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Kathryn Schulz’s Mythologizing.

I have found a useful shortcut for dealing with intellectual debate, and since it has saved me time, I will pass it on to you: whenever two or three people write something on the internet in praise of person x for doing such-and-such a thing, know that the person in question was doing precisely the opposite.  And so when I saw two people online saying that Kathryn Schulz’s recent piece in the New Yorker about Henry David Thoreau had “exploded the myth” about Thoreau, I knew in a moment what was really going on: Schulz was fabricating a myth.  I mean “myth” here in the secular, modern sense: a kind of false social narrative.

This is I think the best way to describe what is otherwise a rather difficult piece to respond to, because it contains a bewildering number of what I would call erroneous judgements – statements which can be shown to be unreasonable, but only when a fair amount of evidence is deployed.  This can be a laborious process: I would say that I can isolate fifty different statements by Schulz which can be shown, if you give me a few pages to introduce evidence, as false.  By that time we’ll all have long since moved on.  So I will start with the larger issues, showing hopefully in not-too-many strokes how dishonestly she deals with evidence, and let you induce from there how much faith to put in her other claims.

Let’s first have her rip on Thoreau with big myth numero uno, that Thoreau was a liar when he claimed – so she  she says – to be alone in the wilderness:

Only by elastic measures can “Walden” be regarded as nonfiction. Read charitably, it is a kind of semi-fictional extended meditation featuring a character named Henry David Thoreau. Read less charitably, it is akin to those recent best-selling memoirs whose authors turn out to have fabricated large portions of their stories. It is widely acknowledged that, to craft a tidier narrative, Thoreau condensed his twenty-six months at the cabin into a single calendar year. But that is the least of the liberties he takes with the facts, and the most forgivable of his manipulations of our experience as readers. The book is subtitled “Life in the Woods,” and, from those words onward, Thoreau insists that we read it as the story of a voluntary exile from society, an extended confrontation with wilderness and solitude.

In reality, Walden Pond in 1845 was scarcely more off the grid, relative to contemporaneous society, than Prospect Park is today. The commuter train to Boston ran along its southwest side; in summer the place swarmed with picnickers and swimmers, while in winter it was frequented by ice cutters and skaters. Thoreau could stroll from his cabin to his family home, in Concord, in twenty minutes, about as long as it takes to walk the fifteen blocks from Carnegie Hall to Grand Central Terminal. He made that walk several times a week, lured by his mother’s cookies or the chance to dine with friends. These facts he glosses over in “Walden,” despite detailing with otherwise skinflint precision his eating habits and expenditures.

First of all, I will note that he never claims to be there one year: he mentions repeatedly that he was there for two years, though he does group the essays by the seasons of the year, which is just good artistry.  But let’s get to the big myth.  Schulz never provides evidence that Thoreau “insists that we read [the book] as the story of a voluntary exile from society, an extended confrontation with wilderness and solitude” – it is left as an assertion.  So I will have to provide the evidence.  These are Thoreau’s words:

After hoeing, or perhaps reading and writing, in the forenoon, I usually bathed again in the pond, swimming across one of its coves for a stint, and washed the dust of labor from my person, or smoothed out the last wrinkle which study had made, and for the afternoon was entirely free.  Every day or two I strolled to the village to hear some of the gossip which is incessantly going on there, circulating either from mouth to mouth, or from newspaper to newspaper, and which, taken in homoeopathic doses, was really as refreshing in its way as the rustle of leaves and the peeping of frogs.  As I walked in the woods to see the birds and squirrels, so I walked in the village to see the men and boys; instead of the wind among the pines I heard the carts rattle.  In one direction from my house there was a colony of muskrats in the river meadows; under the grove of elms and buttonwoods in the other horizon was a village of busy men, as curious to me as if they had been prairie dogs, each sitting at the mouth of its burrow, or running over to a neighbor’s to gossip.  I went there frequently.” (456, Library of America edition)

He says, in the book, that he went there every day or two!  And Schulz, who claimed to be doing a “serious reading” of the book, cannot claim that she just missed this paragraph, when it begins an entire chapter called “The Village,” wholly about these visits of his!  Who precisely is “glossing over” the truth here?  Schulz adds that he “downplays the fact that he routinely hosted other guests as well—sometimes as many as thirty at a time.”  What does she mean by “downplays” – that he discusses it at length?  Well, then, yes, he does downplay it then.  He downplays it by writing another entire chapter about it, called – well, what an odd title – “Visitors.”  Here’s how it starts:

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.

