All Commentary
Monday, April 28, 2014

To Read Well, a Noble Exercise

In Defense of Thoreau and Walden

Gary North’s recent column on Thoreau’s Walden argues that Thoreau is a “literary scam artist” and that the book itself is a “masterpiece of fraud” that has been inflicted on countless students because of its political agenda. Perhaps in solidarity with those students, North’s column consists in large part of quotations from the Wikipedia page on Walden, followed by North’s responses. Throughout, North asserts that the Wikipedia page is a product of the “academic con-job known as literary criticism” and that it is “high-flying literary analysis.”

It would be, in other words, somewhat surprising if I (literary critic and frequent perpetrator of high-flying literary analysis) liked the piece. I don’t. I think North misreads Thoreau in almost every way possible.

North’s major arguments are as follows:

  1. Walden is anti-capitalist and pro-Green.
  2. Walden is a big fake.
  3. Walden is a badly written book that only has its reputation because it fits into the anti-capitalist/pro-Green agenda.

And all of these arguments are wrong.

But North is correct about one thing. He insists that he wants his readers to “read critically. Decide for yourself.” So, let us consider North’s arguments against Thoreau, read Thoreau critically, and then decide for ourselves. After all, Thoreau would want us to do the same.

To read well, that is, to read true books in a true spirit, is a noble exercise, and one that will tax the reader more than any exercise which the customs of the day esteem. It requires a training such as the athletes underwent, the steady intention almost of the whole life to this object. Books must be read as deliberately and reservedly as they were written.

Did Thoreau hate markets and love Greens?

That Google gives me almost three million hits for a search on the terms “Thoreau” and “hipster” suggests, perhaps, some of what prompts North’s vitriol about what he sees as Walden’s anti-capitalist and pro-Green agenda. Thoreau’s image and writings have been used by the anti-market, anti-capitalist, and pro-Green crowd for generations. But Adam Smith’s writings have also been used to argue against markets. Hayek’s work has been accused of supporting fascism. The way that a writer’s work is used is not necessarily an accurate reflection of the work’s contents. For an accurate reflection, we need to, as Thoreau suggests, “read deliberately.”

We can begin, I think, by noting that Thoreau possesses a clear understanding of how markets work. Early on in Walden he recounts the story of a basket-seller he had observed in Concord.

Not long since, a strolling Indian went to sell baskets at the house of a well-known lawyer in my neighborhood. “Do you wish to buy any baskets?” he asked. “No, we do not want any,” was the reply. “What!” exclaimed the Indian as he went out the gate, “do you mean to starve us?” Having seen his industrious white neighbors so well off—that the lawyer had only to weave arguments, and, by some magic, wealth and standing followed—he had said to himself: I will go into business; I will weave baskets; it is a thing which I can do. Thinking that when he had made the baskets he would have done his part, and then it would be the white man's to buy them. He had not discovered that it was necessary for him to make it worth the other's while to buy them, or at least make him think that it was so, or to make something else which it would be worth his while to buy.

This is right out of any introductory economics or business textbook. It is not enough to have a product or a skill to sell. Someone must also want to buy it. Thoreau treats his writing the same way, and when he finds that he is not selling enough books to support himself in town through his writing, he moves out to the woods to weave his philosophical baskets and “avoid the necessity of selling them.” There is nothing wrong with the market here, and nothing wrong with being in business. But if you aren’t making a great success of yourself while pursuing your passion, you may need to choose between your passion and material success.

Indeed, much of Walden reminds an attentive reader of the classics of economics that are so important to friends of free markets. For example, there are echoes of Adam Smith’s concerns about possible problems with the division of labor in Thoreau’s question, “Where is this division of labor to end? and what object does it finally serve? No doubt another may also think for me; but it is not therefore desirable that he should do so to the exclusion of my thinking for myself.” And we can hear Adam Smith again, but also Addison and Steele’s Spectator, and Leonard Read’s I, Pencil, in Thoreau’s vision of peaceful commerce and the wonders of worldwide trade.

Commerce is unexpectedly confident and serene, alert, adventurous, and unwearied. It is very natural in its methods withal, far more so than many fantastic enterprises and sentimental experiments, and hence its singular success. I am refreshed and expanded when the freight train rattles past me, and I smell the stores which go dispensing their odors all the way from Long Wharf to Lake Champlain, reminding me of foreign parts, of coral reefs, and Indian oceans, and tropical climes, and the extent of the globe. I feel more like a citizen of the world at the sight of the palm-leaf which will cover so many flaxen New England heads the next summer, the Manilla hemp and cocoanut husks, the old junk, gunny bags, scrap iron, and rusty nails.

