Saturday, June 10, 2017

Henry David Thoreau, Millennial Precursor

Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862)

Henry David Thoreau: Millennial Before His Time

By Henry Percy

The Thoreau Society is gearing up for the Thoreau Bicentennial Gathering: Celebrating the Life, Works, and Legacy of Henry David Thoreau on 11-16 July. It’s a safe bet that speakers indulging in six days of hagiography will be sorely needing some diversity of opinion on that graduate of Harvard College. To that end I submit the following reflections which have grown out of my engagement with the ideas of Concord’s most famous son.

When I was a sophomore in high school Dad encouraged me to read Thoreau, so I devoured Walden. Here was a kindred spirit, an idealist, an iconoclast I could relate to. One of the passages in Walden that made an impression on me was the account of the farmer who refuses to simplify his life, who believes he must have cream and sugar in his coffee and other luxuries rather than enjoying nature, going huckleberrying and letting the morrow take care of itself. Upon rereading that passage a few years ago I discovered that it was even nastier than I had recalled.

The passage about the farmer begins about loc. 2637 (all references are to the Kindle Xist Classics edition). The farmer in question is John Field, a poor Irishman who has recently immigrated. Thoreau sneers at the man’s misguided hope that America will fulfill his dreams. Field’s son is “the broad-faced boy who assisted his father at his work,” i.e., an enabler in his parents’ doomed enterprise. But the portrait of the little girl is ghastly:
the wrinkled, sibyl-like, cone-headed infant that sat upon its father’s knee as in the palaces of nobles, and looked out from its home in the midst of wet and hunger inquisitively upon the stranger, with the privilege of infancy, not knowing but it was the last of a noble line, and the hope and cynosure of the world, instead of John Field’s poor starveling brat.
Yes, the Fields are desperately poor, but the child is simply expressing affection for her father. Is that so evil? Would Thoreau prefer that she be morose and bitter, upbraiding her father for not taking them huckleberrying? All the Harvard grad sees is a “poor starveling brat.” A more unsympathetic portrait can scarcely be imagined.

As for the father, “an honest, hard-working, but shiftless man plainly was John Field.” Why plainly shiftless? Because he toils all day to keep his family fed and clothed? Because he has not time to read the Bhagavad Gita and contemplate the eternal verities of life? “But alas! the culture of an Irishman is an enterprise to be undertaken with a sort of moral bog hoe.” No, poor John Field is no match for the condescending Harvard man sheltering from a rainstorm in the Irishman’s humble home.

The Irish, newly arrived in America, having fled famine and misery in their homeland, were the lowest of the low in this country. Mark Twain mentions stores signs: “Help Wanted – No Irish Need Apply.” And here is the moralistic, preening Thoreau to kick the Field family in the teeth. Did he offer to fix their leaking roof? To repair their well that they might have clean water? Oh no, not he. As soon as the rain lets up he must be off, running “down the hill toward the reddening west, with the rainbow over my shoulder.”

Thoreau’s attitude toward the Fields is just not an aberration. Consider his reaction on making a detour to see the wreck of the St. John, a ship filled with Irish immigrants, in 1849, quoted by Kathryn Schulz in her excellent article in The New Yorker:
“On the whole,” he wrote, “it was not so impressive a scene as I might have expected. If I had found one body cast upon the beach in some lonely place, it would have affected me more. I sympathized rather with the winds and waves, as if to toss and mangle these poor human bodies was the order of the day. If this was the law of Nature, why waste any time in awe or pity?” This impassive witness also had stern words for those who, undone by the tragedy, could no longer enjoy strolling along the beach. Surely, he admonished, “its beauty was enhanced by wrecks like this, and it acquired thus a rarer and sublimer beauty still.”
What kind of monster finds that the remains of a broken ship and coffins awaiting burial impart “a rarer and sublimer beauty” to the landscape? There’s a pattern here: our stern Transcendentalist is a misanthrope, one who loved humanity but hated people.

As wretched as these sentiments are, there is worse in the muddled philosophy of Walden. Thoreau tells us ad nauseam that his purpose was to “live life deliberately” and to “simplify simplify simplify.” How did he support himself? For starters, he built his cabin on land owned by his friend, Ralph Waldo Emerson, a kindness conveniently overlooked in Walden: Emerson’s name does not appear in the book. That was an advantage that impoverished John Field did not enjoy.

How did Thoreau feed himself? We know that his celebrated bean crop was a dismal failure. This was his diet: “Rye and Indian meal without yeast, potatoes, rice, a very little salt pork, molasses, and salt and my drink, water. It was fit that I should live on rice, mainly, who love so well the philosophy of India” (loc. 814).

Close inspection reveals that this “simple” diet was not simple at all. His rice would have been grown in South Carolina or Georgia, over 1000 miles from his humble cabin. His molasses had its origin in sugar cane raised in the West Indies, over 1500 miles away. Talk about not buying locally. And both crops were grown by slaves. How many wretches worse off than John Field were required to support Thoreau’s “simple” lifestyle? How could Thoreau, the obstreperous abolitionist, the uncompromising supporter of the underground railroad, not know that his rice and molasses were produced by slaves? Those slaves who toiled in the rice paddies and sugar cane fields, the stevedores who wrestled barrels onto ships, the teamsters who hauled them to the stores of Concord—these men did not have the luxury of running “down the hill toward the reddening west.”

Thoreau also neglects to mention that when he grew tired of his “simple” fare he could make the 20-minute walk home and enjoy mama’s cooking. And when his experiment was over he moved back into Emerson’s house for two years, then back with his parents, never to leave, working off and on in daddy’s despised pencil factory. He is an apt prototype for educated millennials, schooled at college but ignorant of life, scornful of taking a job incommensurate with their vast talents and so living in mama’s basement. “If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them” (loc. 4133). Would that Thoreau had attended to his foundations. Instead, he has encouraged generations of dreamers to feel good about themselves while disparaging the toil of those who make possible their lifestyle.

Food is the first human need, prior to clothing, shelter, or any other want. I spent my early years working in the fields of our farm, hoeing beets and beans, hauling hay, pulling weeds in fields of wheat. I chose not be become a farmer, as were my ancestors. But I have tremendous respect for the two percent of our population who grow our food. They give us the leisure to run “down the hill toward the reddening west” if we wish, to argue about the meaning of life, to dream about a simple lifestyle where we raise our own food. The least we can do is be grateful to them.

From The American Thinker (May 30, 2017)


  1. Thoreau commented about his Walden pond experience how good it was to live so simply. but then when the experience was over went back to the rather fancy life style he was accustomed to prior to Walden.

    1. POSER (noun)

      A person who acts in an affected manner in order to impress others.

      synonyms: exhibitionist · poseur · posturer · fake · show-off