20 October 2015

On Walden

I am rather appalled at the somewhat absurd reading of Thoreau’s Walden by Kathryn Schulz in her recent New Yorker piece entitled “Pond Scum.” Though she says “The real Thoreau was, in the fullest sense of the word, self-obsessed, narcissistic, fanatical about self-control, adamant that he required nothing beyond himself to understand and thrive in the world,” she seems at the least to have ignored and pitifully misunderstood (to my mind with spiteful intent) at least the second paragraph of the book. Thoreau writes: “In most books, the I, or first person, is omitted; in this it will be retained . . . we commonly do not remember that it is, after all, always the first person that is speaking. I should not talk so much about myself if there were any body else whom I knew as well. Unfortunately, I am confined to this theme by the narrowness of my experience.” In an era when the memoir has become absurdly ubiquitous and to a large extent ghost written, it is more than odd that Ms. Schulz should focus on this aspect of Thoreau’s book. Indeed, Thoreau admits that “I should not obtrude my affairs so much on the notice of my readers if very particular inquiries had not been made by my townsmen concerning my mode of life . . .” He was provoked into the narrative. And as for Ms. Schulz’s insinuation that Thoreau authoritatively insisted that his life style be the model for others, she has only to read in “Economy,” "I would not have any one adopt my mode of living on any account; for, before he has fairly learned it I may have found out another for myself, I desire that there may be as many different persons in the world as possible; but I would have each one be very careful to find out and pursue his own way, and not his father's or his mother's or his neighbor's instead." Thoreau throughout Walden advocates that each person learn her own life and certainly not copy his.
            In actuality, Thoreau went to Walden amongst other personal motives to write A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers a memorial to his brother, John, who had died of tetanus, and with whom he had undertaken just such a voyage. As in Walden which was finally organized artistically and organically by the natural progression of a single year, so did Thoreau organize A Week according to the ordered progress of the days. Thoreau did not move to the shores of Walden Pond (definitely not a scummy pond: Ms. Schulz should study the contrast between Walden Pond and the other ponds Thoreau in detail describes) but rather to study the needs and demands of his own life. He did not go to the woods specifically to write Walden.  Nevertheless, Thoreau always kept an active journal—Emerson upon meeting the recently Harvard graduate asked Thoreau, “Do you keep a journal?” and for the rest of his life Thoreau maintained a detailed and fascinating record of his life and experience¾but I am not certain to what extent Ms. Schulz has read into the Journal to any extent. Nevertheless, a casual glance would show that this great work was the Ur source for the composition of Walden. Schulz does complain that finally it took Thoreau ten years to write the book, but Thoreau says in “Reading” that a book should be read as slowly and carefully as it was written: alas, Ms. Schulz must have missed that chapter.
            And Thoreau went to the woods not for show but as an experiment. “My purpose in going to Walden Pond was not tot live cheaply nor to live dearly there, but to transact some private business with fewest obstacles; to be hindered from accomplishing which for want of a little common sense, a little enterprise and business talent, appeared not so sad as foolish.” I am surprised that Ms. Schulz missed this early description of Thoreau’s intent in “Economy,” a chapter that Ms. Schulz bemoans to be 80 pages long! (Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, weighing in at almost 800 pages, perhaps more to Ms. Schulz’s liking has chapter lengths of 2-4 pages, but I do not think it advisable to measure a novel by the length of the chapters.) Thoreau’s time at Walden was not meant to be a model for exemplary or even solitary living: it was meant as an experiment in his own life! In the conclusion he says “I learned this by my experiment: 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.” Thoreau went to Walden to see what it was he had to obtain to live, “living is so dear.” Concord was not a town poverty stricken, and the Thoreaus were not wealthy: Thoreau had to decide whether he was going to live to make money (with which he could purchase the things of this world: food shelter and clothing) or whether he was going to live a life according to his dreams. Thoreau went to Walden, she tells us, “to learn what are the gross necessaries of life,” but that is not Thoreau’s language. Thoreau went to Walden to learn what was necessary for his life and what wasn’t required so that he didn’t waste his time getting what wasn’t necessary. “The cost of an item,” he writes, “is how much life it takes to get it.” And Thoreau left Walden for the same reason as he had gone there in the first place: “because I had other lives to live.”
            Ms. Schulz complains that Thoreau didn’t live a solitary life at all. She notes that he traveled to town regularly—it was but a 20-minute walk—but Thoreau acknowledges that when he lived ‘in the woods’ he lived but a mile from his nearest neighbor. And as for his sociability which Ms. Schulz denigrates, she apparently ignores Thoreau’s own statement, “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.” How did Ms. Schulz miss this unless she had motive to be so blind. We know that Thoreau served as a conductor on the Underground Railroad. And we do more than suspect that his mother and other women of Concord met in his cabin to discuss issues of abolition and their work in the underground movement.  Ms. Schulz records no record of these visitations. Thoreau’s friend, Frank Sanborn, was more than an acquaintance of John Brown, and there are pages and pages in Thoreau’s journal concerning Brown’s work and martyrdom (Thoreau’s words describing Brown!).
            Ah, there is so much error in Ms. Schulz’s article that I don’t know really where to begin or end. So I will conclude here: she accuses him of an asceticism and self-control that borders on the fanatical. She is completely mistaken. He does not advocate for self-denial at all; indeed, at times he speaks to the opposite tendency if necessary. In the Conclusion he writes, “Be rather the Mungo Park, the Lewis and Clarke and Frobisher, of your own streams and oceans; explore your own higher latitudes,¾with shiploads of preserved meats to support you, if they be necessary; and pile the empty cans sky-high for a sign. Were preserved meats invented to preserve meat merely (italics added)? I have always taken this to mean that in my own quest of self-knowledge (Socrates’ ‘know thyself’ seems to have begun that introspective philosophical tradition), even a flat screen 80-inch television might be appropriate. And Thoreau admits that it is I who must choose what is necessary and what is not rather than to  have that choice made for me by others. Ms. Schulz misses this as well: “It is not worth the while to go round the world to count the cats in Zanzibar. Yet do this even till you can do better, and you may perhaps find some “Symme’s Hole” by which to get at the inside at last (italics added). What Thoreau advocated always as an end was a self-awareness that would lead to independence and an honest life. He would say “However mean your life is, meet and live it; do not shun it and call it hard names.. . .”
            I could continue for a good while recording the errors and misreadings of Ms. Schulz of Walden. Thoreau read the newspapers at least once a week, and I go now to mine. There is more day to dawn: the sun is but a morning star.


Blogger Unknown said...

Thanks so much for this. The whole thing was an outrageous travesty, a total misrepresentation of the man and his work. I hope the New Yorker pays dearly for allowing this calumny. I for one will never have any dealings with them again.

20 October, 2015 13:27  

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