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Thoreau’s Misanthropy

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 On July 12, 2017, Henry David Thoreau celebrated his 200th birthday. The celebration was marked by articles written in his honor, events held to educate and discuss him, and many of his admirers reviewing the well-worn pages of their copies of Walden. In his 200 years, Henry David Thoreau has affected many and inspired much. National parks have sprung up both around Walden and around the world, encouraged by his dedication to nature. Activists like Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr were inspired by his philosophy in his essay, “Resistance to Civil Government” (“Civil Disobedience”). And many, many writers have cited him as their influence, including, but not limited to, Marcel Proust, William Butler Yeats, Sinclair Lewis, Ernest Hemingway, and Upton Sinclair. While his prose may be long and complicated to many contemporary readers, his message is one of righteousness, community, and activism.

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 Or is it?

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 On October 19, 2015, The New Yorker ran an opinion piece by well-renowned journalist Kathryn Schulz entitled “Pond Scum” that asserted that Thoreau was just that: something murky and unappealing to be left behind at Walden where it belongs. Although many in the Thoreau-loving community were angered by its strong condemnation of the man, many more had to admit: she has good points. Schulz asserts Thoreau to be, among other things, hypocritical, misanthropic, and unaware of his own privilege. Could this be Thoreau? Could this be the man that thousands have looked up to, whose writings they have read late into the night? Or is Schulz wrong, too harsh, not looking at all the facts, not understanding what makes Thoreau Thoreau? The truth is that Henry David Thoreau was far from perfect. And indeed, there are many points which Schulz makes which even his most avid fans will have trouble refuting. But one thing that Thoreau most certainly is not is a misanthrope. To suggest that Thoreau hated people would demonstrate a strong misunderstanding of Thoreau’s character. Thoreau was not a misanthrope and was in fact a very publicly involved figure.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 1 Schulz introduces her piece with an anecdote that certainly makes Thoreau out to be misanthropic. Taken from Cape Cod, the scene in question depicts Thoreau coming across the wreckage of a ship from Ireland along with the many bloated, mangled bodies of its dead. Rather than wail at the sight of dead children laid to rest with their dead mothers, Thoreau remained unmoved, writing, “it was not so impressive a scene as I might have expected… I sympathized rather with the winds and waves, as if to toss and mangle these poor human bodies was the order of the day. If this was the law of Nature, why waste any time in awe or pity?” He proceeded to elaborate on the beauty of nature, “enhanced by wrecks like this.” Surely, she claims, a man who looks on great tragedy and sees only the beauty in it must not care for humanity. Schulz moves on to list one damning claim after another that shows that Thoreau mostly treated others with coldness and distaste. In purifying himself of worldly pleasures like coffee, alcohol, salt, and unnecessary possessions, he also swears off companionship. He “despised his admirers… disdained his ostensible friends… [a]nd… looked down on his entire town.” “What does our Concord culture amount to?… Our reading, our conversation and thinking, are all on a very low level, worthy only of pygmies and manikins.” She also cites that, despite his work for the abolition movement, he despises philanthropy, insisting, in classic American style, that the poor are poor because they want to be or are not working hard enough. Ultimately, to Schulz, the great Henry David Thoreau believed he was better than anyone else. “Sometimes, when I compare myself with other men, it seems as if I were more favored by the gods than they.” When looking at the sheer mass of Schulz’s defamatory claims, it is easy to see why she or anyone else might believe Thoreau to be a misanthrope. However, Schulz does ignore a series of evidence that indicates to the contrary.

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 Thoreau may have removed himself from the thick of Concord society, but that does not mean that he deprived himself of it. In fact, he remained very much involved in the town, taking on surveying and lobbying work and frequently hosting guests and visiting the townsfolk. He proudly says that he loves society as much as the next man and visits the village at least every other day. His fascination with the workings of nature extends to his fascination with human society:

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 I strolled to the village to hear some of the gossip which is incessantly going on there, circulating either from mouth to mouth, or from newspaper to newspaper, and which, taken in homopathic doses, was really as refreshing in its way as the rustle of leaves and the peeping of frogs. As I walked in the woods to see the birds and squirrels, so I walked in the village to see the men and boys; instead of the wind among the pines I heard the carts rattle. In one direction from my house there was a colony of muskrats in the river meadows; under the grove of elms and buttonwoods in the other horizon was a village of busy men, as curious to me as if they had been prairie dogs, each sitting at the mouth of its burrow, or running over to a neighbor’s to gossip. I went there frequently to observe their habits.

