Reading, Writing, And History

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A Man Withdrawn

We like to make thumbnail sketches of our famous men, and to Henry David Thoreau we have given one of the most compact of the lot. We see him as the complete lone wolf, the man who tried to reform the world by divorcing himself from it and reforming himself. Declaring that a free man could not without disgrace associate himself with a government that would make war on Mexico in the interest of the slavocracy, he went to jail rather than pay taxes; then he built a hut by Waiden Pond and lived there in complete isolation, creating his own world when the world other men had created seemed unsatisfactory.

This sketch has the merit of brevity, and it is drawn from life; after all, Thoreau himself provided the outlines. But it is incomplete, for Thoreau kept changing, and he refused to stop thinking after his sabbatical in the lonely cabin; and Leo Stoller tries to bring him into better focus in his perceptive essay, After Walden .

Thoreau’s divorce from the world, Mr. Stoller points out, was only temporary. He lived for fifteen years after the Waiden experiment, and he developed new ideas. Secession from human society, obviously, came to seem an inadequate answer, and the government which he had disowned finally won his ardent support when at last it got to the point of making war on disunion and slavery. Furthermore, his ideas on economic man underwent considerable expansion.

To become a subsistence farmer (generations before the term was invented) was simple enough, in the 1840’s. Beyond Waiden Pond there was an open continent, and it was easy to argue that a man could leave society if he chose and strike out for himself. Nevertheless, industrial capitalism and the infinitely complex institutions that go with it were then coming into being, and it was finally necessary to accept it rather than to run away from it. The Waiden experiment might help a man get his personal life in order, but it was not a permanent answer. Thoreau returned to the world, supporting himself as the rest of us must do— that is, he got a job: which, in itself, raised problems. He objected bitterly to the way New England was destroying its forests, his beloved wilderness areas; yet his own work as a surveyor was contributing to the process.

After Waiden: Thoreau’s Changing Views on Economic Man , by Leo Stoller. The Stanford University Press. 163 pp. $4.

His goal remained the same: man should strive for the simple life, “the object of life is something else than acquiring property,” and salvation continues to lie within. But he seems to have become less certain about the means by which the goal could be reached. He came to see (as Mr. Stoller puts it) that “the preindustrial economy itself was no guarantee of a true simplicity,” but to find a place for simplicity amidst a growing industrialism began to look very difficult. The Waiden experiment had failed; there was no economic foundation for Thoreau’s doctrine.

“Thoreau could not longer advise mankind to resign from the industrial and agricultural revolutions and head for the woods,” says Mr. Stoller. “Neither, however, could he reconcile his individualism with any form of socialism. He was left with a critique of industrial and commercial civilization but with no associated program of action.”

Individualism, then, was not, by itself, quite enough. In the beginning Thoreau’s assumption was that men lived after all pretty much as they chose to live, and that if they did not take proper advantage of their own freedom of choice it was their own fault. But he could see that it was necessary to live in America as it was; perhaps, therefore, even the best individualist had to give some thought to ways in which the existing society could be improved. If self-culture was to be attained it would have to be won within industrial society and by means of it.

Obviously, this line of thought leads one to the point where sooner or later he must embrace organized political action, and this point Thoreau never quite managed to reach. He was coming to see that “the success of the single man in his private life was dependent on the success of the community of men in their social life,” but his social thought was transitional. He never worked his way through to a final solution; and yet, as Mr. Stoller aptly remarks, “perhaps we are mistaken in asking completion and should rather be satisfied with growth.”

Reformed’s Role

Thoreau’s growth was in the grand tradition. He shared to the full in the New England Puritan heritage, which compels men to a constant re-examination of the responsibility which the righteous man owes to society. From the earliest beginnings around Massachusetts Bay, there has always been the question: When society follows a course which you consider morally wrong, do you then withdraw from society (thus keeping your own principles intact), or do you get into the thick of things and try to shape society into a better form? John Winthrop had to grapple with the problem two centuries ahead of Thoreau, and his course is examined in Edmund S. Morgan’s thoughtful book, The Puritan Dilemma .