“Pond Scum,” by Kathryn Schulz. The New Yorker, 10/19/2015.
Agggg! Pond scum? A hatchet job on my transformational author, Henry David Thoreau (whose name was really “David Henry Thoreau”)? He was, Schulz says, “self-obsessed: narcissistic, fanatical about self-control, adamant that he required nothing beyond himself to understand and thrive in the world.” She methodically backs this up with many quotes from Walden and his other writings.
Whatever. Of course, she is right, as we always knew deep down, but she is like a stranger pointing out that our cherished garage-sale find is ugly and has an unnoticed crack that makes it worthless. Through clenched teeth, we say, “Yeah, yeah, you’re right.”
I was first introduced to Thoreau’s Walden in a required English Lit course at Penn State, taught by a young female graduate student. She was the lowest rung of the staff ladder, but our class was composed of hopeless science and engineering majors not worth wasting the time of a full professor. She saw literature as one of life’s deserts and her enthusiasm transmitted easily to us. I don’t remember her name, but one warm spring day, she spontaneously took our class outside and continued on the grass under a tree. That’s the kind of teacher she was.
Our textbook was an anthology of writings, and the short excerpt from Walden immediately hit home. I knew I had found my life’s inspiration. I quickly bought a paperback of Walden that also contained Civil Disobedience. I even went to the university library to read portions of his extensive journal. I never told her any of this, but I should have. Even teachers need inspiration.
I knew Thoreau was over-the-top and it would be easy to find inconsistencies and just plain wrongheadedness in both his life and writings, but that is what I loved about him. As E. B. White said, Thoreau “rides into a subject at top speed, shooting in all directions.”
Jokes also wildly exaggerate but still contain a kernel of truth. They entertain and sensitize us at the same time, and that is what Walden did for me. And this was in 1955, before Thoreau was appropriated by the hippy culture in the mid-1960s.
After a thorough tear-down of Thoreau, Schulz rhetorically asks why we continue to cherish Walden and follows with exactly the right answer:
We read him early. Walden is a staple of the high school curriculum, and you could scarcely write a book more appealing to teenagers: Thoreau endorses rebellion against societal norms, champions idleness over work, and gives readers permission to ignore their elders. . . . Walden is also fundamentally adolescent in tone: Thoreau shares the [teenager’s] conviction . . . that everyone else’s certainties are wrong while one’s own are unassailable.
Technically, I was out of my teens, but measured by maturation I was still back there, and all of Thoreau’s pronouncements sure resonated with me, logical or not. I learned that it is okay to see life differently than the unquestioned society of the 1950s I grew up in.