L. Rust Hills, longtime fiction editor at Esquire, files this bracing minority report in How to Do Things Right: The Revelations of a Fussy Man (1993), a compilation of three essay collections he published in the 1970s. The Thoreau evisceration comes in the second volume, How to Retire at Forty-One (1973), and it’s notable that Hills never addresses Thoreau the writer. His prose, especially in the journals, is some of the tartest and most precise crafted by an American, but that’s not central to Hills’ argument. He addresses Thoreau the principled crank and malcontent – who happened to write peerless prose. Readers and critics still fail to make the distinction, one I’ve spent a lifetime learning to make.
Thoreau came to me in adolescence, that most aggressively self-centered period of life (after infancy), one that some of us never outgrow. I was, to put it flatteringly, “disaffected.” That’s why I read Thoreau (and, with slightly less ardor, Emerson and Whitman), not for his language, wit and naturalist’s eye. With contemptuous relish, Hills quotes a phrase from Walden that I reveled in: “…the laboring man has not leisure for a true integrity.” What patronizing rubbish. A man who labors to support his family and meet his other obligations is the very definition of integrity, but I, the son of an ironworker and a tax clerk, couldn’t see it. I can’t think of another major American writer who said so many foolish things so self-righteously. Hills broadens his indictment:
“We have already noticed how dangerously easy it is for a retired man to `decide’ to `become’ a writer. It is even easier, of course, and probably even more dangerous, for a retired man to `decide’ or `realize’ that he’s something of a thinker or philosopher. It is one of the first illusions that besets one in retirement, that one is thinking clearly for the first time in one’s life. What is actually happening, in fact, is that one is getting more and more out of touch with the way things are. More and more one substitutes opinion for information in one’s thinking.”
We recognize such delusions in ourselves, and can assemble a long list of pompous frauds, published and unpublished, who fancy themselves seasoned thinkers of repute. Against Thoreau, Hills set Montaigne, another writer dangerously misunderstood by the wrong sort of people. Before his fabled retirement to the tower, the essayist served as counselor to the Parliament of Bordeaux, and was a courtier at the court of Charles IX, with whom he witnessed the siege of Rouen. He was married and had five daughters. His understanding of the world was rooted in its day-to-day workings. Montaigne “teaches us to be tolerant of the wretched human-ness of humanity” (something Thoreau neither taught nor recognized), Hills writes, and concludes:
“What we could learn from Montaigne is how to live with ourselves as we are. What we could learn from Thoreau is a much better way to live. It is, I suppose, a matter of two kinds of pleasure. Thoreau distinguishes between pure pleasure and impure pleasure. Montaigne does not.”