In 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:
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.