Thoreau the Misanthrope?

Henry David Thoreau, 1861

My dear Henry, a frog was made to live in a swamp, but a man was not made to live in a swamp.

-Ralph Waldo Emerson

I vacillate on Thoreau. I consider myself fairly well read when it comes to the writers of Concord…though certainly no expert. I love Walden. In my younger days, more times than I can count, I walked the same woods he walked and was inspired by his love of simplicity and nature. I used to swim in Walden frequently and always enjoyed the quiet corner of the pond where his tiny dwelling once stood. “I went into the woods because I wished to live deliberately,” he wrote of his two year stint at Walden. “I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear…I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life.” How can you not admire passion like that?

Lately, however, I have been reading an interesting compilation of excerpts from his journals entitled Men of Concord. The collection highlights those journal entries in which Thoreau wrote specifically about his fellow townsfolk. Bits and pieces describing the inhabitants of Concord, their habits, their lives. Lots of fascinating period detail. But what struck me most about Thoreau’s observations is his judgmental tone of superiority. As a younger man, poring over Walden, I believe I idealized Thoreau. Now I begin to wonder if he was, in fact, a misanthrope.

I’m certainly not the first person to ponder this matter. Journalist Alex Beam wrote an interesting article about Thoreau in the New York Times saying, “Over the years I have called him a misanthrope, a slob, a loser, ‘a world-class mooch,’ and a ‘tree-hugging pyromaniac.'” Beam points out that Walt Whitman, upon first meeting Thoreau, called him, “a very aggravated case of superciliousness.” Brilliant.

Other contemporaries noted this too. Perhaps no one more than Ralph Waldo Emerson, one of Thoreau’s dearest friends and admirers, who wrote a widely published eulogy of sorts after Thoreau’s death. Oddly enough, the paper is hardly flattering. In it, Emerson writes frankly of Thoreau’s judgmental attitude, what I might call misanthropy.

Emerson called Thoreau, “a searching judge of men. At first glance he measured his companion, and, though insensible to some fine traits of culture, could very well report his weight and calibre….Nothing seemed concealed from such terrible eyes….His virtues, of course, sometimes ran into extremes…Such dangerous frankness was in his dealing that his admirers called him ‘that terrible Thoreau,’ as if he spoke when silent, and was still present when he had departed. I think the severity of his ideal interfered to deprive him of a healthy sufficiency of human society.” I think this is a polite way of saying that Thoreau was rude, had an air of superiority and because of it, he had few friends. Emerson also mentioned that a woman once said of Thoreau, “I love Henry…but I cannot like him.”

The prevailing theme of Thoreau’s journal entries, as presented in Men of Concord, is Thoreau’s ability to find nobility, beauty, even poetry in the lives of simple, virtuous men. For example, after observing a hard-working man driving a team of oxen, Thoreau wrote of his admiration for, “Honest, peaceful industry, conserving the world, which all men respect, which society has consecrated.” This is the overall tone of his journal–positive, praising men whom he judged to be honest and of value to the world. Those of the “sacred band doing the needful but irksome drudgery.”

That’s fine, I suppose. But, I can’t help but fixate on his condemnations of those he deemed to be worthless. As Emerson pointed out, Thoreau seemed to possess, or at least believed that he possessed, an ability to measure men instantly. A swift judgment through “terrible” eyes. I would never presume to look at a man and immediately know his value, or lack of value, to the world. What made Thoreau so sure in his judgments?

His worst criticisms were leveled towards upper-class men who moved in high society and called themselves gentlemen. “Men are very generally spoiled by being so civil and well-disposed,” Thoreau wrote. “You can have no profitable conversation with them, they are so conciliatory, determined to agree with you…Your gentlemen, they are all alike…I am never electrified by my gentleman; he is not an electric eel, but of the common kind that slip through your hands…and leave them covered with slime.”

His opinions of women were not much better. Writing of Emerson’s aunt, Miss Mary Emerson, Thoreau states that she is unique among those of her sex. “…She can entertain a large thought with hospitality, and is not prevented by any intellectuality in it, as women commonly are. In short, she is a genius, as woman seldom is, reminding you less often of her sex than any woman I know…I never talked with any other woman who I thought accompanied me so far in describing a poetic experience.”