I had three chairs in my house; one for solitude, two for friendship, three for society.  When visitors came in larger and unexpected numbers there was but the third chair for them all, but they generally economized the room by standing up.  It is surprising how many great men and women a small house will contain.  I have had twenty-five or thirty souls, with their bodies, at once under my roof, and yet we often parted without being aware that we had come very near to one another. (434)

How about this line, in this chapter: “I had more visitors while I lived in the woods than at any other period of my life.” (437) “Many a traveller came out of his way to see me and the inside of my house, and, as an excuse for calling, asked for a glass of water.”  (442)

Et cetera, et cetera – for why belabor this point, when I can point readers not only to the chapter entitled “Visitors,” but the other one, entitled, “Winter Visitors”?  Really, did Schulz bother to read the book?  I would not accept her essay from a high-school freshman.

But let me reiterate: what is happening here is the fabrication of a myth.  The myth is that Thoreau claimed to have moved to the Yukon, or somewhere like that, and to have wrestled for a year with utter solitude and self-sufficiency.  This is not the book he wrote at all, and he never claims to be doing anything of the sort.  This is a myth; or, coming from the New Yorker, where articles have fact-checkers and someone in the building knows when the statements are false, it is a lie.

Take a look at the way Schulz marshals her one piece of evidence on this point, a quotation from Thoreau.

This is the situation Thoreau summed up by saying, “For the most part it is as solitary where I live as on the prairies. It is as much Asia or Africa as New England. . . . At night there was never a traveller passed my house, or knocked at my door, more than if I were the first or last man.”

But this claim is part of a longer sentence, which Schulz abridges because the full sentence gives her the lie:

At night there was never a traveller passed my house, or knocked at my door, more than if I were the first or last man; unless it were in the spring, when at long intervals some came from the village to fish for pouts, – they plainly fished much more in the Walden Pond of their own natures, and baited their hooks with darkness – but they soon retreated, usually with light baskets, and left “the world to darkness and to me,” and the black kernel of the night was never profaned by any human neighborhood. (426)

Here we have Schulz cutting up sentences in order to prove to us that Thoreau is manipulating us.  But the claim that Thoreau was utterly alone is hers, and she has to do the manipulating.  I find this utterly without intellectual integrity.  But she does it boldly – her next line is “Does this disingenuousness matter?  Countless Thoreau fans have argued that it does not.”  No, we do not argue that.  We argue that Thoreau made no disingenuous claims here at all.  The facts she is reporting as revelations we know because he himself reported them.  The claim that he purported to be off in the wilderness is a lie – and the disingenuousness is all Schulz’s.  She literally has to cut Thoreau’s mention of visitors out of the one sentence she uses to defend this claim.

So what of his claim that “it is solitary where I live as on the prairies”?  Well, the same thing we can say of his other claim in the book, of his cabin during a visit from a friend, “Broadway was still and deserted in comparison.”  He makes philosophical points about actually meeting people as opposed to merely being in their presence (a phenomenon I myself grew more sensitive to after moving to the woods), and he notes that solitude can be had anywhere, even in a city.  And more than that, even fairly trivial distances can still serve as a buffer between you and other people.  Schulz compares Walden Pond with Prospect Park; Walden Pond did not then have almost three million people living on its edges, but the comparison is not entirely unwarranted.  And I’m sure that if someone built himself a little house in Prospect Park and wrote a book about it, Thoreau would be one of its first readers.  And one of the first to predict that the Parks Department would bulldoze it.

And if someone did build himself a little place in Prospect Park, I would be a curious reader too, because I’m sure, despite what naysayers like Schulz might say, that it would be a different way of living in Brooklyn.  I’m sure there would be almost no one passing by in “the black kernel of the night.”  I’m sure it would feel a little lonelier.  But I would also bet that even the nature there would provide a different and beautiful solace.  I myself wrote a book about Staten Island, and when talking about the book I have always noted that Staten Island is to New York City what Walden Pond is to Concord.  It is part of the place, but it offers something unique and different; more natural, cheaper, easier to live with.  But not all of your city friends will come visit you, if you move there.  Thoreau also writes about the people who did not visit him: for some people a mile out of town brought them utterly out of their comfort zones.  It’d be like going to Staten Island.

