The surprising persistence of Henry David Thoreau

Henry David Thoreau had a genius for inspiring haters. More than 160 years after Walden first appeared, that genius is undimmed. In a 2015 New Yorker essay memorably titled “Pond Scum,” Kathryn Schulz called him “narcissistic,” “pinched and selfish,” “as parochial as he was egotistical,” and an execrable writer whose best-remembered work is “unnavigable” and “fundamentally adolescent.” In his own time, satirical poets derided him as Ralph Waldo Emerson’s dwarf, a stubby-legged imitator of the more famous Transcendentalist.

When I teach Thoreau to law students and undergraduates, they tend to agree with the “Pond Scum” assessment. They find him vain; they leap to defend the “old people” that Thoreau insisted had nothing to teach him, the shopkeepers he called “occupied with the factitious cares and superfluously coarse labors of life.” They suspect that he failed to check his privilege by reflecting on the conditions that enabled a Harvard-educated young white man to wander freely in the woods for a while, without fearing his neighbors or the dark. I would bet that fewer Americans have read Walden than have heard that Thoreau’s mother did his laundry.

Yet Thoreau persists. Laura Dassow Walls, who teaches English at Notre Dame, has written an engaging, sympathetic, and subtly learned biography that makes a strong case for Thoreau’s importance; she also seems a little baffled that anyone could fail to admire him. Her Thoreau was an abolitionist who brought Frederick Douglass to speak at the Concord Lyceum—a kind of community university—and participated in the Underground Railroad, to the point of risking charges of treason by helping enslaved people flee to Canada. While living at Walden, Thoreau hosted the annual festival of the Concord Female Anti-­Slavery Society, where the speakers included Lewis Hayden, who had escaped slavery in Kentucky. He was deeply interested in the indigenous cultures that remained in New England, seeking out conversation and even friendship with Native Americans, studying the Wampanoag language on his own while at Harvard, and filling more than 3,000 notebook pages with material from these investigations. He also lived in a household of strong women: His sisters set the pace in antislavery activism, and Thoreau willingly took his cues from them. He even admired and sympathized with the laborers building the railroads that would clatter along the edge of his beloved pond.

The details are sometimes wonderful. On November 1, 1859, Thoreau defied the forces of law and order and the pleas of respectable friends by delivering a defense of John Brown to 2,500 people in Boston. “The reason why Frederick Douglass is not here,” he began, “is the reason why I am.” If every privilege check had that kind of snapping specificity and quiet moral thunder, they might be both more subversive and less disdained.

Thoreau’s political engagement isn’t exactly news, but Walls foregrounds it vividly to show him as part of a set of engaged communities: radical Concord, the Transcendentalist network, the abolitionist movement, and his own militant family. Far from being a hermit, the Thoreau that Walls portrays is, above all else, a social and political creature. He travels to Brooklyn for a visit with Walt Whitman (“It is as if the beasts spoke,” Thoreau wrote of Leaves of Grass) and elsewhere spends evenings with both Douglass and Brown. A key part of his early formation was working as a teaching apprentice under Orestes Brownson, the Catholic convert and proto-socialist who figures prominently in the history of American left-wing thought. He also spent time with the Alcotts and Nathaniel Hawthorne—­who, Walls tell us, used Thoreau as the basis for the title character of The Marble Faun, a moody aristocrat rumored to be descended from satyrs.

Yet Thoreau was no aristocrat, Walls reminds us, no matter how he might have struck Hawthorne. He wasn’t a laborer’s son, as Brownson was, and he came from some means. But family members kept dying at inconvenient times, and the result was a life spent somewhere between what George Orwell called the “lower-upper-middle class” and Europe’s impoverished aristocrats. Thoreau found time for hiking trips and boating expeditions with college friends, and the family rose economically during his lifetime, becoming the leading pencil manufacturers in North America. But he always had to work for a living, including stints in his family’s pencil factory, as a schoolteacher and a surveyor, and years as a handyman, doing jobs that could be fitted in between writing and walking.

This all remained true during the two years he lived at Walden Pond. The heart of Walls’s defense in l’affaire laundry is that even at Walden, Thoreau remained an economic member of the household, as he did all his life—contributing wages from his paid labor, building and doing repairs, and, yes, accepting meals and clean clothes in a gendered division of labor that was then universal, even in an egalitarian household like the Thoreaus’.

But this does lead to a question: What exactly was the point of those two years, or the resulting book, subtitled “A Life in the Woods”? Thoreau moved to Walden in 1845 and built a simple cabin, much of it with materials purchased and repurposed from an Irish laborer’s shanty. The property was Emerson’s, making him Thoreau’s landlord, and it was an easy walk from town, in an area that the locals used for fishing, timber, and picnics. Nonetheless, it was enough of a change from home and town life that Thoreau hoped to find out “what are the true necessaries and means of life,” to make an “experiment” of his own existence and record the results. His experiment in material simplicity was also an exercise in shaping a style and a self.

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