Earlier this week, Kathryn Stott, a junior New Yorker writer, experienced the most amazing succès d’estime. Her takedown of Henry David Thoreau, some 153 years dead, was so effective that virtually everyone of my Facebook acquaintance now has a visceral hatred of the man. It’s as if he had committed some unspeakable crime, like marriage with one’s own granddaughter. To mention a passage I had actually read – say, the one about “sleepers” from Walden – was akin to liking Woody Allen films. Needless to say, I made no friends that day or since on the basis of my getting through both volumes of the Library of America’s Thoreau, even though I was willing to admit that his poetry was not of the best.
I’m not going to make a pro-Thoreau argument, other than to say that if you have not spent a Sunday morning in a sunny alcove reading A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, you are missing out on a very pleasant and edifying experience. Rather, what all this brings up is mob mentality – I doubt that any of my acquaintances had his or her mind changed about the books – and the evergreen question of, if we have Thoreau cop a plea on Stott’s charges, can we allow the contributions of Bad People into our culture or our canon?
My sense is that if we expunged the Bad Chaps, we would have such holes in the tissue of our culture that all those missing Greek tragedies would seem a trifling loss. Certain high-achieving people, be they poets or CEOs, have a “Why do I care what other people think?” mentality, and that can lend itself to brilliant originality, despicable sociopathy, or both. Richard Wagner comes to mind. But just think of a world without musicians like Schwartzkopf, von Karajan, or Orff – or a world in which the U.S. had neither missiles nor a space program, courtesy of a von Braun who had been justly executed as the outcome of his denazification proceedings.
A Bad Chap, politically unsound, beyond the pale of civilized behavior – haven’t we seen these kinds of purges before? In Russia and China, they have been state-sponsored, but they have been taken up as amateur sport on the Internet and in academia. Eventually, when deciding to expunge someone’s work, you get to the same hollow justifications that they came to in Russia and China – “because he was in a textbook”; “because the previous generation valued him”; “because he told people what to do with themselves.” And at that point, it will be up to posterity to find the holes in the historical record.
For now, I am taking a vacation from Facebook and taking up my Thoreau again. “O Death, where is thy sting, O Stott, thy victory?”