A Reply to Pond Scum – a critique of Thoreau in the New Yorker

First a link to this long essay by New Yorker staff writer, Kathryn Schulz: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/10/19/pond-scum?intcid=mod-most-popular

Second a short response: That’s an amazing, it seems willful, misreading of Thoreau’s work. Where to begin? For starters, Schulz ignores Thoreau’s repeated purpose, awakening his neighbors, as opposed to trumpeting his own life. She also opens with a 21st-century awareness of the wreck of a famine ship as a way to cast Thoreau as coldhearted, a cheap writerly trick, I think, in that her opening anecdote is hardly from the core of Thoreau’s life and work. Then there is the tired charge of hypocrisy, even as Schulz tries to breathe new life into it. Here is a paragraph from late in the piece:

“But Thoreau did not live as he described, and no ethical principle is emptier than one that does not apply to its author. The hypocrisy is not that Thoreau aspired to solitude and self-sufficiency but kept going home for cookies and company. That’s just the gap between aspiration and execution, plus the variability in our needs and moods from one moment to the next—eminently human experiences, which, had Thoreau engaged with them, would have made for a far more interesting and useful book. The hypocrisy is that Thoreau lived a complicated life but pretended to live a simple one. Worse, he preached at others to live as he did not, while berating them for their own compromises and complexities.”

But really, did Thoreau claim to live a simple life? He aspired to simplify, to make good choices, but he never claimed that he led a simple life overall. His point that he had “other lives to live” after his Walden “experiment” aims in that direction. Thoreau was endlessly complex, and he knew it. He had a global awareness before it was fashionable to admit such. But he also knew that complexity must be balanced by the drive to simplify, to get at what’s meaningful in a world where we can be buried in drifts of information and yearning.

Just as Schulz accuses those who find wisdom or solace or guidance in Thoreau as cherry-pickers of the phrase, she too quotes liberally out of context. And she would have Walden be straight nonfiction, which it never claims to be, and surely isn’t.

I am in more sympathy with Schulz when it comes to T’s critique of government. We seem to be in the process and in the business of proving that narrow-minded principle and individualism lead to chaos; we’ll see. I’ve been long surprised that our radical right wing has made less use of Thoreau than they might have. Still, even in this area, Thoreau’s primary beef was with slavery, which, as Schulz acknowledges, was and remains our central national stain and shame.

Is the rescue of the world to be found in the individual? Thoreau would have it so; I’m not so sure. Especially when the number of individuals exceeds 7,000,000,000.

I am surprised that a magazine that says it features “the best writing anywhere” would go long with this piece. But provocation seems the name of the game in writing, and so there it is.

So much with which to take issue. So directly counter to what I’ve found as a teacher over long years of rereadings. And so missing in the spirit of joy that overflows from Walden and other writings, even in their sharp criticisms.

By chance I had just picked up Autumnal Tints for an annual rereading, and in his forward, Robert Richardson points to Thoreau’s early and sustained conviction voiced first in the Natural History of Massachusetts: “Surely joy is the condition of life. Think of the young fry that leap in the ponds, the myriads of insects ushered into being on a summer evening, the incessant note of the hyla with the woods ring in the spring, the nonchalance of the butterfly carrying accident and change painted in a thousand hues upon its wings, or the brook minnow stoutly stemming the current, the lustre of whose scales worn bright by attrition is reflected upon the bank.” That seems more in keeping with the writer I’ve read these many years.

Surely, however, Schulz has achieved what Thoreau sought in writing – even on a rainy and sleepy afternoon, she has provoked and awakened.

