Thoreau answers his critics

The bard of Walden Pond communicates from beyond the grave to reply to critics who think he was a fraud, freeloader, and worse

Dear Esteemed Critics,

The afterlife is not as bad as many of you think, even for those who took my advice and did not cheat yourselves out of much of life by being too moral, which is 99.9 percent of you. Here, we are pretty much left alone to contemplate our thoughts on eternity, what we did and didn’t do in our lives, and whether Heaven exists under our feet as well as above us. Those insufferable bores Ralph Waldo and Nathaniel and Ellery do not return to haunt me too often. The sun is still but a morning star.

What mostly haunts me here is hearing about you detractors who are so jealous of what little notoriety I encouraged during my years on Earth that you try to take away from my legacy when I’m in the ground. I know I should concentrate more on those prominent individuals across the political and societal spectrum, from Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. to Emma Goldman and Frank Chodorov, who spoke more favorably, saying that something I wrote while holed up in Concord’s finest facility inspired them to take on the established powers, to awaken from a nightmarish existence. I should be happy with influencing movements and institutions, from environmentalism to antislavery to civil rights to metaphysics to education to pencil making. I should be satisfied to see my work widely circulated and read when it was virtually ignored while alive, though I wonder who is getting the royalty checks and to what purpose the money is employed, since the last member of my immediate family passed away 14 years after me in 1876. While I truly appreciate the kind words, that’s not why I did what I did and wrote what I wrote.

But that’s besides the point of this beyond-the-grave communication through this most appropriate platform called Medium. My main purpose for writing this letter is to answer the harsh criticisms you make against me that continue to this day. Some say you should ignore the transgressions against you, but that’s not what I was about in my lifetime and that’s not what I’m about in the afterlife.

The New Yorker, a magazine that started 63 years after I passed, labeled me “pond scum” in one headline in 2015. The writer of that article claimed that my “deepest desire and signature act was to turn his back on the rest of us.” She called me “self-obsessed,” “narcissistic,” “fanatical about self-control,” a “cold-eyed man who saw in loss of life only aesthetic gain.” She claimed I “despised” admirers, “disdained” friends, and “looked down on his entire town.”

Moreover, my signature work, Walden, was “fundamentally adolescent,” “the original cabin porn,” a “fantasy about rustic life divorced from the reality of living in the woods.” She wrote that “in fine Puritan fashion, [I] saw the beginnings of evil everywhere.” My behavioral prescriptions were “so foolishly inconsistent as to defy all attempts at reconciliation,” my moral sensibility “so foolishly consistent as to be naive and cruel.”

Worse than that, this writer claims I committed fraud, mainly because Walden Pond was so close to Concord and was not really getting away from civilization. She notes that I regularly returned to the town to visit family, friends, and business associates, and I entertained as many as 30 people at my cabin. “The hypocrisy is not that Thoreau aspired to solitude and self-sufficiency but kept going home for cookies and company,” she writes. But I thought I was selfish, “disdained” friends, and turned my back on my community? You can’t have it both ways without also being called a hypocrite, can you, Kathryn Schulz?

You say I was selfish for writing about what I did and not covering the antics of others. I say I write about what I best know, and that’s mostly me. I wasn’t the kind of writer to sit around watching what others did, like you and most of your ilk. I took action. I organized petition drives and lectures. I helped slaves escape along the Underground Railroad. I advocated for John Brown and Frederick Douglass when others wouldn’t. I quit my first teaching job on principle because I opposed corporal punishment and helped start a school that did not beat kids and sometimes took them on factory tours and nature walks, which became a model for others. I researched how other cultures made better pencils and employed a better one in my family business that helped the enterprise prosper. I maintained my own business as a surveyor and handyman, while writing for various publications as well. At times, I wrote about others who inspired me, such as Mr. Brown, probably the least racist historical figure in human existence who was executed by the U.S. government exactly 160 years ago to this day for trying to end the evil institution of slavery. My life in the woods was an experiment, the house I built a laboratory, but I didn’t have to remain locked inside all the time. I got out and lived and contributed to society, while you were sitting around watching other people live and contribute to society.

The conclusions about me by Schulz, the New Yorker bigwigs, and others say more about them than me. The Buddhist knows that what you see in the world is a manifestation of what is inside you. If you see me as a fraud, a hypocrite, a selfish and cold individual, you see all of that in yourself. If I seem to boast more than is becoming, my excuse is that I brag for humanity, for the ideal of what humanity can become, rather than for myself. I know I have shortcomings and inconsistencies — I am the first to admit I am hypocritical at times like we all can be — but I try as much as possible to not let those faults affect the truth of my statements.

