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Not Quite Scum

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 In the opinion of journalist Kathryn Schulz, Henry David Thoreau does not deserve the centuries of praise he has garnered. Her opinion piece, “Pond Scum”, published by The New Yorker, outlines the evidence for her claims and asserts that readers have given the man too much credit, overlooking his more disturbing qualities and magnifying the sweet, romantic one-liners. Schulz refuses to be hypnotized and instead sees Thoreau for who (she thinks) he is: an egotist, overstepping the bounds of suggestion and encroaching into judgment of his fellow people. Schulz goes so far as to accuse Thoreau of misanthropy; she declares him a hermit, disinterested in and moreover disgusted by the lives of his neighbors, and wholly concerned with his own thoughts and wellbeing. Yet, Schulz has gone too far in this characterization of a writer who has indeed given so much to his fellow people. Thoreau’s criticism is, more truly, encouragement of his neighbors, that they might find more value in a different way of living; I find that nothing could be less misanthropic.

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 Of Schulz’s claims, many are difficult to rebut; it is no surprise that Thoreau was a unique, often abrasive man. A substantial component of Schulz’s argument of Thoreau as a misanthrope is his arrogance. Time and again, she voices his more provocative passages, using them as examples of his disinterest in society. From Walden she offers, “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,” as evidence of Thoreau’s condescending attitude toward his neighbors. Furthermore, she employs one of Thoreau’s famous (not-so-sweet) one-liners which reads “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation”, and blasts him for such an unsubstantiated and sweeping claim of the entirety of humanity. She goes so far as to plainly state that “Thoreau could not have been less interested in how the mass of men actually lived”, since he casually and dubiously groups all of mankind together as living less than full lives.

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 As to her direct claims of misanthropy, she dives into her argument with the debatable assertion that Thoreau “did not care to help other people.” She outlines his apathy and further explains that his indifference extends to all of society. “For Thoreau,” she argues, “civilization was a contaminant.” Instead of relying on “tradition and institutions”, Thoreau was more fond of the guidance of “intuition and direct revelation”, and Schulz finds this an unreliable remedy to questions of the day, given that each person holds different moral opinions. She does, however, grant Thoreau some praise, as she mentions a “striking exception” to Thoreau’s otherwise apathetic persona: his activism as an abolitionist. She is sure not to emphasize her approval, however, and soon points out that it is politics, rather than morality, that has appealed to him.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 Overall, Schulz finds Thoreau to be all too eager to abandon his neighbors, and that “what he really wanted was to be Adam, before Eve—to be the first human, unsullied, utterly alone in his Eden”. She concludes her piece with a sweeping characterization, that Thoreau is “a man whose deepest desire and signature act was to turn his back on the rest of us.” It is clear that Schulz is repulsed by such an inhumane man as Thoreau, and even more disdainful of the fact that his literature is still praised.

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 Throughout her arguments, Schulz hits one point on the nose, and that is Thoreau’s disapproval of society. However, she mislabels his dissatisfaction as misanthropy, which is far from the truth. Thoreau is not apathetic nor indignant of his neighbors; he is concerned and dispirited, and offers his criticism of the people with whom he closely identifies. It is crucial to note that the entire writing of Walden was inspired by Thoreau’s curious neighbors, to whom he addresses his work in paragraph 2 of “Economy”, proclaiming,

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 I 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… I will therefore ask those of my readers who feel no particular interest in me to pardon me if I undertake to answer some of these questions in this book.

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 A true hermit would have ignored the requests and shut himself up in his homemade cabin, without correspondents. Yet, Thoreau writes.