But back to business.  I think the excerpts I have offered already in part refute another part of her myth, that Thoreau was a “thoroughgoing misanthrope.”

But worse than Thoreau’s radical self-denial is his denial of others. The most telling thing he purports to abstain from while at Walden is companionship, which he regards as at best a time-consuming annoyance, at worst a threat to his mortal soul. For Thoreau, in other words, his fellow-humans had the same moral status as doormats.

But his correspondence shows his love toward his brother, his sister, and his mother (the latter he supported after his father’s death); his friends were loyal to him, and his journals prove his warmth toward them, though his relationship with the father-figure Emerson was occasionally clouded.  He was surely introverted and principled and contrarian, but to call him a misanthrope is to make his actual life incomprehensible.  His contrarian impulses were directed at things which were legitimately injustices.  It was of course a felony not to return slaves to their master.  Despite the danger, however, Thoreau worked to get fugitive slaves to freedom:

In the morning I found the Thoreaus agitated by the arrival of a colored fugitive from Virginia, who had come to their door at daybreak. Thoreau took me to a room where his excellent sister, Sophia, was ministering to the fugitive. . . . I observed the tender and lowly devotion of Thoreau to the African. He now and then drew near to the trembling man, and with a cheerful voice bade him feel at home, and have no fear that any power should again wrong him. The whole day he mounted guard over the fugitive, for it was a slave-hunting time. But the guard had no weapon, and probably there was no such thing in the house. The next day the fugitive was got to Canada, and I enjoyed my first walk with Thoreau.  (Abolitionist Daniel Conway writing about Thoreau; from the Donovan Hohn piece in the New Republic)

This is what counts as “misanthropy” and “moral myopia” for Schulz?  This is giving human beings “the same moral status as doormats”?  Give me more of these haters of humanity.  Thoreau thought the injustice of slavery was so palpable that it made the law itself a thing to be flouted.  And yet he takes to task the Comte de Mirabeau, the French Revolutionary leader, who in his youth made himself a bandit out of purely contrarian motives:

It is said that Mirabeau took to highway robbery “to ascertain what degree of resolution was necessary in order to place oneself in formal opposition to the most sacred laws of society.”  He declared that “a soldier who fights in the ranks does not require half so much courage as a foot-pad,” – “that honor and religion have never stood in the way of a well-considered and firm resolve.”  This was manly, as the world goes; and yet it was idle, if not desperate.  A saner man would have found himself often enough “in formal opposition” to what are deemed “the most sacred laws of society,” through obedience to yet more sacred laws, and so have tested his resolution without going out of his way.  (579)

And Thoreau lived by this, getting thrown in jail for refusing to pay taxes to support a land-grab war in Mexico, and spending his entire adult life in opposition to slavery, to the point of putting his life and liberty at risk to bring people to freedom.  I have heard, though I do not know it for certain, that the cabin at Walden Pond itself sheltered a fugitive slave as well.  How much do we wish to bet that if you or I were the ones enslaved, that we would find Thoreau’s misanthropy more amenable than many others’ comity and charm?  To miss Thoreau’s actual moral greatness – to free one slave at personal risk qualifies anyone for that title, I think – because he was not a man of social graces is smallmindedness.

Let us move on, there is still so much to do:

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. From that inward fixation flowed a social and political vision that is deeply unsettling.

The thing that most struck me about this part of Schulz’s piece is that when she talks about self-obsession and narcissism, she never actually talks about his sense of self or anything a psychiatrist could describe as self-obsession or narcissism.  Narcissism involves a distortion of perception, and nearly everyone agrees that Thoreau was a superb observer who was interested in all sorts of things (she oddly calls him “incurious,” despite the fact that he was insatiably curious, particularly about nature, but generally so; his writings testify to his great breadth as reader, thinker, and observer; he knew who Mirabeau was, and quoted the Vedas, but also astonished onlookers when he could serve as equal partner with the scientist Agassiz in discussing the mating habits of turtles.  I will note that his journals are considered so reliable as data by scientists they are being mined for information about global warming).  Nor was he “adamant that he required nothing beyond himself.”  Thoreau himself said “I require a broad margin to my life” – space, air, nature, room to think, fewer complications.  So no, she is not talking about egotism; in fact, her case is actually about his eating habits and sex life:

