Free Minds & Free Markets

'My Thoughts Are Murder to the State'

The threatening Thoreau.

Henry David Thoreau: A Life, by Laura Dassow Walls, University of Chicago Press, 640 pages, $35

University of Chicago PressUniversity of Chicago PressMy first encounter with Henry David Thoreau was in high school English class. I was charmed, but also puzzled, by his experiment of living alone in the woods so he could "drive life into a corner" and by his gift for pithy statements that forced me to do a mental double take. Some of them, I realized after a little reflection, Thoreau believed are literally true—such as "The swiftest traveller is he that goes afoot" or "Only the defeated and deserters go to the wars, cowards that run away and enlist." Others I found more difficult to grasp: "It is a ridiculous demand which England and America make, that you shall speak so that they can understand you." Or worse yet: "For the most part, we are not where we are, but in a false position." I looked forward to the next class, hoping to have some of these mysterious declarations clarified.

When the time came for discussion, I was amazed that all the other students who spoke up were sure they knew what Thoreau was up to—and they didn't like it one bit. Even the teacher was hostile to his work. Some of my classmates seemed actually angry at Thoreau. They appeared to think he wanted to be alone because he did not like people, and they felt personally rejected.

Over the years, I've learned that the I-hate-you-right-back branch of Thoreau criticism is by no means limited to adolescent readers. A recent New Yorker essay about the man was headlined "Pond Scum." The title referred to Thoreau himself.

This persistent thread helps account for one of the most salient and also oddest features of Laura Dassow Walls' Henry David Thoreau: A Life—its defensiveness. Walls is eager to emphasize what she likes in her subject. Things she finds negative generally get the soft pedal. She seems convinced, more than I am, even, that he needs it.

This is not entirely a bad thing. Walls succeeds in burying the "misanthropic hermit" interpretation of Thoreau under a mountain of facts. He was, on her showing, a devoted son and brother, a steadfast friend for whom human relationships were profoundly important, an active and passionately committed member of a political movement (abolitionism), and an effective and engaged businessman. Walls' Thoreau would no more try to secede from humanity than he would chop off part of his body. I hope that, having been interred by Walls, the misanthropy interpretation will not soon dig itself out again.

Walls also excels in her account of Thoreau's relation to the science of his day. One thing that makes Thoreau attractive to a lot of people is that he combines a point of view that could be called mystical—in the sense of seeking a direct, personal experience of the sacred—with a thoroughly rational approach to the world.

Walls notes that he was one of the very first people in the Western Hemisphere to read Darwin's Origin of Species. Unlike his biologist friend Louis Agassiz, he found its argument convincing. As Walls sees it, the lesson Thoreau drew from Darwin was that all life stems from one family tree, which means that not only all human beings but all living things are our relatives.

She also makes a welcome contribution to the literature on Thoreau with her thorough treatment of his relations with Native Americans of various tribes. She shows that his interest in American Indians was deeper, more persistent, and also more sympathetic than many of his readers realize: He lost no opportunity to grill natives he knew or chanced to meet with questions about culture, wood lore, and language, eventually accumulating over 3,000 pages of notes. Little of this material found its way into his published works, possibly because tuberculosis struck him down before he could put it to use.

Walls fails, alas, in her account of Thoreau's politics.

She points out that he begins his great essay "Civil Disobedience" by endorsing not just the motto "That government is best which governs least" but also its more radical cousin "That government is best which governs not at all." Thus, as she notes, he aligns himself with such anarchist friends and fellow travelers as Bronson Alcott, Charles Lane, and William Lloyd Garrison.

But Walls then claims that, in "a startling turn," Thoreau "rejects their rejection of government." The sentence where she says he does this is this one: "But, to speak practically and as a citizen, unlike those who call themselves no-government men, I ask for, not at once no government, but at once a better government." This, as she reads it, is self-contradictory: He both endorses and denies his friends' anarchism.

But there is a more coherent way of reading these statements. What separated Thoreau from the no-government men was not theoretical content but momentary point of view. Speaking "practically," in terms of what could be brought about "at once," he wanted a government less evil than the slave-catching, Mexican-killing one he saw around him. But as to what is not merely better but the best, the essay's conclusion makes it clear that he was still with his friends. Sketching the progress from absolute monarchy to limited monarchy to democracy, his final paragraph then imagines a state that allows individuals to drop out of its rule entirely. This, he declares, would "prepare the way for a still more perfect and glorious state which also I have imagined, but not yet anywhere seen."

In context, Thoreau seems to be imagining the state of no-state—as he said at the beginning of the essay, "when men are prepared for it, that will be the kind of government which they will have."

