Should We Give Thoreau a Cookie?

Thoreau builds Walden on a series of contradicting lines, paragraphs, chapters, and themes. While off-putting at first, eventually I came to understand that this book arose from a journal. Though seven-times-revised, some of the rough and raw characteristics of thought remain intact. His writing is often nonlinear, contradictory, and sometimes abstract. But what good are linear thoughts, or proclamations that go unchallenged?

I would hardly consider myself a die-hard fan. Thoreau is undeniably pretentious and condescending. His humble wood cabin at times becomes an ivory tower as he contemplates the failures and shortcomings of mankind. His discussions of poverty and slavery reveal a level of ignorance associated with privilege that he does not seem to fully recognize. I certainly found this off-putting. But reading Schulz, I found myself getting a little defensive of Thoreau, and feeling like she wasn’t being entirely fair. Take the example of philanthropy—he does seem to oppose philanthropy and encourage individualism, but if you read more closely, he really just opposes the idea of doing good just for the sake of being able to say you helped. According to Thorough, one can be shriveled, disposable tealeaves, or flower and produce fruit. The flowering man’s goodness “must not be a partial and transitory act, but a constant superfluity, which costs him nothing and of which he is unconscious” (56). Do not live your life solely in service of other people, is essentially what he is saying. I don’t think he’s wrong.

In order to appreciate (or even tolerate) Walden, one has to be willing to roll her eyes and think “yeah, ok, Henry” sometimes. I began to hate Walden as I struggled through “Economy,” much for the same reasons as Shulz. She engages in a legitimate, though arguably shallow, reading of the book. But I stopped reading through that lens, because it made me miserable and resentful. Instead, I chose to focus on the beautiful language and thought-provoking comments/discussions. I recommend against reading Walden as the hypocrisy police. If he wants to discuss food ethics and then go eat cookies with his mom, that’s ok. This is just another unexplained contradiction that can be interpreted as either intentional or ignorant. However, I really engaged with his discussions of freedom, food, killing animals, and living as a minimalist. I reject Shulz’s very narrow view of wilderness, which identifies only areas 100% untouched by humans as true Nature, and I think that Purdy gets it right when he looks at Walden through the lens of a world in the Anthropocene.

Schulz critiques Thoreau for seeking purity in a Nature that does not meet her standards of what wilderness ought to be. However, I agree with Purdy when he says that this was an intentional decision. Thoreau explores how to coexist with nature in a developing and post-pastoral world. At Walden Pond, he observes purity in freedom, not in isolation. The creatures of the forest (as well as the water and earth, as explored in-depth in “Spring”) live for themselves, unconstrained or oppressed by society.

I have not yet discussed my conclusions explicitly, because I feel they are still developing. But I find myself returning to the statement “nothing is inorganic.” As a pseudo-scientist, I hear the word inorganic and immediately jump to “does not contain carbon.” This can be as natural as water or as synthetic as plastic. But, as Thoreau points out, everything comes from the earth. The earth itself is a living organism, and thus there can be nothing inorganic. Returning to town and to society is not truly leaving behind nature, because everything on earth is organic and thus natural. This revelation felt meaningful to me. I may be overly forgiving of Thoreau, but in my opinion, the beautiful writing and thought-provoking statements earn him the occasional homemade cookie.

 

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