“Walden,” in consequence, is not a paean to living simply; it is a paean to living purely, with all the moral judgment that the word implies. In its first chapter, “Economy,” Thoreau lays out a program of abstinence so thoroughgoing as to make the Dalai Lama look like a Kardashian. (That chapter must be one of the highest barriers to entry in the Western canon: dry, sententious, condescending, more than eighty pages long.) Thoreau, who never wed, regarded “sensuality” as a dangerous contaminant, by which we “stain and pollute one another.” He did not smoke and avoided eating meat. He shunned alcohol, although with scarcely more horror than he shunned every beverage except water: “Think of dashing the hopes of a morning with a cup of warm coffee, or of an evening with a dish of tea! Ah, how low I fall when I am tempted by them!” Such temptations, along with the dangerous intoxicant that is music, had, he felt, caused the fall of Greece and Rome.

I cannot idolize anyone who opposes coffee (especially if the objection is that it erodes great civilizations; had the man not heard of the Enlightenment?), but Thoreau never met an appetite too innocuous to denounce. He condemned those who gathered cranberries for jam (“So butchers rake the tongues of bison out of the prairie grass”) and regarded salt as “that grossest of groceries”; if he did without it, he boasted, he could also drink less water. He advised his readers to eat just one meal a day, partly to avoid having to earn additional money for food but also because the act of eating bordered, for him, on an ethical transgression. “The fruits eaten temperately need not make us ashamed of our appetites,” he wrote, as if our appetites were otherwise disgraceful. No slouch at public shaming, Thoreau did his part to sustain that irrational equation, so robust in America, between eating habits and moral worth.

First of all, how odd she is to conclude a pair of paragraphs about a man’s appetites and how terrible a man they show him to be, by adverting to “that irrational equation, so robust in America, between eating habits and moral worth.”  For her, abstemious eating habits means low moral worth – that  was her whole point (she’s not just saying he was mentally ill and neurotic, she’s saying he was a bad person; the piece is, after all, entitled “Pond Scum”).  As for his moralizing to others about this, he really does not.  This, again, is a myth.  He again and again eschews rule-making, and says instead that we should make experiments.  From these experiments we can get and share information with each other, both good and bad.  “It is never too late to give up our prejudices,” he says.  “No way of thinking or doing, however ancient,” – even his own way of thinking and doing, I will note –  “can be trusted without proof” (329).

Since we cannot trust Schulz to use her sources honestly, let me provide the passage she is criticizing.  Does it jive with Schulz’s claim that “The hypocrisy is that Thoreau lived a complicated life but pretended to live a simple one”?  After musing about diet and vegetarianism he says:

Yet, for my part, I was never unusually squeamish; I could sometimes eat a fried rat with a good relish, if it were necessary.  I am glad to have drunk water so long, for the same reason that I prefer the natural sky to an opium-eater’s heaven.  I would fain keep sober always; and there are infinite degrees of drunkenness.  I believe that water is the only drink for a wise man; wine is not so noble a liquor; and think of dashing the hopes of a morning with a cup of warm coffee, or of an evening with a dish of tea!  Ah, how low I fall when I am tempted by them!  Even music may be intoxicating.  Such apparently slight causes destroyed Greece and Rome, and will destroy England and America.  Of all ebriosity, who does not prefer to be intoxicated by the air he breathes?  I have found it to be the most serious objection to coarse labors long continued, that they compelled me to eat and drink coarsely also.  But to tell the truth, I find myself at present somewhat less particular in these respects.  I carry less religion to the table, ask no blessing; not because I am wiser than I was, but, I am obliged to confess, because, however much it is to be regretted, with years I have grown more coarse and indifferent.  Perhaps these questions are entertained only in youth, as most believe of poetry.  My practice is “nowhere,” my opinion is here.  Nevertheless I am far from regarding myself as one of those privileged ones to whom the Ved refers when it says, that “he who has true faith in the Omnipresent Supreme Being may eat all that exists,” that is, is not bound to inquire what is his food, or who prepares it; and even in their case it is to be observed, as a Hindoo commentator has remarked, that the Vedant limits this privilege to “the time of distress.” (496)