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 1 As for what he writes about, Thoreau’s commentary on the base interests of Concordians is not the distant criticism that Schulz has outlined. First of all, we must grant that Thoreau uses the personal possessive pronoun “our” in this characterization (“our Concord culture… Our reading, our conversation”), including himself in those to blame for the paucity of intellect in his town. Unlike Schulz claims, he is not insulting his neighbors nor setting himself apart from the common crowd. Thoreau places himself in the community and demonstrates keen interest in others, as he asks in “Economy”, “Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other’s eyes for an instant?” Additionally, “Resistance to Civil Government” finely presents Thoreau’s sense of community and solidarity as he describes the duty of citizens to act as friction against injustice and to bear the consequences of the government in order to draw attention to that injustice. On one hand, Thoreau believes that the “mass of men” live insignificant and frantic lives; here he also asserts that “there is but little virtue in the action of masses of men”. However, while Schulz uses these passages as examples of his alienation from his neighbors, it seems the opposite is true: Thoreau facilitates discussion and action and urges his peers to do the same. The criticism comes from a place of discontent with present politics, and the dissuasion against the “mass of men” (majority rule) is only a persuasion for individual thought and action. Thoreau cares about the individual – each individual, and this is far from the habit of a hermit. Moreover, Thoreau directly addresses the accusations of arrogance in declaring, “I do not wish to … set myself up as better than my neighbors”. Putting himself on the same level as his contemporaries, Thoreau admits that he “will cheerfully obey those who know and can do better than I”, however scarce those superior authorities may be. Thoreau was an intelligent and educated man, willing to take advice, but selective in which advisors he thought worth the while.

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 1 There is no doubt in my mind that Thoreau assumes the most authoritative of tones in the pieces we have thus explored; some might venture as far as “authoritarian”, in his reprimanding of sleepwalkers and average citizens (and the newspaper). Thoreau indeed asserts his opinions confidently and is sure of the truth that has been revealed to him. Many use these instances as examples of his misanthropy – of his setting himself apart from others and his unwavering belief that his opinions are superior to others. It would concern me more, however, if he weren’t so headstrong in his critique of society. As a writer, one should firmly believe in the truth of whatever he or she is writing. There is little point in the writing of prose without firm conviction. Thoreau felt a clear sense of purpose in his writings: he wrote to spur and encourage other people. As we all know, Thoreau’s primary conviction is that all people should live “deliberately”. The inspiration for his trek to Walden Pond and his utmost belief was that all people should “live deep and suck out all the marrow of life”, finding meaning and value in every moment. Schulz claims that Thoreau didn’t help others, yet he urges others to live with intention and reflection in all that they do, thus helping others realize their full human potential. With every fiber of his being, Thoreau believed that “Every man is tasked to make his life, even in its details, worthy of the contemplation of his most elevated and critical hour.” Thoreau encourages people to be and feel, and by living more deliberately, he hopes that the true significance of human life will be appreciated and a depth of emotion and intellect will be achieved by all. I struggle to find truth in such a sweeping claim as Schulz’s, when compared with the effort Thoreau has exerted to reach people and teach them about more meaningful existence. Throughout Walden, this is his goal: to urge others not to let life pass by, but to consider the most vast questions on Earth and come to one’s own conclusions. Other thinkers might condescend and leave these questions up to those with most intelligence, education, experience, and whatnot, but Thoreau demands such inquiry of the public.

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 On the topic of society and institution, Schulz has a good point. Schulz states, that “for Thoreau, civilization was a contaminant”, and she has finally written something reflecting the truth. Time and again, Schulz mentions that Thoreau had no interest in other people, and yet this perceived disinterest in individuals is more of a criticism of society. Even the concept of a “mass of men” offends Thoreau, as he wishes each person to live deliberately and independently, not grouped together in some conglomeration of dullness. It is society, not people, which Thoreau finds aversive. Furthermore, Schulz mentions in passing of the great abolitionist movement of which Thoreau was a member, using the example as an exception to his otherwise disinterested character, rather than the epitome of his intensely involved persona. I argue the latter. Thoreau values individual existence, rather than the workings of society. His work as an abolitionist exemplifies this ideology, as he is unable to sit as a spectator as the institutions around him deprive human beings of freedom, of life. It is far from out of character for Thoreau to be interested and involved in a movement that conserves the value of life. Thoreau is often incorrectly labeled as a misanthrope (that is, “a hater of humankind”). In reality, Thoreau rejects the institutions that confine humans, and in doing so separates himself from society, not from people or humankind itself.

