What is The New Yorker? I know it’s a great magazine and that it’s a tremendous source of pleasure in my life. But what exactly is it? This blog’s premise is that The New Yorker is a work of art, as worthy of comment and analysis as, say, Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Each week I review one or more aspects of the magazine’s latest issue. I suppose it’s possible to describe and analyze an entire issue, but I prefer to keep my reviews brief, and so I usually focus on just one or two pieces, to explore in each the signature style of its author. A piece by Nick Paumgarten is not like a piece by Dana Goodyear, and neither is like a piece by Ian Frazier. One could not mistake Finnegan for Friend, or Bilger for Lepore, or Collins for Khatchadourian. Each has found a style, and it is that style that I respond to as I read, and want to understand and describe.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Kathryn Schulz's "Pond Scum"

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,

Although Thoreau is insufferable when fancying himself a seer, he is wonderful at actually seeing, and the passages he devotes to describing the natural world have an acuity and serenity that nothing else in the book approaches. It is a pleasure to read him on a battle between black and red ants; on the layers of ice that form as the pond freezes over in winter; on the breeze, birds, fish, waterbugs, and dust motes that differently disturb the surface of Walden.

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.


  1. Schulz's article is a non-original piece of takedown porn--an anti-intellectual rant written by someone who no doubt lives in desperation for the next trendy cocktail. As you note, Robert Sullivan in his book notes many of the same criticisms. Plus she gets it wrong from the lead saying that he's insensitive to shipwreck victims when (if you read Thoreau's whole paragraph) all he's saying is that it's harder to feel genuine emotion for an anonymous group of victims than for someone you personally know. She has a tin ear for all the joy and humor in Walden regardless of whether Thoreau went home for pie or not. Thank you for putting in a good word for Henry.

  2. I just read my first Schulz piece, on the execrable stinkbug infestation (dangling referent noted) spreading across the U.S. She put me in a mind of John McPhee, a piece beautifully researched with plenty of keenly turned wit. I wonder if she has a tin ear or is just having us on in her takedown of HDT. If it's the former, and even if it is the case that she may, Thoreau-like, be a bit of a jerk, she gave me the best 7-in-the-morning-laughs I've had in a while in a well-researched piece of non-fiction.

  3. I considered commenting on Schulz's stinkbug piece, but its unrelieved third-person perspective put me off. I'm not a fan of third-person writing. Like Thoreau, I prefer the "I" of personal experience.