Walls seems eager to reduce "Civil Disobedience" to liberal platitudes, even claiming that it "suggests" a range of possible responses to unjust state action, so that there is no general duty to do something as hazardous as withdrawing one's support from an unjust government. I can find no basis in the text for this interpretation at all. Thoreau explicitly considers the objection that denying the government's authority when it presents its tax bill means the state will "soon take and waste all my property." His response: To be wealthy in a corrupt system is not an honor but a disgrace.

"This is hard," he says. Yes, indeed. The real Thoreau is not always easy to take, nor is he supposed to be. Like Nietzsche, he writes with a poke-the-bear style that is meant to be unsettling. It is connected with the feature of his style that struck me when I was a teenager: his tendency to speak in paradoxes and riddles. He does not always want people immediately to agree with him. Some of the persistent hostility he has faced was deliberately provoked.

Walls' approach to Thoreau unfortunately tends to conceal the shocking, contrarian side of his thought. In her efforts to make the writer accessible to liberals like herself—to showcase his anti-imperialism, anti-racism, and anti-sexism while glossing over his anti-statism and other elements that might rub some modern readers the wrong way—she grinds off some pointy portions of a famously prickly author's personal style.

The result is a smooth and comfortable Thoreau, but not the full Thoreau. We need to hear more about the man who declared, "My thoughts are murder to the state"; who said that he does not think a man is good just because he feeds the hungry; who even claimed once that he sympathized more with the wind and the waves than with the drowned bodies of the victims of a Cape Cod shipwreck. A nonthreatening Thoreau is a Thoreau missing something essential: his power to stir you up, to challenge you to grasp new ways of thought, to grow.

Photo Credit: University of Chicago Press

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  • Ecoli||

    Thoreau is thoroughly incomprehensible.

  • Ecoli||

    I Thoreauly enjoyed having the first post!

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    It's a burden, not a joy. You make with your puns a mockery of the responsibility.

  • Ecoli||

    True. I will skulk back to the background and leaving the "firsting" to my betters.

  • SQRLSY One||

    So Thoreau is a Thoreau-bred State-mudering terrorist, then, eh? Has anyone told the DOD, the NSA, the DEA, the FDA, the FBI, the CIA, the BATF, and the KGB about this yet? With this obvious threat to "Der Vaterlant" (ooops, I mean, our Homelands Security), It seems to me, a quadrupling of the budgets of Government Almighty is in order, here!

  • BestUsedCarSales||

    Don't worry. We're scanning records to find anyone who rented or bought Walden.

  • Eman||

    Nick cave?

  • Deflator Mouse||

    Thoreau is a euphemism for slow.

  • Robert||

    Don't you mean sleau?

  • Chipper Morning Baculum||

    As in "And then, when he proceeded to go down on her, she found him to be very Thoreau, making extensive use of his neckbeard."

  • Jay Dubya||


  • Hank Phillips||

    Thoreau and Emerson are, like democracy, a sad reflection on American values--until compared to their European contemporaries. Only Mark Twain comes to mind as a shining example of the intellectual defense of freedom, reason and individual rights at a time when the entire economy was reeling from the shock of British withdrawal of capital for purposes of attacking China in the Opium Wars. Few Britishers brag about that nowadays.

  • spanky & alfalfa||

    emerson is on a far different plane than thoreau is.

  • DajjaI||

    At the risk of being banned again by Reason, I have to agree completely. You get to 'no government' through better government. How? By de-legitimizing it - helping people realize they don't need it. And no one has done a better job at that than Trump. Normally governments create a crisis and then come to the rescue crying, "This is why you need us!" However everything that Trump tries backfires. For example the recent move of the Jerusalem embassy - the whole world condemns it and then Trump must defund both the UN (which weakens one-world government) as well as reduce military aid (which reduces terrorism, e.g. Duterte). As well, this nipped Clown Princess Haley's budding Trump-Bibi-Modi nuclear-police-state alliance. Keep up the good work!

    Jill Stein begrudgingly approves this message.

  • Don't look at me.||

    So is it always a backfire or good work? Can't be both.

  • DajjaI||

  • Agammamon||

    For example the recent move of the Jerusalem embassy - the whole world condemns it and then Trump must defund both the UN (which weakens one-world government) as well as reduce military aid (which reduces terrorism, e.g. Duterte).

    1. So the whole world is against something the Democrats agreed on back when Clinton was in office.

    2. Are we supposed to have a problem with defunding the UN (and weakening one-world government) as well as reducing militarys aid (which will reduce terrorism - eg Duterte)? Because that doesn't sound like a libertarian position to me and sounds like Trump's doing good work here.