13 Comments

Filed under Arts, General, Henry David Thoreau, Literature, Living Deliberately, Nature, News and Events, The Roost, Thoreau Quote

13 Responses to A Reply to Pond Scum – a critique of Thoreau in the New Yorker

  1. Sanjay Gulati

    Hi everyone,

    Thank you for showing us Lucille Stott’s letter in full. In case anyone is interested, here’s the full version of mine:

    October 21, 2015

    To the Editor:

    Kathryn Shulz’s contrarian “Pond Scum” (October 19th) misreads Thoreau’s “Walden” as surely as the accompanying illustration misrepresents Walden Pond. Most readers take Thoreau’s famous misanthropy less as his looking down on the human than as his effort to elevate the status of the natural world. Instead of a narcissistic project vaunting his superior asceticism, Thoreau’s life might be seen as performance art, in which he demonstrated the possibility questioning and even stepping out of cultural ruts. “Walden” is a carefully crafted piece of writing—not a self-help book or an adventure story—in which Thoreau critiques our culture from a variety of viewpoints. He seeks to place human life in the context of our own cultural history, the biology and geology of our surroundings, and the variety of alternative modes of existence seen in other cultures. He was among the first readers, for example, to assimilate the newly available translations of ancient Hindu thought.
    “Walden” makes no claim to consistency or universality. Its author is alive to his personal contradictions. Where he fails, he exhorts us to try for ourselves, to look up from our daily lives and broaden our vision, and he does so in a confident and muscular prose rich with metaphor. Meanwhile, he was an innovator in pencil-making and a capable naturalist, preparing to make serious contributions to ecology and evolutionary biology when his life was cut short by illness.

    Thoreau did slight the domestic and social spheres, and his sexism was one cultural rut he failed to transcend, but his range was vast. He was an abolitionist, a conservationist, and a pacifist who inspired Gandhi. He was the first hippie, a charter member of the New Age, and an early practitioner of “mindfulness.” His implicit advocacy for animal rights may be the next rich vein of his thought to be mined by his youngest readers.

    There are no lilies on clear, glacial Walden Pond, and the only scum floating there are the Walden Pond Scum, a group of kayakers learning Greenland kayaking techniques. We thus pay tribute to Thoreau’s curiosity about native Americans, whom he approached as respectfully as he did everyone on the “wrong side” of Route 2 from the proper citizens of Concord, whose self-satisfied closed-mindedness he disdained.

    Sanjay Gulati
    Member, Walden Pond Scum
    Harvard, Massachusetts

  2. Donna Marie

    I think that we are all failing to realize that Henry David Thoreau was a living breathing human being who was a product of his life experiences. He was flawed, just as we all are. There is not one individual among us who has not acted in a manner at one time or another that was not contradictory to our beliefs and values. It is a part of our human frailty.

    Why are we not looking at the human Henry? Why are we placing such high expectations on his behavior? Look into his soul and spirit, and you will find a man who was quite opposite the individual that Shulz describes. Of what importance is it that he values the drink of water more than any other substance? I have friends who won’t drink anything other than Pepsi. Should I criticize them for that? As a lover of the Sonoran desert in the Southwest, I understand the importance of water above all else to keep me alive when I take long hikes. Ask any physician today if water is not the drink of choice to keep the body healthy. Why criticize Thoreau if he prefers water to anything else? I’m sure, he’ll not be appearing to you in a vision as you get your Starbucks.

    As for going home for “cookies” and getting laundry done, perhaps, you don’t know the affection of mother and son. I relish when my grown son comes home for a meal or to drop laundry off. I would like to think that Henry’s mother appreciated her son’s visit home. Henry never espoused separating entirely as a hermit from family or society. As for family relationships, if he never cared, why did he return home to help his father in the pencil factory? Why did he take over the family business when his father died? Why did he begin revising his works as he was dying so that his mother and sister Sophia would have at least some income?

    It just makes me angry when we fail to see the humanity in each other. Henry Thoreau should not be placed on a higher standard simply because he was a writer. How many of us would like our journals which include very private thoughts published and perhaps, at times, taken out of context?

    Who among us would not be affected by the words others have said about us? To be called “ugly as sin”, “queer mouthed”, and “having a beak for a nose” would indeed affect the most confident of us. Who would relish unflattering caricatures of ourselves shared among “friends”? I’ve seen my students, who have been belittled by others because of their physical appearances, become stoic, reserved, and caustic. It is their way of protection–of surviving.

