Henry David Thoreau: Wise Philosopher or Ugly Skulker?

6 Jan

Once upon a time… during the year 1845, to be more precise,  Henry David Thoreau — following the excellent advice of his best friend, poet Ellery Channing — set off to build himself a tiny house in a quiet spot near Walden Pond, in his home state of Massachusetts.

He intended to stay there alone and live in harmony with nature, wishing to experience the stripped-down essence of life, and to accomplish some serious writing.

Fulfilling his intentions, Thoreau wrote a little book called Walden, about his experiment of conducting life in a simple, natural, and self-reliant manner.  He advised his readers to simply, and to reduce whenever possible.  In America’s current sad economic state, and in our modern, wasteful and multi-tasking culture, this is good advice indeed.  However, I suspect it to be something that happens more often through necessity than as a result of philosophical design.

In my high school Literature class, this account of simple living was required reading.  Interestingly, I don’t remember all the volumes I was asked to read for school, but I do remember this one.  Looking back now, I recall that as I read through the book, I observed Thoreau’s timeless wisdom and his clear practicality —  but I also found Walden to be one of the most (ironically) long-winded and boring things I had ever read in my life, up to that time.  Many of the included details felt completely unnecessary to me.  For example, I did not yearn to know the price of the lumber he used to build the house, but I think he devoted an entire page to it.

I have very recently been thinking of giving Walden a second look, a second chance to win me over.  I enjoyed some of Thoreau’s other material, and in fact I found his essay Civil Disobedience particularly inspiring.  I wonder if perhaps Walden might resonate more with me, now that I have more life experience.  What does a teenager know about solitude, simplicity, and frugality?  Answer:  Not very much!

This is not Walden Woods, but I once found it to be a good "thinking spot."

Now, instead of being a teenager myself, I am a parent of one teenager and two preteens.  Life has changed, or to be more accurate, I have been changed by life.  I certainly spend far more time thinking about simplicity now than I did when I was younger, and I even write about it.  I regularly search for ways to make life simpler and more efficient, not to mention less expensive.  Sometimes I even use up my free time in pursuit of creative ways to create more free time.  I admit, there may be something wrong with my math in that equation…

“Our life is frittered away by detail,” Thoreau wrote in Walden.

So true.  How many details are frittering our lives away?  This statement may be more true now than when it was originally written.  Personally, I feel pretty frittered.  How about you?  So you can understand why I started thinking, “Hey, maybe old Henry David Thoreau wasn’t so dull after all!” 

The man was called worse things than boring during his lifetime, I have learned.

If you look up Thoreau on Wikipedia as I did, you will find an early photograph of him (an 1856 daguerreotype) that suggests he looked a bit like Ellen Degeneres with a neck-beard.  There are also some quotes to be found from Thoreau’s contemporaries, many of them very emphatically calling him “ugly.”  I would like to note here that the image in which Thoreau seems to resemble Ellen Degeneres is by far the most flattering image of him that I have seen.

Although Thoreau was not as popular in his lifetime as he has posthumously become, some supported his writings and his actions.  One of his more notable benefactors was Ralph Waldo Emerson, who befriended Thoreau and took him home to tutor his children and perform other helpful tasks while living with the Emerson family.  Emerson employed him for years, spoke well of him, and also made available to him the land on which he lived for more than two years while writing Walden.

Others were not as generous as Emerson, and certainly not as friendly.

Robert Louis Stevenson considered Thoreau to be a “skulker“, and suggested he was not only very ugly, but also effeminate, anti-social, and humorless!

I suspect that Stevenson had a personal grudge against Thoreau, as the majority of quotes about him are more positive, save for the general consensus that he was ugly.  Thoreau’s lifestyle choices were unconventional enough that a few other writers believed it would be more appropriate for him to get a job and act like a civilized person, instead of living alone in the woods like a savage heathen — but many others seemed to find his thoughts interesting.

“If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.” This quote from Walden suggests that Thoreau understood the negative perception others had of him, and was more concerned with being true to himself than with improving his public image.

In reality, whether or not Thoreau was ugly, whether or not he stepped to the music of a different drummer, he was neither lazy nor savage.  He studied at Harvard university for some years and spent much of his adult life working in his family’s pencil factory, where he involved himself in upgrading and modernizing the facility.  I found this last piece of information surprising.  I am having difficulty envisioning Thoreau working in a factory of any kind, after reading his work.

“If one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours. “

~ Henry David Thoreau (from Walden, 1854)

I don’t think he was a skulker at all.  I think he was a dreamer.

Thoreau has long been a famous success, praised by many writers and other great minds.  His writings have influenced important leaders like Ghandi and Martin Luther King, Jr., his works have been assigned in public schools, and his philosophies are quoted across the internet. 

Take that, Robert Louis Stevenson!!