He certainly is spending time musing about food, and he imagines that he might still have use for some “food rules,” which not everyone will have patience for, but this is not the picture Schulz attempts to paint, of a “dour ascetic,” a “zealot,” a “fanatic,” a “despot” (her words).  All he says is that he thinks there is a natural instinct in us toward simplicity and purity, which leads us to abstain from animal food, and in general to cultivate a simple diet; but for his own part he could eat a good fried rat from time to time.  And the rhetorical flourishes – “Ah, how low I fall when I am tempted by them!” are comical exaggerations, directly satirizing Congregationalist sermons.

And for him, this simple life actually did produce results which he liked.  I have always thought that the claim that Walden is hypocritical is one of the least appropriate charges that could be applied to it.  Thoreau is always himself; he is the least hypocritical of all authors.  When he writes that he likes water, I have no doubt that he drank more water than any other man alive.  And he kept to a simple life until the very end.  He liked the feeling of it – he enjoyed that clarity of mind that comes from a life without alcohol or caffeine or heavy foods, and much time outdoors.  He truly did experience all these things, and he writes of them to share them.  Not – as Schulz would have it – from motives that are “at base, religious.”  (A term which for Schulz seems to mean nothing but “vaguely sinister.”)  His motives are that he liked life the way he lived it, and he wanted to share it with others.  He had both good things to report – things that worked – and bad things too.  He mentions, for instance, that he has nothing to say about tobacco, and “My excuse for not lecturing against the use of tobacco is, that I never chewed it; that is a penalty which reformed tobacco-chewers have to pay; though there are things enough I have chewed, which I could lecture against.” (384)  His reports on various wild foods, and how bad some of them taste, are still hilarious today.  But even when he claims they are terrible to taste, you can tell he still enjoys them in his own way.  I find myself very similar in this regard: a wild food, no matter how odd its flavor, appeals to me more than the most elaborate, expensive meal.  He says of his intended audience:

I do not mean to prescribe rules to strong and valiant natures, who will mind their own affairs whether in heaven or hell, and perhance build more magnificently and spend more lavishly than the richest, without ever impoverishing themselves, not knowing how they live, – if indeed, there are any such, as has been dreamed; nor to those who find their encouragement and inspiration in precisely the present condition of things, and cherish it with the fondness and enthusiasm of lovers, – and, to some extent, I reckon myself in this number; I do not speak to those who are well employed, in whatever circumstances, and they know whether they are well employed or not; – but mainly to the mass of men who are discontented, and idly complaining of the hardness of their lot or of the times, when they might improve them.  There are some who complain most energetically and inconsolably of any, because they are, as they say, doing their duty.  I also have in mind that seemingly wealthy, but most terribly impoverished class of all, who have accumulated dross, but know not how to use it, or get rid of it, and thus have forged their own golden or silver fetters.  (335)

In other words, he wrote precisely because he was not a hermit or misanthrope, and he wished to show other people that there was another way open to them – one which he had taken himself, a life of greater simplicity.  He tells a story of someone who could weave baskets but was bad at selling them, for selling is an art as much as making.  “Instead of studying how to make it worth men’s while to buy my baskets, I studied rather how to avoid the necessity of selling them.  The life which men praise and regard as successful is but one kind.  Why should we exaggerate any one kind at the expense of the others?” (338)  And he lived by this – finding ways to spend less, to drive down the cost of living, and so give himself more free time to do what he wanted.  That it is, in fact, possible for many people, is proven by the fact that many people do live lives of conscious simplicity – often after being inspired by reading Walden, which Schulz again disingenuously says was not meant to be fodder for inspirational posters.  Of course it was.  That was the entire point.  “I learned this, at least, 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.” (580)  And a longer passage, showing his general points:

In short, I am convinced, both by faith and experience, that to maintain one’s self on this earth is not a hardship but a pastime, if we will live simply and wisely; as the pursuits of the simpler nations are still the sports of the more artificial.  It is not necessary that a man should earn his living by the sweat of his brow, unless he sweats easier than I do.