The Irish immigrants of Concord, their numbers increasing by the minute during the 1850s, are described with acute disdain by Thoreau. But, this is hardly unique during the period. Anti-Irish sentiment (as much as it bothers me given my heritage) was rife in antebellum New England. Thoreau described an Irishman who helped him do some surveying as, “A gray-headed boy, good for nothing but to eat his dinner. These Irishmen have no heads. Let me inquire strictly into a man’s descent, and if his remotest ancestors were Erse, let me not have him to help me survey.”

I could go on with these negative observations. There are many. My point being that Thoreau seemed to believe that he possessed the true compass as to what was good and noble as he looked at other men, coldly assessing their worth and disturbingly certain as to his judgment. “Why not see men standing in the sun and casting a shadow even as trees…I will try to enjoy them as animals at least. They are perhaps better animals than men.”

It would be unjust if I did not mention that several scholars vehemently refute this image of Thoreau as a misanthrope. Sandra Harbert Petrulionis, in her new book, Thoreau in His Own Time, writes, “…Accounts typically emphasize Thoreau the misanthrope, the hermit, the non-conformist–extremes that elide his membership in the community of Concord.” She criticizes Emerson for flippantly immortalizing the term, “that terrible Thoreau.” Instead of focusing on “incidents of understandable local ire” against Thoreau, Petrulionis argues we should focus on the fact that “Thoreau engaged in a lifelong habit of serving and educating his community: as lyceum organizer and lecturer, as displayer of natural history collections, as locator of the annual town hall Christmas tree–activities that display his ‘appreciative awareness of community esprit’…”

This is an important point. Thoreau valued his community tremendously. And he valued education and the dissemination of truth and knowledge. So he never really gave up on his fellow man.

But I, for one, will always have a greater respect for Emerson. A man who worked within the difficult confines of the real world and did not retreat to a “swamp.” As it turns out, Thoreau had the longer lasting and more powerful influence. His iconoclastic ideals, his revolutionary views on civil disobedience influenced some of the greatest men of the 20th century. And that is a remarkable thing. But which is better, really? To fire the imaginations of men and women with inspiration during your own life, influencing and elevating those around you, as Emerson did, or to retreat to the woods and influence men and women a century after your death, doing comparatively little for those of your own generation, as Thoreau did?

I’m not sure I know the answer to that question. But I do get the sense I would not have liked Thoreau had I met him. And he certainly would not have liked me. After all, I have “Erse” blood in me.

[Sources: Henry David Thoreau, Men of Concord, ed. Francis H. Allen, (1936); Alex Beam, “Why Thoreau Makes Sense,” New York Times, July 14, 2008; Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Thoreau,” Atlantic Monthly, August 1862; Sandra Harbert Petrulionis, Thoreau in His Own Time, (2012)]

About Patrick Browne

I am a PhD candidate in History, former historical society and museum director of roughly 20 years, an author, sometimes Civil War reenactor. I specialize in early American History, particularly the Civil War era. View all posts by Patrick Browne

4 responses to “Thoreau the Misanthrope?

  • Lisa

    I really enjoyed this Patrick! I also loved “Walden” reading it in my 20’s. I day dreamed about moving to Vermont (ha ha I know) living in the woods and stepping outside society.

    I’m afraid I understand Thoreau and his misanthrope ways. I think during the same time, in my 20’s I had similar thoughts about people, the world.

    It really is a question of what we find noble. What are our values? The more I’ve grounded myself in faith and love the more understanding of others I’ve become and less harsh and judgemental.

    Fascinating look at the world views of Thoreau and Emerson and how they lived them out. I think I would have liked Emerson better too. Thanks for sharing. ~Lisa

    • Patrick Browne

      Thanks, Lisa. I am sure that Thoreau would admire the self-reliant way in which you live. Sounds like you’ve managed to strike the perfect balance between the philosophies of Emerson and Thoreau. 🙂

  • Richard

    In all honesty, Thoreau’s opinions of the Irish and women are not all that different from the opinions of most white New Englanders at the time…heck , even most women believed that they were inferior to men! So HDT was not that different in his opinions.

    • Patrick Browne

      Richard, thanks for the comment. I certainly agree that Thoreau’s views were fairly typical for the era. But that doesn’t make them any more respectable to me. He really talks about Irish like they were animals. And I’m not sure most women believed they were inferior. Perhaps most accepted their established roles.

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