  • Bill||

    Unless Dajjal was being sarcastic, he did say keep up
    the good work as the last sentence. I read it as Trump
    accidentally does things that end up having good results,
    (sometimes just by dividing govt. so things can't get passed).

  • Jay Dubya||

    Sorry, Bill. Science has shown that any Trump related content here will result in at least 1 reply of "Democrats did it", regardless of relevance or context.

  • Sevo||

    "However everything that Trump tries backfires."
    It only appears to backfire to lefty assholes, lefty asshole.
    No, I do not wish happy holidays to those who are willing to shoot me for not supporting their idiotic endeavors.
    Fuck off, slaver.

  • Jay Dubya||

    Nice to see you are embracing the Christmas Spirit. When you have time please explain to us again how having government deciding who gets to work, live & travel is the Summum Bonnum of free government. If you could include some extra profanity & racist undertones I think it would really help when The People to your cause, Comrade. Feliz Navidad, bro.

  • Jury Nullification||

    "...please explain to us again how having government deciding who gets to work, live & travel is the Summum Bonnum of free government."

    Has the subject switched from Trump to Obama or to some Thoreausized government of real freedom. It would appear clear to me that it was Obama who was attempting to control who worked through his best efforts to strangle the economy to the point of decapitation while Trump has sought to undo that at record speed and success.

    You should really forgive Trump for trying to put AMERICANS 1st and not equating documented Americans, or at least e-verifiables, with everyone else trying to get some American pie. Some of us are a bit more provincial and do not consider ourselves people of the world. So, we are okay with limiting travel for fucking hostile 3rd worlders (profanity and assumed racist undertone for your reading enjoyment and conversion) who have been stewing in various cauldrons of hate and are on a mission from god (theirs? ;-), not mine) to determine which Americans live.

    Merry Christmas to all.

  • Mike Laursen||

    I dunno. I'd just like to see a sitcom, say "Diff'rent Strokes: Walden Pond", where Thoreau has to raise a few adorable scamps.

  • SIV||

    I hope Sullum is working tomorrow

  • spanky & alfalfa||

    thoreau makes jesus weak and silly.

  • GILMORE™||

    Its been ages since i've read either...

    ....but I always leaned in favor of Emerson, relative to Thoreau. Partly his much-more advanced prose-style, but his ideas as well.

    I also, even at a very young age, found some things in Thoreau a touch too self-righteous, too self-satisfied with his own achieving-wisdom-via-simple-life... and the strain of anti-commerical, hippy bullshit you find in things like, "Life Without Principal". Its riddled with a deep contempt of the idea of 'productivity' and industry - labor for labor's sake, because in his mind, most labor was simply wasted time in pursuit of material wealth, which detracted from pursuit of spiritual and intellectual improvements.

    To make money, one must always involve himself in some form of corruption. For when we perform a service only for the sake of money, we are no longer doing "honest" work.

    Indeed, if the laborer gets no more than his wage, he has been cheated – for he has cheated himself. We are paid the most for that which is most disagreeable to us. We are paid to be less than a man. Even the artist, once he has shown himself to be of some "value," is soon pulled away from the purity of his craft for the sake of corporate interests.

    Emerson, by contrast, didn't have quite the same instinctive aversion to capitalism, and seemed to have a better grasp on how human progress was built on both genius and sweat

  • GILMORE™||

    Where for Thoreau 'commerce' was a destroyer of nature, and the drain on man's spiritual life... contrast, Emerson, "Conduct of Life"; where he praises the workings of markets, and how productive-instincts are unleashed by capital:

    Wealth brings with it its own checks and balances. The basis of political economy is non-interference. The only safe rule is found in the self-adjusting meter of demand and supply. Do not legislate. Meddle, and you snap the sinews with your sumptuary laws. Give no bounties, make equal laws, secure life and property, and you need not give alms. Open the doors of opportunity to talent and virtue and they will do themselves justice, and property will not be in bad hands. In a free and just commonwealth, property rushes from the idle and imbecile to the industrious, brave and persevering.

    The laws of nature play through trade... The level of the sea is not more surely kept than is the equilibrium of value in society by the demand and supply; and artifice or legislation punishes itself by reactions, gluts, and bankruptcies.... Whoever knows what happens in the getting and spending of a loaf of bread and a pint of beer... knows all of political economy that the budgets of empires can teach him. ... Open the doors of opportunity to talent and virtue, and
    they will do themselves justice, and property will not be in bad hands
  • Chipper Morning Baculum||

    There is nothin' un-libertarian in anti-comercialism, pastorialism, or even laziness. None of those things impinge on the rights of others, but merely reflect personal choices. Also, there is nothing wrong with enjoying labor or preferring spiritual or intellectual improvements. Enjoying labor for its own sake does not, for example, imply belief in the Labor Theory of Value.

