“One of the books that I love is Henry David Thoreau’s Walden,” Alda Balthrop-Lewis writes at the beginning of her new book, Thoreau’s Religion. Before she starts analyzing Walden, she composes a little list of its charms. Some of the features she names are aesthetic: “I like it because it is funny, and beautiful, and weird.” Some of them are ethical: “I like that it doesn’t seem to hide its weird messy bits, its contradictions and vices.”
Balthrop-Lewis, a research fellow in the Institute for Religion and Critical Inquiry at Australian Catholic University, is letting us know that she will be taking the part of the author she studies, not taking him apart. Rather than seeking out Thoreau’s hypocrisies or flaws, she will treat him with generous affection. In other words, she will read Walden in good faith.
This is an unusually strong declaration from a scholar, especially in an academic monograph about a 19th-century literary classic. And it is a brave opening move. At a time when many people who believe in social justice have come to regard Thoreau’s legacy with suspicion, if not hostility, it also sounds—doesn’t it?—a little bit like an apology.
Why is it so embarrassing to love Thoreau? These days, we devotional readers of Walden tend to carry ourselves in public cautiously, anticipating skepticism and light ridicule. There are some good reasons to be skittish.
Consider what happens to Gordon Hauser, the young Thoreau scholar in Rachel Kushner’s scorching novel The Mars Room (2018). Gordon is a metal-fabricator’s son, born in an obscure Northern California town, who makes his way to Berkeley and an English PhD program. His hopes are high. He dreams of writing a dissertation about “Thoreau’s image of a spiritual molting season, of a new man, the fateful concept of an American Adam, an idea Gordon was fond of because of its precipitous arrogance and who doesn’t want to change his life?” You can feel the eagerness in the run-on prose.
But graduate school is hard on Gordon. He struggles with his qualifying exams. He loses his passion for scholarship. Before he can finish his dissertation, his fellowship runs out.
Meanwhile, Gordon is outshined by his rival, Alex, a more sophisticated operator. Professors of American literature are “a bunch of cornballs,” Alex observes, in private; this makes them easy marks for his careerist hustle. Alex understands “how to behave around powerful people,” and he rides his mentors’ favoritism onto the tenure track.
As for Gordon, the naive Thoreauvian, he pieces together adjunct gigs for as long as he can, then finds full-time teaching work in a Bay Area women’s prison. Gordon does not quite recognize it, but his story is following the curve of the California budget: new political forces are turning a onetime welfare state into a carceral one, shifting public money away from education and toward punishment. Academia had no place for him, but with the Department of Corrections, Gordon finally secures “the kind of job his father would have approved of—unionized, with benefits,” or so he thinks to himself, in oedipal sorrow.1
After an awkward encounter in his classroom, Gordon is charged with sexual misconduct and transferred to another institution, way off in the Central Valley. Trying to start a new life, he rents a tiny, isolated cabin on a mountainside. This is going to be his “Thoreau year,” Gordon proposes, self-consolingly, as he sends a picture of the place to his old friend Alex. Alex writes back with a Unabomber joke: “Your Kaczynski year.”
In fact, there is a long, strange tradition of conscripting Walden into violent right-wing causes. During the Cold War, when Thoreau took his place in the American Renaissance canon, his writing was sometimes said to demonstrate the special, freedom-loving character of US culture.
Deploying Walden and “Civil Disobedience” in the name of American exceptionalism could be tricky, since Thoreau went to jail protesting slavery and US imperialism. But contradictions like this one are part and parcel of American propaganda. Our most ardent patriots like to imagine themselves as a scrappy bunch of individualists, even as the United States goes about its hegemonic business, dominating the globe.
“I heartily accept the motto, ‘That government is best which governs least,’” Thoreau wrote in “Civil Disobedience.” His essay did inspire generations of anticolonial, antiracist, and environmental activists. But in the long run, Thoreau’s blithe contempt for the state appealed to reactionaries, as well—preppers dreaming of armed self-reliance, libertarians who want a national identity but do not want to pay their taxes. Thoreau’s association with such dangerously uncool fellow travelers has done some damage to his reputation.
Why is it so embarrassing to love Thoreau? These days, we devotional readers of “Walden” tend to carry ourselves in public cautiously, anticipating skepticism and light ridicule.
Try mentioning Thoreau online, and you are likely to get several comments about his mother doing his laundry while he enjoyed his camping trip. As Laura Dassow Walls shows in her deeply researched biography, Henry David Thoreau: A Life, this accusation probably isn’t true. True or not, though, the story resonates with the way Thoreau (or latter-day Thoreauvianism, at least) makes some people feel, so it seems impervious to fact-checking.
