U.S. Intellectual History Blog

On the Vague Reading of a Truant Youth: Thoreau, Libertarianism, and Adolescence

thoreauIn a particular passage of her much-circulated take-down of Henry David Thoreau, Kathryn Schulz arrives, it seems to me, at the real nub of our discomfort with both his persona and his writings: the best time in one’s life to read him, it seems, is in adolescence.

Why, given Thoreau’s hypocrisy, his sanctimony, his dour asceticism, and his scorn, do we continue to cherish “Walden”? One answer is that we read him early. “Walden” is a staple of the high-school curriculum, and you could scarcely write a book more appealing to teen-agers: Thoreau endorses rebellion against societal norms, champions idleness over work, and gives his readers permission to ignore their elders… “Walden” is also fundamentally adolescent in tone: Thoreau shares the conviction, far more developmentally appropriate and forgivable in teens, that everyone else’s certainties are wrong while one’s own are unassailable. Moreover, he presents adulthood not as it is but as kids wishfully imagine it: an idyll of autonomy, unfettered by any civic or familial responsibilities.

Somewhat further down, Schulz cinches the point, comparing Thoreau to Ayn Rand, another author who is often described (not incorrectly) as having a special appeal among teen-age boys and to those who think most like them. Schulz concludes her piece: “Teen-agers, too, strain and squirm against any checks on their liberty. But the mature position, and the one at the heart of the American democracy, seeks a balance between the individual and the society.”

I register this particular line in Schulz’s argument not in disagreement exactly, but in frustration. There seems to me to be a great deal buried in this way of dismissing Thoreau, or of marking his limitations, a great deal taken for granted about literature, about the sociology of reading, about the ways that the political subject is normalized against a growth curve of “maturity.” Schulz chastises Thoreau (and, by implication, Rand as well) for appealing to an immature reader, a reader who either is actually adolescent or thinks like an adolescent, without the richness of experience that leads to a certain kind of tolerance and sense of responsibility, and labels this kind of thinking “libertarian.” Again, I am not in disagreement with Schulz’s decision to use that label, but I think the rhetorical suture—which has become a standard bit of liberal/left popular psychology—that joins “adolescent” and “libertarian” could stand a bit more thought and analysis. To be perfectly plain, I find the argument “libertarians think like teenage boys” to be one of those arguments that yields a great deal of self-satisfaction but generally proves to be polemically inert when used outside of those circles predisposed to agree. There is a certain worrisome callousness and delusional self-importance embedded in Thoreau’s writing that does, I think, map onto central tendencies within libertarianism, but we can find a better way of analyzing that congruence than by summoning up an image of a loafing surly cocksure teenager.

For the fact of the matter is that there is a great deal of literature that strikes a particular chord among adolescents, and that is generally (first) encountered in high school, either as an assignment in class or as a cult favorite. But that literature is both politically miscellaneous and of quite varying impact: some books send down deep ideological roots while others make little more impression than a fond memory. Other books we like even though they run quite contrary to the political sensibility we are in the process of forming; some of these may have a delayed effect and influence our politics in later life, while others have no effect at all—we simply find them fascinating, or are quickened by an unusual experience. I took the title of this post from Wordsworth’s Prelude, specifically Book VI, regarding his undergraduate days. This is a favorite passage of mine, so I’m going to be a little prodigal in quotation:

                                  many books

Were skimmed, devoured, or studiously perused,

But with no settled plan. I was detached

Internally from academic cares;

Yet independent study seemed a course

Of hardy disobedience toward friends

And kindred, proud rebellion and unkind.

