The following is an indirect response to Kathryn Schulz’s article “Pond Scum: Henry David Thoreau’s Moral Myopia,” from The New Yorker, October 19, 2015:
“I have travelled,” wrote Henry David Thoreau in Walden, “a good deal in Concord: and everywhere, in shops, and offices, and fields, the inhabitants have appeared to me to be doing penance in a thousand remarkable ways.” This displeased Thoreau. He didn’t want to live a life of penance.
He wanted a life more meaningful than one filled with busywork at shops and pointless toil in the fields. He wanted a life, as he put it, more “deliberate.”
“There is an incessant influx of novelty into the world,” wrote Thoreau, “and yet we tolerate incredible dullness.” So, Thoreau got himself some land and built a small house out at Walden Pond. He was, as he says, “a mile from any neighbor.” What he does not mention in Walden is that he was also only a short, few miles’ walk from his mom’s house. He would go there sometimes during his time at Walden for cookies and tea.
Thoreau’s experiment with the wilderness was therefore far from extreme or absolute. It lasted for a little less than two years before he returned to being “a sojourner in civilized life.” That sojourn ended up being permanent.
Thoreau never lived alone in the woods for any sustained period of time again. He drifted and wrote books and took on various odd jobs. Counting rings on a tree stump late one rainy night in 1859, Thoreau came down with a bad case of bronchitis. His health declined steadily and he died three years later. He was only forty-four years old. A naturalist of some sort or another he certainly was. Rugged and self-sufficient, however, he was not.
That’s to say, by any reasonable standard, Thoreau’s life was a farce and a failure. He couldn’t make it in the woods. But he also couldn’t stand being amongst the foolishness and frivolity of the cities and towns. He was, we might say, stuck.
By this light, the book called Walden is not the presentation of a solution to the problem of being stuck; it is the presentation of the problem of being stuck.
Here is what a close friend, the writer J.M. Tyree, wrote to me recently about Henry David Thoreau:
I think of Henry David Thoreau as more like a failed ascetic, drawn to the impossible, not really suitable for this world. It’s a stupid remark to make but for me he’s actually a bit like Lovecraft, just not a professional, not ready for “success” under capitalism. A loser. I like that he was a bit mad, I like that he was inconsistent, I like that he was impossible to deal with and self-contradictory. I like that he didn’t much like “the world.” Or polite society. Or…New York… Demythologizing Thoreau is the easy part. The difficulty is that he’s really not a philosopher but a fantasist and a fiction writer. Walden is a peculiar fiction, everybody knows that. Too compelling a figure to dismiss so easily. A critic of his society.
If Thoreau was so genuinely stuck, so definitively a “loser,” why does he so often come across, in Walden and in many of his other writings, as a cocky and contemptuous bastard possessed of all the answers to life’s most thorny questions?
But have you ever met a real loser? Have you ever come across a person honestly and genuinely stuck? Was this person pleasant to be around?
“I learned this, at least, by my experiment:” Thoreau wrote toward the end of Walden, “that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.” One wants to know more. What is this “unexpected success?” What does it actually look like?
Thoreau expands on the point. “He will put some things behind, will pass an invisible boundary; new, universal and more liberal laws will begin to establish themselves around and within him; or the old laws will be expanded and interpreted in his favor in a more liberal sense, and he will live with the license of a higher order of beings.”
That’s when it hits you. Thoreau didn’t know—not in any concrete sense—what he learned from Walden either. The experiment of living at Walden Pond was not a “success” if success means achieving something like true self-sufficiency and “oneness” with the land. Thoreau himself recognized he could not achieve these things. Yet he can’t and won’t call his two years at Walden Pond a complete failure either.
Walden is, maybe, Thoreau’s project of keeping that gap open, the gap between a success you can’t explain and a failure you can’t accept. It is the same kind of gap at the very center of all human experience. Thoreau explored that gap, and wrote a book that is, essentially, a testimony to that exploration.
In the chapter “The Village,” Thoreau admits that every day or two he would stroll to the village to hear the local gossip. He concedes that listening to this chatter is “really as refreshing in its way as the rustle of leaves and the peeping of frogs.” And then, just as quickly as the fleeting pleasantness, a feeling of disgust would come upon Thoreau. He would, as he put it, suddenly bolt and escape back to the woods again like a little boy caught in the act.
Hopelessly discontent. Beset with a deep and insatiable yearning. Disappointed in every salve the world offers to the wound of being alive. That was Thoreau. Do you recognize him, dear reader? I think you do.
Morgan Meis is the critic-at-large for The Smart Set (thesmartset.com). He has a PhD in Philosophy and has written for n+1, The Believer, Harper’s Magazine, and The Virginia Quarterly Review. He won the Whiting Award in 2013. Morgan is also an editor at 3 Quarks Daily, and a winner of a Creative Capital | Warhol Foundation Arts Writers grant. A book of Morgan’s selected essays can be found here. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo credit: Chrys Rizzo, Pxleyes