“No other male American writer has been so discredited for enjoying a meal with loved ones or for not doing his own laundry.“
—Laura Dassow Walls, Henry David Thoreau: A Life
“Thoreau” was trending on Twitter yesterday, not because anyone was actually reading him or grappling with his ideas, but because his “mom did his laundry” and “brought him sandwiches” at Walden.
There have been many takedowns of Thoreau and many defenses of him. (I recommend this essay and Laura Walls’ wonderful bio.) But “over the question of the laundry,” Rebecca Solnit wrote an attempt to “exonerate” him in 2013. (The essay, much like this blog post, was provoked by getting mad at something someone said on social media. It was published in Orion under the title “Mysteries of Thoreau, Unsolved.” Poke around a little online and you’ll find it. It’s funny and good.) The essay begins:
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.
She goes on to list “a long parade of people who pretended to care who did Thoreau’s laundry as a way of not having to care about Thoreau,” even though it is unclear, even amongst Thoreau scholars, who actually did do Thoreau’s laundry.
Do we care who did the chores in any other creative household on earth? Did Dante ever take out the slops? Do we love housework that much? Or do we hate it that much? This fixation on the laundry is related to the larger question of whether artists should be good people as well as good artists, and probably the short answer is that everyone should be a good person, but a lot of artists were only good artists (and quite a lot more were only bad artists). Whether or not they were good people, the good artists gave us something.
“None of us is pure,” she writes, “and purity is a dreary pursuit best left to Puritans.”
Solnit points out that unlike other lit’ry men looking for a woman to look after them, Thoreau never married and “did little to make work for women.” In fact, though we obsess over his two years at Walden, Thoreau was an integral part of his household throughout his life, both supporting his family and gaining support from them. (Which is, you know, the whole damned point of a family.)
It’s also the case that the abolitionist women in Thoreau’s life did a whole lot of influencing on him. “The Thoreau women took in the filthy laundry of the whole nation, stained with slavery, and pressured Thoreau and Emerson to hang it out in public, as they obediently did.”
“This,” Solnit writes, “is the washing that really mattered.”