by Katie Poore
American writer Rebecca Solnit laments that few writers have had quite as much scrutiny directed toward their laundry habits as Transcendentalist writer Henry David Thoreau, best known for his 1854 memoir Walden. “Only Henry David Thoreau,” she claims in Orion Magazine’s article “Mysteries of Thoreau, Unsolved,” “has been tried in the popular imagination and found wanting for his cleaning arrangements.”
It is ostensibly a non-sequitur of sorts, to seek of such a prominent and canonical literary figure an account of laundry done and not done, of clothing cleaned by Thoreau or, as so many of Solnit’s Facebook friends viciously claim, by “‘his sister every week who came to take his dirty laundry.’” How could shirts washed, and by which hands, become such a point of interest for critics of Thoreau?
The answers are probably manifold, but such social media behavior—by which I mean the vilification of someone based off the mundane details of their quotidian behavior—is a practice typically reserved for the denunciation of those who both enrage and perplex us, who seem to have stepped past boundaries we have established and lead us into uncharted (and often contentious) ideological, rhetorical, or political territory.
This is a ubiquitous phenomenon throughout Walden and Thoreau’s other writings. His work is replete with nothing if not bold claims: the oft-cited declaration that the “mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation,” the fervently articulated desire to “live deep and suck out all the marrow of life,” the facetious statement, “As if you could kill time without injuring eternity.”
Thoreau has become just the sort of punchy, mythic emblem of American freedom, reclusive self-reliance, intellectual liberation, natural reverence, and social rebelliousness that renders someone at once iconic and insufferable, a bold preacher of virtues whom we seek to topple, and delegitimize, with questions as trite as how one might do one’s laundry. His most popular quotes are tweet-length exhortations on living better lives and broadly general claims to the universal truth of things. He is particularly vulnerable to accusations of disengagement by those who know little beyond Walden, an account of his time spent seemingly withdrawn from society (although it is, curiously, on this same ground where accusations of laundry-based moral duplicity find their most stable footing).
But Thoreau has been dealt an unfair hand, an exiling by some contemporary readers into the provinces of irredeemable hypocrisy and unforgivably, off-puttingly broad strokes that commits the very sin of over-generalization it seeks to excoriate. Walden, if at times abstract, remains nuanced in its forays into what it may mean to live life well and with truth and dignity, and the ways in which the natural world remains an integral part of such endeavors.
In seeking to answer questions like these, Thoreau is inevitably guilty of hypocrisy and occasional overstatement. But he is also helplessly curious, and thinking seriously about how we may make a better world and be better people within it. Walden is an attempt to excavate what lives at the center of us, to help us locate within the cacophony of voices our voice that speaks faithfully to what it is to be the best version of ourselves. His is a philosophy of self-understanding wedded inextricably with the possibility of a better, freer, and perhaps kinder world.
Thoreau sets about articulating this philosophy with unpretentious earnestness and an underappreciated humor. In his chapter “Sounds,” he professes a comically banal appreciation for chickens, saying, “No wonder that man added this bird to his tame stock,—to say nothing of the eggs and drumsticks.” It is a mundane sentiment, a digression into culinary preferences that renders Thoreau remarkably human (and, perhaps, hungry). These piercing moments of charm continually root Walden in that particular human capacity to find joy in the inane expressions of that which we love—even if what we love runs the gamut from the heaven “under our feet” and “over our heads” to a well-cooked drumstick.
Thoreau, then, belies a capacity for truth-seeking humble in its approach, aware of its occasional loftiness but counteracting this loftiness with humor and modesty. He doesn’t present truth as a monolithic framework for life, to which we must tailor our desires and lifestyles, but as something particular to the individual. The means through which he suggests we find our truths (largely through solitude, economic independence, and communing with nature) are more general, but Thoreau only seeks to suggest routes we might take to greater self-knowledge that, ultimately, open up the world and those within it to greater connection.
This, then, might be the beauty we so often miss in Thoreau’s work, and it might be the reason late American poet (and winner of the 2019 Henry David Thoreau Prize for Nature Writing) Mary Oliver said that transcendentalism is “hardly a proper philosophy.” Transcendentalism, especially within Walden, is nothing if not rebelliously capacious, a container of as many philosophies as there are human beings—it asks us to believe our own truths, to seek awareness and awakeness to a beautiful and complex world, and to, in diving more deeply within ourselves, use this newfound self-knowledge to connect, care, and remain vulnerable, open, and sensitive to a life and world that needs those who might see with clearer eyes and hopeful hearts.
Thoreau walks a remarkable line, and he balances individualism and care for society with a grace too frequently ignored or muted by accusations of self-absorption, privilege, or a disdain for laundry. His isn’t a proper philosophy, because it has the humility to leave our lives for our taking and demands only that we, in taking the time to know ourselves, come to a greater connection with our world. It is why the same man who finds it “wholesome to be alone the greater part of the time” writes essays on civil disobedience and speaks out against slavery. Thoreau’s most tweetable proclamations are certainly compelling, but it is his nuance and fierce desire to understand the individual as a container of a unique truth that can—and should—care for the world that renders reading Thoreau so valuable, and so profoundly pressing, in a contemporary world where truth, and the connection, compassion, and action it facilitates, seems to slip so easily from our grasp.