And with his praise of the bravery and stalwartness of the men who operate the railroads, Thoreau gives us as good a summation of McCloskey’s bourgeois virtues as one could hope to find.

What recommends commerce to me is its enterprise and bravery. It does not clasp its hands and pray to Jupiter. I see these men every day go about their business with more or less courage and content, doing more even than they suspect, and perchance better employed than they could have consciously devised . . . On this morning of the Great Snow, perchance, which is still raging and chilling men's blood, I hear the muffled tone of their engine bell from out the fog bank of their chilled breath, which announces that the cars are coming, without long delay, notwithstanding the veto of a New England northeast snow-storm.

If this is anti-capitalism, let us have more of it.

As for the accusation that Walden is “pro-Green,” it is worth keeping in mind Thoreau’s enormous distrust and detestation of government and of political parties. This is, after all, the man who began his most famous essay by saying, “That government is best which governs not at all,” and who notes that government “does not keep the country free. It does not settle the West. It does not educate. The character inherent in the American people has done all that has been accomplished; and it would have done somewhat more, if the government had not sometimes got in its way.” That he is used as a shill for a 21st-century political party would have horrified Thoreau, who said of similar co-optings, “If I had known how to name them, I should have signed off in detail from all the societies which I never signed on to; but I did not know where to find a complete list.”

But, perhaps without appreciating their political action, Thoreau’s convictions about nature and humanity align with Green objectives? Perhaps not. Thoreau loves and respects the natural world, and is a precise and detailed observer of it. That much is certainly true. And he probably does like most animals and trees more than he likes most humans. But while Greens tend to view human society as a carbuncle on the face of nature, Thoreau sees humans and their activities as an integrated part of the natural world that is equally worthy of observation. “As I walked in the woods to see the birds and squirrels, so I walked in the village to see the men and boys.”

And, as Thoreau’s fondness for railroads—honorably limited by his concerns for the poor working conditions of those who construct them—suggests, he is no despiser of modern technology. Indeed, in thinking about building his house, he points out,

Though we are not so degenerate but that we might possibly live in a cave or a wigwam or wear skins today, it certainly is better to accept the advantages, though so dearly bought, which the invention and industry of mankind offer. In such a neighborhood as this, boards and shingles, lime and bricks, are cheaper and more easily obtained than suitable caves, or whole logs, or bark in sufficient quantities, or even well-tempered clay or flat stones. I speak understandingly on this subject, for I have made myself acquainted with it both theoretically and practically. With a little more wit we might use these materials so as to become richer than the richest now are, and make our civilization a blessing.

If this is the Green agenda, I am in favor of it.

Is Walden a fake?

Having disposed of—or at least brought up some serious challenges to—the notion that Walden is anti-capitalist and pro-Green, it becomes fairly easy to ignore the claim that, because of Thoreau’s personal history, the anti-capitalist and pro-Green message of Walden make it a big fake. As the book has no such message, it cannot be a fake. But spending a little time thinking about Thoreau’s character might not be a bad idea in the face of such accusations.

Everyone knows that Thoreau made pencils. It’s a coincidence that North makes much of, that Leonard Read’s great work in praise of the market, I Pencil, is an examination of precisely that industry. Thoreau, in fact, saved his family’s pencil-making business through a variety of innovative engineering solutions that made “Thoreau pencils” a hotly demanded item that won two awards from the Mechanic Association. Is it a betrayal of that market success that Thoreau, assured of his family’s financial stability, then used the financial freedom gained from his success in the market to go and live as he liked? I cannot think that it is.

Had Thoreau engaged in anti-market propaganda, it might have been. But we have seen that he did not. Had Thoreau encouraged all the other young men in Concord, or New England, or America, to walk away from commerce, it might have been. But Thoreau is explicitly uninterested in telling others how to live.

I would not have any one adopt my mode of living on any account; for, beside that before he has fairly learned it I may have found out another for myself, I desire that there may be as many different persons in the world as possible; but I would have each one be very careful to find out and pursue his own way, and not his father's or his mother's or his neighbor's instead. The youth may build or plant or sail, only let him not be hindered from doing that which he tells me he would like to do.

Thoreau’s desire is to live as he likes, not to tell others that they must live as he likes.

So why, then, with his capacity for engineering and for business, does Thoreau head for the woods? First of all, he does it because he likes it. Second of all, he does it because he has a philosophical project in mind.

