Ralph Waldo Emerson, in his eulogy for his friend, Henry David Thoreau, couldn’t help remarking that “a certain habit of antagonism defaced his earlier writings—a trick of rhetoric not quite outgrown in his later.” This trick of rhetoric has frustrated many readers, and has provoked a long tradition of writers and critics into calling Thoreau a misanthrope, a narcissist, a hypocrite, and a fraud. The result is an equally long tradition of authors taking the time to rebutt these accusations before explaining why Thoreau is worth reading. In 1917, Virginia Woolf used part of her Thoreau accolade to defend him against his critics, suggesting that it is the difficulties of his writing that make him worthwhile. “[Thoreau’s books] are written as the Indians turn down twigs to mark their path through the forest,” she writes. “But he did not wish to leave ruts behind him, and to follow is not an easy process.”
This difficulty of following Thoreau, what Emerson identifies as a habit of antagonism toward the reader and Woolf identifies as a purposeful obscurity, is precisely the problem Kathryn Schulz unwittingly comes up against in her recent piece “Pond Scum” in the New Yorker. In it, Schulz writes that “the real Thoreau was, in the fullest sense of the word, self obsessed: a narcissist, fanatical about self-control, adamant that he required nothing beyond himself to understand and thrive in the world.” I wonder how Schulz missed Thoreau’s pointed passage on the importance of borrowing from others: “It is difficult to begin without borrowing, but perhaps it is the most generous course thus to permit your fellow-men to have an interest in your enterprise.” If we actually read “Walden,” claims Schulz, as opposed to simply revering it, we’d see the real Thoreau, a man who believed “his fellow-humans had the same moral status as doormats.” Schulz’s selective reading of “Walden,” a selectiveness she accuses others of using to mislead us into cherishing Thoreau, leads her to a conclusion as old and as tired as Thoreau’s dirty underwear.
Where to begin? Maybe with words directly from “Walden”: “Books must be read as deliberately and reservedly as they were written.” Schulz’s assumption that “Walden” is autobiography and that the “I” of “Walden” is actually Thoreau— the man born and buried in Concord, rather than a meticulously woven persona—immediately belies careless reading on her part. It is in such presumptions that stale hagiographies and lazy demonizations of Thoreau are perpetuated. Schulz doesn’t even really seem to know what genre to place “Walden” in, a clue that there’s something more irreverent and intriguing going on in Thoreau’s book but, sadly, a clue she doesn’t pursue. Once you stop reading “Walden” as failed nonfiction, the real work of deliberate reading can commence. It is then that readers discover that “Walden” is skilfully layered with parodies of popular nineteenth-century genres from self-improvement and house pattern books to the equally fashionable travel-narrative, and that it is responding, in every which way, to the world that is happening beyond Walden Pond. More significantly, the work of reading “Walden” quickly reveals that it is impossible to regard the work as a monolithic paean to any one specific thing or to conceive of the narrator’s dialectic voice as prescriptive. “Walden” is, quite simply, more demanding than that.
Schulz is not wrong to describe “Walden” as “an unnavigable thicket of contradictions and caprice” but it is in the contradictions and the caprice that the reader can discover the joy of Thoreau’s literary revelry. There’s a deft game going on in “Walden,” one that’s clear from the first five paragraphs where the reader witnesses a constant undercutting of genres, expectations, and statements. But more than playfulness, “Walden” is involved in a spiral of questioning what is there and what isn’t and in a shifting of locations, perceptions, and timescapes that can make the reader unsteady. Take, for example, one sentence from Walden’s “Conclusion”: “The volatile truth of our words should continually betray the inadequacy of the residual statement.” In fifteen words Thoreau threatens to throw his whole book under the bus, emphasizing the impermanence of everything said in it. “Walden” is constantly skirting this line of meaning and not-meaning, so that both the book and our reading of it is under continual transformation. Once the reader understands this, “Walden” opens up further, becomes more clearly a set of questions rather than a set of answers—a challenge that may be uncomfortable for those who prefer the ease of prescriptions that can be simply adopted or dismissed.
