Henry David Thoreau the environmentalist? I appreciate. Henry David Thoreau the abolitionist? I applaud. Henry David Thoreau the father of simple living and the minimalist movement? I have a bone to pick with you.
Before you dig out your pitchforks and fire up your torches, you need to know something: I have read much of Thoreau, including Walden. At one point in my academic life, I owned no less than four different copies, all of which were heavily annotated. Since I was fifteen, Thoreau squatting in his buddy’s backyard has appeared on at least five different syllabi in my life, one of which actually saw me as the teacher. I say this not to prove my wisdom, but to let you know that I’ve done more than read the social media sound bites. And let’s be clear. He is so damn quotable. Henry David Thoreau the Pinterest darling? I admire.
When bloggers who are taking great risks hold Thoreau’s stint up at the pond as a sign of great motivation, I smile. Sure, he simplified his life. But he did not go out into the wild. He was no Chris McCandless*. Not really. He simply positioned himself in a way that he could opt of out of life for a while. He was vacationing in Emerson’s backyard.
Some see that as risk. No doubt he saw it the same way. But it’s actually privilege. Before you tell me that he was the son of a pencil maker, know this. I know. He was also Harvard educated and served as a tutor to Emerson’s children. In 1845, he went out into the woods to suck the marrow out of life and bash coffee. He wanted to live Spartan-like and then write a book about it.
Also in 1845, Frederick Douglass published Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass to chronicle his experiences as a slave. At the same time, the Irish Potato Famine sent droves of immigrants seeking refuge here. While you can also turn both of those experiences into books, you can’t opt out of those situations. That’s Spartan living with no backup plan, no failsafe. There’s no aunt paying your taxes that you chose not to pay so you could keep going on adventures.
This isn’t a knock on the simple living movement. It’s a reminder of the privilege laced in it. I can shirk the excess in my life because I’m not really living in a world where I could fathom needing it. When The Minimalists tell a veritable army of people to get rid of items that they could re-buy for $20 in twenty minutes, that’s privilege. And you know what? I actually could get rid of my entire medicine cabinet, because I do live in driving distance to numerous stores that would let me scoop up a bottle of Robitussin for $14.99. And I could afford it. I don’t like to spend my money in that way, but I could do it. Just like Thoreau, I can opt out and opt right back in. No harm, no foul. Just lots of privilege.
“As you simplify your life, the laws of the universe will be simpler: solitude will not be solitude, poverty will not be poverty, nor weakness weakness.” Let that sink in for a moment. This week, I observed a student swipe half a granola bar from the cafeteria floor and put it in his pocket. Poverty is poverty. To construct a situation for yourself where poverty isn’t poverty is only possible if you’re not actually impoverished. You’re pretending. In a world where nearly a billion people don’t have access to clean water — some of whom live in Flint, Michigan and poorer neighborhoods of Chicago — and in a country where we still cannot rid our cities of food deserts, you absolutely have the right to share and like and retweet Henry David Thoreau quotes like this one. But never forget what an incredible privilege it is to do so.
* McCandless is another blog post for another day. He was many things, including privileged.
So Tell Me…Where do you stand on Thoreau and minimalism?