Sunday, October 28, 2007


Thoreau's Critics

George W. Cooke, "The Two Thoreaus," Independent 48 (Dec. 10, 1896) 1671-1672:
There are evidently two Thoreaus—one that of his admirers, and the other that of his detractors.
Angie Brennan writes in an email:
Your "It is All Here" Thoreau post made me think of this amusing passage I recently read in "A Walk in the Woods" by Bill Bryson:

"The American woods have been unnerving people for 300 years. The inestimably priggish and tiresome Henry David Thoreau thought nature was splendid, splendid indeed, so long as he could stroll to town for cakes and barley wine, but when he experienced real wilderness, on a visit to Katahdin in 1846, he was unnerved to the core. This wasn't the tame world of overgrown orchards and sun-dappled paths that passed for wilderness in suburban Concord, Massachusetts, but a forbidding, oppressive, primeval country that was 'grim and wild…savage and dreary.' The experience left him, in the words of one biographer, 'near hysterical.'"
The biographer who described Thoreau as "near hysterical" seems to be Roderick Nash in his Wilderness and the American Mind (1967; rpt. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001), p. 91:
"What is this Titan that has possession of me?" a near-hysterical Thoreau asked on Katahdin. "Who are we? where are we?"
Geral T. Blanchard, Grizzly Lessons: Coexisting with Bears and Wolves (New York: iUniverse, 2004), p. 3, repeats the calumny:
Shocked and nearly hysterical, Thoreau emerged from the bush describing the wild country as "grim, savage, and dreary." In Maine he felt, "more alone than you could imagine."
For another view of Thoreau's supposed hysteria, see Randall Roorda, Dramas of Solitude: Narratives of Retreat in American Nature Writing (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998), p. 38:
Finally, the historian Nash verges on perfervid in the liberty he takes, depicting a "near-hysterical" Thoreau "clinging to the bare rocks of Katahdin's summit" (91). This is not to say that Thoreau necessarily was not or did not do what Nash says; only that, on the basis of this story we really can't tell.
Garrison Keillor, in Time to Lighten Up and Get a Grip, also takes a pot shot at Thoreau:
The philosopher of cheerful purpose was Emerson, and for some reason my generation preferred the puritanical Thoreau, a sorehead and loner whose clunky line about marching to your own drummer has found its way into a million graduation speeches. Thoreau tried to make a virtue out of lack of rhythm. He said that the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. Okay, but how did he know? He didn't talk to that many people. He wrote elegantly about independence and forgot to thank his mom for doing his laundry.

Emerson was a mover and shaker. He said, "Every great and commanding moment in the annals of the world is the triumph of some enthusiasm ... this is the one remedy for all ills, the panacea of nature. We must be lovers and at once the impossible becomes possible." He said this while he was out on the road plying his trade as a lecturer, peddling his books, earning the money he would use to buy the land for Thoreau to build his little cabin on and pay Thoreau's fine and get him out of jail. Oh well. Never mind.
On Thoreau's supposed lack of rhythm I have written elsewhere. Weighing all the evidence, Walter Harding, The Days of Henry Thoreau: A Biography (1965; rev. ed. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1982), p. 204, sensibly concluded that it was Thoreau's Aunt Maria, not Emerson, who paid the fine to get him out of jail.

I count myself among Thoreau's admirers, against those who find him tiresome, priggish, hysterical, Puritanical, a sorehead, and a loner.

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