding to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales in saying that he does “not propose to write an ode to dejection, but to brag as lustily as chanticleer in the morning, standing on his roost, if only to wake my neighbors up.” Chauntecleer, a rooster who boasts vainly about his beautiful voice, is thus incorporated to indicate that though Thoreau is aware of his pretentious tone, he is willing to invoke the power of his voice if only to jar his fellow men out of a lazy stupor. This lethargy, Thoreau thinks, stems from the comforts of material possessions like fashion, as well as transportation like the “railroad“, which not only mars the natural landscape, but allows for people to ignore the journey as they go from town to town.

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 For those who argue that Thoreau merely uses this style to impose his beliefs upon others, I would argue that despite his demanding manner of speaking, he is merely writing in response to those who asked for an opinion. In his forward to Walden titled “Economy,” he lists his ways of living for his two years at the pond not of his own desire, stating:

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0I should not obtrude my affairs so much on the notice of my readers if very particular inquiries had not been made by my townsmen concerning my mode of life, which some would call impertinent, though they do not appear to me at all impertinent, but, considering the circumstances, very natural and pertinent.

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 This quote indicates that the author was not about to tell men how to live, but that since they asked, he may as well speak his mind and tell them where they have gone wrong. As such, he utilizes platforms such as speeches and literary forms like Walden, to give his opinions as a renowned intellectual of the area. That being said, his brutal manner of treating his fans, as Emerson says according to Schulz, is not particularly warranted, showing a level of privilege that seems unforgivable: that is, until looking at his conversations within Walden. In the first paragraph of the novel, he proclaims that “he loves dearly to talk” with such people as the farmer who sold him his shack. Indeed, he designates an whole chapter of his work to those “Visitors” who he was thrilled to learn from throughout his stay at the pond, down to the most crude laborer. He seems to value these intimate conversations far more than those superficial encounters with villagers looking for gossip. Though eating only one meal a day, as mentioned in paragraph 17, and being impolite to one’s followers are indeed extreme and pretentious ideas, the importance of enjoying the present without constant material or social distraction is evident.

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 Thoreau believes heartily that the cure for this distraction, the awakening which his neighbors so desperately need, can be found in enjoying the simplicity of nature. As such, he goes to Walden an “experiment” through which he may test if this simple life, connected with nature, is truly “the richest vein” through which his fellow men could find the best life. By thinking of his work at Walden as an kind of trial for the sake of others as well as himself, Thoreau comes across as far less of a misanthrope, and rather more as a scientist, devoting his life’s work to the discovery of human meaning. Furthermore, in contrast to his polarizing “I” statements, in which he sets himself apart and higher than the rest of society, Thoreau incorporates many statements with a universal “we,” all of which showcase the author’s hope in what the human mind has the potential to achieve. For example, in “Walking,” he describes how we unintentionally lower ourselves when we should be embracing our natural surroundings, saying “We hug the earth,—how rarely we mount! Methinks we might elevate ourselves a little more.” This concept that everyone–even Thoreau himself–are guilty of not taking advantage of the spirituality abundant in nature, speaks far less to the misanthropic view and more to the realist who sees the danger of melancholy. His true universal belief in the awakening power of nature over man-made meaning can be best seen in this quote from the first chapter of Walden:

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aids, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn, which does not forsake us in our soundest sleep.

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 In noting that “we” are responsible for keeping ourselves awake, he connects his own stance as being a rather unpleasant Chantecleer, reiterating that he is giving people the rude and unwelcome awaking that they so desperately need in a world where news is fed to them through newspapers, not seeing the very real experiences that are present right in Concord.

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 One of the most compelling arguments against Thoreau’s misanthropic tone, which Schulz herself acknowledges is his vehement abhorrence of slavery: a topic which abounded in the mid 19th century United States, surrounding the Civil War. In making his claims for people to open their eyes and leave the mindless machine of civilization, he makes repeated reference in Walden to slavery. A particularly heated stance he takes regarding the stupefied nature of supposedly educated men surrounds this topic of racism, claiming that those who are so wrapped up in their own lives “as to attend to the gross but somewhat foreign form of servitude called Negro Slavery” are, by their own design, enslaved. He often relates the fate of men, in this self-imposed servitude to a social machine, to the stripped identity of black slaves, exclaiming within Walden that he “hardly need refer now to the laborers in our Southern States who produce the staple exports of this country, and are themselves a staple production of the South.” This insinuates rather sarcastically the idea that not only are black people being stripped of their personhood involuntarily, but free white men are giving away their own freedom without knowing it: a juxtaposition that highlights Thoreau’s concern for people of both his own race and minority parties. In his speech “Slavery in Massachusetts,” he goes on in his typical great length to explain the evil of servitude, both imposed and voluntary, in saying that for the amount we speak on slavery given what the newspapers say, “we do not even yet realize what slavery is.” This all-encompassing statement, shown by the recurring use of the word “we,” illustrates the level of clout Thoreau puts into the free will of all men, and their ability to succeed in lieu of needless limitations.

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 One could point to the hypocrisy evident in the idea that Thoreau hates society, yet falsely claim to live far removed from its influence for 2 years, with no access to others. Given that Thoreau does pound into his writing the benefit of stripping one’s life to the barest of necessities in “Walking,” it should come as no surprise that discovering even he was unable to follow this advice will ruffle some feathers. Indeed, Schulz points out that Walden Pond was a mere 20 minutes away from Thoreau’s childhood home, and that he made the trek “several times a week, lured by his mother’s cookies.” Furthermore, he seems to have had many groups of people over to his humble cabin, as many as 30 people along with his mother and sister. Failing to mention these excursions to town, and visitations to Walden, appears to be an inadequate cover-up for detaching oneself from the less-than masses, while selectively enjoying the comforts society provides. With even a single reading of Walden, one could discover that Thoreau never actually claims to live entirely separate from society. In fact, he notes within the second chapter of the novel that his house was a mere “mile and a half south of the village of Concord.” Regardless of this proximity, his location at Walden felt like as remote a place as anywhere else in the cosmos, upon which his “imagination” could project the thoughts and actions of a man in complete isolation. This coincides with the idea that the entirety of Walden was a primarily mental exercise of what a man, unencumbered by societal pressures, could accomplish.
In reading Walden, it does not come as a surprise that critics across centuries would find themselves chafing under his unapologetic honesty, culminating in demanding calls to action. Discomfort, and to a certain extent, denial, naturally makes a reader, or writer such as Schulz, look for the coldness of tone within Thoreau, labeling him as a judgmental hater of people. In taking this narrow stance, we lose sight of the message within the harsh words, indicating why Thoreau was writing in the first place. He feels as though mankind needs to wake up for its betterment, using a swift kick in the pants to do so, knowing full well that we can handle not being coddled emotionally. In sparring no feelings (admittedly with some blind spots as we all have) I would assert that Thoreau is no misanthrope. He takes it upon himself to be the bad guy, ripping away our security blankets of government, material possessions, and societal cushions like the press to force a better connection with nature and each other: a painful step which he faithfully believes “morally, we can do.”