Henry David Thoreau’s 200th birthday has come and gone, but having read all the homages, it’s clear that our critiques of his hypocrisy haven’t gone far enough by half.
Notwithstanding Thoreau’s homage to simplicity in Walden—notwithstanding the one night he spent in jail, and his statement of conscience in Resistance to Civil Government—we need to admit that Thoreau is important to us because his focus on personal experience helps us evade the throat-clenching outrage and the crippling grief we really should feel in the face of the wholesale destruction of nature and the ancient cultures that rely on it.
I’m not saying Thoreau is blind to the violence and inhumanity of industrial culture. He diagnoses the heart-hardening labor of men who become tools of their tools—he documents the tragedy of disappearing ecosystems—but his writing is a little too quick to swerve away from lived experiences that haunted his time and continue to haunt our national history: the desperation the Natives and African slaves felt in the face of the gun barrels of extinction or the shackles and whips of subjugation.
These experiences are still rippling out today, in neighborhoods and reservations reeling from drugs and crime, murder and mass incarceration. As much as Thoreau scolds America for its contradictions, he doesn’t show us how to work alongside our neighbors, to repair the damage in this legacy. He instead shows us how to dodge into nature, to find a fount of perpetual inspiration there. When inspiration can’t carry him any further above his culture’s inhumanities, he dodges his emotions altogether, and coolly describes the world’s losses as inevitable.
For the people who were suffering the most difficult emotions human beings can feel—watching in horror as their worlds were systematically destroyed—he offers this simple anecdote:
When an acorn and a chestnut fall side by side, the one does not remain inert to make way for the other, but both obey their own laws, and spring and grow and flourish as best they can, till one, perchance, overshadows and destroys the other. If a plant cannot live according to its nature, it dies; and so a man.
So, apparently, with races, with civilizations.
To my mind, these are the most important two sentences in Thoreau’s published work. This simple parable allows him—and his readers—to soothe the guilt that comes from thriving in a murderous industrial culture. Whatever panic or rage we might feel for the people and environments our culture kills off—whatever labors we might feel bound to undertake, to mitigate or repair the damage our culture causes—we can just look at the seedlings, and console ourselves that extinction is simply a natural consequence of competition.
In Thoreau’s time, it was still possible to turn to the West and the frontier, where the ancient cultures were still alive and vibrant, but the continent is settled now. The circle is closed. We know we are bound to our environment and to the world’s ancient cultures by ties of shared humanity. The Natives and descendants of African slaves are still with us. Every day, we learn more about how dependent we are on the earth’s complex systems, how closely our global economy ties us together.
Right now, at this moment, while we’re talking about Thoreau, America’s indigenous people, Africans’ descendants, the earth itself are being systematically attacked. None of our “progress” has stopped—or justified—our culture’s cruelties. But these ongoing sufferings and injustices shame Thoreau—and us—for failing to rise to the occasion and resist the destruction.
To find that courage, we have to look beyond Thoreau. He doesn’t show us how to keep an ancient life alive in these challenging modern times—he only shows us how to resign ourselves to our place in the given industrial world, murderous though that world be. Surely time in nature introduces us to that ancient life. But if our connection to nature is ever going to teach us to protect the world from the saws and drilling rigs, we need to leave Thoreau in the woods and return to society, ourselves, to find the healers who can forgive us the excesses of our individualism, and the organizers, lawyers, and activists who can lead campaigns against the corporations that carry out the destruction and the consumers who enable it.
It isn’t a simple thing, to glide through our modern world, powerful and elegant as the cars in the advertisements. You have to know how to contain your nausea when you swerve around the carcasses of road-killed possums and raccoons. You have to quell your panic when more and more powerful wildfires or storms displace your friends and family. You have to choke down your outrage when the oil spills poison the Gulf of Mexico, or the fracking wastewater poisons your drinking water. You have to suppress your despair at the news that is always pouring out of communities gutted by offshoring and painkiller addiction, or from reservations and neighborhoods blighted by drugs and crime and mass incarceration.