This spurious virtue, rather let it bear

A name it now deserves, this cowardice,

Gave treacherous sanction to that over-love

Of freedom which encouraged me to turn

From regulations even of my own

As from restraints and bonds. Yet who can tell–

Who knows what thus may have been gained, both then

And at a later season, or preserved;

What love of nature, what original strength

Of contemplation, what intuitive truths

The deepest and the best, what keen research,

Unbiassed, unbewildered, and unawed? […]

On the vague reading of a truant youth

‘Twere idle to descant. My inner judgment

Not seldom differed from my taste in books,

As if it appertained to another mind,

And yet the books which then I valued most

Are dearest to me ‘now’; for, having scanned,

Not heedlessly, the laws, and watched the forms

Of Nature, in that knowledge I possessed

A standard, often usefully applied,

Even when unconsciously, to things removed

From a familiar sympathy.–In fine,

I was a better judge of thoughts than words,

Misled in estimating words, not only

By common inexperience of youth,

But by the trade in classic niceties,

The dangerous craft, of culling term and phrase

From languages that want the living voice

To carry meaning to the natural heart;

To tell us what is passion, what is truth,

What reason, what simplicity and sense.

Wordsworth stands as a model case for the truism that most intellectuals de-radicalize or even become reactionary as they age. But I would rather take him—as he describes himself here—to be a symbol of the contingency of youth, and of youth’s lack of system in self-education and self-exploration. Someone pointed out during the recent Democratic debate that, of the five candidates, three had spurned the Republican Party they had followed in their youth. A part of that story is more than personal and has much to do with the Republican Party’s rightward plunge, but the conventional wisdom that political apostasies move only in one direction as people age is amply countered.

Yet even if it is not quite true, one thing that the narrative of middle-age deradicalization reveals is that we have, in fact, two quite different ideas about the relation between age and politics. One of them is that we grow more conservative (more hostile to change, more wary of innovation, less interested in the unfamiliar) as we age; the other is that we grow more tolerant and mature into an acceptance of our position as responsible citizens, doing our part in terms of recycling, voting, paying taxes, and so forth. The coexistence of these two ideas seems to me to suggest that there may be a little more to the second notion than meets the eye.

To cut this short, what I see is that we have one idea about “aging” and one idea about “maturity,” and that suggests that our notion of “maturity” is not really one about process or a spectrum (as aging is about a process) but is instead about a binary. “Mature” is simply a name we give to those qualities we like; “adolescent” to those we fault. One is a mature political subject or one is an immature (adolescent) political subject; one does not really grow into being a mature political subject. When Schulz faults Thoreau for not being mature, she is not truly faulting him for not having grown up; she is faulting him for being wrong in his political sensibilities.

And yet the language of development and immaturity is polemically useful. It is a great deal more effective to say that libertarians are wrong because their worldview remains developmentally arrested, that it is ideologically boxed in by the mental tics and emotional needs of an adolescent than it is to try to understand and critique the appeal of libertarianism in its own terms. It is even, in a sense, soothing to the left/liberal mind to see libertarianism as an essentially adolescent ideology; even if one does not anticipate them growing up, the adults can kick them out of the house.

But my point is more general than arguing against that identification of adolescence and libertarianism. The normative presumptions that assign an ideal or typical age to certain texts or to certain genres can be not only crude and condescending but self-blinding, unable to understand the diverse ways that readers connect to the books they cherish (or the books they despise). This inability to understand the appeal of one kind of book to the “wrong” reader is particularly egregious when it comes to “YA” fiction (e.g.) but it is something intellectual historians might want to be aware of as well. Nietzsche and Rand, after all, are classic cases of books that seem tailor-made for teenagers, and two of the best recent intellectual histories—those by Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen and Jennifer Burns—exist precisely because their authors refused to be deterred by that fact.

Virginia Woolf quite famously called George Eliot’s Middlemarch “one of the few English novels written for grown-up people,” and, frankly, I would rather meet a person whose political sensibility was formed by Eliot than by Thoreau. Most of us would, no doubt. But there is abundant immaturity in Middlemarch as there are moments of political perspicacity in Walden. If Walden seems written expressly to have its aphorisms scrawled next to punk lyrics in an adolescent’s notebook, well, there are many ways that could work out. I would like here to insist upon granting the “vagueness” of adolescent reading, one alive to the contingencies of youth.

19 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Excellent! On the other spectrum there’s the romantic narrative that views childhood and adolescence as positive experiences of spontaneous whim and discovery, which can be traced to Baudelaire and Wordsworth too. The idealization of children as a springboard to see the world a new, like a child, was picked up by some avant-garde and modernist writers–I think of Walter Benjamin’s texts on childhood in particular.

