Posts Tagged ‘Walden

Defending Henry

» February 4th, 2016


In a recent New Yorker piece (“Pond Scum,” October 19), Kathryn Schulz takes a twenty-first-century hammer to a nineteenth-century nail, pounding Henry David Thoreau into submission. In addition to Thoreau’s supposed arrogance, self-righteousness, narcissism, parochialism, isolationism, and apparent embrace of every “ism” against humanity, there’s one particular flaw in Thoreau’s character that Schulz finds particularly galling: The man didn’t much care for coffee. “I cannot,” she writes, “idolize anyone who opposes coffee.”

It’s a fine quip, the kind that leavens so much of Schulz’s other work (I’m a fan of her book Being Wrong) and the kind that inspires me to retort, in equally playful fashion, that the sawdust and chicory-laden brew available in Thoreau’s day can’t fairly be compared to the tony aromatic blend that I assume perks Schulz to life every morning. Please, let us not become ahistorical about coffee!

Unfortunately, Schulz has done more than condemn the beverage preference of a man known as the father (or at least legal guardian) of environmentalism, transcendentalism, and abolitionism. She’s undertaken a coordinated assault on the gentleman’s character, not to mention his political philosophy and historical legacy. The best thing that can be said about Schulz’s casting of Thoreau as a “thoroughgoing misanthrope” is that her skepticism of the man is obscured by overstatement.

Schulz’s assessment of Thoreau’s social life offers the most obvious case in point. Early on, she observes that Thoreau saw human companionship as “at best a time consuming annoyance.” Thoreau’s acquaintances “had the same moral status [to him] as doormats.” He was, she adds, a “castaway from the rest of humanity.” But later, while mocking his pseudo-wilderness “ersatz experience” as “cabin porn,” she documents a different Thoreau. This one walked to Concord “several times a week, lured by … the chance to dine with friends.” This one was a guy who “routinely hosted other guests … sometimes as many as thirty at a time.” This one, in other words, hardly sounds like an asocial crank. So when Schulz starts dissing Thoreau for his inconsistencies, it’s clear that a deeper—one might say blinding—discontent is driving the analysis.

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