At every turn, for every mile, our lives depend on a thousand institutionalized inhumanities—but we can only allow ourselves to feel grief and outrage in small doses. We have to contain them, or we start to go crazy. The names of vanquished tribes are everywhere—we speak them as ritual touchstones, to ward off our fear of following in their footsteps. We know all too well what happens to anyone who can’t keep up—anyone who opposes culture’s “progress.”
Our fears of being shoved aside can never be permanently quelled. They have to be settled repeatedly, ritually—and I think it’s time we admit that Thoreau’s practical legacy has always been to help people live lives of modern resignation.
Thoreau’s fundamental stance is innocence. “I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life,” he says, “to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world.”
But Thoreau’s writing is rather a testament to optimism and innocence than meanness. Search through his books to see how he lives with outrage or injustice or despair—all feelings that are inextricable from the genuine [modern] life he says he wants to live—and you’ll have to admit the insufficiency of such sophistries as his claim that “it is hard to have a Southern overseer; it is worse to have a Northern one; but worst of all when you are the slave-driver of yourself.”
Compare this with James Baldwin’s statement, that “to be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time” and you can see Thoreau evading the hard realities of America.
Thoreau tells us to look for bedrock, so let’s follow him all the way down. Even if he himself panics at the sound of spirits keening under the surface—even if he himself bolts back up to the sunlight, let’s not be deceived by false fears, but follow our consciences all the way into the genuine depths he points to.
For there are in fact writers who can show us that the hard experiences he avoided are not fatal after all. There are traditions in which other Americans have learned to keep an elemental humanity alive in spite of the damages Thoreau refused to tally.
First, we need to see Thoreau in context, and to understand that the real reason we go to his work has less to do with his genius than with his timing. He was part of the first generation to come of age in the new world of modern industrialism. In the 1840s, it was just becoming clear that America’s future would be utterly different from anything anyone had ever experienced.
The nation of hearty, self-reliant frontier farmers who’d met their needs with homespun linen and handcrafted tools—taking crops from their fields and medicines and dyes from their woods, as people had done since time immemorial—was being administered by a government that exterminated indigenous people as official policy, while on stolen land, slaves were kept in a state of constant terror to send cotton to the mills that made wage slaves of Northern workers in turn.
Soon, mass production in factories and the railroads’ distribution networks was reducing the prices of so many necessities that it cost too much to live an ancient self-reliant life from the land, and the railroads and land speculators made sure that every parcel of land required its regular payments. Now everyone needed to wrest money out of the soil. By 1844 (a year before Thoreau went to Walden), we’re told it was impossible to go far enough into the woods to escape from the train whistles that marked the triumph of the industrial era.
The pristine natural world was disappearing, but Americans were asked to believe that future splendors would justify the losses. If they could not believe it, they still had to suppress the terrifying fear that their culture was only raising savagery to new heights of mechanized efficiency.
Thoreau himself did not oppose this future. In fact, he cultivated his love of nature while working as a surveyor, tramping through the woods to mark off plots for development or timbering. Nor did his love of nature inspire him to leave his family and homeland, to go west and live in the wilderness, to stay ahead of the axes, like Natty Bummpo or Daniel Boone. He remained in Concord and watched the modern world transform his landscape. He celebrated the idea of wildness even as he tallied the numerous species that had been driven to local extinction.
To evade his hard feelings—to survive in a culture that tried to build liberty upon slavery—he claimed contradiction as his watchword. He went to Walden to show that it was still possible to live directly from nature, but he famously omitted the fact that he himself didn’t own the land. He asserted his independence by living in a tiny cabin, cultivating beans that could not have supported a wife or children—nor elderly parents, nor unmarried aunts, nor an institutionalized, “deficient” younger brother—all the people Emerson himself supported with his lectures and books—and all this with money left over to buy a woodlot on Walden pond.