The quotes and information summarized above (along with further information) may be found on these pages:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henry_David_Thoreau (life, critiques of)

http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Henry_David_Thoreau (further quotes by, and quotes about)

http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Walden (Walden quotes)

28 Responses to “Henry David Thoreau: Wise Philosopher or Ugly Skulker?”

  1. bigsheepcommunications January 6, 2011 at 7:24 am #

    Yes, I’m totally frittered!

    • acleansurface January 6, 2011 at 10:16 am #

      Most people are, Big Sheep! So much time and energy is completely wasted.

      • Emily January 23, 2011 at 6:20 am #

        Yes, energy is definitely wasted, but time is never wasted, especially when helping others, for time is infinite. 🙂 Maybe people should think about that phrase.
        Time is infinite, yet most of it must be shared with others.

  2. jeffstroud January 6, 2011 at 7:39 am #

    Very thoughtful blog! I like how you have experienced H.D. Thoreau through your shifting perceptions.
    I am glad to read that you have sought to down size your life, for whatever reason, if we all did the world would be a different place.
    I have never really read Thoreau but there are modern writers and thinkers and activist who have taken Thoreau’s guidance into the everyday world in which we now live. StarHawk is one that comes to mind while I am trying to remember others.
    I will get back to you!
    I am Love, Jeff

    • acleansurface January 6, 2011 at 10:11 am #

      Thanks for the comment, Jeff. The more Walden quotes I read, the more I realized my life could have been influenced by Thoreau more than I was aware of — even indirectly, through others who have been influenced by Thoreau, as you mention.

  3. Judson January 6, 2011 at 7:58 am #

    I recently purchased a copy of “Walden”. I’d been familiar with the subject matter for years, but of course, I’d never actually tried to read it.

    Sadly, I still haven’t finished it. Like you, I found the overall message somehow camoflaged by the minutiae.

    Between fits of self-indulgence and overt materialism, I find myself frequently drawn to the concept of a “simpler life”. As a baby boomer (read: old and ready for retierment) the idea of paring things down to the basic essentials is fascinating.

    Somewhere I read an article about the benefits of choosing the 100 items you need the most and getting rid of everything else. The author was certain that this was not only possible, but necessary.

    For me unfortunately, one day my list would begin with food, go through clothing, and end with shelter. Then on other days, my HD TV and DVR would push itself way up the list and my XM radio would make an appearance as well.

    What’s a fellow to do?

    — Judson

  4. imightoffendyou January 6, 2011 at 2:01 pm #

    The most boring book I have ever read in high school was probably Three Men In A Boat by Jerome K. Jerome. It took me weeks to finish it. Maybe I should reread it now and see if I change my mind about it. I liked Civil Disobedience as well. I think I will give Walden a try.

    • acleansurface January 6, 2011 at 5:11 pm #

      I’ve never even heard of Three Men In a Boat, Imightoffendyou… Well, I won’t ask what it is about!
      Thanks for reading.

  5. inwardsun January 7, 2011 at 2:49 am #

    This was a very informative and interesting post! I really enjoyed how you not only informed us about the man Thoreau and his writing, but also how his philosophy relates to our (frittered) lives today.

    I haven’t read Walden but I am fascinated by Thoreau’s endevours. No doubt he has inspired many. I think the message of simplicity is something that appeals to many today but we don’t seem to know how to intergrate it in our already so busy and bustling lifestyle. We seem to think we need to “give stuff” up, instead of thinking that we will “get something”. Don’t you think?

    I will read you 100-post now! Glad I connected with you! I have appreciated your comments on my blog 🙂

    All the best from a white Sweden,


    • acleansurface January 7, 2011 at 8:52 am #

      Thanks, Inwardsun.
      I do think it is true that many do not realize what benefit can be received from simplifying. It is thought of only as a loss, not a gain.

      • Emily January 23, 2011 at 6:33 am #


  6. notesfromrumbleycottage January 7, 2011 at 10:05 am #

    The problem with “Walden” is that it cannot e made into an interesting movie as “Treasure Island” has been. Damn, those pirates!

    • acleansurface January 7, 2011 at 10:16 am #

      Good point, Rumbleycottage. Thoreau’s stuff doesn’t lead to an exciting movie. Even Beatrix Potter had an interesting movie, with Renee Zellweger. No pirates in that one either, though.

  7. somethingnewplease January 7, 2011 at 4:00 pm #

    Your wit is so enjoyable.

    The spot you picked as a thinking spot looks dangerous. I guess I’m fearful of water wheels though. Always have been.


    • acleansurface January 7, 2011 at 4:19 pm #

      That’s very flattering, Somethingnew, thank you so much.
      Water wheels remind me of history — maybe that is why the photo seemed appropriate for this post. I remember looking at the water wheel and reflecting on time, and where I was.

