October 14, 2015
‘Pond Scum: Henry David Thoreau’s Moral Myopia’
I’ve been writing about this for years.
Now I find out The New Yorker might have been interested. Although I wouldn’t have written something this good.
This read-the-whole-thing essay was written by a woman but doesn’t read like it, which would be enough reason to recommend it — but it also made me more sympathetic to Thoreau than I wanted to be.
My objections to him were always to his hypocrisy — “Get me! I’m living all alone here! (For 2 weeks and some lady does my laundry!!)” and that his “philosophy” led too many lesser men astray — than with his overall “eating/reading about hapless foreigners in the newspaper/dealing with other people closer to home is a waste of time and somewhat icky” sensibility or with his anarchist leanings.
Why, given Thoreau’s hypocrisy, his sanctimony, his dour asceticism, and his scorn, do we continue to cherish “Walden”? One answer is that we read him early. “Walden” is a staple of the high-school curriculum, and you could scarcely write a book more appealing to teen-agers: Thoreau endorses rebellion against societal norms, champions idleness over work, and gives his readers permission to ignore their elders. (“Practically, the old have no very important advice to give the young, their own experience has been so partial, and their lives have been such miserable failures.”) “Walden” is also fundamentally adolescent in tone: Thoreau shares the conviction, far more developmentally appropriate and forgivable in teens, that everyone else’s certainties are wrong while one’s own are unassailable. Moreover, he presents adulthood not as it is but as kids wishfully imagine it: an idyll of autonomy, unfettered by any civic or familial responsibilities.