Other critics have piled on. James Russell Lowell, who was anti-slavery but still a racist who believed white people were inherently superior to black people, waited until after I died to claim I was selfish, a failure, a hypocrite. Garrison Keillor, who had so many issues that his longtime radio station disowned him, said I was a “sorehead and loner” who “forgot to thank his mom for doing his laundry.”

Mother did a lot for me, as did father, brother and my two dear sisters, and I continually thanked them. We were a close family, and I supported them throughout my adult life by paying rent when I stayed in the family home and devising better ways to make pencils that helped our family business prosper. As for the laundry, we had servants much of the time to help with tasks such as laundry. I was the handyman and gardener who often did work around the house, even when I didn’t live there.

In a book that deserves to be enshrined in the National Enquirer Hall of Fame, Richard Zacks says my experiment at Walden was little more than suburban boys in a treehouse. Ralph Waldo gave an eloquent and mostly complimentary eulogy at my funeral, but even he called me a “hermit and stoic.” Ralph was partly right about the stoic part, though as my family can attest, I was warm and jovial for a substantial amount of the time. And I valued solitude so I could think and write, but I wasn’t a hermit.

Some have even threatened violence against me.

Critics get this mad over cookies and laundry? Like I said before, what you see outside is a part of yourself. And I always went home to help around the house, not just eat cookies and do laundry. Like I said before, I was a handyman, among other skills. I found a better way to make a pencil, and that greatly aided the family business. It hadn’t been that long since my brother died. Should I have abandoned my family to pursue some detractors’ notion of literary purity? I did the opposite of turning my back on others and receive no credit from uninformed critics like Schulz.

Some have better understood what I tried to convey, including articles in The Nation, Daily Beast, and New Republic. I thoroughly enjoyed Notre Dame professor Laura Dassow Walls’ biography, which at 640 pages was just long enough. If I didn’t care for others, why would I have risked my freedom to help runaway slaves escape along the Underground Railroad and be the first to publicly praise John Brown’s holy, anti-slavery raid, as well as organize speakers like Frederick Douglass at the Concord Lyceum? If I didn’t care for the less fortunate, why would I have circulated petitions to help the needy and seek out friendships and alliances with Native Americans? If I didn’t care, why would I have continued to help my family into my last years, found a better way to make pencils for the family business, quit my teaching job because I didn’t support beating kids, started a school that led young people in field trips and huckleberry excursions?

As my older brother died from tetanus and suffered from lockjaw, I comforted him and held him in my arms. His death affected me so much that I developed the symptoms of lockjaw shortly afterwards for several days. My retreat to the woods was as much to memorialize his life — his embrace of the natural world, spiritual pursuits, and social justice — as to escape convention and experiment with better ways to live. I also nursed my father and older sister on their deathbeds. Does that sound like a “cold-eyed man” who turns his back on his family, friends, and community?

As for Walden supposedly being fraudulent, that work was designed to be read as a philosophic journey, based on my experiment at Walden Pond, more than just-the-facts nonfiction. It was meant to be an indictment of people’s comfortable, middle-class lives, especially when millions of people were enslaved. That’s the underlying reason critics bristle; it cuts too close to home. They know they haven’t done a fraction of what I did to not only raise the public conscience about the important issues of the day, but to actually take action to improve those matters. They know they haven’t really lived a meaningful life. That’s why they spend time criticizing someone who has been dead for more than a century. It also irks them that my quotes get put on posters and mugs, and their musings don’t.

It’s true that you can’t take every sentence I wrote literally, which some recognize. I shoot for the ideal and often miss. Writing a perfectly healthy sentence is extremely rare. If you can do it 10 percent of the time, you are a writing saint. Look at baseball. If you can manage a hit just 30 percent of the time, you are an elite batter. Failure is the norm, not the exception.

I also tried to show others how to die, not just live. As I battled tuberculosis in my last days at age 44, I refused opiates since nature must take its course. I’d rather be aware of my sufferings than in some narcotic, dream-like state. I tried to transition, not die, since death is a mere transformation to a higher state. Some friends and family said they never saw someone die with so much pleasure and peace. I don’t know about pleasure, but I tried to accept my fate head-on with no regrets.

Despite our shortcomings, the sun is still but a morning star. As I told a dear friend a couple days before I passed in the midst of the Civil War, “This is a beautiful world but soon I shall see one that is fairer.”

Sincerely yours,

Henry David Thoreau
Dec. 2, 2019

Written for 45+ newspapers/mags. Written some books — see Visited 48 states, 30+ countries.

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