    One thing that was not clear to me was the productivity of establishing “that libertarians are wrong because their worldview remains developmentally arrested.” Doesn’t it also “prove to be polemically inert when used outside of those circles predisposed to agree”? The differences between discourses of maturity and development are not very clear to me, both assume a progressive logic, a telos if you will, where value is ascribed negatively to those deemed “undeveloped.”

    • Thanks, Kahlil, you’re absolutely right that childhood reading does have that positive valence. But the strongest positive associations often go back beyond adolescent reading: Schulz herself contrasts Thoreau with Laura Ingalls Wilder. (Schulz appears not to know of the heavy involvement of Rose Wilder Lane in the writing of the Little House books, which would add some complexity to the equation of libertarianism and immaturity.)

      You’re also right that my argument regarding the discourses of maturity and development is not very clear, as I did not really complete my thought. What I was trying to say is that characterizing libertarianism as developmentally arrested works very well as an attack in the pages, say, of The Nation or The New Yorker. The readers will nod their heads and think we’ve gotten to something very true and fundamental about the nature of libertarianism. But I don’t think that’s true; I don’t think that equation of libertarianism and immaturity is helpful for understanding its appeal or its internal logic. It is *only* polemically useful, and even there, *only* convincing to those who already broadly discount libertarian ideas.

  2. Great piece Andy. What do you make of Schulz’s discussion of “Civil Disobedience,” which is the place where Thoreau’s individualism is worked out in the explicit anti-politics of his politics? That is, Schulz seems to recognize that Thoreau’s withdrawal from social engagement and its constraints actually enabled his antislavery stance and a politics of principle (rather than, say, compromise, as was the mainstream politics of the day on the slavery question). But she quickly asserts that this principled stance could only lead to a situation in which anybody convinced of his or her own certitude could legitimately assert the right of refusal. This seems to me a wrong reading of Thoreau, because she assumes a kind of subjectivist reading of “conscience” that is not grounded in anything outside of the principles of the individual mind. But Thoreau, like Emerson and other Transcendentalists, believed that intuition was a pipeline to a universal truth, and that conscience was a stern task master rather than a matter of mere subjective belief. (Emerson, from “Self-Reliance”: “The populace think that your rejection of popular standards is a rejection of all standard, and mere antinomianism…. If any one imagines that this law is lax, let him keep its commandment one day.”) In other words, she inserts a contemporary relativist epistemology for the epistemological foundations of Transcendentalism, and then find the politics wanting. That generations of activists have found the politics of civil disobedience to be effective as an appeal rooted in moral notions of right and natural law suggests that there’s definitely something more to Thoreau’s position than “libertarianism”. In many ways, the politics of non-violence suggested by Thoreau would be marked as “mature,” and non-adolescent.

    • I think that’s an absolutely correct reading of the deficiencies of Schulz’s critique and a great example of the way in which her presumptions about the immaturity of the text force her into a very bad reading: she is trying to read Thoreau as she imagines a typical teenager today would read his ideas of civil disobedience. I don’t think she can really read Thoreau outside that imagined reader.

  3. Great essay, Andy. I love your ability to catch the assumptions running between an argument that most people overlook.

    On the whole, I agree with you: associating libertarianism with adolescents (particularly obnoxious young boys, it seems clearly implied) is a rhetorical move that holds little water when examined. I’m not entirely sure that it doesn’t have *any* function than reassuring the choir — there is always those who quietly “overhear” the discussion to consider — but on the whole it’s a solid point.

    I am not so sure, however, as to what you might suggest as an alternative. After all, many many people have “[tried] to understand and critique the appeal of libertarianism in its own terms,” but you seem to assume here that such an exercise would lead to abandoning the kind of rhetoric the adolescent accusation implies. I wonder if such rhetoric does not, in some cases, result from, or follow after, giving up on such an enterprise! Because for many who have tried to seriously engage libertarians — even the bleeding hearts kind — what I have observed is a frustration with the impossibility of critiquing them on their own terms, because their own terms are incoherent, and when that is pointed out to them, the response; whether they turn to denialism or dogmatism or attack mode — is not encouraging. In other words, taking people on their own terms is not something that will always yield something that looks any more kind, or “open minded,” than lazy associations with wild youth or anything else.