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 Along with his frequent excursions to Concord, he often has visitors at his cabin. He tells his reader he has three chairs, “one for solitude, two for friendship, three for society.” He discusses having “twenty-five or thirty souls, with their bodies, at once under my roof” for an event which scholars have later pegged as a meeting of the Concord Female Anti-Slavery Society. Often if visitors stop by while he is out about the pond, they will leave calling cards, bits of nature to show their presence. He describes some of his most frequent visitors and friends, including a wood-chopper and post-maker he calls “Homeric”; John Field, an Irishman who Thoreau calls honest and hard-working; and of course, Ralph Waldo Emerson, who we know was a mentor and friend to Thoreau. Though he may have withdrawn himself to the woods, Thoreau did not let complete solitude consume him. He remained a fairly public figure with friends. To call him a misanthrope demonstrates a misunderstanding of the kind of man Thoreau was.

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 It is clear to see that there was a side to Thoreau that Schulz just didnt see. But Schulz did see something in Thoreau. How can one address the quotes in which he looks down on the people he claims to admire, how he scorns philanthropy? How can one address that terrible, terrible shipwreck in which Thoreau was simply unmoved? In many of the cases, it is simply that Schulz has picked up on an offhand comment which, when compared to the overwhelming evidence that Thoreau was not a misanthrope, is insignificant. For example, she cites one instance in which he looks down on his Concord peers as uneducated. As I explained in a comment in the Readers’ Thoreau General Discussion group, Thoreau was admonishing the poor education that had failed to be provided to them. Although his belief that he knew better than anyone what is most important to one’s education may be elitist, it still has the people’s best interests in mind. Schulz also claims that Thoreau was far from philanthropic, and indeed, he did make a few questionable statements about the poor. But to imply that Thoreau was selfish would be wholly incorrect. I must question how Schulz is defining “philanthropic,” for though he may not have given money to a beggar, he spent much time working towards abolition. Why would a man who hates all of humanity care about slaves? Schulz’s primary claim is that Thoreau swears off companionship, but he doesn’t. She even notes that he makes trips several times a week into town. Just because he chose to remove himself from the center of the populace does not mean that he hates them all. It merely means that he sees no benefit in being constantly bombarded with socialization. Thoreau was at worst an introvert. Even when he discusses his solitude at length, he shows that he longed for company. However, one of Schulz’s points remains unaccounted for. The shipwreck, which is likely the most damning evidence for sheer misanthropy. That one is hard to justify. How anyone could feel that way about lost lives is beyond me. It is possible he was intellectualizing the event later on, perhaps to cope with a profound sense of grief. But ultimately, the reader cannot know. One only hopes that a reader notices how it pales in comparison to the instances which show Thoreau’s empathy, good will, and sense of community.

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 Most of the evidence points to Thoreau being a good man with much compassion for his fellow human. In this way, Schulz was wrong in her assessment of him. However, Thoreau lived a long time ago, and his writing is subject to changing norms and viewpoints. Additionally, Walden, along with most of his other writing, is merely philosophic musings that can sometimes be contradictory or confusing. Although I have put forth a series of evidence to show that Thoreau was far from a misanthrope, were Kathryn Schulz to attempt to refute my claims, it is possible she could produce a host of more evidence arguing the contrary. I don’t believe Thoreau was a misanthrope, but having arguments about his nature simply entails throwing quotes at one another until one side submits. Without being able to meet the real person, we may never know whether Thoreau was misanthropic or privileged or hypocritical. Although it pains me to say it, there is always the looming possibility that Kathryn Schulz is right. However, there is one argument she makes that is most assuredly wrong. She says that we should not be reading Henry David Thoreau. That, because of all his flaws, he is unworthy of our 21st century attention. That is an incorrect argument. As long as the writings of Henry David Thoreau resonate with people, make them appreciate the trees and the birds and the water, make them want to live deliberately, Thoreau will always be read and loved. Thoreau may have been an imperfect person, but his writing means something to a lot of people, and for that, he deserves all the praise in the world.