|Illustration by Eric Nyquist|
Kathryn Schulz, in her virulent "Pond Scum" (The New Yorker, October 19, 2015), calls Henry David Thoreau self-obsessed, narcissistic, fanatical, parochial, egotistical, disingenuous, arrogant, sanctimonious, hypocritical, and a “thoroughgoing misanthrope.” She says, “The poor, the rich, his neighbors, his admirers, strangers: Thoreau’s antipathy toward humanity even encompassed the very idea of civilization.” Reading her evisceration of Thoreau’s character, I was reminded of John Updike’s comment on Lord Byron: he “was a monster of vanity and appetite, with one possibly redeeming quality: he could write.” Schulz doesn’t spend much time on Thoreau’s writing ability. She’s too busy excoriating him for, among other things, shunning coffee (“I cannot idolize anyone who opposes coffee”). “Pond Scum” contains a number of original poison-tipped barbs. My favorite is Schulz’s description of Walden as “less a cornerstone work of environmental literature than the original cabin porn: a fantasy about rustic life divorced from the reality of living in the woods, and, especially, a fantasy about escaping the entanglements and responsibilities of living among other people.” Granted, Schulz does praise Thoreau’s gift for nature description. She says,
Yes, it is a pleasure to read him on those things, and many more besides. So what’s Schulz’s point? Robert Sullivan, in his wonderful The Thoreau You Don’t Know (2009), says, “A central theme that anyone considering Thoreau must face early on is the jerk factor. Was Thoreau a jerk?” Well, we know where Schulz stands on that question. According to her, he was a jerk par excellence. But if he hadn’t been a jerk, maybe he wouldn’t have written the way he did. Somewhere in his letters, Van Gogh says, “And if I weren’t as I am I wouldn’t paint.” Similarly, Thoreau could say, “And if I weren’t as I am I wouldn’t write.” Who cares if Thoreau was a jerk? Most of us are jerks one way or another. But not many of us can write like Thoreau.