Being Right: The Legacy of Henry David Thoreau

Thoreau’s grave. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Thoreau’s grave. Via Wikimedia Commons.

In a recent New Yorker piece (“Pond Scum,” October 19), Kathryn Schulz takes a twenty-first-century hammer to a nineteenth-century nail, pounding Henry David Thoreau into submission. In addition to Thoreau’s supposed arrogance, self-righteousness, narcissism, parochialism, isolationism, and apparent embrace of every “ism” against humanity, there’s one particular flaw in Thoreau’s character that Schulz finds particularly galling: The man didn’t much care for coffee. “I cannot,” she writes, “idolize anyone who opposes coffee.”

It’s a fine quip, the kind that leavens so much of Schulz’s other work (I’m a fan of her book Being Wrong) and the kind that inspires me to retort, in equally playful fashion, that the sawdust and chicory-laden brew available in Thoreau’s day can’t fairly be compared to the tony aromatic blend that I assume perks Schulz to life every morning. Please, let us not become ahistorical about coffee!

Unfortunately, Schulz has done more than condemn the beverage preference of a man known as the father (or at least legal guardian) of environmentalism, transcendentalism, and abolitionism. She’s undertaken a coordinated assault on the gentleman’s character, not to mention his political philosophy and historical legacy. The best thing that can be said about Schulz’s casting of Thoreau as a “thoroughgoing misanthrope” is that her skepticism of the man is obscured by overstatement.

Schulz’s assessment of Thoreau’s social life offers the most obvious case in point. Early on, she observes that Thoreau saw human companionship as “at best a time consuming annoyance.” Thoreau’s acquaintances “had the same moral status [to him] as doormats.” He was, she adds, a “castaway from the rest of humanity.” But later, while mocking his pseudo-wilderness “ersatz experience” as “cabin porn,” she documents a different Thoreau. This one walked to Concord “several times a week, lured by … the chance to dine with friends.” This one was a guy who “routinely hosted other guests … sometimes as many as thirty at a time.” This one, in other words, hardly sounds like an asocial crank. So when Schulz starts dissing Thoreau for his inconsistencies, it’s clear that a deeper—one might say blinding—discontent is driving the analysis.

This discontent feeds on something unexpected from Schulz: a generalized distrust of anyone who publicly promotes uncompromised moral instinct as the truth. It’s unexpected because her other work—Being Wrong especially—is so generously sympathetic to individual moral pronouncements that get it wrong on the road to (maybe) getting it right. But when it comes to Thoreau there’s no sympathy for his moral quest. Emerson said of Thoreau that “not a particle of respect had he to the opinions of any man or body of men, but homage solely to the truth itself,” and Schulz disapproves. She’s rankled that Thoreau “was suspicious of tradition and institutions, and regarded personal intuition and direct revelation as superior foundations.” Such a stance implies that he “regarded his own peculiar intuitions and revelations as superior to those of other people.” Well, god forbid.

Righteousness is obnoxious. But it’s also inevitable—and perhaps even desirable—in those seeking to do something as bombastically ambitious as save the world. Who knows why, but some people just tilt at windmills, undeterred by the wisdom of crowds. Frankly, I find the impulse nuts, and I’d normally join Schulz in dissing such idealism but for one thing: Every now and then that stubborn lunatic nails it.

Schulz’s populist appeal to the equality of moral intuition disregards those rare men and women whose moral intuition is unique, uniquely superior, and, in the end, right. By relying on personal intuition rather than collaboration with the status quo (and those who uphold it), by trusting the song of the self rather than the chorus of culture, Thoreau joins William Lloyd Garrison, Harriet Tubman, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Eleanor Roosevelt, and other arrogant pond scum in mapping out a better future with the help of an intensely private moral compass. Perhaps we should step aside and leave them to their business. The worst thing they can do is be wrong.