    I’ll summarize my point this way: sincerity is not the same thing as accuracy. Surely not all libertarians are assholes and most are not actually sociopaths, but I feel anyone who takes a sustained look at the texts and actual arguments of libertarians would be hard pressed not to discover a pretty sociopathic political philosophy. Maybe saying so, or thinking so, only makes me feel good; but then again, there is something to making a normative argument with such grandiose associations, considering our third party overhearing us again — if such thinking is not, in any sociological sense, actually sociopathic, any decent society would certainly class it as such, even if with the appropriate amount of pity and tolerance.

    • These are really challenging points, Robin, and I’m very glad you’re pushing back here. I find that I approach this problem from the perspective that psychology is less useful than history for generating the kinds of questions which will give us some purchase on the tendencies and characteristics of libertarianism (or other ideologies). For instance, “why does libertarianism have such appeal for teenagers?” is more likely (imo) to lead to point-scoring and affirmation of things one already believes than a more historical question about libertarianism might. Shifting from age to race, we may think we know why most libertarians are white, and we can easily come up with a psychological explanation, but I think that would be less useful than a historical investigation of what connections have existed between libertarian organizations or figures and white supremacist or white nationalist groups. Or something of that nature.
      Perhaps more historically-grounded inquiries will miss something which psychological accounts will provide, but I feel on firmer ground, I suppose, with the former.

      • Oh, I totally agree with that, especially since people’s individual psychological is less important than, let’s say, the collective unconscious of the society? (Ie, it’s not that people are being ‘immature,’ it is that they are participating in racism, whatever their own motivations or psychological dynamics.)

  4. All I know is that we sure were lucky to have had someone like Don Henley on the job when Walden Woods, the forest around Walden Pond, was threatened by two development projects in 1990. His creation, the grassroots non-profit Walden Woods Project, bought the two development sites and helped find alternative sites for the two projects. Future generations of Americans would be able to enjoy the woods and pond in perpetuity.

    I shudder to think of what would have happened if Kathryn Schultz had been in charge. I can picture her wild-eyed and screaming about saving the world while she flattened the woods with her bulldozer. A real takedown of the man, indeed.

    I suppose, though, it’s not her fault. The chasm between someone like her and Thoreau is just too wide for her to negotiate. You know never the twain meeting and all that. She’s a materialist and he’s a transcendentalist. She will never understand matters of the soul and will always see accomplishment only in career terms of career and goods. She will live in time and not outside of time

    Playwright Arthur Miller’s words will never hold any meaning for her: “And so the sixties people would stop time, money time, production time, and its concomitant futurism. . .Dope stops time. More accurately, money time and production time and social time. And the pulsing of your heart is the clock and the future is measured by prospective trips, or new interior discoveries yet to come. Ken Kesey saw America saved by LSD once; the chemical exploding the future forever and opening the mind and heart to the now, to the precious life being traded away for a handful of dust.”

    That’s what Thoreau and Emerson (sans LSD) were about – awakening the soul of America in the face of increasing materialism. Never forget that it was the quietly desperate Transcendentalists who sounded the alarm (about such things as slavery, an unjust war, and the dehumanizing of the newly instituted factory system) – they claimed that our true Manifest Destiny was to discover our own souls. They told us that the restless anticipation we felt was really for union with our higher selves and that it was a fool’s game to run off to the frontier in search of an illusory El Dorado when the only frontier worth exploring lay inside our heads. Because Transcendentalism is but a mystical form of Puritanism, it was not surprising that the call was to another, higher, world – a world far removed from the gross bonds of material existence.

    I don’t really care about what she says about Thoreau, though I feel sorry for Ms. Schultz. She must be an extremely unhappy person. I hope she is happy with her material gains in this world. My real hope though is that she one day learns to draw the distinction between being a woman writing as opposed to a writing woman. As for me I’ll take Thoreau’s wisdom over her type of knowledge anyday. Some of us feel no discomfort about his persona.

