Thoreau’s cheapskate hospitality (Walden 102)

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.

My wife’s grandmother was a Nebraska farm wife who prided herself on being able to feed on short notice any number of unexpected guests. It would have been an embarrassment not to have enough food in the house to put on a full meal and make sure that no guest went hungry. I don’t know how often in her long life Grandma Kessinger actually had to do this, but she was always prepared.

(Let’s face it, had Henry Thoreau been a woman, he’d have never gotten away with not feeding his guests. But then, a female Thoreau wouldn’t have gotten away with most of the cocky individuality that Henry routinely displayed. She’d have been that crazy woman who lives in the woods. Keep the kids away from her, and too bad we can’t handle things the way the good people of Salem did some years ago.)

But on further thought, I think he has a point. He probably didn’t have the money or the food to feed twenty guests, and at least he was honest about it (though you’d think he could have at least done something). But how many times do people avoid social contacts because they’re afraid of not being able to live up to somebody’s else’s standards? One of the things I find charming about Henry is that he was able to be sociable, perhaps even gregarious at times, without giving a rat’s ass about whether anyone else was impressed with him. He was who he was and you could accept that or not.

(About  “A Year in Walden”)


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