But Schulz wants none of this renegade moral genius stuff. “People routinely perpetrate wrongs out of obedience to their conscience,” she warns. As evidence she cites Kim Davis, the Kentucky clerk who denied marriage licenses to gays. But people routinely perpetrate wrongs by obeying the law as well. The fact that Davis’s behavior reflected her individual conscience is not what really matters. What matters is that she was wrong. Thoreau also placed his conscience above the law. But did so not to thwart love, but to fight slavery.

And it’s on this topic—Thoreau’s abolitionism—that Schulz’s essay assumes its own posture of misanthropy. Framing Thoreau’s anti-slavery activism as a “striking exception to Thoreau’s indifference to the rest of humanity,” she reduces his lifelong opposition to slavery as deriving “less from compassion or a commitment to equality” than a rabid “belief in self-governance.” This distinction not only seems inappropriate for a man who risked his freedom to harbor and guide fugitive slaves to their freedom; it reflects a basic misunderstanding of Thoreau’s carefully crafted—if quixotic—worldview, one that blended abolitionism, individualism, and nature to advance the cause of humanity as integral to that of anti-slavery.

For Thoreau, self-governance was not necessarily a static end in itself. He did not ultimately envision an atomistic civilization marked by radical self-sufficiency and self-imposed human isolation in a howling wilderness. Thoreau’s ethic of self-governance was instead a starting point for reconstituting a freshly awakened culture on a moral foundation that refused to accept the sort of compromises—the Missouri Compromise, the Compromise of 1850, the Fugitive Slave Acts—that confirmed the moral impotence he so loathed. His 1854 essay, “Slavery in Massachusetts,” does more than explain why Thoreau rejected the unthinking conformity of his peers, deferring instead to his intuitive moral instinct that one human should never own another. It reveals a man whose reading of the American political landscape in 1854 confirmed that the “laws of the state” required salvation by “the laws of humanity.” “What is wanted,” he wrote, “is men not of policy, but of probity—who recognize a higher law than the Constitution, or the decision of the majority.”

Thoreau walked alone into nature to discover such probity. Schulz joins an old pile-on by criticizing his experience at Walden as inauthentic, noting that the trek from Walden to Concord was the same distance as the trek “from Carnegie Hall to Grand Central Station” (and who’s calling who provincial?). But this misses the point. Thoreau wasn’t after a radical subsistence experience per se. He was seeking an unfettered sense of self in an environment he could imagine to be unsullied by civilization. Regarding this space, he wrote, “You may name it America, but it is not America.” It was unencumbered by the very idea.

And that’s all that was required: a place that would allow him to explore “absolute freedom” as opposed to “a Freedom and culture merely civil.” Walden more than sufficed. That place, that experience, once again, was not an end in itself. It was a primal stage in the evolution of a future culture based on a more thoughtful and pervasive form of decency, one in which, as Thoreau confided to his journal, “a different kind of right prevails.” Out of that “different kind of right” a civilization may one day sprout, not unlike, as he ended “Slavery in Massachusetts,” “a white water-lily … from the slime and muck of earth.”

I imagine that, in response to this defense of Thoreau, Schulz might well retort that Thoreau’s Walden infected me too early in life, that his anti-establishment message seduced me at an overly impressionable age. “You could scarcely write a book more appealing to teenagers,” she writes. In fact, I didn’t read Thoreau until well into adulthood. Now I do so almost every year in preparation for a class I teach to college students on early American literature. Historians are happiest when taking the shine off glowing reputations. Accordingly, I instruct my students to charge their BS detectors and avoid idolization. My students generally deliver, taking Ben Franklin, James Fenimore Cooper, and even poor Melville and Whitman down a notch or two. But something about Thoreau disarms them, awes them even. Something about Thoreau fills the room with the potential for something better. I don’t know, maybe we are a bunch of gullible saps. Or maybe the man was just right.

 James McWilliams is a professor of history at Texas State University and the author of A Revolution in Eating:  How the Quest for Food Shaped America, among other books.

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