Perhaps more problematic is Schulz’s claim that “very little counted as life for Thoreau.” With these words Schulz truly unveils her impatience to follow Thoreau as Woolf suggests we do. One of many examples can be found in this year’s latest manuscript discovery: a detailed log by Thoreau describing his trip to Fire Island to discover what had happened to the drowned remains of his friend Margaret Fuller, her husband, Giovanni Ossoli, and their little boy, shipwrecked just a few miles from shore. His description of a ship mate’s account is harrowing: “[W]hen they [husband and steward] turned for her, the sea had taken her. She was drowned before her husband or child…a few seas after washed off the top by which Ossoli held & left nothing but the bare mast to cling to—then another sea washed him off—Either directly before or after this or at the same time he looked up & saw that the child was no longer in the arms of the steward.” Thoreau rails against the men on shore who refused to go out to the shipwreck and save the last remaining souls, despite having been out in worse weather. He find bits of Fuller’s dress, a bag, a shoe, but no body apart from the little boy’s, whose grave he visits. This happened in July of 1850.
In 1855 he published “The Shipwreck,” an essay that describes his witnessing of the St. John shipwreck of 1849, later to be the first chapter in “Cape Cod” and where Schulz picks out a quote to depict Thoreau as a “cold-eyed man who saw in loss of life only aesthetic gain, who identified not with the drowned or the bereaved but with the storm.” In actual fact “The Shipwreck” is the impetus for the rest of “Cape Cod,” an introduction to the dead who go on to resurface throughout the book in a constant reminder of loss. Thoreau dignifies them in the way he does best, assimilating them into the greater force of Nature which was his esteemed place of solace:
Some of the bodies of those passengers were picked up far out at sea, boxed up and sunk; some brought ashore and buried. There are more consequences to a shipwreck than the underwriters notice. The Gulf Stream may return some to their native shores, or drop them in some out-of-the-way cave of Ocean, where time and the elements will write new riddles with their bones.
Here, perhaps, is Thoreau’s true paean. These lines are an affecting eulogy to the dead, giving lost life the vision to become something bigger than it was. It is a tremendous way of coping with the violent deaths Thoreau witnessed throughout his life, from his brother’s savage battle with lockjaw (so traumatic Thoreau obtained the same symptoms without the disease for a week and then wrote about while at Walden), through the loss of Emerson’s first son, Waldo, with whom he was close, to Fuller’s tragic passing. In this light, how can Schulz’s claim that for Thoreau “very little counted as life” not seem hollow indeed? What kind of reading is this?
When I call reading “Walden” “work,” I mean that in a very real sense. As someone who spent five years reading Thoreau for a doctoral degree, I am the first to agree with Woolf that he is difficult to follow. I arrive at Thoreau with other readers I esteem and love: Stanley Cavell, Susan Howe, Annie Dillard, Barbara Johnson, Dan Beachy Quick, Robert Pinsky. These thinkers respond to Thoreau with dedication, playfulness, fearless of proximity, uninterested in standing aloof from him. Their sheer delight in interacting with Thoreau coupled with the complexity of discourse that arises from those interactions is enough to make us realize that there is a fecundity to Thoreau’s writing that pulls us into new places that test our discomfort. We just have to be willing to follow it. “Walden is a book of losses” writes Cavell. “Walden’s greatest achievement is to wake us up to our own lost losses,” agrees Johnson. “[T]he voyage [of Cape Cod] is through performance to what is enormous and eternal, and the spectacle of our mortality,” writes Pinsky. These are the readers of Thoreau with whom I prefer to keep company; the critics who are willing to do the work, who will brave Thoreau down the path of obscurity and emerge breathless, effervescent, better readers than they had been a moment earlier.