“I would rather sit on a pumpkin and have it all to myself, than to be crowded on a velvet cushion.”
This is Thoreau in a nutshell (or in a pumpkin shell?). But don’t take him too seriously. He sounds pretty strident here, preaching spartan self-sufficiency from his pumpkin, but just a page later he grants, “Not that all architectural ornament is to be neglected even in the rudest periods; but let our houses first be lined with beauty, where they come in contact with our lives, like a tenement of the shell-fish, and not overlaid with it.”
And lest you take him for a Luddite, he even says, “it certainly is better to accept the advantages, though so dearly bought, which the invention and industry of mankind offer.”
So he’s not against ornamentation, nor is he anti-technology. I interpret the shell-fish comment as a plea for authenticity rather than pretention, the idea that your aesthetics should be in a sense organic, arising from something within yourself, and not contrived out of a desire to show off or to cultivate a persona.
Which is not easy to do. How much of what we desire is truly authentic to ourselves? We’re social creatures. We’re influenced by those around us. We may say we prefer the pumpkin that’s all ours, and maybe sometimes we do, but not always. Even Henry only stayed in his cabin in the woods for a few years.
You can look at some of Henry’s bold pronouncements in two ways. One way is to interpret him as setting up an idealistic and unreasonable standard that neither he nor we can live up to. Another way is to hear him as an asker of provocative questions. Could I live the way he recommends? Would I even want to? And if not, why not?
(About “A Year in Walden”)