P.J. O’Rourke on Thoreau

Since I began the process of attempting to read Civil Disobedience, I’ve had in the back of my mind a typically starchy takedown of him by P.J. O’Rourke in his 1996 book All the Trouble in the World. I quote at length:

Thoreau took the bad ideas and worse ideals of the primitivists, added the pitiful self-obsession of the romantics, and mixed all of this into transcendentalism, that stew of bossy Brahmin spiritual hubris.

The transcendentalists were much devoted to taking the most ordinary thoughts and ideas and investing them with preposterous spiritual gravity. They saw the divine in everything, even in long, boring lectures about how everything is divine. Any random peek into the essays of Ralph Waldo Emerson will show you the method by which “don’t Litter” has been turned into an entire secular religion.

In 1845 the twenty-eight-year-old Thoreau (having failed to read Rousseau closely enough) built himself a little cabin near Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts. The land was owned by Emerson and was about as far out of twon as the average modern driving range. Thoreau frequently wen to dinners and parties in Concord, and, according to is list of household expenses in Walden, he sent his laundry out to be done. Theoreau lived in his shack for two years devoting his time to being full of baloney…

We have hear the worst sort of person, the sanctimonious beatnik. Thoreau is the progenitor of the American hipster arrogance we’ve been enduring for the past century and a half. And he is the source of the loathsome self-righteousness that turns every kid who’s ever thought “a tree is better looking than a parking lot” into Saint Paul of the Recycling Bin.

Keep in mind that in 1996, the word “hipster” did not have the same resonance it has today. O’Rourke was referring to the whole hip tradition, rather than the particularly ridiculous exemplars of trendy vapidity emanating from the newly gentrifying parts of Brooklyn and Austin and the like. One might be worried about the relevance of this book today, if one were a preening hipster.

I’m not done with Thoreau. This has the makings of a book.


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