Lauren R. Stevens: Thoreau cannot be so easily simplified


WILLIAMSTOWN — Last October, staff writer Kathryn Schulz published a piece in The New Yorker with the immoderate title "Pond Scum," in which she characterized Henry David Thoreau as "self-obsessed: narcissistic, fanatical about self-control, adamant that he required nothing beyond himself to understand and thrive in the world." So why in the world would anyone want to retrace Thoreau's 1844 footsteps up Mt. Greylock on Saturday, July 16?

Part of her critique has to do with literary genres: she points out that while "Walden" (the pond and book) appears to be factual, in fact Thoreau wrote some fiction. The same is true of the book in which he describes his Greylock outing — and we will discuss those inconsistencies on the hike.

She accuses him of being so misanthropic he had no friends. Actually he had a few strong friendships, beginning with his brother John. "A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers," written in honor of John, recounts the brothers' adventures, building a rowboat and rowing up the rivers to Mt. Washington.

Oddly, that same book recounts his Greylock saunter, which he carried on alone after his brother had died. We'll talk about why. And, by the way, he had other close friends, for instance William Ellery Channing, whom he met after descending from Greylock for some climbing in the Catskills; and Emerson and Emerson's wife, Lydia. He even proposed to a cousin, Ellen Sewell. And maybe he would have liked to be friends with those who follow his tracks.

Schulz missed something significant in writing that "Thoreau regarded humor as he regarded salt, and did without." His writing is full of humor of the dry, salty kind, and includes exaggeration. Much of what a reader may find off-putting in Thoreau results from failing to grasp both kinds of humor. We'll check that in our peripatetic discussions.

Schulz is right in diagnosing a delayed adolescence in the author of "Walden." He was 27 when he climbed Greylock and 28 when he moved pondside but, as in "A Week," we can hear him trying out ideas with a kind of fragile certainty. He was a truth-teller, even when mistaken. Truths are easier to tell when we're younger.

To the degree that Schulz is critiquing Thoreau, as opposed to his book, her view is foreshortened, because she doesn't look beyond "Walden." Particularly his later trips to true wilderness tested and found wanting many of the "truths" he earlier enunciated. His essays on the Maine woods contain some of his best writing. His bravado about not letting oneself feel lost, in "A Week," for example, sounds hollow when he fears he is lost, before the Indian guide rescues him, on the Mud Pond carry.

Meeting at the Notch Road gate to the Mt. Greylock State Reservation at 10 a.m., we can consider if, as Schulz alleges, Thoreau conceded any role as a moral compass because he was "a man whose deepest desire and signature act was to turn his back on the rest of us." As she herself points out, Walden was not far from town and, for Thoreau, his mother's cooking. Maybe his stance at Walden is one of those exaggerations.

Instead of deliberately turning his back, he had asked Channing to join him on the Greylock portion of his hike-a-thon. Channing couldn't, so Thoreau climbed alone. He wrote about it as an attempt to gain perspective, a fleeting vision of a better world. Why would he report back about an awesome sunrise above the clouds on Greylock unless he wanted to share that vision?

At least, that's how it looks from the White Oaks.

Lauren R. Stevens is a regular Eagle contributor.


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