“‘Walden’ is less a cornerstone work of environmental literature than the original cabin porn,” Kathryn Schulz wrote in the New Yorker in 2015. “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.”
In casual conversations, Thoreau’s name now stands for a whole bestiary of bad white masculinities. He is both the old-timey moralist and the adolescent whiner. He is the “cornball” prude but also the affected, too-cool hipster (performed to such devastating effect by John Mulaney, with his bespoke neck beard, on AppleTV’s Dickinson). Thoreau is the inconsistent, ineffectual liberal as well as the agro-celibate.
These various characterizations seem almost irreconcilable, except that they are all ridiculous. Kushner’s Alex reads the room and plays it to his own advantage, against the loser Gordon: there is no quick prestige to be gained by casting your lot with the author of Walden.
Elsewhere, Thoreau continues to be quietly taken up by more serious and sympathetic readers. In studies by Sharon Cameron, Jane Bennett, and Branka Arsić, among others, we encounter a Thoreau whose aesthetics and politics flow from his deep sense of connection rather than isolation. Even Rebecca Solnit, the author of “Men Explain Things to Me,” a definitive essay about presumptuous guys, repeatedly returns to Thoreau in just such terms. Solnit finds in Thoreau a writer for whom “nature and culture, landscape and politics, the city and the country are inextricably interfused.” These readers see Thoreau’s embeddedness in local communities—human and nonhuman—as the wellspring of his work’s still-surprising power, not a source of shame.
Thoreau’s Religion takes its place in this good company. With extraordinary patience and clarity, Balthrop-Lewis guides well-meaning readers in appreciating Thoreau’s aesthetics and ethics, his ways of writing and his ways of living, as he himself understood them.
I have spent time with many books and essays about Walden. I cannot think of any other critic who performs this simple-seeming but exacting task as well as Balthrop-Lewis does it here.
Thoreau’s Religion sets aside the image of the walled-in hermit; it emphasizes Thoreau’s intimacies and connections. His idea in going to Walden was not to extricate himself from social ties. It was to reorient his world, so that the woods, rather than the town, centered his spiritual map. Walden made urban life, with its harried business, look provincial and benighted compared with the motley cosmopolitanism of the outskirts. Around the ponds, Thoreau found people excluded and displaced from Concord’s white, middle-class, Protestant mainstream. He also found himself communing with plants and beasts.
Despite the book’s title, Thoreau’s Religion does not concern itself too much with theological details, such as how Thoreau combined the Christian Gospels with Stoicism or the Vedas, all of which informed his transcendental vision. Balthrop-Lewis is most compelling when she treats Thoreau’s religion as a devotional regimen rather than a doctrine—as a self-imposed habit, not a creed. She insists that Thoreau was a Christian believer, but she emphasizes his way of life as a Christian practice.
Thoreau’s path was an ascetic one, designed especially to retrain his attention, opening his sensorium up to objects and others. Even writing was not as lonesome as it might appear. For Thoreau, “writing is a practice that contributes to broader forms of sociality by cultivating habits of attention in the author.”
Modern capitalism manipulated people of Thoreau’s class, he believed, by tricking them into craving things they didn’t need. He shut out the market’s distractions so that he could return to savoring the uncommodified parts of life. He was not seeking mortification for its own sake; he wanted greater intensities of perception and deeper communion with the people he loved.
This doesn’t mean Thoreau exempted himself from the modern economy. He knew that there was no exemption. According to Balthrop-Lewis, he was trying to live simply so that everyone could get their share of the world’s common goods. By placing some limits on what he allowed himself to consume—for instance, no coffee, since it came from slave plantations—he believed that he could access richer kinds of joy and pleasure. Balthrop-Lewis calls this “delight in true goods,” the grateful appreciation of “God’s gifts of life and nature.”
The real political objection to “Walden” is less Thoreau’s quietism or complacency than his primary commitment to his self-emancipation.
The ethos of delight in true goods, Balthrop-Lewis shows, motivates Thoreau’s sensuous asceticism, and it is also the foundation of his ethics and his politics. He wrote hundreds and hundreds of pages, using his journal to train himself in observation and composition. In the same spirit, he risked his life and freedom when his conscience demanded it, for instance, in helping fugitives on the run from slavery.
