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Pond Chum

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 In her New York Times article “Pond Scum,” Kathryn Schulz launches a series of onslaughts against Henry David Thoreau. She criticizes nearly everything about him; from his writing to his philosophies and character. She labels him juvenile, demeaning his thinking and claiming his only appeal is to angsty teenagers. Additionally, she cannot overcome Thoreau’s apparent hypocrisy, nitpicking instances where he shows some inconsistency and blowing them out of proportion. Schulz’ general stance is that Thoreau is unjustly popular today. She thinks people see him through an occluded lens; that he is thought of as someone straight out of a Jack London novel but his isolation was actually closer to that of Ebenezer Scrooge. Schulz’ most damning claim against Thoreau is that he was misanthropic. She believes his desire for isolation stemmed from a hatred of humanity. However, upon closer examination of Thoreau’s works and Schulz’ own flawed logic, it becomes clear that Schulz’ claim of misanthropy is incorrect.

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 Schulz begins her article with a compelling story. She tells how Thoreau stoically observed the remnants of a shipwreck, unnerved by the destruction, instead attributing it to the laws of nature. Schulz goes on to quote questionable statements Thoreau makes, such as claiming owning a doormat is the beginning of evil, him looking down on his admirers and all of Concord, and spouting arrogant mantras that he doesn’t apply to himself (The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation). His apparent disdain for the Eastern world and contempt for charity are also talking points for Schulz. Finally, Thoreau claiming he was favored by the gods and his romanticization of poverty top off her argument.

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 All in all, Schulz offers what appears to be quite a convincing argument as to why Thoreau was misanthropic. She is able to support several attacks against Thoreau using his own words. However, there is a flaw in Schulz’ approach; she cherry picks certain short quotes to build a narrative, but fails to acknowledge the more elaborate quotes which contradict her narrative.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 1 An example of this is Schulz’ claim that Thoreau hated Eastern societies. She quotes him calling them “barbarous and unhealthy.” However, “Economy” shows a different stance. Thoreau writes in paragraph 19 “The ancient philosophers, Chinese, Hindoo, Persian, and Greek, were a class than which none has been poorer in outward riches, none so rich in inward. We know not much about them. It is remarkable that we know so much of them as we do. The same is true of the more modern reformers and benefactors of their race.” Clearly, Thoreau did not truly believe the East was barbaric. Instead, he held them to the highest standard, believing their philosophers were the most enlightened people in history, and even that their modern reformers were similar. Essentially, Schulz has selected a very short quote from Thoreau, making it seem like he detested the east in misanthropy, while a more detailed reading of Walden proves that he praised their society; the opposite of misanthropy.

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 1 Another example is where Schulz speaks on how Thoreau rejected society at every available chance. She writes, “As it turns out, very little counted as life for Thoreau. Food, drink, friends, family, community, tradition, most work, most education, most conversation: all this he dismissed as outside the real business of living.” In this case, contradictions can be found solely in Schulz’ article, with no need to look for them in Walden. Later in her article, to give evidence for Thoreau’s hypocrisy of claiming false isolation, she talks about how he would visit Concord multiple times a week to “dine with friends.” Similarly, she mentions how he would have up to thirty visitors at a time at Walden. This is hard evidence against misanthropy, but Schulz overlooks this and uses it to label Thoreau as a hypocrite, not realizing (or not caring) that it dismantles her other argument that he was a misanthrope. Schulz is able to support her independent arguments about Thoreau, but when one looks at these arguments together, her contradictions and confusion become clear.

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 Further analysis of Walden helps to further refute Schulz’ argument. In the first paragraph of “The Village,” Thoreau talks about how he would frequent the town to hear gossip, and how the gossip was always “refreshing.” The majority of this short chapter attests to Thoreau’s liking of others; he goes on to say how it was always “very pleasant” when he stayed in the town late, and how “though many people of every class came this way to the pond, I suffered no serious inconvenience from these sources.” This does not sound like someone who hates society. Rather, it sounds like someone who realizes other individuals have something of value to add to one’s life, and that it is wrong- even unnatural- to avoid these other people.

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 2 Of course, Thoreau wanted to be somewhat isolated. That was one of the main reasons he resided at Walden for that period of time. However, complete isolation and disgust towards society was never Thoreau’s intention. In paragraph one of “Where I Lived, What I Lived For,” Thoreau writes about when he found the site for Walden, saying “to my eyes the village was too far from it.” A few paragraphs later, he reveals how the pond was only a mile and a half away from Concord. Schulz ends her article by stating Thoreau’s “signature act was to turn his back on the rest of us.” How can someone who wished they were closer than a mile and a half away from a town be labeled as turning his back on society? Evidently, Thoreau’s true intention was not to turn his back on society; instead at times he wished he were closer to society.

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 Furthermore, apart from indirectly hinting at his appreciation of society, Thoreau directly stated his need for society. He writes in paragraph one of “Visitors,” “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. I am naturally no hermit, but might possibly sit out the sturdiest frequenter of the bar-room, if my business called me thither.” Thoreau claimed he spent more time in the bar- probably the most sociable faction at the time- than anyone else in town. This does not sound like a misanthrope, but rather the opposite- a lover of people, and these people were a staple in Thoreau’s life.

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 One may argue that Thoreau’s willingness to engage in his Concord society and his praise for other societies does not indicate he was not misanthropic; that these instances were a facade of sorts, and that deep down Thoreau really did hate society. However, this argument is illogical and untenable. The fact of the matter is that Thoreau is dead; there is no way of knowing his true thoughts. All we have to base his philosophies on are his writings. These instances of Thoreau liking society are the only evidence against his misanthropy, just as the instances of him disliking society are the only evidence for it. The game of what Thoreau “believed” or “would have actually felt” can be played until the end of time. Only his writings can serve as true subjects of analysis to provide support or opposition, and I believe I have analyzed his writing enough to convincingly show he was, in fact, not a misanthrope.

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 Kathryn Schulz’ harsh criticism of Thoreau is unwarranted. She condemns his writing, calling it adolescent and unsophisticated. She attacks his character, tagging him as a hypocrite and an arrogant, privileged man. But, her boldest- and falsest- claim is that he was a misanthrope. She is able to build what seems like a solid argument- but this argument is superficial, formed through cherry picking certain quotes. A more detailed analysis of Walden provides more elaborate quotes than those used by Schulz, and these quotes contradict her claim that Thoreau was a misanthrope. It is clear that Thoreau truly was not a misanthrope, and that in actuality he understood the important role society played in his life.