She’s wrong, but it’s OK

I started reading Maxine Hong Kingston’s memoir I Love a Broad Margin to My Life. I almost stopped reading before I finished the tenth page.

At the bottom of the ninth page, Maxine Hong Kingston begins talking with Mary Gordon:

[Mary Gordon says:] “It’s capitalistic
of us to expect any good to come from peace demonstrations,
as if ritual has to have use, gain, profit.”
I agreed, “Yes, it’s Buddhist to go parading
for the sake of parading.” “Can you think of a writer
(besides Chekov) who is holy and and artist?”
“Grace Paley.” She smiled. “Well, yes.”
Obviously. “Thoreau.” “Oh, no. Thoreau’s
too Protestant, tidy, nonsexual. He goes
home to Mom for hot chocolate. No
sex, no tragedy, no humor.”
Come to think of it, Thoreau doesn’t make
me laugh….

This is where I almost stopped reading. Doesn’t she get it? Walden is a hilarious parody of all those early nineteenth century adventure books where the protagonist travels to some exotic place and has adventures; the fact that Thoreau goes home to have hot chocolate is part of what makes it funny. Thoreau is constantly poking fun at himself. Admittedly, his puns are often terrible (the title Walden is itself a pun on Waldo, the name Ralph Waldo Emerson was known by, and on the poverty-seeking Waldensians). And Thoreau’s humor can be broad and even a little crude, like twelve-year-old boy humor. But when you read Thoreau out loud to a group of people, you get belly laughs. Maybe this is what comes when we no longer read literature out loud: the words just form in our heads, and we lose touch (literally) with the physical reactions words can provoke.

I decided to forgive Maxine Hong Kingston’s inability to get Thoreau’s humor. She can’t help it if she doesn’t have an inner twelve-year-old boy who likes bad puns and broad humor. And the rest of her memoir is pretty good, although it’s not very funny.