Today marks the bicentennial of the birth of Henry David Thoreau, and rereading Walden always inspires me to say some uncharitable and unfair things about Thoreau. Knowing that they are unfair (see HERE, for example) I’m going to say them anyway, since having once been said it will be possible to see how and why they are unfair – as applied to Thoreau, at least – and then say some things that are fair, though mostly about some of Thoreau’s “readers.” So, let’s start by presenting the unfair in its simplest, and most privileged terms.
Many years ago, the Science Fiction author Robert A. Heinlein elucidated what he called, “the Sears-Roebuck” fallacy. (Memory tells me this was in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. You should not credit my memory with any authority.) Describing this in my own words, young Henry David decides to head off into the wilderness, and make for himself the life of a True Man. Upon arrival, the first thing he needs to do is build himself some shelter, so he grabs his trusty ax, and sets out to fell some trees. But wait a minute! He was supposed to be leaving civilization behind; so where did that ax come from?
Why, the Sears-Roebuck catalog, of course!
The process continues much the same with other tools: the rifle to shoot game, the matches to light his fire, the pot in which he cooks his food. Where’d they come from? The Sears-Roebuck catalog! Thoreau himself mentions an ax, a knife, a shovel, and a wheelbarrow as being sufficient unto the day. So, how was Thoreau able to manage all of this “simplicity”? Two things: first, the civilization he was nominally rejecting was already a pre-existing fact for him to “reject.” Second, that rejection was never more than partial and fragmentary. He was privileged enough that he could buy or borrow anything he needed from that civilization (the Sears-Roebuck catalog) any time he needed or wanted. (Indeed, one of the matters Thoreau tended not to emphasize in Walden was his more or less weekly visits to his Aunt, in the very nearby town of Concord, to eat dinner, especially on those days when she’d been baking pies.)
“Simplicity,” you see, is a very costly proposition. And when you cannot pay the entrance fee, it ceases to be “simplicity,” and becomes, instead, squalid desperation. Indeed, as a quick example, consider the cost of food today in America. Simplifying is fine, but where is one to find any genuine nutrition in that simplicity? Even if a person has access to a major supermarket (and many do not) the cost of fresh food is invariably greater than canned, while junk is less expensive than even that (compare the price of a gallon of cola to a gallon of milk.) And if you do shop at a supermarket, most of your money is being stove-piped out of your community, to eventually find its way into off-shore tax shelters. If you have a half-way decent local market to shop at, while the money stays more local, it is even more expensive than the supermarket. And if all you have is a little corner market, the expense is greater still.
So much for the patently unfair phase.
The most obvious defect in the above criticism is the pretense that Thoreau was or, more importantly, ever claimed to be, leaving civilization behind. Thoreau never said or suggested he was doing any such thing. Rather, what he wanted to experiment with was the effort to leave behind as much of the fatuous obsession with possessions and things as he was able. There was never any question that this experiment was predicated upon the generosity of others – Emerson bought the land for Thoreau to use; neighbors from Concord were constantly stopping by, often bringing food; he freely admits to borrowing the ax he initially used (and then returned to the owner sharper than when he borrowed it) – even as Thoreau himself was generally loath to make this dependency explicit in his writings. Per the article by John Kaag and Clancy Martin (linked above at the “HERE”) Thoreau was aware of the “invisible neighbors” with whom he shared the space around Walden pond: freed slaves, Irish, and other outcasts, barely able to scratch out a living from their surrounds, who sometimes didn’t get burned out of their homes by the good people of Concord. Thoreau was well aware of his community, even as he could seldom enough bring himself to say so. No, what he railed against is what Thorstein Veblen would, some 60+ years later, call “conspicuous consumption” (which is not to be confused with a prodigious case of tuberculosis). (One might add that there is an argument to be made here connecting Thoreau with Bataille’s Accursed Share; a casual web search fails to provide many such efforts.)
So let’s turn things on their head, and look at those instances where the Sears-Roebuck fallacy has some real bite. And the first place that bite occurs is with Heinlein himself. Heinlein constantly espoused a libertarian philosophy when, in his own writings, he felt obligated to engage in exposition. But when one actually reads his stories, it becomes clear that he himself was unabashedly communitarian in his beliefs and commitments. Everywhere, and at all times, what mattered most to Heinlein was his community. Where he failed (insofar as he failed) was in not drawing the boundaries of that community in a sufficiently far reaching manner. Consequently, he still ends up stuck with a “them or us” attitude. But it is still a “them” or us attitude, not a “them or me” one.
Perhaps the best example of the worst thinking here is the childish numskull, romanticized by Jon Krakauer, who ran off into the Alaskan wilds, poisoned himself on native plants he didn’t trouble to learn about, ultimately dying alone over the course of some days and/or weeks in substantial pain and utter helplessness. (You can look this up yourself, I refuse to validate such stupidity by linking to it; they even made a movie valorizing this vacuous twit.) There was no one to check on this credulous rube, no one to support him in his efforts. Even (and, even especially) the Penobscot natives whom Thoreau so often praises, living in far more “savage” and “primitive” conditions than the local white people of Thoreau’s day, lived so in densely intertwined communities. (Again, Thoreau gives too little emphasis to this fact.)
So the really, really bad readings of Thoreau are exactly the one’s that commit the Sears-Roebuck fallacy with a vengeance. They conflate “simplicity” with a kind of vicious, “individualism,” which has never been possible, even in the abstract. They further disregard the rampant privilege that “enables” (in the bad, psychological sense of that word) them to entertain this destructive and indefensible fantasy. No one does anything alone, except, perhaps, die. And even that, in any civilized community, will (when possible) be attended by friends and family. Even when you blaze a brand new trail, you do so with tools that a community helped provide.
Regardless of his underlying intentions, Thoreau’s work is often used to justify the myth of the “Absolute Individual,” the lone hero making his way across the wastelands, leaving behind the crushing oppression of the so-called civilized world. There’s little point in faulting Thoreau for his failure to articulate the Reverend Dr. King’s insight that, “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny,” a century before King said it. But fault can, and surely must, be laid at the privileged feet of those quack “individualists” of today who – quite aside from King scholarship – still refuse to acknowledge this fact. Thoreau wasn’t this dumb 150 years ago, we’re supposed to excuse people who are even dumber than this today?
Simplicity isn’t simple, but privilege generally is: the latter generally being based on the blank-faced assumption that facts which admit of no reasoned disputed could not possibly be true. Simplifying our lives, letting go (just a little bit) of our indoctrinated sense of ostentatious possessiveness, begins with acknowledging the privilege that makes it possible to loosen our grip on “our” things, just a little bit. We do not need to abandon civilization to relinquish a small particle of our consumption. And when we see our privilege in doing so, we can do it without self-righteousness.