One young man of my acquaintance, who has inherited some acres, told me that he thought he should live as I did, if he had the means.  I would not have any one adopt my mode of living on any account; for, besides that 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.  The youth may build or plant or sail, only let him not be hindered from doing that which he tells me he would like to do. (378-9)

Why is Schulz so threatened by this?  Why cannot people who love wild foods have their Thoreau, and read him for information about eating shrunken rotten apples off the tree in January, and people who love expensive restaurants go there, and let everyone be happy with that?  Why cannot people who are discontented with consumerist America keep an old used copy of Thoreau in their huts, while everyone else can go kiss Donald Trump’s and Kim Kardashian’s posteriors?  Thoreau is long dead; he is hardly pressing himself on anyone’s attention.  I will return to this.

Schulz also takes him to task for his dislike of “sensuality,” “by which we stain and pollute one another.”  I don’t think that all sexuality is thus a stain and pollutant, though I think it is a very real phenomenon, that we can do this, and that it is immoral to do it to someone else, to make them rise from your bed feeling degraded and polluted.  But it seems there must be more to this issue with the lifelong bachelor Thoreau.  Even in his journals shows a high degree of chastity; and he also shows much more interest in men than women.  I think it is reasonable to presume that he was a repressed homosexual, a condition for which I, unlike Ms. Schulz, am far more likely to feel compassion than condemnation.  He was born into a society where to express himself sexually as he desired may well have made him liable to prison or worse.  I do think it is fair to say that there was some degree of internalized self-judgement for his tendencies.  This fact probably gave impetus to the tremendous energy Thoreau had against the strictures of the civil law and against conformity to majority custom.  This is the next aspect of Thoreau’s life Schulz condemns.

In the choice between “obey the laws of your somewhat-democratic society” and “oppose them and work to free slaves,” Thoreau chose the latter, and Schulz in general would have us believe that the former is the better position:

In “Resistance to Civil Government” (better known today as “Civil Disobedience”), Thoreau argued that his only political obligation was “to do at any time what I think right.” When constrained by its context, that line is compelling; it reads as a call to obey one’s conscience over and above unjust laws. But as a broader theory of governance, which it was, it is troubling. People routinely perpetrate wrongs out of obedience to their conscience, even in situations when the law mandates better behavior. (Consider the Kentucky county clerk currently refusing to issue marriage licenses to gay couples.) Like public institutions, private moral compasses can err, and different ones frequently point in different directions.

But there is another side to this question: the evil which people do out of obedience to the laws.  Schulz can have as her example Kim Davis; I will give as my example Hermann Goering.  Conscientious but immoral individuals can do almost nothing, compared to systemic evils which absolutely depend on obedience.  Hitler’s power was in the conscienceless obedience of millions.  American slavery itself depended on the benign neglect of the majority of the population.  These evils make “the immorality of Kim Davis” seem pretty tame.  Schulz continues:

Although Thoreau is often regarded as a kind of cross between Emerson, John Muir, and William Lloyd Garrison, the man who emerges in “Walden” is far closer in spirit to Ayn Rand: suspicious of government, fanatical about individualism, egotistical, élitist, convinced that other people lead pathetic lives yet categorically opposed to helping them.

I think we have already discussed his “categorically opposed to helping them” – he would even have put his life and liberty in danger to help them – but what about this Ayn Rand comment?  Thoreau has amongst his fans and followers Gandhi, Tolstoy, Martin Luther King, John Muir, and others.  His followers do not look very much like Ayn Rand’s followers.  And as he said, he really was not supporting individualism: what he believed in was obedience to even higher laws than the laws of the state.

It is clear that this makes Schulz nervous, and calls forth all kinds of name-calling: “prophet,” “seer,” and worst of all, “at base, religious.”  But she has to admit that he didn’t really belong to any religion, and he was far from ever codifying any religious practices.  What is going on here?