    I am not surprised you lean towards Emerson, as we disagree more often than we agree and probably have very different values in many things. I find in Thoreau a celebration of individualism and in Emerson often the opposite of that, despite the supposed emphasis in transcendentalism on the individual.

  • GILMORE™||

    1) i never said anything about either was either 'libertarian' or 'unlibertarian', nor did i say either view being expressed was "wrong" or "right". I said i preferred one to the other for the reasons given.

    2) I don't think i've ever considered anything you said seriously enough to have disagreed with you.

    3) ""I find in Thoreau a celebration of individualism and in Emerson often the opposite of that"" ....

    comments like #3 there are the reason for #2

  • Chipper Morning Baculum||

    Posting a link in an attempt to discredit my personal subjective take on Emerson. Classic Gilmore. Merry Christmas, buddy.

  • GILMORE™||

    your 'subjective take' would be whether you found one appealing/compelling or not.

    not "completely misrepresenting what it is they've actually written"

    May the kwanzaa god make your offspring less unfortunate than you. Ungawa.

  • Chipper Morning Baculum||

    Ok, thanks for explaining to me what I meant, John 2.0.

  • GILMORE™||

    Please, provide quotes/examples of what you read as Emerson's "anti-individualism"

    It would be fun to watch.

    But you won't, because that's not what you do. As i said: there's nothing to disagree with you about because you don't ever say anything substantial enough to take seriously.

  • hello.||

    I also, even at a very young age, found some things in Thoreau a touch too self-righteous, too self-satisfied with his own achieving-wisdom-via-simple-life... and the strain of anti-commerical, hippy bullshit you find in things like, "Life Without Principal".

    You mean like how his grand experiment in "simple living" and transcendental enlightenment at Walden pond was only possible because Emerson let him squat on the land for free and he sponged all of the materials and necessities of life from his mommy? Just like Marx, an effete fucking poser reliant on a wealthy benefactor to support his idealized life of pious self-reliant poverty.

  • Sevo||

    Can't remember the book on Indian independence, but the quote was: "It costs a LOT to keep Gandhi in poverty!"

  • operagost||

    It is easy to discredit that argument because it uses two absolutes, "always" and "only". Even a high school debate team knows to avoid absolutes unless provable. All I need to counter the argument is to point out that many, people do what they love and make a lot of money doing it. It's another nonsense statement from Thoreau.

  • GILMORE™||

    Probably better to actually read his work before applying your logic-proofs to single sentences and declaring him a complete failure.

    just a thought.

  • AlmightyJB||

    "My thoughts are murder to the state"

    Amen brother

  • Pro Libertate||

    Merry Christmas to all
    And to all a good night.

  • Chipper Morning Baculum||

    Festive Yuletide to all!

  • Sevo||

    Merry Christmas, Happy Chanukkah , Happy Holidays, Best Wishes to all who deserve it!
    To the rest of you who would have me shot for not paying for your worthless desires, a sincere "fuck you". With a rusty and infected farm implement!
    Both groups are fully deserving of the wishes and they are sincere.

  • Eidde||

    Wow, sevo is in an unusually generous mood today, maybe all the egg nog got to his head?

    Merry Christmas!

  • Bra Ket||

    "Some of my classmates seemed actually angry at Thoreau. They appeared to think he wanted to be alone because he did not like people, and they felt personally rejected."

    Sounds like a bunch of unlikeable assholes deserving of rejection. unironically.

  • ||

    I don't understand his comment about "only deserters and the defeated go to war".

  • Trollificus||

    Just a way of dissing on the (presumably) proud, brave men in uniform as being too cowardly to avoid the draft? Sounds like it, anyway. Again, in his desire to be sweepingly unorthodox, he disregards the possibility of people wanting a) a military career b) escape from poverty or other unfortunate domestic circumstance c) to serve their country/kill some foreigners with government approval d) other motivations to which Thoreau (nor I) was not privy.

    I understand the temptation of 180-degree reversal of, in this instance, the common celebration of those in the military being uniformly courageious...but pithy aphorism always errs on the side of wit, sacrificing accuracy.

    (except for "Pithy's a bitch.", the aphorism with which I once won an informal aphorism contest.)

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  • منتديات الصقع||


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