    As for comparing himself to the gods, I believe Schulz has never considered herself blessed. Frequently, my husband and I state that God has blessed our lives incredibly. We wonder why we have been given so much and others have not. Are we saying that we are better than others or we are on a god-like level. Absolutely not! Being blessed for us has not been about material things or financial status. We are far from having achieved that. We are blessed because we can see the gifts in our life–love, children, the ability to teach adolescents, travel to our country’s national parks, health, etc. The fact is that most people fail to see that they really are blessed with the simple things in their lives. Henry Thoreau had the ability to understand that he received the gift to live life as he chose to and appreciated it. He was not saying he was a god.

    Our society has become so judgmental; we don’t allow anyone to be human and exhibit frailty. Others must conform to our standards. The world is large enough for each of us to express our own beliefs and, yes, to also fail at living them. Let those among us who is without fault and contradiction cast the first stone.

    Let us not always critique and analyze every written word. Enjoy the beauty of Henry David Thoreau’s gift of writing. Relish the detailed descriptions he gives of the beauty of nature. Laugh at his commentary on society and people. Appreciate the gift this wonderful man gave us and stop expecting him to have lived up to our standards. Let Henry rest in peace.

  3. David Pohlod

    I still own my dog-eared margined noted paperback from 1979-80(?) reading. Having spent 2.5 years in an airborne infantry Army unit in Europe and some Middle-East work, I was pretty accustomed with the simple life in the field. Naturally, when I attended a Northern California university later, I was entranced with my first reading of Walden Pond. I presented myself to my new student colleagues as “one of them”…I’m not one of the baby killers you brand all ex-military folks. I hiked the AT (about half), the Sierras, etc. And got enough Bona Fides to at least get a date with a woman. Key point: I changed my life and embraced harsh environmental principles popular at the time. It was a pathetic capitulation. I eventually directed one of the largest hazardous waste processing facilities on the west coast. I concluded that my crew did more for the environment on Friday afternoon than all of the NRDC and EHC staffers did all year. To be clear, HDT was a major force in shaping American culture, but Shulz demonstrates that that force was smoke, mirrors, and blarney. dp

  4. bob

    quite surprised at the personal attacks on Schulz…ad hominem….I know that to challenge someone’s God is to call their justification for existence into question. Thoreau-ites don’t properly address her referenced quotes….they would seem to speak for themselves….she didn’t write any fiction about Thoreau, did she?, nothing that wasn’t backed up by Thoreau’s own words….

    She gave Thoreau credit as a archivist of the natural wonders of nature…etc…she was quite complimentary on those affairs…but she challenged an Icon…like challenging Lincoln…a task that will surely get you belittled ….why? Challenge her assertions but leave Schulz alone, fair? She is a great writer…that is for sure.

    • Ah, the posts on our blog did “challenge her assertions,” though given the profusion of quotations taken out of context and apparent ignorance of contradictory evidence – Edward Emerson’s reminiscences, for example – a contained post couldn’t address them all. To do so would have required and overlong essay, which Schulz’s piece did not deserve. If you want to be taken seriously, as Schulz apparently does, you need to do your homework. As for “great writer,” that seems a measure of praise too high by many levels.

  5. Sandy Stott

    Thanks to all for your comments. It’s no surprise that Schulz’s screed drew response, here, and across the media. Here, if you are interested, is a link to The Atlantic, which is collecting response. As they point out, their being one of Thoreau’s early publishers gives them an added stake in his work. No doubt Thoreau could be prickly – see his letter to an editor who omitted one of his sentences – but, for many of us, he was both brilliant and good-hearted.

    best,
    Sandy
    The Atlantic link: http://www.theatlantic.com/notes/2015/10/thoreau-an-editors-nightmare/411706/

  6. Hans Bergmann

    I agree with all the comments (of course), but what seems to me strangest about The New Yorker’s putting the piece in print is 1) She has a tin ear — for humor, irony, etc. Her attack on another book someone made her read — The Great Gatsby — is similar in method and in missing the tone (see Vulture.org); 2) She is close to plagiarizing Richard Bridgman’s “Dark Thoreau.”

  7. Carl

    Schultz seems disappointed Walden didn’t make her laugh more, she must have found Kant a total bore with the lack of explosions in “A Critique of Pure Reason”.