She puts things in terms of “the individual versus society,” which I must say I think is a high-school level of analysis.  What is more relevant is the social versus the cosmic.  And what I mean by the cosmic is our actual experience of being alive, as opposed to social convention.  I was recently reading an academic book about the Smokies which mocked the speeches seeking national park status and then later tourism campaigns which advertised the place’s unique beauty and unspoiled nature.  And then at the end the author noted that actually going there, she could kind of believe the advertising – the experience of the place almost made her think it was unique and special, despite her academic training which enabled her to put the area into a larger Appalachian context.  I think it is people who have experiences who become passionate defenders.  And I think personal experience, quite to the contrary of what Ms. Schulz thinks, is far and away the most secure guardian of our rights.  Thoreau had an experience of freedom, and being alive, in those nights by Walden pond; and that experience of freedom made him willing to help others get their own freedom.  A person who is entirely social, on the other hand, is far more likely to remain part of the crowd, and as can be shown again and again scientifically, crowds are far more dangerous, far less compassionate, and far less reasonable, than individuals are.  Schulz says that Thoreau would not admit “evidence and reason,” or “logical scrutiny.”  But it would be hard to imagine a person more amenable to such things – if you told Thoreau that it was best, on the evidence, to eat dirt directly rather than to grow crops, I am sure he would have listened to you, and if you convinced him, he would have tried it.  In his essays he reasons out his position, and it is obvious that he spent much time with his friends debating and arguing.  She claims that “It is the point of democracy to adjudicate among such conflicting claims through some means other than fiat or force, but Thoreau was not interested in that process.”  But he was: he made speeches and attempted to convince people; he wrote books and took a lively interest in what he called “reform.”  The entire point was that bad laws should be reformed; and he even invented a new means of reform, called civil disobedience, which was neither fiat or force, and he went to jail for it.  Others used it after him too.

This essay is already far too long, and I have not gotten to even a portion of Schulz’s errors.  But I want to close, and close by returning to an earlier point, on the issue of consumption.  Schulz makes it clear that to reject “sensuality” and most food and drink is a sign of Thoreau’s “moral myopia.”  She specifically mentions – I suppose partly in jest – that she cannot idolize anyone who opposes coffee.  I want to pause on this for a moment.  Is this because coffee is so unassailable?  I presume we all are aware that coffee farming is labor-intensive, poorly-paid work in terrible conditions, usually done by child labor.  It is then shipped thousands of miles using fossil fuels to markets.  If there is anything good about “local food,” then coffee would be the opposite of that good.

I do not mean to get derailed, but merely to make a point: that our appetites, for things like coffee or chocolate or food in general, have a political and social and ecological dimension.  And given the massive environmental degradation found all over the world – as the direct result of our appetites – we should doubt a bit if it is wise – or even moral – to let our appetites go wholly without scrutiny.  And yet Schulz seems bent on dismissing these concerns entirely.  Thoreau, in questioning the appetites, I think was putting his finger on a very large problem.

It is in fact, entirely natural and traditional to feel bad about consumption.  This is, for instance, one of the basic ingredients of primitive religion: I am going out to kill an animal, killing is wrong, but my people need this animal for food, please, Spirit, forgive us.  To take food implied a relationship: that mankind was a taker, and potentially destructive, but this was balanced by a reverence and respect for the animal and for nature which would ensure that there would be more animals for food in the future.  This pattern obtained all over the world, and to this day meals often call forth a blessing, because psychologically there is an awareness that gratitude is necessary (i.e., we do not deserve what we are given) and that a sacrifice of a life (animal or vegetable), which is sacred, has occurred in the making of the meal.  Early psychologists thought that all these feelings were entirely natural, and that we all go through them even today.

Thoreau, as I have intimated, really did not know about the degradation of nature and how our habits of consumption would later make the whole earth totter.  He was looking at it from a different end: how consumption affects us.  He thought that there were values inherent in nature, which made the experience of a natural life better than a merely comfortable one.  The dichotomy is all the more powerfully felt today.  On Wildcat Mountain, I not only can see the Milky Way, I can see it from inside my house.  This is the kind of interior decorating you can only get if you give up many other aspects of civilized life.  I think it is very much better than many other types of interior decoration, and some are as cheap, but none are cheaper.  And this is merely symptomatic: dozens of other examples could be used.  There is an intoxication in wine, but there is also one in sobriety, even in fasting, and in being outdoors all day, or going without sleep all night: all these produce different sensations in the body, and it is possible to revel in them as well.  Thoreau thought they were rewarding experiences in themselves, and he was right, and he thought that a life full of them might make some others, who were miserable otherwise, much happier.  It worked for him.  And it has worked for me too.  But I will add what we know today about the global situation, to what Thoreau knew about his own personal happiness: we need many many many more people to live more simply, especially Americans.  And if you do not believe this is a moral obligation, this is merely because you have not reasoned out the consequences yet, or you don’t believe there are moral obligations at all.