The point about political activism is crucial to Thoreau’s Religion. Other critics, notably Hannah Arendt in her essay “Civil Disobedience” (1970), have accused Thoreau of a self-absorbed quietism—a preoccupation with keeping his own hands clean—that required no involvement in the compromised, collaborative work of politics. Today, Thoreau is sometimes caricatured as devising the luxury commodity of New Age spirituality, a self-care that consoles its practitioners while the world is burning all around them.
Balthrop-Lewis rejects any oversimple opposition between spirituality and activism. She argues that, paradoxically, “the ascetic practitioner participates in the society from which he withdraws by withdrawing from it.” Her interpretation reconnects Walden to Thoreau’s political writings, with special emphasis on economic problems like exploitation and the unequal distribution of resources.
“Thoreau’s asceticism,” she insists, “was also political, by which I mean it was aimed not only at his individual formation but also at the radical transformation of the world in which he lived, specifically of emerging industrial capitalism.” This is true.
All Tomorrow’s Warnings
In responding mainly to accusations that Thoreau was not political, however, Thoreau’s Religion seems to assume that political participation itself—activism, resistance, “the radical transformation of the world”—is sure to be on the side of justice. What guarantees this alignment?
This question brings me back to The Mars Room. Graciously, Kushner treats even the awkward, ill-fated Gordon with sensitivity. In some of the novel’s most beautiful scenes, Gordon walks through the damaged California landscape, a saunterer like Thoreau, doing nothing more or less than paying attention to the world. One day he finds a big paper-wasp’s nest and carries it home, appointing himself the keeper of “this grand and mysterious, half-deflated, torn-open thing.” The phrases could also describe Gordon’s heart—half-deflated, torn open—or Thoreau himself, who went to Walden grieving his dear brother’s death. John Thoreau had passed away in Henry’s arms.
A word for one kind of heightened attention is vigilance. It might find expression in a vigil, a careful tending to the vulnerable or the lost. But vigilance can also devolve into the violence of the vigilante. It happens to Gordon: humiliated and enraged, he turns militant in the lonesome hills, and by the novel’s end he has fulfilled his old friend Alex’s cruel, half-joking prophecy. The student who loved Thoreau becomes an ecoterrorist.
Today in the United States, there is militant activism on the right as well as on the left, and Thoreau has his admirers (and haters) on both sides. You can find references to his work in Kaczynski’s writings; you can hear him reclaimed as a pioneer of the “libertarian tradition” in podcasts. Of course, reactionary appropriations of Thoreau’s work betray its spirit, as Balthrop-Lewis understands it. I agree with her reading, though I am not sure it will persuade Thoreau’s harshest critics on the left.
The ethos of delight in true goods made Thoreau a radical. It also made him a scold. “Thoreau does sometimes come off as dour,” Balthrop-Lewis acknowledges. But then she also has eyes for his humor and his weirdness and his beauty, page by page. For readers who can’t stand Thoreau’s style, no moral exoneration, however well argued, is going to redeem him. Thoreau surely believed that his writing and his faith were of a piece, and Thoreau’s Religion shows how deliberately he sought to unify them, but it is as an artist, not a moralist, that he wins and loses readers’ love.
The real political objection to Walden, as I see it, is less Thoreau’s quietism or complacency than his primary commitment to his self-emancipation. Like today’s white reactionaries, he counted himself among the victims of political and social oppression, in spite of his relative social advantages. They take up the ambition of a white man’s liberation without tying it, as he did, to anti-imperialist and antiracist missions. Their selective use of Thoreau’s writing is not his fault, but it is some part of his legacy.
The real ethical objection, meanwhile, is not that Thoreau absolved himself from “sociality” itself, or even that he refused to acknowledge his dependency on others. The more difficult problem is that he was not the kind of person anyone else could depend on, steadily, day by day. For some of us, economic and ethical compromises, not to mention aesthetic ones, feel most unavoidable when we are taking care of people who cannot take care of themselves. I may have misgivings and regrets about my own compromises, but those sentiments make it even harder to stomach the implicit condemnations that I feel, now and then, in reading Walden.
What keeps me attached, in the end, is the way Thoreau thinks and writes, the resonance and interest of his strange, restless, beautiful prose. I don’t want to convert to Thoreau’s religion, but I do want to read his book again and again.
This article was commissioned by Matthew Engelke.
- Kushner herself went to Berkeley, and so did I. On California’s prison-building enterprise, see Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California (University of California Press, 2007), as well as Kushner’s profile of Gilmore in the New York Times Magazine. ↩