  8. John

    The horror! Thoreau wants to take this little girl’s mocha latte away from her. This is what you get when you ask an entitled literal-minded yuppie to critique Thoreau, who used hyperbole to attack materialism in all its forms. Walden no doubt struck a nerve, as it was intended to do.

  9. David Bessler

    Well what kind of high school teacher wouldn’t assign Walden NOW? That 19th century “nature book” that is still causing controversy 150 years later! It gets legitimate writers so riled up they periodically take to the pages of our most popular magazines.

  10. Thanks so much for your defense and the 1 comment- so well written I couldn’t have said it myself. Not that HDT needs any defense, instead he should be praised to the skies eternally. Walden is a sacred place and Walden is my scripture; it changed my life and I knew the first time I read it 45 years ago it would be my favorite book and nothing has changed. I go to it for comfort and intelligent conversation whenever I need it. I’m trying to control my outrage at such a pointless and wrong-headed attack, Thoreau seems to provoke every now and then. I refused to read the entire thing, just skimmed it, and saw nothing new there, nothing I haven’t had to defend myself over the years, pure sophist and know-nothing arguments. However I will rally the troops in HDT’s defense ans will one day write my own rebuttal on my own literary blog. And I will continue to find comfort, inspiration, and pure joy in HDT’s life and work. Thanks again.

    • David

      Tom,
      I really can appreciate your passion for HDT, I too embraced Walden Pond and incorporated what I believed to be fundamental American values based on the principles of self-reliance, simplicity and an innate duty to humbly serve humanity and respect nature. To that end, while in college, I volunteered to assist low income elementary students in reading profiency, directed a program to bring social science majors into contact with patients at a local mental health facility (to give them a realistic experience of working in their major), joined the local organic food co-op, worked on local and state political campaigns for progressive causes, the list goes on, but most importantly much of that activity was inspired by Walden Pond. My tattered paperback copy is thick with margin notes from start to finish. Imagine my shock when employers were underwhelmed with this glittering resume. I spent so much time trying to live up to the ideals of the HDT cult, I neglected to understand the very real complexities of American culture. The HDT cult has developed a canon/dogma for “right thinking” based on their interpretation of HDT’s master plan for living a righteous life. This is a pernicious philosophy that now permeates our university system nationwide. HDT’s world view is interesting, provocative and challenging, but is really suited to those with inherited wealth. Good grief, I had to join the military for the G.I. Bill just to get INTO college. I had no other means. I hope you don’t just skim this reply and dismiss it. HDT had a profound impact on my life, but it turns out I firmly believe it was a negative one. Best wishes to you, sorry for being so long-winded. David

  11. Thanks Sandy Stott for coming to Thoreau’s defense, as we all should. Here’s my letter to the New Yorker below.

    Dear New Yorker Editors,

    Poor Kathryn Schulz, who seems to have gazed at Walden Pond (“Pond Scum”) and mistaken her own reflection for a faithful image of that pond’s famous lover and sometimes neighbor. Would that she had visited Henry there and had her hard-heartedness – even on the coldest January day – melted by the man: whose most characteristic expression was “I love. . .”; whom the children of Concord (most fervently Emerson’s own) counted upon to break the spell of Yankee conformity with his canny mirth, his flute, his singing; who could on any given day be found fording the Assabet or Concord Rivers buck-naked, save the straw hat shielding him from the sun.

    Lacking Thoreau’s genius for wordplay, I will just invite Ms. Schulz to reread those opening baker’s dozen paragraphs of Cape Cod, and tally up the puns, double entendres, and profoundly humane philosophical observations he makes, as he alchemically transforms a vernacular tragedy on a sterile sandy strand into nourishing humus for the soul. In that very passage about the 1849 shipwreck that she quotes to open her essay, Thoreau is offering his contemporaries an affirmation of the transcendent worth of the individual – both in earthly society, and, more importantly, in Heaven. Having cast a lifeline out to America, he was in his own lifetime ignored. How tragic that two centuries after his birth, he should be so unjustly and inhumanely scorned.

    Please read Cape Cod and Walden again, Ms. Schulz, and listen for the author’s warm and welcoming heartbeat over your own, marching as it does to the cynical and smug rhythm of misbegotten literary analysis.

    Yours,
    Dr. Kevin Dann