Great Minds, Little Minds

categories: Cocktail Hour


Thorea cellOne of the deepest pleasures of reading literature is being in the presence of great minds.  Please note that I didn’t say socially-responsible minds or consistent minds or minds that are exactly in step with how we are told we should think in the year 2015. I said great.


Conversely, one of the frustrations of the present is what you might call the tyranny of the small and rigid-minded. To be honest I’m not a big reader of magazine articles, though I sometimes write them, and I especially avoid pieces where I know I’ll end up feeling like I’ve been dragged down into the muck. “Largeness is a lifelong matter,” said Wallace Stegner. For some people so is smallness.


All this to say that I tried to avoid the recent New Yorker piece  on Henry David Thoreau, despite the fact that more than a few people pushed  it on me.  With a title that seemed more suited for reality TV than a New Yorker piece–“Pond Scum”–you pretty much knew what you were going to get before reading it: a straight take-down piece that was meant to get hits and attention (look–it worked!).


The piece is consistently unpleasant, dragging out the boring old Thoreau laundry crap that we thought Rebecca Solnit had finally swept away years ago, but it is also, in its own strange way, kind of funny. Funny in that its author seems to be completely unaware that she embodies exactly what she criticizes in Thoreau. This is a writer (Schulz not Thoreau) who seems to love broad statements about what humans are and what they should be, who speaks with an apparently never-wavering sense of certainty, and who is always insisting on consistency in the way of the humorless. She tells us that Walden is “an unnavigable thicket of contradiction and caprice,” while at the same time seeming to believe that what Thoreau intended in his great book was a kind of Miss Manners’-style outline of how he thought we should really live. For those of us who keep going back to Walden, not as high school kids but as adults looking for both great lit and alternative ways to live in this crapped-out society, the  books is a thicket,  and that is part of the fun. It is not a set of rules, but a series of fantastic sentences (no mention of HDT’s  writing in this piece except a paragraph on how–surprise, surprise–he was good  at describing nature) that gnarl and twist, varying from the blunt to the circumlocutious, from the earnest to the briskly dismissive. Kathryn Schulz, we are told in her bio, is a New Yorker staff writer but she seems to miss the fact that what Thoreau mainly was was a writer. That he went to Walden to hang out in nature, sure, but also to get his work done, that is to find the time and space to create. Joseph Wood Krutch’s brilliant biography of Thoreau reminds us that going to Walden was both a symbol (not just of retreat but of commitment) and a practical solution to his writerly problems. (Unlike his critics, he really didn’t give a shit just how far or close he was to town.)

But back to humor. I mentioned the New Yorker article is funny. Particularly amusing is in the way Ms. Schultz holds up what she imagines to be Thoreau’s character to her own contemporary moral checklist to show us all his failings. Thoreau jokes about his edible religion and how little food he can get by on. Our writer’s response? “No slouch at public shaming, Thoreau did his part to sustain the irrational equation,so robust in America, between eating habits and moral worth.” Really?  I could write a funny line but I think I’ll just suggest you re-read the sentence and let it incriminate itself.

There’s lots more to say here but here’s the biggest thing: Ms. Schultz just doesn’t get the joke. She tells us that “Thoreau regarded humor as he regarded salt,and did without.” She then quotes as an example of his humorlessness a famous passage about how Thoreau decides against having a doormat because it is “best to avoid the beginnings of evil.” The only problem is  that Thoreau was obviously joking in those lines. He knew it was a doormat he  was talking about. In fact, hyperbole is is a favorite technique of his and can be demonstrated in another famous line: “When sometimes I am reminded that the mechanics and shopkeepers stay in their shops not only all the forenoon, but all the afternoon too, sitting with crossed legs, so many of them—as if the legs were made to sit upon, and not to stand or walk upon—I think that they deserve some credit for not having all committed suicide long ago.” A literal mind respond to that sentence by saying: Thoreau is bad. A looser, happier mind would say: Thoreau is kind of funny.  Hyperbole and word-choice were two of his chief writerly tools, two reasons we remember him.  He spoke loudly, he told us, because most people are hard of hearing.  He admitted that if he repented anything it was “his own goodness.”

But enough. I knew I’d get worked up if I actually sat down and read the article and sure enough I did. It’s time to get out of here and go for a walk.  I get that the writer of this article might not be as full of surety and humorlessness as she appears; maybe she just wanted to get some attention and so threw some rocks in the pond to see the ripples. No doubt this will be the most attention she will ever get, at least until she tries to take down her next great mind.  The good news is that her work will soon be forgotten while Thoreau’s will be read as long as there are books.






  1. Paul Spitzer writes:

    thanks for dealing with this lamentable effort, not worth reading. Punk attitudes are creeping into The New Yorker; the quality of some writing is really in decline. Fortunately, the cartoons are holding up well.

    Paul Spitzer

  2. Paul writes:

    Thank you for speaking agains Schulz’s piece of “take-down porn.” Strange to find such an anti-intellectual piece as “Pond Scum” in what was once known as a smart magazine. I’d have much preferred what somebody with insight such as Adam Gopnik (another New Yorker writer) would have to say about Thoreau and Walden instead of some glib flavor-of-the-month writer. Interesting how the piece has prompted a lot of “I had to read that in junior high and hated it,” kinds of comments. As if people are proud of such a standard for judging. I should have stopped reading after her first couple of paragraphs (about Cape Cod, not Walden) in which she fails to realize Thoreau was simply saying that it’s harder to feel sorry for a number of anonymous victims of a disaster, than for a person who dies who you personally know. And such a tin ear for the humor and irony, as you note. Really, its a shame to inflict such a piece on those who might trust they were getting something thoughtful from the New Yorker.

  3. Dan McCarthy writes:

    What a sad undertaking that humorless New Yorker article is.

  4. Gerald writes:

    Approach Walden and War and Peace the same way: once a year, start the book and read for an hour. If you can put it down, do so. Try again next year.

    One year you will be unable to put the book down. You will read it like swimming underwater through the ocean of yourself.

    And you will never see the world the same as before.

  5. malcolm bates writes:

    Writer’s in glass offices should not thoreau stones at Walden Pond! Roorbach by a pin, TKO, game set match! Spleen nicely vented. Enjoy the walk!

  6. Elizabeth Hilts writes:

    I’m glad it made you mad. Because you wrote this and reminded me of how good Thoreau is and how important it is to actually read his words.

  7. Bill Lundgren writes:

    nice rant Dave. I read the very beginning of the piece, intuited where it was headed and moved on.

    Fuck these nattering nabobs who try to take down our heroes!