The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.
That’s the quote from Walden.
The one everyone and their mom cites as their motivation for quitting their job or leaving their spouse or starting a side hustle and becoming a nomad!
Take life by the horns! LIVE! Do not become one of them. Living the unexamined life, desperate to fit in, motivated by the superficial need for approval and the acquisition of wealth.
Thoreau called them dross which is my new favorite word for basic.
I popped Walden back open to explore Thoreau’s thesis for a book I’m working on and, whew, y’all. Texts written in Old English are difficult on a good day, but Walden is….not what I remembered. I expected pretension, obscure and dated references, and some misogyny for good measure.
What I did not expect was for the text to be…dross.
It’s written using a stream-of-consciousness narrative style, which is a respectable narrative tool (and my personal favorite) when done well. Virginia Woolf might have a 2-page-long sentence but f*&k if you can’t put it down. (Same with James Baldwin, start here.)
Walden, however, is not that.
Walden reads like it was written by an arrogant teenager. Thoreau’s arguments are not altogether wrong, but they sound like that kid in class who is like, “#$%@ capitalism!” but can’t tell you why.
For example, he spends way-too-many pages declaring that fashion is superficial. Which would be a decent argument if he had made one.
Instead, we get a diatribe (which isn’t altogether wrong, just lacking) on vanity and utility that doesn’t arrive at any conclusion. No context, no self-awareness, lacking in rigor, and dripping in contempt.
The prose is unnecessarily wordy and he drops allusions with no context, like the kid who just got back from a semester abroad and can’t stop saying things in French. It’s annoying. James Joyce was wordy, but he was taking you somewhere.
Thoreau is ostensibly blogging.
That said, even a blind pig can find a truffle and the man found a few. The work does do a solid job of calling out the hypocrisy in “civilized society” which is why I think it struck a chord with so many men. He basically calls everyone racing for power and wealth a Karen, while yelling, “Real men build things with their HANDS!”
One thing arrogant teens excel at is snark. And on this point, Thoreau did not disappoint. So please enjoy this collection of sick burns I collected from Walden about the elite, privileged, wealthy, and asleep:
“Most men, even in this comparatively free country, through mere ignorance and mistake, are so occupied with the factitious cares and superfluously course labors of life that its fine fruits cannot be plucked by them.”
“Most luxuries, and many of the so-called comforts of life, are not only indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind.”
HINDRANCES TO THE ELEVATION OF MANKIND.
“There are nowadays professors of philosophy, but not philosophers.”
This one is a literal jab at his alma mater, Harvard.
“I also have in my mind that seemingly wealthy, but most terribly impoverished class of all, who have accumulated dross, but know not how to use it, or get rid of it, and thus have forged their own golden or silver fetters.”
CAN WE PLEASE CALL GOLDEN HANDCUFFS SILVER FETTERS FROM NOW ON PLEEEEEASE
“While civilization has been improving our houses, it has not equally improved the men who are to inhabit them.”
“In the long run men hit only what they aim at.”
I would have liked to read a book about what we’re aiming at. And why. That’s what’s missing from Walden. I’m here for a snarky diatribe alldayeveryday, but let’s not pedestal it. You cannot criticize a culture without also conceding you are a PART of this culture and not immune to perpetuating the very things you seek to dismantle.
Thoreau, in this way, is intellectually dishonest.
He is a part of that mass of men he criticizes. He cannot see nor own his role which is why the book sucks and if you want to read how to actually save yourself from a life of quiet desperation, you should read Baldwin.
Walden is dross, but the burns are a contribution to the elevation of womankind.
If we only hit what we aim at, please, aim higher.
PS: Walden sucks, but Civil Disobedience is worth your time. Still problematic, but not without merit. Thoreau as a dude has caught some flack lately (with good reason), but he matures as a writer and thinker by Civil Disobedience. The way he lived was pretty baller compared to the un-self-aware meandering preachiness that is Walden. He was a radical abolitionist who vocally attacked the fugitive slave law and publicly defended John Brown. And he had the foresight to be extremely critical of factory work and had a lot of smart things to say about corporations and their (lack of) “consciences.”
To that end: please enjoy the world’s finest rendition of Henry David Thoreau: John Mulaney as Thoreau at Walden.
It is perfect.