“Half-witted men from the almshouse and elsewhere came to see me; but I endeavored to make them exercise all the wit they had, and make their confessions to me; in such cases making wit the theme of our conversation; and so was compensated. Indeed, I found some of them to be wiser than the so-called overseers of the poor and selectmen of the town, and thought it was time that the tables were turned. With respect to wit, I learned that there was not much difference between the half and the whole.” — Henry David Thoreau, “Visitors,” Walden Continue reading
While in the woods, Thoreau met a French Canadian woodchopper who was a “true Homeric or Paphlagonian man.” (Paphlagonia was an ancient Roman province on the Black Sea.) His name was Alek Therien. Henry does not name him in the book, but describes him at length; he obviously likes and admires the man, and his comments tell us a lot about the characteristics that Henry valued in a person.
“A more simple and natural man it would be hard to find. Vice and disease, which cast such a sombre moral hue over the world, seemed to have hardly any existence for him. He was about twenty-eight years old, and had left Canada and his father’s house a dozen years before to work in the States, and earn money to buy a farm with at last, perhaps in his native country.”
Henry liked him because he was sincere, unpretentious, thought for himself, and lived simply. He was good at what he did but wasn’t obsessed with work. He was friendly and sociable but spent a good deal of time alone. Continue reading
Last time I wrote about something that Thoreau wasn’t good at, and today I was about do the same today… but I changed my mind. First, listen to him describe hosting guests to came to visit him in his little cabin:
“If one guest came he sometimes partook of my frugal meal, and it was no interruption to conversation to be stirring a hasty-pudding, or watching the rising and maturing of a loaf of bread in the ashes, in the meanwhile. But if twenty came and sat in my house there was nothing said about dinner, though there might be bread enough for two, more than if eating were a forsaken habit; but we naturally practised abstinence; and this was never felt to be an offence against hospitality, but the most proper and considerate course.… I could entertain thus a thousand as well as twenty; and if any ever went away disappointed or hungry from my house when they found me at home, they may depend upon it that I sympathized with them at least. So easy is it, though many housekeepers doubt it, to establish new and better customs in the place of the old. You need not rest your reputation on the dinners you give.”
How convenient, I was thinking, to redefine hospitality when you’re too cheap to feed your guests (I’m assuming these were invited guests), especially when you frequently enjoy the hospitality of others, as Henry did. Continue reading
As much as I admire Thoreau, I don’t always agree with him. That’s OK. It’s been said that if two people agree on everything, only one is doing the thinking. Today the topic is friendship and physical space, and I think Henry’s ideas (quoted from the “Solitude” chapter of Walden) don’t make a lot of sense:
“Individuals, like nations, must have suitable broad and natural boundaries, even a considerable neutral ground, between them… if we speak reservedly and thoughtfully, we want to be farther apart, that all animal heat and moisture may have a chance to evaporate. If we would enjoy the most intimate society with that in each of us which is without, or above, being spoken to, we must not only be silent, but commonly so far apart bodily that we cannot possibly hear each other’s voice in any case.” Continue reading
I don’t think Thoreau gets enough credit for his sense of humor. He could be a pretty funny guy, in a deadpan sort of way, and was even willing to poke fun at himself, as in this description of his little house at Walden Pond:
“One inconvenience I sometimes experienced in so small a house, the difficulty of getting to a sufficient distance from my guest when we began to utter the big thoughts in big words. You want room for your thoughts to get into sailing trim and run a course or two before they make their port. The bullet of your thought must have overcome its lateral and ricochet motion and fallen into its last and steady course before it reaches the ear of the hearer, else it may plow out again through the side of his head. Also, our sentences wanted room to unfold and form their columns in the interval… As the conversation began to assume a loftier and grander tone, we gradually shoved our chairs farther apart till they touched the wall in opposite corners, and then commonly there was not room enough.”
Can’t you just see these two guys, getting more and more wound up with their grand ideas? Henry is going to make a serious point (more about that next time) but I’m not convinced that he always took himself as seriously as we might assume.
(About “A Year in Walden”)
“Many of our houses, both public and private, with their almost innumerable apartments, their huge halls and their cellars for the storage of wines and other munitions of peace, appear to be extravagantly large for their inhabitants. They are so vast and magnificent that the latter seem to be only vermin which infest them. I am surprised when the herald blows his summons before some Tremont or Astor or Middlesex House, to see come creeping out over the piazza for all inhabitants a ridiculous mouse, which soon again slinks into some hole in the pavement.”
—Henry David Thoreau, “Visitors,” Walden
(About “A Year in Walden”)
“I think that I love society as much as most, and am ready enough to fasten myself like a bloodsucker for the time to any full-blooded man that comes in my way. I am naturally no hermit, but might possibly sit out the sturdiest frequenter of the bar-room, if my business called me thither.” —Henry David Thoreau, “Visitors,” Walden
One of the most persistent myths about Thoreau is that he was a hermit who spent his life living alone in the woods. Anyone who says this has obviously not read Walden.
It’s also inaccurate to say that Thoreau didn’t like other people, or that he wasn’t interested in what they had to say. It’s true, he could be a difficult friend at times. Biographer Robert Richardson says he was “capable of a kind of tart defensive superiority which, when not laced with wit, could irritate — and continues to irritate — his detractors.” (Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind, p. 185) But Richardson also notes that “friendship was, in certain ways, vital to him.” And, for what it’s worth, local children “were so deeply impressed with his minute knowledge of everything in town they thought it was Mr. Thoreau who had made Concord.” (p. 296)
(About “A Year in Walden”)