This article first appeared in May/June 2013 issue of Orion magazine. For a free copy of the latest issue, click here.

Mysteries of Thoreau, Unsolved

On the dirtiness of laundry and the strength of sisters.


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.

I got prodded into taking an interest in the laundry of the author of “Civil Disobedience” and “A Few Words in Defense of John Brown” in the course of an unwise exchange. Let me begin again by saying that I actually like Facebook, on which this particular morning I had sent birthday wishes to my Cuban translator and disseminated a booklet about debt resistance. I signed up for Facebook in 2007 to try to keep track of what young Burmese exiles were doing in response to the uprising in that country, and so I use it with fewer blushes than a lot of my friends—and perhaps even my “friends,” since Facebook has provided me with a few thousand souls in that incoherent category.

And really, this is an essay about categories, which I have found such leaky vessels all my life: everything you can say about a category of people—immigrant taxi drivers, say, or nuns—has its exceptions, and so the category obscures more than it explains, though it does let people tidy up the complicated world into something simpler. I knew a Franciscan nun who started the great era of civil-disobedience actions against nuclear weapons at the Nevada Test Site that were to reshape my life so profoundly and lead to the largest mass arrests in American history, but remind me someday to tell you about the crackhead nun on the lam who framed her sex partner as a rapist and car thief. A private eye I know exonerated him, as I intend to do with Thoreau, uncle if not father of civil disobedience, over the question of the laundry.

It’s because I bridle at so many categories that I objected to an acquaintance’s sweeping generalization on Facebook that Americans don’t care about prisoners. Now, more than 2 million of us are prisoners in this country, and many millions more are the family members of those in prison or are in the category of poor nonwhite people most often imprisoned, and all these people probably aren’t indifferent. In my mild response I mentioned a host of organizations like the Center for Constitutional Rights, which has done a great deal for the prisoners in Guantánamo. I could’ve mentioned my friend Scott who was a pro-bono lawyer for the Angola Three for a decade or so, or my friend Melody, a criminal defense investigator who did quite a lot for people on death row. They are a minority, but they count.

Having ignored the warning signs of someone looking for people to condemn, I recklessly kept typing: “We were the nation of Thoreau and John Brown and the Concord Female Anti-Slavery Society when we were also the nation of slaveowners—and slaves.” Which was a way of reiterating my sense that the opposite is also true of almost anything you can say about this vast messy empire of everybody from everywhere that pretends to be a coherent country, this place that is swamps and skyscrapers and mobile homes and Pueblo people in fourteenth-century villages on the Rio Grande. And 2.5 million prisoners. Truth for me has always come in tints and shades and spectrums and never in black and white, and America is a category so big as to be useless, unless you’re talking about the government.

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