This is a brief excerpt from a book I am writing, The Philosophy of Henry Thoreau, forthcoming next year from Bloomsbury.
There is one more thing that I need to discuss before I move on from the subject of Thoreau's life: what you might call the issue of his character. Henry Thoreau inspires some surprisingly – surprising to me at any rate – negative reactions in people. I have never forgotten how shocked I was when, upon first reading selections from Walden as an assignment in a high school English class, I came to class the next day and found that virtually all the comments the students made – and the teacher as well! – were utterly hostile. I think I was the only one who defended him.
I got the impression that people felt that in criticizing how Americans live he was criticizing them and they took it personally, and some of the comments about him were really attacks on him as a person. Many of the attacks I have seen on him since, at least in the non-scholarly press, were also quite personal. Not long ago there was an essay about him, in a very prominent magazine, titled “Pond Scum,” and from the title you can pretty well guess the tone of the criticisms it contained.i
Some personal attacks on Thoreau are simply cases of the ad hominem fallacy, the attempt to discredit an argument by discrediting the person who presents it. If it is done well, an ad hominen attack makes it hard to take the target argument seriously, at least if it comes from that particular presenter. It is as if they can talk all they want, but their microphone has been turned off. Their messages will not be received.
But not all attacks on Thoreau as a person are ad hominem. His great subject was the greatest of them all: How should we live? As he attacks this question in Walden, he sets himself up as some sort of example. This opens him to personal attack: certain sorts of personal criticisms become logically relevant. He says “you people don't really have to do so-and-so, and the proof is that I don't do so-and-so.” But he did do so and so! Therefore maybe you do have to do so-and-so, or at least his own case fails to prove you don't. That sort of attack is not a fallacy. It has merit, provided that it does get it right about what he is saying, and gets its facts straight about what he actually did.
A case in point is the comment we sometimes hear, that while he was at Walden he had his mother do his laundry. Actually I hear it a lot. As Rebecca Solnit has said, there is no important writer in world literature whose laundry arrangements are so often a subject of comment. There is even a web site where you can buy a Thoreau laundry bag.ii
What might be said in response to this criticism? Thoreau's most recent biographer points out that it involves a historical mistake, as middle class women in those days, women like Cynthia Dunbar Thoreau, did not do their own laundry, let alone that of their adult offspring. Such housekeeping chores were done by servants, typically Irish immigrants.iii But of course the allegation would remain that somebody other than Henry did the chore. What of that? I suppose the proper response depends on what the objection is actually supposed to be. To me, this is by no means obvious. I strongly suspect that it is a charge of hypocrisy, that the charge is that he is haughtily setting himself up as someone who does or does not do something or other, and that this pretense is belied by his cleaning arrangements. Maybe the idea is that in Walden he is saying something like: “You people don't need help from anybody. Look at me! I lived at Walden as an isolated hermit and never took anyone's help!” As we will see later, in case it is not already obvious, this would be a stunningly wrong-headed misinterpretation of what he is saying.
Then again, maybe the charge is that Henry was a freeloader, a moocher who took from others and gave nothing in return. But the idea of “Thoreau the Freeloader,” if that is the idea, is nearly as false as the old myth of “Thoreau the Loafer” [answered earlier in this chapter]. It is true that for nearly all of his life he lived in the house of his parents, but it is also true that he paid them rent. We find meticulous records he kept of the amounts paid in his papers, sometimes on the backs of poems he was working on.iv He also did a substantial amount of the work of building the first house that the family owned, the the one they called the “Texas house.” He also did many repair and maintenance jobs around the house. Every year he planted an elaborate garden, thus making a substantial contribution of food to the family. Clearly, he believed in paying your way if you can, and he could.
Again, maybe the charge is something more sophisticated, something like this: “Thoreau's economic project, of reducing his needs to a minimum so that he can spend a minimal amount of time working for pay, is only possible because he is part of an economy that is highly productive precisely because most people do not live that way, but produce goods and services full time. It assumes that most people a not living as he is.” Another comment that I sometimes hear that might represent the same line of reasoning is the claim that during the stay at Walden Henry often dined out, at the Thoreau family table or those of the Emersons or the Alcotts or the Hosmers: the idea being that the Walden project was subsidized by those who were not participating in it. I have spoken with economists who raised this objection. Whether this is a sound one depends in part on just what his project is and what sorts of claims he is making about it. These are matters that I will discuss in later chapters. For the moment I would only point out that this sophisticated version of the objection is no longer a charge of hypocrisy, but rather an economic or philosophical objection to his (alleged) theory. The objection is that it is only feasible if most people don't follow it.
i Kathryn Schulz, “Pond Scum: Henry David Thoreau’s Moral Myopia,” The New Yorker, October 19 2015, pp. 40-45.
ii Rebecca Solnit, “Mysteries of Thoreau, Unsolved,” Orion Magazine;May/Jun2013, Vol. 32 Issue 3, p. 18 and ff. She presents an amusing series of examples of this comment, some quite silly.
iii Laura Dassow Walls, Henry David Thoreau, p. 534, n. 40.
iv Solnit, p. 21. I believe the original source for this bit of information is Franklin Sanborn, Thoreau's friend and early biographer, but I have not been able to locate the place where he says this.