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Wait, Did I Read That Right?

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 Simple. Living. The American spirit, having engorged itself through the Industrialization of the Nineteenth Century, has always been wont for a dogma that blends our individualistic love of personal liberties with the the backcountry nostalgia of the settlement of Early America. While the United States is a secular nation, the Transcendental School of Thought purveyed by essayist Henry David Thoreau has captivated the minds of countless Americans and foreign nationals over nearly two centuries, with Thoreau’s writings, such as Walden, creating a metaphysical experience, almost mystical, that deeply plays into the romantic inclinations of a nation.

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 1 On October 9, 2015, Kathryn Schulz of the New Yorker magazine challenged this love of Thoreau in her essay “Pond Scum” in a scathing critique. Describing parts of his writing as “the highest barriers to entry in the Western canon: dry, sententious, condescending,” Schulz recognized Thoreau’s work for all that it was: while he will most likely always be included along with other great authors of the West, he doesn’t truly belong there due to his propensity for romantic bombast. Furthermore, when inspected at a more analytical level, multifarious and profound contradictions arise as the close reader quickly realizes that a deep and regrettable lack of self-awareness make Thoreau unconscionably contradictory. It is difficult not to label Thoreau as somewhat of an absurd hypocrite, given that he went home for home-cooked dinners often and wrote most of his content out of direct revelation, effectively cutting out logic and postulating with abandon (much of the time in direct contrast to ideas in previous writings). I agree wholeheartedly with Schulz’s claim, for while it seems that Thoreau’s work has intrinsic meaning to America’s heart, the man himself is worthy of a large amount of criticism, in my opinion mainly branching off of the fact that his writings are jumbled, antithetical, and quite literally naive as he tosses frivolous comments here and there on one of life’s many aspects. Such disorganization and underlying contradiction discredits the work as a whole, with the reader gaining little.

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 Schulz’s central point on proving that Thoreau was self-contradictory was that he would make statements directly opposing one another quite often, such as when he wrote about the “devilish Iron Horse, whose ear-rending neigh is heard throughout the town,” but later noted that he felt “refreshed and expanded when the freight train rattles past me.” This is a clear contradiction, exhibiting the lack of cohesion that is a foundational flaw of the work. Now, this leads the reader to believe that there was some lapse in Thoreau’s revision- why else would the content of his writing involve so many discrepancies? And yet, we have seen in class that Thoreau was a meticulous proofreader, changing the mere syntax of his sentences in some of his revisions to subtly change his message. Schulz has an answer to this, or at least a guess: Thoreau once wrote that he was “especially guided and guarded” in relation to other men, and rebuked rational thought for what he must have thought was his enlightened commentary. Thoreau didn’t see himself as God, but in a way, he did, proclaiming in Resistance to Civil Government that he could “do at any time what I think right” in regard to his civic duty. Nevertheless, while Thoreau’s belief in his own infallibility may provide a reason for readers not to think he was simply inebriated, it further develops Schulz’s claim that the man couldn’t get out of his own way (in a contradictory sense, of course).

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 And what could deliver more of a contradictory sense than Walden’s first chapter; while it was entitled “Economy,” it’s content reflected little organized economic thought of substance, opposing the meaning of its name. I have found that an amalgamation of Thoreau’s naivety and unchecked romantic inclinations manifesting itself into a belief in personal intuition contribute to Thoreau’s constant self-contradictions (much like Schulz’s findings)- which every reader of his work must acknowledge is present. In describing Thoreau as naive, Schulz likens him to zealots and despots. While I wouldn’t go so far while describing Thoreau’s sensibilities regarding his position relative to the world surrounding him, I would make an important note of the fact that Thoreau has never truly wanted for any basic necessities for a comfortable life, and while the rest of the world may be struggling to live day to day he tasks himself with ‘living deliberately,’ which seems to be Thoreau’s catch-all for self-appointed authority/ignorance to privilege, and probably believed that this was a righteous cause and he was righteous in doing it.

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 1 While he may think that he is righteous, it is undeniable that Thoreau has a keen attachment to romance and romantic depictions of nature which lead him down rabbit-holes of excitable thoughts. Some of his descriptions quickly transform from long-winded to bizarre as he attempts to synthesize concepts of Greek phonology and plant biology, and the reader becomes lost in rich illustrations on broad topics, with Thoreau pining of bygone eras and further complicating his already complex bottom line. In other passages Thoreau falls victim to his inclinations and simply supports two opposing sentiments. A clear example of this arises in Higher Laws in Walden, in which Thoreau began with a scene where he “caught a glimpse of a woodchuck stealing across my path, and felt a strange thrill of savage delight, and was strongly tempted to seize and devour him raw; not that I was hungry then, except for that wildness which he represented.” Later, Thoreau got on his high pedestal and professed that “no humane being, past the thoughtless age of boyhood, will wantonly murder any creature, which holds its life by the same tenure that he does.” Is killing or the desire to kill for ‘savage delight’ not wanton murder?

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 One rebuttal that I could envision against my argument is that Thoreau should be read as a Transcendental visionary- someone whose ideas are beautiful, a pleasure to read, but not to be taken at face value or to be appraised as a piece of classical Greek philosophy would: picked through and read objectively as a series of continual points that logically flow from one to the other. Yet, it becomes clear after reading just a handful of Thoreau’s sentences, which most likely are located within one of the long-winded anecdotes for which Thoreau is infamous, that even that method of interpretation is flawed; his ideas don’t mesh! As Schulz put it, he tended to “defy all attempts at reconciliation.” And without reconciliation, Thoreau’s writing is quite the lovely mess.

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 Contradiction does not ruin discourse. While Thoreau is guilty of a lack of cohesion in his writing which creates clashing ideas, this may very well be the beauty of Thoreau. He imagines issues and ideas in a grand design, and he wields his pen as an absolute monarch would wield his divine right to rule: it depends on the how he is feeling that day, but is always majestic. While the chaos may not be for everybody, I can most definitely discern the passion in Thoreau’s writing which has delighted millions of humans from many different cultures. Such zeal seems to be something that is intuitively enchanting.