Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Henry David Thoreau: More to the man than a shack by a pond

Walden Pond (Photo by Tony Galati)
     As much as I enjoyed researching and writing this, I enjoyed even more reading Pond Scum, a 2015 New Yorker article on Thoreau by Kathryn Schulz that longtime friend Bob Goebel shared with me Wednesday morning. I don't know how I missed it, but I did, and if you are interested in the perspectives I touch upon here you should consider reading her piece. It's excellent.

     Henry David Thoreau's father owned a pencil factory.
     In between failing as a teacher and a writer, Thoreau worked in that factory. From the day in 1845 he moved to Walden Pond, where his fans will flock Wednesday to mark the bicentennial of his birth on July 12, 1817, to the day he left, J. Thoreau and Co. churned out high quality pencils.

      There is an irony here. Thoreau is remembered best as an early bard of appreciating nature. On Sunday, the New York Times described a line he uttered in a speech—"In wilderness is the preservation of the world"—as "eight words that in coming decades helped save that Maine woods, Cape Cod, Yosemite and other treasured American landscapes."
     They ignored the pencils that underwrote his work. I know why. It spoils the cherished image, to have Thoreau calling for preservation of trees out of one corner of his mouth and promoting the transformation of trees into pencils out of the other.
     Or does it?
     Do the two values, conservation and business, have to contradict? Our government certainly thinks so. The Trump administration began with a wholesale slaughter of environmental regulations. Dropping out of the Paris climate change accords is only the most visible. Clean water rules—that keep mining and metal companies from pouring waste into streams—are being relaxed Ditto for clean air regulations. And we don't have to worry about alarming increases in pollution statistics, since the EPA, now headed by one of its fiercest critics, is going to stop collecting certain air quality data.
     Thoreau describes the type perfectly—"He knows nature but as a robber."
     Thoreau had a gift for piercing concision. That is why I like him, despite his frequent descent into piety. He used his own experience. You need to be in line to inherit a pencil factory to write a sentence like: "I see young men, my townsmen, whose misfortune it is to have inherited farms, houses, barns, cattle, and farming tools; for these are more easily acquired than got rid of."

To continue reading, click here.

Photo by Tony Galati


  1. Nice, nuanced take on Thoreau, whom I'd always considered an annoying, sanctimonious weenie.

    1. Thanks. Definitely read the New Yorker article I refer to at top, if you haven't already. You'll love it.

    2. Well, it's clear that Whitman and Thoreau made strange bedfellows indeed!


  2. Fascinating. Emotions appear to run deep where Thoreau is concerned. Here is a recent post I just read for those who might be interested.


  3. Thanks for tipping us off to the Kathryn Schultz article, which you could have just mined for your own, excellent but necessarily shorter, piece. It's been many years since I tried to read Walden, and the two expositions make me realize why it had been such a hard slog.

    Among other things Thoreau's asceticism seemed unhinged, not grounded in reason or even religious fervor, and brought to mind something written by A.J. Liebling, the very opposite of an abstemious man. "No sane man can dispense entirely with debilitation pleasures and be considered entirely sane. When the other Krauts saw Hitler drinking water in the Beer Hall they should have known he was not to be trusted."


  4. Thoreau's personality is easy enough to understand if you consider the possibility that he may have had Asperger's Syndrome. It would explain all of those odd traits that some people are struggling with.


Comments are vetted and posted at the discretion of the proprietor.