Instead of working to make enough money to buy his own woodlot—where bright young men could make their experiments in turn—Thoreau played the role of gadfly, housekeeper, tutor. He berated his prosperous countrymen for their hypocrisies, exhorting them to see the cost of their progress. He urged them to atone for their conveniences—not by pulling up railroad tracks or protecting treaty rights or organizing mill workers, but by going into nature to know the spirits they’d vanquished.
Thoreau is rumored to have worked with the Underground Railroad, but he was no John Brown. His Harvard-bred poetry never raised his protest above the level of a sermon, a chiding, a rearguard action to defend his capitulation. He largely avoided the fundamental question of his times: whether the New World could be forced to allow the ancient worlds a place in its future. When the question was put, he hid in contradictions. He encourages us to know our innermost natures, but he avoids the soul-liquefying madness and the blinding grief that come from watching your livelihood crushed by an army or overseer or by a bank or by the price of wheat or corn on a distant exchange. Instead of getting to know his race’s “hard, isolate, stoic, and murderous” soul so intimately that he learns how to master and restrain it, he dodges by eating a woodchuck that has been savaging his garden.
With blinding optimism, he declares that the sun is a morning star, and that the world is still only beginning. He tricks himself—and us—by locating his true fulfillment in the future, where his personal value waits to be confirmed. He sees himself beyond the present, in a sacred project of self-reliance that will never be finished. He challenges us to follow him into this future, to find our own American selves on these same terms.
You can see the swerve, the evasion: grief is not allowed to exist—it must be turned into poetry, a future poetry that proves the spiritual laws might prove our Americanness one day.
This swerve away from grief was not Thoreau’s alone. He learned from the Great Evader himself, Ralph Waldo Emerson, who had been formed by grief long before he met Thoreau. Emerson had lost his father at eight, then two of his brothers in his early 30s. He’d lost his first wife, 19-year old Ellen Tucker, to tuberculosis only 18 months into their marriage.
Emerson had responded to Ellen’s death by finding that her soul and his love for her pervaded all of nature as a benign divinity—but his grief-religion was essentially private. His essential essay, “Self Reliance,” specifically demands we abandon social bonds, or any sense of communal justice, if we intend to follow him. “Why should I not tell the abolitionist,” he demands,
“Go love thy infant; love thy wood-chopper: be good-natured and modest: have that grace; and never varnish your hard, uncharitable ambition with this incredible tenderness for black folk a thousand miles off. Thy love afar is spite at home.” Rough and graceless would be such greeting, but truth is handsomer than the affectation of love. Your goodness must have some edge to it,—else it is none. . . . I shun father and mother and wife and brother, when my genius calls me . . . do not tell me . . . of my obligation to put all poor men in good situations. Are they my poor?
In the shadow of Emerson’s ostentatious spite-to-the-emotions and spite-to-community—in the shadow of Emerson’s counter-intuitive gratitude-to-the-spirit—how could Thoreau keen out a lamentation for persecuted cultures that weren’t even his own? How could he indulge his grief, when a show of his feelings would insult his mentor, and others who’d borne much worse?
When Emerson’s first son and namesake Waldo died at five of scarlet fever, Emerson doubled down on this faith in evasion. In “Experience,” he treated this death too as confirmation of the proposition that the heart is too full in spirit to ever be diminished. In a classic statement of American self-reliance, he cheerily insists that his son’s death has actually given birth to him—in fact it’s given him the world.
By this light, Thoreau’s true legacy was to help formulate the pernicious middle-class philosophy that answers every disaster by whispering stridently, soothingly: stay positive. Be grateful for the beautiful world that still contains you. Cut yourself free from the grieving communal soul. Look out for your self and your own spirit. The world will protect you. If it does not, there’s no resisting your own extinction anyway.