I think this is the single most important moral issue of our time, and even the Pope is beginning to suggest something to this effect, but Schulz praises Thoreau’s glorification of wilderness while failing to connect it with Thoreau’s questioning of the appetites.  But the two are surely related.  The greatest threat to our planet is consumerism, which we can define as the  industry of growing, cultivating, and multiplying our appetites.  Our wars, our politics, are all subject to it.  As George Bush so memorably showed us in the days after September 11th, consumerism is war by other means: if you want to support the war effort, go buy stuff.  Thoreau, with all his sales resistance and “appetite resistance,” was one of the pioneers of what Wendell Berry says we need to do, which is find locally available and sustainable replacements for the things that the global economy is selling to us at the cost of the entire natural system of our planet.  Simplicity in our private lives will end up being the only way to save ourselves from ecological catastrophe.  Schulz ends up being what everyone hates about the contemporary liberal: utterly blasé about the great moral struggles of the past, while being oblivious to her own personal role in the great moral questions of our own times.  Thoreau, meanwhile, ends up being far from morally myopic: not only was he right about the most important issue of his day, he was prescient in facing the great moral issue of the future.


  1. Michelle

    This is so, so good – one of your best pieces. Send it in to the New Yorker!

    Posted on 26-Oct-15 at 10:20 pm | Permalink
  2. Alex T

    I agree with Michelle! This piece exposes that writer as a supreme fool.

    Posted on 27-Oct-15 at 9:41 pm | Permalink
  3. Otilia Kloos

    Mythologizing is part of the rhetoric impact of literature( in Thoreau’s case here)on us, of words. One can also think of the old ” topos” of the upside down world or the deconstruction of metaphysics, for example. Schulz s responsible here, like in any history of forms and content, of what Zoe Petre names in her book on the history of the ancient ” polis” ” the diachronical density of the reality of the concept and the way it gets in our imagination”. Rene Char also talks somewhere about the ” permutable truth of words”: I would not forget to mention the way he writes about roses, for insance-“Forehead Of The Rose-
    Despite the open window in the room of long absence, the odor of the rose is still linked with the
    breath that was there. Once again we are without previous experience, newcomers, in love. The
    rose! The field of its ways would dispel even the effrontery of death. No grating stands in the way.
    Desire is alive, an ache in our vaporous foreheads.

    One who walks the earth in its rains has nothing to fear from the thorn in places either finished or
    unfriendly. But if he stops to commune with himself, woe! Pierced to the quick, he suddenly flies to
    ashes, an archer reclaimed by beauty.”;

    A lot to meditate upon the process of return/ inversion/ upheaval in literature and the world of critics. Lautreamont, in his Precis de decomposition , in 1949, was speaking about the decomposition as a purifying fire.

    Posted on 05-Nov-15 at 2:37 pm | Permalink
  4. Jon Williams

    Excellent piece and inspires me to reread Walden tonight!

    Posted on 06-Nov-15 at 7:28 pm | Permalink
  5. Erica Ryland

    I am so grateful to have read this. I ran across the New Yorker piece and was troubled by it without even having much detailed knowledge of Thoreau. You have so clearly demostrated the piece’s serious flaws. I do hope you will send it to the New Yorker.

    Posted on 06-Nov-15 at 10:18 pm | Permalink
  6. Tom Evans

    Bravo! You debunked the debunker. I was so outraged at the article I wanted to respond, and hopefully will at some point, but I still am too upset about it to think logically. I’d love to know what the magazine’s readers opinion about the article was. Although HDT needs no defending, you did a wonderful job. Thank you.

    Posted on 20-Dec-15 at 11:29 am | Permalink
  7. That piece really upset me, too – there was something really disturbing and dishonorable about it. It apparently had that effect on several people. Someone called Schulz, for her cheap negativity, “the Anne Coulter of American studies.” I honestly said one-tenth of what I could have, but essays have to end somewhere. If you get this response, tell me at some point how you found this article – I don’t think it comes up when you google the Schulz article.

    Posted on 24-Dec-15 at 9:34 pm | Permalink