    • Publius,
      I think you’re being unnecessarily harsh toward Schulz. I feel that here and in your comment below, the nature of your critique is more ad hominem than it needs to be.

  5. I thought Donovan Hohn’s rejoinder in the New Republic was pretty useful as a corrective to the caricature Schulz presents: http://www.newrepublic.com/article/123162/everybody-hates-henry-david-thoreau

    Among the many observations Hohn makes, I think his most potent is simply that Schulz doesn’t get Thoreau’s sense of humor, and therefore falsely assumes that he had none – leading her to wildly misinterpret him on various points. But Thoreau’s contemporaries got his jokes and liked them. Hohn notes that parts of Walden often singled out as boringly puritanical – “Economy” for instance – in fact originated as lectures which were well-understood to be satire and which evoked abundant laughter from audiences.

  6. This:

    Yet even if it is not quite true, one thing that the narrative of middle-age deradicalization reveals is that we have, in fact, two quite different ideas about the relation between age and politics. One of them is that we grow more conservative (more hostile to change, more wary of innovation, less interested in the unfamiliar) as we age; the other is that we grow more tolerant and mature…

    While not directly about Thoreau, catches my eye.

    As for the plaint about stereotyping libertarianism? I think the lament is a glass half-full, but no more.

    There’s a difference between stereotypes and generalizations, and if the generalization is adequately framed and has enough explanatory value, it’s worth keeping.

    I call Schultz’s observation a generalization, not a stereotype.

  7. I too thought that the Hohn rejoinder was well delivered and worth reading along with Andy’s piece here. It’s worth noting that Schulz’s take on Thoreau–or, as we should probably see it, on Walden–is essentially the same as the one that’s been offered in American Studies and English graduate study over the last twenty or so years. I remember a friend of mine reading Thoreau in grad school, or maybe teaching it to undergrads for the first time, back then and delivering a similar verdict as a one-liner: pretty awful in the way that it encourages the individualist fantasies of deluded boys, or something to that effect. He was definitely trying to undermine some of my juvenile fantasies of self-reliance, as good friends do when you need it.

    It’s a useful critique, and salutary for me to hear then and true as far as it goes, but perhaps not as all encompassing or wise as we or Schulz might think, as Andy and Hohn suggest. Sometimes it has come to have some of the same self-satisfied surety about it that is as easily attributable to Walden itself. Just the word “Thoreau” or “Emerson” is used pretty casually these days in certain circles to supposedly easily dismiss interest in intellectual history or older forms of cultural history in American Studies and history–a sort of shorthand that’s no less produced by a series of assumptions now than the easy assumption that those figures were the rightful canon 30 or so years ago. So I think Schulz’s essay is less disruptive than she’d like to imagine.

  8. “Look, I don’t intend to let anybody make me live in less of a world than I am capable of living in. (Ken) Babbs once said it perfectly: A man should have the right to be as big as he feels it’s in him to be. People are reluctant to permit this.”

    – Ken Kesey

    what more is there to say?

    • “I shudder to think of what would have happened if Kathryn Schultz had been in charge. I can picture her wild-eyed and screaming about saving the world while she flattened the woods with her bulldozer. A real takedown of the man, indeed.”

      “I feel sorry for Ms. Schultz. She must be an extremely unhappy person. I hope she is happy with her material gains in this world. My real hope though is that she one day learns to draw the distinction between being a woman writing as opposed to a writing woman.

      What more, indeed.

      • “Man is thus metamorphosed into a thing, into many things. The planter, who is Man sent out into the field to gather food, is seldom cheered by any idea of the true dignity of his ministry. He sees his bushel and his cart, and nothing beyond, and sinks into the farmer, instead of Man on the farm. The tradesman scarcely ever gives an ideal worth to his work, but is ridden by the routine of his craft, and the soul is subject to dollars. The priest becomes a form; the attorney, a statute-book; the mechanic, a machine; the sailor, a rope of a ship.”

        From Emerson’s American Scholar

        what would Emerson make of her then?

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