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 1 In a similar vein, Schulz frequently accuses Thoreau of abandonment, arguing that his desire was “to be the first human, unsullied, utterly alone in his Eden”. I can’t help but cry out on the contrary. Perhaps Thoreau is an introvert, but he gladly keeps company with those he finds to be worth his time. Paragraph 16 of “Solitude” reads,

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 I have occasional visits in the long winter evenings, when the snow falls fast and the wind howls in the wood, from an old settler and original proprietor, who is reported to have dug Walden Pond, and stoned it, and fringed it with pine woods; who tells me stories of old time and of new eternity; and between us we manage to pass a cheerful evening with social mirth and pleasant views of things, even without apples or cider,—a most wise and humorous friend, whom I love much.

13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 Thoreau goes so far as to use the words “love”, “cheerful”, and “mirth” in his narrative of interactions with neighbors; that doesn’t strike me as the language of a “hater of humankind”, and one who abandons his neighbors.

14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0 Some might argue that Thoreau still qualifies as a misanthrope, as these personal revelations made in isolation compel others to go to the woods, and without such a retreat, Thoreau’s philosophy is unattainable and unrealistic. We must first note that the title of his novel Walden, Life in the Woods was changed to Walden between the earlier versions of the work. This simple alteration illustrates Thoreau’s more inclusive attitude of people of all statuses and backgrounds. It highlights the notion that introspection and reflection are practices that everyone should (and can) adopt, but a life lived physically in the woods is unnecessary to reach Thoreau’s insightful conclusions. Furthermore, in the chapter titled “Conclusion” of Walden, Thoreau admits that,

15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 0 I left the woods for as good a reason as I went there. Perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one. It is remarkable how easily and insensibly we fall into a particular route, and make a beaten track for ourselves.

16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 0 He confesses that although the point of living at Walden Pond was to reach the very core of living, he had worn out his welcome and was no longer living his most deliberate life in the woods. Beyond that, Thoreau mentions the sum of other lives that he might live, not rejecting them as less than his, but acknowledging that it might be time for him to adopt a new way of life, too. The point is, Thoreau is fanatic about living deeply and truly and consciously, but it matters less to him what that sort of life physically looks like.

17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 0 All things considered, others might still argue that Thoreau has no right to intrude on others’ affairs and claim to know a superior way of living. I counter: Thoreau is a man, living life, and he has a right to have an opinion about how to live his life. Is it wrong for Thoreau to challenge others and keep them accountable? I think not. Furthermore, I reiterate, he is a man. Thoreau was flawed. His writing, although beautiful and complex, is imperfect. Schulz tends to place Thoreau on some moral pedestal, and then proceeds to knock him down again and again. All I ask of her is to look him in the eye, and have a conversation. Thoreau himself puts it best when he says “my shortcomings and inconsistencies do not affect the truth of my statement”. Thoreau is no courageous and heroic figure, but he is a hero of thought.

18 Leave a comment on paragraph 18 0 From these exaggerated claims which consistently try to bash and berate a literary hero, I say, I am not convinced. One only has to read Walden to find the genius that other writers have failed to capture in the time since Thoreau’s authorship. As Thoreau’s mentor, Ralph Waldo Emerson, once said, “tomorrow a stranger will say with masterly good sense precisely what we have thought and felt all the time, and we shall be forced to take with shame our own opinion from another.” Perhaps Thoreau’s truth has resonated so strongly with Schulz that she scorns the fact that she couldn’t publish it in The New Yorker first. Or, perhaps, Schulz is one of the many people whom Thoreau tries so hard to help: the sleepwalkers, the ones who aren’t fully and deliberately living. I wouldn’t go so far as to make those pronunciations upon a woman I have never met, but it highlights an important point: Thoreau’s words have weight, and they upset people. Maybe, those who take offense are those who need him most, and those who applaud are the ones whose thoughts are being voiced by a man two hundred years prior. If it only takes upsetting a few journalists to make people wake up and really live, maybe it’s worth the risk.