World Library  

Revisionist History and the Lives of Quotes
Henry David Thoreau

Revisionist History and the Lives of Quotes
  • Selected Writings on Nature and Liberty (by )
  • The Writings of Henry David Thoreau (by )
  • The Writings of Henry David Thoreau (by )
  • Winter : From the Journal of Henry David... (by )
  • Walden (by )
  • Familiar Letters of Henry David Thoreau (by )
  • The Writings of Henry David Thoreau (by )
  • On the Duty of Civil Disobedience (by )
Scroll Left
Scroll Right

The 21st century birthed a handful of revisionist and reconstructionist history. The likes of Malcolm Gladwell to Howard Zinn have worked towards reinterpreting orthodox views in light of new or previously overlooked evidence. American literary and independence hero Henry David Thoreau, born July 12, 1817, is one such re-examined person.

Once a universally revered, all-American naturalist icon, Thoreau's popularity--not to mention actual readership--has waned. Writers such as Garrison Keillor, Bill Bryson, and Jill Lepore speak of Thoreau as an arrogant, anti-social, and generally unpleasant man. In an essay titled "Pond Scum," Kathryn Schulz describes him descending upon a Boston-bound shipwreck with cold, impassivity.

Because Thoreau's work is no longer widely or extensively read, people might take Schulz's harsh critique as actuality without looking into it for themselves. Others, like New Republic writer Donavon Hahn, took on the task of rebuttal to the scores of Thoreau denigrators. In direct response to Schulz's shipwreck criticism, He quotes subsequent lines from the same chapter, which he argues serves to "memorialize the dead" rather than dehumanize them:

I saw many marble feet and matted heads as the cloths were raised, and one livid, swollen, and mangled body of a drowned girl,—who probably had intended to go out to service in some American family,—to which some rags still adhered, with a string, half concealed by the flesh, about its swollen neck; the coiled-up wreck of a human hulk, gashed by the rocks or fishes, so that the bone and muscle were exposed, but quite bloodless,—merely red and white,—with wide-open and staring eyes, yet lustreless, dead-lights; or like the cabin windows of a stranded vessel, filled with sand.
Hahn notes this debate whether Thoreau is a self-righteous pond-scum or a deserving American saint has been around for a while, but ultimately questions why it matters at all to take one side or the other.

If an answer to end this debate exists, it lies between readers and Thoreau's writing itself. Over time, quotations often stray from their intended meaning and context, while still retaining the authors’ names. Thus the author gains authority of a different brand. Some of Thoreau's most famous quotes have done this. In Civil Disobedience, the famous quote pulled is "That government is best which governs not at all." In Walden, one quote goes, "I had three chairs in my house; one for solitude, two for friendship, three for society."

The full sentiment is cut off and misinterpreted. The former line continues to say, "... and when men are prepared for it, that will be the kind of government which they will have." Separated from the following lines Thoreau comes off as anarchic or libertarian; but, in fact, he argues for government improvement, and acknowledgement of government not as the end-all-be-all, but as a placeholder system necessary for imperfect societies and peoples.
The bit from Walden continues with:

When visitors came in larger and unexpected numbers there was but the third chair for them all, but they generally economized the room by standing up. It is surprising how many great men and women a small house will contain. I have had twenty-five or thirty souls, with their bodies, at once under my roof, and yet we often parted without being aware that we had come very near to one another.

The last line captures the essence of Thoreau, showing both humility in his willingness to cede his own ineptitude of other people, and also the understated, strange, and yet wonderful quality of crossing paths with anyone.

By Thad Higa

Copyright © World Library Foundation. All rights reserved. eBooks from World Library are sponsored by the World Library Foundation,
a 501c(4) Member's Support Non-Profit Organization, and is NOT affiliated with any governmental agency or department.