As sunny as this self-congratulatory gospel is, we have to admit that the Sierra Club—and the environmentalists who campaign beneath his slogan that “in wildness is the preservation of the world”— have barely slowed the pace of our culture’s destructions. I can’t fault Thoreau for this, but I don’t think it’s unfair to say that our ineffectiveness is partly rooted in Thoreau’s skill of aversion. He leads us out of society, to discover the New Worlds in our own hearts, but he fails to take the next step, to integrate those experiences back into society, to protect our culture from inhumanity.
To put that another way: if young Americans pull themselves out of the social fabric and go into nature to evade the darkness of their American souls, who will make sure that they also learn to live with the Old World corruptions youth is eternally susceptible to? Who will make sure that they aren’t seduced by an individualism that’s good for them in the short term, but ultimately bad for their people, their culture, their environment?
Who will protect them from the seductive promise that they themselves can escape from the history of their people’s sufferings—as long as they do so only as individuals? Who will instruct them in organizing the protests and legal challenges and boycotts that dismantle the murderous machine?
This knowledge is not remote to us. It is not an undiscovered frontier. Less than 50 years after Thoreau published Walden, Joseph Conrad told the story of a young man who goes into nature full of noble ideals—and without any cultural protections. Africa’s jungles unleash the savagery that always resided in Kurtz’s dark heart, and he allows himself to act like a brutal god, to his own horror and to the horror of all but the station agents who envy his production of ivory.
Will Thoreau show men like Kurtz how to restrain the primal urges within their freedom? And who will hand down Marlow’s discipline—discipline of work and also of self-control—that lets him withstand the temptation of power, and “withdraw his hesitating foot” lest he be corrupted himself? Who will teach him how to bear the trauma of what he has seen—or even more, how to redeem himself when the burden of that experience drags his soul down toward depression or despair, nihilism or contempt. Who will teach him to face his experience, and not to avoid it with false consolations?
The biggest criticism of Emerson and Thoreau’s legacy is simply that the industrial machinery that horrifies us is administered by men and women who read “Self Reliance” and Walden in college, then take jobs where they spend the best part of their days exploiting the earth and its people. They would surely lose these jobs if they tried to build solidarity to slow the rate of exploitation, so they follow Thoreau—they take their vacations, and try to avoid thinking about the price the earth pays for their liberties. They repeat Thoreau’s mantra, that the old earth is merely being pushed aside by the new.
If Emerson and Thoreau are the parents who encourage us to feel free, there are other traditions in which writers and thinkers act as grandparents who have preserved their connections to the living world, who’ve kept it alive all this time—not as a poetic sensibility alone in nature, but as a huge family that sees humans in their relation to mountains and rivers, birds and mammals, fish and insects, who each of whom teaches their own lessons.
These grandparents have remembered their ancestors, and the details of their murders, for 500 years—all the people whose blood made the land “virgin land” when the settlers spilled it. In the echoes of these long memories—in the shadow of all the unredeemed dead, I cannot follow Emerson and Thoreau in believing that a resplendent individual is the best measure of our culture. It can’t be—not until the deaths are atoned for: all of them, down to the present day.
We don’t even need to go into nature to learn the poetic words that will repent these deaths and heal the traumas of industrialism. We already know them. They are used all the time in daily life. Emerson and Thoreau did indeed discover that they themselves had authority to speak these words, when they found their own divine hearts in the woods, on the rivers. The language of virtue has always lived there, but it was never new. Elders have always kept it alive. Every generation enters into it for the first time. To keep it alive, in turn—for justice is always dying—they need to come back from the woods and rejuvenate it in their own communities.
While he hints at this essential language, Thoreau doesn’t admit enough of grief to show us how to use it to heal ancient wounds. But 20th-century literature is full of grandmothers who know how to survive and even to heal the traumas their cultures have borne at the hands of industrial modernism. Louise Erdrich’s novels recount the catastrophic wounds that were inflicted during contention over Native lands. Her characters fight for their dignity with both open resistance and creative subversion—haunting their oppressors as a last resort.