It would be some advantage to live a primitive and frontier life, even in the midst of an outward civilization, if only to learn what are the gross necessaries of life and what methods have been taken to obtain them; or even to look over the old day-books of the merchants, to see what it was that men most commonly bought at the stores, what they stored, that is, what are the grossest groceries. For the improvements of the ages have had but little influence on the essential laws of man’s existence: as our skeletons, probably, are not to be distinguished from those of our ancestors.

Thoreau wants to find out what the most basic requirements of human life are and to discover what humans are like when they strip away extraneous things. He also wants to write about it. And he wants to devote as much time to writing and thinking, and as little time to everything else, as he possibly can. So he heads to the woods.

Thoreau’s desire to focus on his writing goes a long way to explain his complicated feelings about solitude. Those who want to poke holes in Thoreau love to point out that his great experiment with solitude involved living only two miles from home, one mile from his nearest neighbor, and rather a lot of company. Thoreau doesn’t try to conceal any of that in Walden. Indeed, his chapter “Solitude” discusses all of these things, as well as his proximity to the railroad. But it’s not physical distance and solitude he is seeking. It is the ability “to be alone the greater part of the time” because “a man thinking or working is always alone, let him be where he is.” He wants to use solitude as an opportunity to focus his thinking and to work on his writing, but also as a tool to enhance his appreciation for company when he has it. “Society is commonly too cheap. We meet at very short intervals, not having had time to acquire any new value for each other.” Thoreau had three chairs in his cabin at Walden for the express purpose of having company. He never intended to be an hermit. Those who fault him because he wasn’t one misunderstand his project.

It is worth noting, as well, that one of the reasons Thoreau wanted to select his own society, then shut the door, is a moral one. He abhorred living in a society that tolerated slavery.

One afternoon, near the end of the first summer, when I went to the village to get a shoe from the cobbler's, I was seized and put into jail, because, as I have elsewhere related, I did not pay a tax to, or recognize the authority of, the State which buys and sells men, women, and children, like cattle, at the door of its senate-house. I had gone down to the woods for other purposes. But, wherever a man goes, men will pursue and paw him with their dirty institutions, and, if they can, constrain him to belong to their desperate odd-fellow society.

The last moral accusation leveled by those who claim that Walden is a fake and Thoreau is a fraud is that Thoreau left Walden Pond and returned to Concord after a mere 26 months. Again, Thoreau makes no attempt to hide this fact. He mentions the length of his stay at Walden Pond in the first paragraph of Walden. And he explains in the book’s conclusion that his departure is purposeful. “I left the wood for as good a reason as I went there. Perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one.” His project was done. He had finished writing A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, drafted Walden, and was ready to move on to other things. This is not a failed project. It is a completed one.

If this is fakery, we can no longer recognize truth.

Is Walden a badly written book that only has its reputation because of its politics?

I have quoted extensively from Walden already and am confident that those quotations will serve as a rebuttal to accusations that Thoreau is a bad writer. Literary tastes can vary, and even the greatest of Thoreau’s admirers will agree that sometimes his transcendental raptures can be a bit hard to take. I think Thoreau is a brilliant writer. Not everyone agrees. That’s art for you.

More importantly, though, I think that we must consider the possibility that Walden has its reputation because many who teach it choose to ignore its politics, which are strongly libertarian and even anarchist. Consider, for example, Thoreau’s insistence that “a simple and independent mind does not toil at the bidding of any prince.” There is also his distrust of the “do-gooder busy-body:”

If I knew for a certainty that a man was coming to my house with the conscious design of doing me good, I should run for my life, as from that dry and parching wind of the African deserts called the simoom, which fills the mouth and nose and ears and eyes with dust till you are suffocated, for fear that I should get some of his good done to me—some of its virus mingled with my blood. No—in this case I would rather suffer evil the natural way.

and his distrust of the efficacy of aid in general:

There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root, and it may be that he who bestows the largest amount of time and money on the needy is doing the most by his mode of life to produce that misery which he strives in vain to relieve. It is the pious slave-breeder devoting the proceeds of every tenth slave to buy a Sunday's liberty for the rest.

and his support of practical wisdom and financial responsibility:

Even the poor student studies and is taught only political economy, while that economy of living which is synonymous with philosophy is not even sincerely professed in our colleges. The consequence is, that while he is reading Adam Smith, Ricardo, and Say, he runs his father in debt irretrievably.

and his respect for the individual:

Individuals, like nations, must have suitable broad and natural boundaries, even a considerable neutral ground, between them.

If this is the politics that will give a book a lifespan of 160 years, with no sign of flagging yet, we should be celebrating. If Walden is being so badly taught, both by those who don’t like its politics and by those who should, that no one realizes how important it should be for lovers of liberty, then let us acknowledge that our problem is not Thoreau. It is us.