Pushcart 2015: Rebecca Solnit, “Mysteries of Thoreau, Unsolved” (non-fiction) from Orion, May 2013

Orion photograph: “Air Your Dirty Laundry” by Chloe Beacon

There is one writer in all literature whose laundry arrangements have been excoriated again and again, and it is not Virginia Woolf, who almost certainly never did her own washing, or James Baldwin, or the rest of the global pantheon. The laundry of the poets remains a closed topic, from the tubercular John Keats (blood-spotted handkerchiefs) to Pablo Neruda (lots of rumpled sheets). Only Henry David Thoreau has been tried in the popular imagination and found wanting for his cleaning arrangements, though the true nature of those arrangements are not so clear.

I had a strong and complicated reaction to this essay (available online, thank you, Orion), and I’m not sure why. I let it sit a few days, thinking maybe I was in a bad mood or was under the emotional influence of some other event. But no, I still have a strong reaction to it. I’m still not sure why. But my purpose here is to record my reactions to what I read, though I sometimes, as now, do so with trepidation.

Solnit characterizes this piece as being “about categories, which I have found to be leaky vessels all my life.” It stems from a response on Facebook to a comment she made about the breadth of America – “nation of Thoreau and John Brown… slaveowners and slaves.” This fit in somehow to a counterargument to the notion that Americans don’t care about prisoners. I’m not sure what that was about, but while it’s true there are people who are working tirelessly on prison reform, we are still the nation with the highest incarceration rate; we are the nation that created Homan Square; and we are also the nation that fought for justice and eventually ordered reparations to its victims. America’s a complicated place.

What has this to do with Thoreau’s laundry? Apparently someone on Facebook replied to Solnit’s post so: “And the nation of Thoreau’s sister who came every week to take his dirty laundry.”

The sneering follow-up message I got from the person who claims that Thoreau was a man whose sister did his washing made me feel crummy for a day or so during an otherwise ebullient period of being around people that I love and who love me back. I composed various ripostes in my head. Having grown up with parents who believed deeply in the importance of being right and the merit of facts, I usually have to calm down and back up to realize that there is no such thing as winning an argument in this kind of situation, only escalating. Facebook’s verb “friend” is annoying, but its corollary, “unfriend,” is occasionally useful.
I decided against unfriending but for simply avoiding the person into whose unfriendly fire I’d strayed. The thing to do was to seek out more convivial company.

I would imagine there was more to the exchange than that, because that hardly seems to rise to the level of “sneering.” I think of Anita Sarkeesian and Brianna Wu receiving threats of violence. I think of the tumblr Penn professor Anthea Butler kept of the racist messages she’s received to make clear what she deals with daily. And I worry: have I become so inured to online jousting that anything short of epithets and death threats seems friendly? I’m not immune to hurt feelings, after all; just yesterday I wondered if I was being trolled on a MOOC message board (rule of thumb: if I can’t tell, I’m not).

Why am I making such a big deal of this? Because the essay makes a big deal of it, before getting down to the heart of the matter:

None of us is pure, and purity is a dreary pursuit best left to Puritans.

I have absolutely no doubt that Thoreau was a good guy with a generous, compassionate heart; he was on the side of the angels in many important causes – pacifism, abolition. I have no doubt he had many flaws. I have no doubt the world is a better place because he was in it. And I have no doubt that his more quotidian requirements during his stay at Walden – meals, laundry – were supported by others. I see no contradiction there, no hypocrisy. Interesting people are complicated.

Emerson owned the land on which Thoreau built his cabin. If you’re going to escape from society, it’s helpful to have a friend with a place you can go. I see no hypocrisy in that, either. If Newton stood on the shoulders of giants, why shouldn’t the rest of us? In America, we all stand on the shoulders of giants, as well as the shoulders of slaveowners, of slaves, of native Americans and those who murdered them. Slaves built the White House, the modern world economy.

None of us is pure, so let’s stop making our heroes live up to that impossibility. It wasn’t Thoreau, after all, who said, “I built that.”

What did he say:

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.

~~ HD Thoreau, Walden

I see nothing there about doing one’s own laundry. I don’t even see anything about self-reliance; that was Emerson’s essay.

Yet, I understand the kick-back, and I think it does come down exactly to “You didn’t build that.” A person who has been raised with education, role models, societal acceptance, and the confidence that comes with that has advantages. It isn’t about money, or even about being educated or smart; it’s about being given slack to experiment. Then, it was about “That odd Thoreau boy’s off doing something in the woods, Henrietta, he’s always got to be different,” versus gathering a posse to chase him out of town. Today, it’s about a white open-carry advocate walking by a school with a gun on his hip, arguing with cops for ten minutes before walking away, while a black 12-year-old playing with a bb-gun is shot dead after 2 seconds of assessment. It’s about getting the benefit of the doubt. It’s about who looks suspicious and who doesn’t. It’s about privilege – not in terms of money, or an easy life, as Franchesca Ramsey explains, but in terms of assumptions strangers automatically make about us.

Thoreau was arrested for not paying a tax he believed supported war and slavery. It seems his arrest was, by the way, illegal. Even privilege isn’t enough, sometimes. But he lived, and in the past few years, we’ve seen many who don’t fare as well. And, by the way, he spent one night in jail before an unidentified woman, possibly a cousin, paid the tax (I wonder if it was out of solidarity, or social embarrassment; in any case, Thoreau got out of jail on her dime).

But Thoreau didn’t claim he built anything; he just investigated the world and wrote down what he thought. Maybe it’s the heroism we thrust upon him, that makes him such a target for a take-down.

My favorite part of Solnit’s essay has nothing to do with Thoreau, or laundry, but concerns etymology:

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, free has the same Indo-European root as the Sanskrit word priya, which means “beloved” or “dear.”… The scholars say that the word may hark back to an era when households consisted of the free people who were members of the extended family, and the unfree ones who were slaves and servants. Family members have more rights than slaves and servants, so even though “free” in the United States is often seen as meaning one who has no ties, it was once the other way around. Which is another way of saying that freedom has less to do with that Lynyrd Skynyrd sense of the word (in which we don’t care about prisoners were anyone else) and more to do with the idea of agency.

I love that the root of freedom is linked with family ties; it ties in nicely with a conversation I’m having right now with an old friend. And I’d love to have a sister who would do my laundry. But I have to wonder: what might Sis have accomplished, if she hadn’t been so focused on doing all that laundry? And, doesn’t she deserve a small recognition of her contribution to Thoreau’s accomplishment, as well?


2 responses to “Pushcart 2015: Rebecca Solnit, “Mysteries of Thoreau, Unsolved” (non-fiction) from Orion, May 2013

  1. “And, doesn’t she deserve a small recognition of her contribution to Thoreau’s accomplishment, as well?” In response to your call, please see my essay, “‘Henry’s brilliant sister’: The Pivotal Role of Sophia Thoreau in Her Brother’s Posthumous Publications<' in The New England Quarterly, June 2016.

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