Novelists Toni Morrison and Alice Walker likewise fill the role of the sympathetic grandmothers themselves, to characters who’ve been brutalized by the legacy of slavery, characters who cannot always see all the way to healing or resolution, as their lives play out the legacies of damage.
These stories are not coming-of-age tales so much as they are perennial repetitions of ancient rites, which keep cultures alive and help them adapt. In Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony, a family struggles to heal the traumatized soldier son who can’t stop seeing his uncle’s face on the Japanese soldier he killed. When his healing ceremony is finished, his grandmother only asks, haven’t we heard this story before?
The ceremonies of healing are waiting to be repeated in every culture industrial modernism has touched. There are stories for every trauma. New Zealand writer Alan Duff’s novel, Once Were Warriors, portrays the brutal legacy of alcoholism, violence, and incest in a collapsing Maori community, but fellow New Zealander Keri Hulme’s The Bone People describes the emotions, words, and deeds that break the cycle of alcoholism and abuse.
Hulme and Silko, Erdrich and Morrison, and scores of others and their descendants—plus scores of white writers, who recognize their ancient souls—show us how to return to the knowledge that is waiting for us in the morning of the soul, when the nightmares of slavery, genocide, and our divorce from the earth will have ended.
The work of returning to the earth is not complicated. It only requires an extremely difficult simplicity. Anyone who’s ever suffered an injury at the hands of another knows by heart the words they are waiting to hear to heal their injury. Reconciliations in South Africa and Rwanda have shown us that almost any wrong can be righted if the right words are spoken in the right way, among the right people. It isn’t written in stone that we have to accept destruction and injustice, and hide from oceanic grief in symbolic nature.
For modern Americans, there are stages of healing that have to be gone through, to bring the earth back to life as a part of our culture. Hard words will have to be said, even if they have been buried for hundreds of years. Like Thoreau’s cicada, those words must come out, and sing their grief and make their apologies and be acknowledged, and other voices must speak in answer, to offer forgiveness and close the cycle.
We are not without precedents. Captain Wesley Clark and his men spoke these words at Standing Rock, apologizing for centuries of violence to Native elders who accepted their apology. Clark’s words were not especially poetic—they were merely as deliberate as Nature. New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu spoke similarly necessary words in justifying the removal of Confederate monuments. Bryan Stevenson shows us how to use these words from years spent advocating for death row prisoners through the Equal Justice Institute.
Examples like these are not hard to find—they just haven’t reached a critical mass yet. As a culture, though, we’re still fighting Thoreau’s tendency to turn to nature and swerve away from grief into poetry.
Ages have come and gone, and the injuries still have not been righted. Every day, every suffering heart prays to hear the elemental words that will allow the people to live with other people and the earth as family again. Every morning, the sky softens over the oceans and soil in which Natives were murdered, the oceans and soil in which African captives and slaves lost their lives for American profits, the ditches and public squares where workers’ protests ended in violence and murder. The land itself grieves that its people are at war with the earth and with each other. Every night, the sun goes down and the wounds are not closed by rituals of reconciliation or healing.
No individual fulfillment can be complete on this inherited ground. It has to be cleansed before new seeds of heroes can grow here. There could never have been an America without slavery or genocide and the soul-murdering compromises that make industrial culture possible. But the American ideology continues to draw people onward with its promises of self-reliance and self-fulfillment. Those promises cannot begin to be realized until the wounds from our legacies have been healed.
For this reason, I suggest we realize Thoreau’s promises by exceeding his accomplishments and following his writing all the way down into the bedrock of our own feelings, where we can know and repair our own inherited experiences. Only in this way will we fulfill the American hope of a new country that can heal the sins of the Old World, and engender a self-reliant people who’ll live together in unprecedented justice.