Henry David Thoreau is down in the polls these days. The anti-social philosopher has always been controversial, and his writings have long been the tinder of heated debates about what it means to be American. Let the debate rage on, I say, but first we need to clear the air. Thoreau was not a hypocrite.
We all know his little secret, of course. I heard it in high school from a smug teacher, and just about everyone who writes a book on the philosopher gets in a jab about it, as if they were leaking the Pentagon Papers.
The worst I’ve seen so far is this post from Cracked.com titled “9 Famous Thinkers Who Were Total Hypocrites,” which lumps Thoreau in with Charles Koch, billionaire libertarian who wants to end Social Security. What’s the philosopher’s unforgivable sin?
While writing about the importance of solitude at Walden Pond, Thoreau would run into town and have people cook dinner for him, and before heading back into the woods, he would dump his laundry at his mother’s house.
But if you’ve read Walden, you know how stupid this allegation is, about as stupid as calling either one of the Koch brothers a famous thinker.
Richard Smith of the Thoreau Society has already made the same observation:
It should be obvious to anyone who’s read Walden that Thoreau was not a hermit. Just the chapter called “Visitors” is enough to put the myth to rest. So the question in my mind is not “Was he or was he not a hermit,” but how did the rumor start in the first place? In Walden itself, Thoreau declares, “I am naturally no hermit.” So if someone tells me Thoreau was a hermit, I’m inclined to suspect that this person hasn’t read Walden very closely.
Or read it at all, I might add. Throughout the book, the wiry philosopher talks about his trips to town, sometimes on business to sell his produce, or sometimes just to hang out. “I might possibly sit out the sturdiest frequenter of the bar-room if my business called me thither,” brags Thoreau, his latent masculinity poking through. And his proximity to a high-traffic railroad is practically a motif of the essay:
The Fitchburg Railroad touches the pond about a hundred rods south of where I dwell. I usually go to the village along its causeway, and am, as it were, related to society by this link.
He devotes an entire chapter to his hundreds of visitors, one of whom suggested a log book in which everyone could write their name as they passed through. Thoreau decides that it’s too corny.
Walden, a two-year diary of a man who lived in casual solitude, is heaped high with his dirty laundry, albeit without mention of his literal laundry. He never shies from admitting his weaknesses, how he cheated on his original promise, or cut a corner or two. Yet his message isn’t compromised by some sunken secret that your English Lit teacher is gonna let you in on. That is, unless you really want to fault the guy—a 27 year-old virgin—for not singling out his mother as one of his frequent contacts.
But even the well-read think that this is the trump card, as if his dependence on friends and family invalidated the entire life and legacy of one of America’s foundational thinkers.
Why so many haters? The ad hominem attack on Thoreau, I think, is ideological. It comes from an attachment to the very way of life that Walden critiques. Civilization’s addicts want to believe that alternatives are the stuff of fiction, for day-dreaming mama’s-boys, and not serious philosophers.
In a recent article for the New Yorker, Kathryn Schulz takes Walden head-on and sets out to make a deeper accusation: Thoreau didn’t give much though, at least not in Walden, to the problem of other people. If everyone lived alone in a cabin, would society’s complex relations just simply fall into place? What does Thoreau have to say about the poor and dispossessed, victims of his country’s capitalism and colonialism that he would rather retreat from?
That’s the real debate—not whether he achieved what he set out to achieve, which he certainly did. He forsook modernization, which necessitated moderate (yet incomplete) separation from other people, and in doing so, revealed the crisis of what capitalists and socialists alike call “progress.” The truth is, some of us don’t care too much for the products of mass industry, and don’t see material wealth as the key to emancipation.
Plenty of daredevils since Thoreau have proved that Spartan self-sufficiency is easy to achieve. But that’s not what Walden was about. Thoreau’s essay is a meditation on values. It’s not the original ultimate survival guide. So even if the Discovery Channel were to shockingly reveal one day that the little house at Walden Pond was a total invention of the author, his book and his ideas would remain something to be reckoned with:
The nation itself, with all its so-called internal improvements, which, by the way are all external and superficial, is just such an unwieldy and overgrown establishment, cluttered with furniture and tripped up by its own traps, ruined by luxury and heedless expense…We do not ride on the railroad; it rides upon us.