  8. One Bad Yam Pajama January 10, 2011 at 5:57 pm #

    Pretty much all I do is fritter. Why, just the other day I frittered away a whole hour eating a fritter! In all seriousness though, I keep meaning to re-read this myself. The idea of communing with nature is always enticing to a New Yorker 🙂

    • acleansurface January 10, 2011 at 9:36 pm #

      I just love the name “One Bad Yam Pajama.” =)
      I was just at the library recently, and I forgot to look for Walden, probably because so much time was frittered away looking for a parking spot (I almost gave up looking for a spot, it was so bad).

  9. Magnificent Minimalist January 11, 2011 at 8:25 am #

    I read your entire charming, well-written post, but the only thought I have in return is this: “OMG! He *does* look like Ellen Degeneres!”

    • acleansurface January 11, 2011 at 8:49 am #

      He really does! At least in that one photo…
      Thanks for the corroboration, MM. =)

  10. kloppenmum January 11, 2011 at 10:21 pm #

    I enjoyed this post, perhaps partly because I definitely march to the beat of a different drummer! There seems to be a surge in interest in the works of people like Thoreau and Emerson – or perhaps I am newly aware of it. Anyhow, reduction of personal items sounds great, but where does one begin, I wonder.

  11. Bee January 11, 2011 at 10:21 pm #

    I must confess … I got a good ways into “Walden” a few years back and got bogged down in, ironically enough, the endless detail.

    I deeply admire the principles he espouses in this book, but as the mother of two with two part-time jobs, where this kind of simplicity is just NOT an option if we all want to eat and wear clothes, I had to wonder just HOW he managed to find all this lovely alone time when he was out in the woods with no modern conveniences. I had to laugh when I discovered that while he was living out in the woods, communing with nature …

    … his mother was living in town, doing his laundry.

    • acleansurface January 12, 2011 at 1:08 am #

      Isn’t that convenient? I think he did his own cooking, at least. =)

  12. Emily January 23, 2011 at 6:39 am #

    Its ironic that a book about simplicity has so much detail?
    Am I the only 1 who thinks that?
    And bee, I couldn’t help laughing too. Extremely convenient! Oh how I wish my mum could do MY laundry!

  13. Bob Bergen May 5, 2012 at 1:44 pm #

    Thoreau was a deeply introverted person. He was also, at once, a highly intellectual and immensely practical person. He was known primarily as a nature and travel writer. So if that doesn’t interest you, you will have a very hard time getting through Walden in its entirety.
    He not only tutored Emerson’s children he also served as a handyman while Emerson went on the lecture circuit. He not only built the cabin at Walden, he and his father built the original family home together. He perfected his father’s pencil making process and had them certified as equal to anything from Europe. When his friends congratulated him on having found his fortune in life he declared he would never make another pencil as long as he lived. He supported himself (while living at home most of his life) by working as a surveyor.
    When I think of Stevenson calling him a skulker I imagine Donald Trump calling Einstein a skulker. Einstein was known to sit all day in a chair thinking through a physics problem. Thoreau was known to stand all day in a waist deep pond observing a turtle or sitting in an apple tree all day observing his neighbor’s farm life. He was not, without a doubt, a “Hail fellow, well met” type of person. Introverts feel themselves more alone and drained of energy in company. They must have time alone to recharge. In Thoreau’s case, I think, he needed to find some meaning in all the observations he had made. Introverts value limited numbers of close relationships. Thoreau said he longed for one close friend he could share his deepest thoughts with. He wrote that he kept two chairs for friendship and a third for society.
    Introverts also tend to internalize everything. I think of it as a condition half way toward autism. The normal interactions for extroverts can be torture for an introvert. When Thoreau’s older brother, John, died of tetanus he came down with sympathetic symptoms to the point where the family thought he would die as well. The retreat to the cabin was motivated in part by the death of his brother. He wrote A Week on the Concord and Merrimac Rivers while there. It was a book about a boat trip he and John had taken together. Walden grew out of his journal entries during the two years at the pond over a period of many years after the fact.
    I believe Walden is loaded with humor but it is very subtle and tongue in cheek. I think anybody who wants to read the book should get a fully annotated version and try to pay attention to the references that have lost all meaning to us at this time. I have an audiotape version of the book that is read as though Thoreau was the effete Yankee snob some think him to be and I just can’t understand how anyone can miss the humor and humanity of the man. When the publisher returned unsold copies of one of his books he told a friend that his library had grown to over a thousand volumes, many of which he had written himself. That’s not a humorless person. His sister supposedly asked him on his deathbed if he had made his peace with god. His reply was, “I wasn’t aware we’d quarreled.” I have always found that statement loaded with strength, courage, humanity and humor.

    • Rayme Wells @ A Clean Surface May 8, 2012 at 5:10 pm #

      Mr. Bergen, thank you so much for your lovely and detailed comment. Thoreau was a rather fascinating and intelligent person, to be sure, and some of his quotes are amusing. I am an introvert myself. Your point about annotations is a good one. There is so much we don’t understand when we read without awareness of the context of the writer’s life and time.
      I hope you will visit again.

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