‘Pond scum’ or no? Reassessing Henry David Thoreau

Matthew Towles

Nearly 200 years after his birth, Henry David Thoreau’s reputation can still stir up a ruckus.

In her recent New Yorker critique of Thoreau’s life, work and influence, Kathryn Schulz writes, “[O]ur image of the man has also become simplified and inspirational. ...Thoreau is our national conscience: the voice in the American wilderness, urging us to be true to ourselves and to live in harmony with nature.”

Often sentimentalized because of his influence on respected 20th-century leaders like Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., Thoreau belongs comfortably in that pantheon of writers whose output is appreciated but rarely read by the general public. Since he’s often discussed in league with folks like Gandhi and King, the perception of him is too often lumped in with how we feel about other men we respect. 

In her effort to contrast our sentimental view of Thoreau with how he lived his life, Schulz described Thoreau as “self-obsessed: narcissistic, fanatical about self-control, adamant that he required nothing beyond himself to understand and thrive in the world. From that inward fixation flowed a social and political vision that is deeply unsettling.”

Describing Thoreau’s most famous work, Walden, as “the original cabin porn,” Schulz rounds out the picture of one of our most cherished nature prophets with an arrogance that Thoreau himself might have used. The article’s title matches its harsh tone: “Pond Scum: Henry David Thoreau’s Moral Myopia.”

We prefer the idea of Thoreau over the reality; we have sentimentalized the man and his message.

Not surprisingly, the takedown of such an esteemed author didn’t go unnoticed. On Slate’s Culture Gabfest podcast, Stephen Metcalf, Laura Miller and Dana Stevens tried to rectify the reality of Thoreau’s social influence with his inability to avoid sounding arrogant and disconnected from humanity. While accusing Schulz of discussing Thoreau maliciously, Metcalf summed up her critique of Thoreau as coming from one who can only see the blemishes in his writing. He called the results of her effort “a giant pile of zits.”

After reading the Schulz article and listening to The Culture Gabfest, I have to admit: the conversation sounds familiar. When my students read Walden, they are disappointed (and often bored) by his tone, which conveys a sense of a straight-A student speaking to his intellectual underlings.

But our struggle with Thoreau isn’t entirely Thoreau’s fault. We tend to value Thoreau well beyond our realistic interaction with his writing. Some of us love the idea of living out an authentic life without asking whether or not Thoreau — or anyone else, for that matter — actually did it. We prefer the idea of Thoreau over the reality; we have sentimentalized the man and his message.

Preferring sentimentality over reality can be quite comforting, if it weren’t such a dangerous habit. Too often, we as Christians want to embrace the Prince of Peace while we ignore that Jesus also came to bring a sword. We like to flatten out and quote the Bible or even Jesus for our own sentimental calm, as if feeling better will replace living better. The pop psychology version of any prophet’s message — whether secular or sacred — produces a cheapened variation, where transformation is difficult and knowing the prophet is impossible. For those of us who are interested in appreciating the ideas and lives of important men and women, reality provides the means to achieving authentic understanding. For those of us who worship the image of the invisible God, the sentimentality that separates the ideal from the real can border on blasphemy.

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