The problems of the impolitic prophet

In eleventh grade, in AP American Language, our task for the year was to choose an author on whose work we would develop three essays over the duration of the course. Deciding which author to marry in this way was a big commitment for a sixteen year-old, and from the list of eligible names I elected in my head William Faulkner—because of the sonorous spelling of his last name, I think. The match was not to be: by the time it was my turn to meet with our teacher and confirm the decision, someone else had already walked away with Faulkner. (Fate had spoken, and to this day I still have never read any Faulkner.) On the spot, she suggested that I consider Thoreau instead.

I dutifully followed the suggestion, and for the next eight months Thoreau was the subject of my first real scholarly inquiry of any value. I wrote an essay on Walden, an essay on A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, and a final essay on dualism in Thoreau’s thought. At first it seemed like unpromising material for my taste. I had read Henry Beston’s The Outermost House in seventh grade, and recoiled against its leaden treatment of lonely nature in a scathing, contemptuous book review (of which all evidence, mercifully, has been lost). But Thoreau grabbed me at just the right time, when I was an easy recruit for his holy crusade against the vanities of mass society. My well-worn Dover Thrift edition of Walden still sits on my bookcase, and its margins are still full of handwritten notes and urgent underlinings that preserve the excited absolutism of a teenage boy who, having his found his own persecuted beliefs confirmed on the lips of a literary titan, swelled up with self-righteousness.

A few years later, I found myself having second thoughts about Thoreau. If each of us reserves the right to nullify those bonds of society which do not accord with our inner light, then how do we come to any sort of agreement about how to live together? Thoreau had insisted on going his own way in a world where “the greater part of what my neighbors call good I believe in my soul to be bad”—something which seemed perfectly justified to my sixteen-year old mind, disgusted with shopping malls and football jocks and the invasion of Iraq. But I began to wonder: what if people who bomb abortion clinics or refuse to obey zoning boards also feel that they are acting under the sign of moral transcendence? If the ultimate source of moral authority comes from within, what happens when our moral authorities collide?

So the debate which is currently going on between Kathryn Schulz’s takedown of Thoreau, and the defense mounted by Jedediah Purdy, Jonathan Malesic, Donavan Hohn, and others is a debate which I have been arbitrating in my own head for more than a decade. Schulz, although she leans too heavily into a hackneyed characterization of Thoreau as a rancorous hermit, is exactly right to say that his politics merit at least suspicion, and perhaps rejection. She writes that Thoreau was “not interested” in deliberative democracy, that he romanticized poverty, and, above all, that he was “convinced that other people lead pathetic lives yet categorically opposed to helping them.” To live amongst others, Schulz correctly argues, is to compromise and make do, and it requires us to approach each others’ beliefs—however alien and distasteful we may find them at first glance—with the utmost generosity. Meanwhile, we must genuinely entertain the idea that we ourselves might be wrong.

And yet, if we look back on Thoreau’s era with the comfort of not having to live in it, we are likely to find that, if Thoreau was cranky, it seems like he ought to have been. New England really was in the midst of a blind commercial frenzy that promoted both an enforced cultural uniformity as well as a deeply imprudent exploitation of natural resources. The Mexican-American War really was a pointless exercise in proto-imperialism that brutalized many of the people who had long been settled in the southwest. And, of course, there was the moral catastrophe of slavery.

Should Thoreau have been more sociable—more moderate and temperate—about these beliefs? Should he, for instance, have leant his weight to the fussy political compromises that tried to negotiate an uneasy truce between slave and free states, rather than siding with the radical abolitionists? Is the problem with Thoreau’s politics really that he should have been a little more gentle to his opponents?

Of course, it is far easier to think with moral unambiguity about scores which have been settled and buried for more than a century than about those which trouble the present day. But if I have come to reject Thoreau’s sanctimonious and grossly narcissistic belief that all moral clarity comes from within, I am not yet ready to set aside entirely his basic belief in self-reflection, criticism, and distancing oneself at least momentarily from the scrabbling short-sightedness of workaday life. The backside of Thoreau’s arrogance is courage: the courage not simply to concede to what others believe merely out of a fear of being ostracized. We should not exult in being iconoclasts—but nor should we be terrified of it.

The debate over Thoreau is substantially the same debate that the Young American critics—Lewis Mumford, Randolph Bourne, and their allies—had with John Dewey and the pragmatists. Like Schulz, Dewey cast his lot in with the virtues of deliberation, and believed that idealist philosophies, which fiddled with absolute rather than practical questions, had “done more than brute love of power to establish inequality and injustice among men.” Especially in our current age of ideological chaos, Dewey’s great optimism about how democracy must be practiced—one which Schulz tacitly echoes—is crucial material.

But for Dewey’s critics, pragmatism considered only the problem of how to get somewhere, not the problem of deciding where to go in the first place. Dewey’s acquiescence to the American participation in World War I seemed to be the final proof that his philosophy could be twisted in any which direction, that it offered no real resistance to the forces of malign power in the world. And for most of the Young Americans, it was the Transcendentalists—Thoreau, Emerson, and the others—who offered the key model for how to cultivate the kind of moral clarity which pragmatism had quitclaimed.

It is a debate which haunts liberalism: not just in the political sense (is Hillary Clinton savvy or a sellout?), but also in the intellectual sense (is it more laudable, to use David Riesman’s terms, to be inner-directed or other-directed?). Which ultimately leads me to believe that, whatever we think about him, it is important to teach and read Thoreau: not as scripture but with scrutiny.