I spent some of my college years swimming in Walden Pond and cooing over the cute boys and quotes in Dead Poets Society. But it's almost 15 years later that I'm finally reading Walden, and my greatest fears are confirmed: Thoreau was a pompous prick.
Cliff's Notes on Thoreau read romantically enough: poor boy goes to Harvard, becomes gardener and hiker, hangs with Transcendentalists (Emerson) and poets (Whitman), builds small hut in woods, swears off belongings and high society for simplicity and clean living.
But for every beautiful too-oft-repeated quote in Walden, there lurks prep school pugnacity:
The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation (11)
I have lived some thirty years on this planet, and I have yet to hear the first syllable of value . . . from my seniors (11-12)
I would rather sit on a pumpkin and have it all to myself, than be crowded on a velvet cushion (33)
Philanthropy . . . is greatly overrated (63)
I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life (74)
The best works are the ancients, and they haven't been translated (86)
with huge lumbering civility the country hands a chair to the city (93)
Sometimes, when I compare myself with other men, it seems as if I were more favored by the gods than they (106)
Not till we are lost, in other words, not till we have lost the world, do we begin to find ourselves (137)
. . . his wife--every man has such a wife--changed her mind . . . (68)
Mr. Thoreau, would you like some cheese with your whine?
Does anyone discuss the hypocrisy of this book? And the dreamlike, unrealistic nature of his thought process?
It's all well and good to live a mile or so from Emerson's house. To undoubtedly dine with him regularly and discuss all things under God by Emerson's fire. But to then write bullshit such as, "a village of busy men, as curious to me as if they had been prairie dogs . . . I went there frequently to observe their habits" (134). Like he's so removed from humans.
My issues with Thoreau go long and cut deep. It's like this:
"[I speak] to the mass of men who are discontented, and idly complaining of the hardness of their lot . . . when they might improve them" (17). And "The laborer's day ends with the going down of the sun, and he is then free to devote himself to his chosen pursuit" (59).
He spends a lot of time building up and condemning blue-collar folk. He is saddened that the Irish are building a railroad, yet states that it would do the students of Harvard good to build their own dorms. Further, he prattles on about why no manner of job suits him, but maybe he could pick berries and with that meet his expenses (58).
And don't get me started on the asinine ant wars (180-182). "And certainly there is not the fight recorded in Concord history, at least, if in the history of America, that will bear a moment's comparison with this . . . for the patriotism and heroism displayed." Thoreau wrote this in Concord, MA, ~80 years after the Revolutionary War. About ants in his garden.
If Thoreau were alive now, I believe he would have gone to Hampshire College. He would be that asshat who is 110% enviro, judging everyone, and graduating with a degree in frisbee. In sum, Thoreau was a hipster. Before being a hipster was hip. Ironic bastard.