Henry David Thoreau’s Personality: Elusive Man of Multitudes

How do people regard Henry David Thoreau? Do they tend to take him too literally and, as a result, miss who he really was?

It’s not unusual for someone to have a mixed reputation—because people are complicated. Henry David Thoreau is no exception. An essayist and a key figure in the Transcendentalist movement, Thoreau is still read by many and revered by some.

Keep reading to learn about Henry David Thoreau’s personality from those who knew him and those who’ve read his works.

Henry David Thoreau’s Personality

Modern assessments of Henry David Thoreau’s personality through his writings range from reverent to scornful. Some critics object to what they see as Thoreau’s hypocrisy, self-righteousness, and misanthropy. For instance, science writer and environmental journalist Kathryn Schulz describes Walden as a work of “fantasy” and “the original cabin porn.” She writes that Thoreau was a narcissist obsessed with himself and with his pursuit of a lifestyle that met his idiosyncratic standards of purity. According to Schulz, Thoreau’s individualist point of view also led him to some objectionable political ideas—ideas that, she contends, show a lack of trust or concern for other people. 

On the other hand, Donovan Hohn writes that Schulz’s portrait of Thoreau reduces him to caricature. Hohn explains that Thoreau thought of Walden as a poem and wrote in a persona that was akin to the “I” in an Emily Dickinson poem. He also notes that, when critics take Thoreau too literally, they miss his jokes, hyperbole, metaphor, and parody—such as his statement that he forewent a doormat to avoid “the beginnings of evil,” which plays on the format of a Puritan sermon. Similarly, in The Thoreau You Don’t Know, Robert Sullivan writes that tongue-in-cheek statements throughout Walden reveal Thoreau’s mischievous streak.

Like most people, Thoreau was full of contradictions—or multitudes, as his contemporary and acquaintance Walt Whitman once wrote. Lawrence Buell writes in Henry David Thoreau: Thinking Disobediently that the numerous tensions between Thoreau’s desire to live in the wilderness and his tendency to be a homebody, his activism and his withdrawal, or even his interests in lyricism and in science produce contradictions. Buell writes that, while Thoreau’s mentor Emerson saw these contradictions as a failure, these unresolved tensions are part of what makes the real Thoreau so interesting—and so elusive.

Henry David Thoreau’s Personality: Elusive Man of Multitudes

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, and philosophy. A switch to audiobooks has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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