Thoreau ridicules the militia (Walden 113)

As we saw last time (and many times before), Thoreau can wax poetic. But can he do sarcasm?

Yes he can, and vividly… especially when the local militia turns out to drill.

First, a bit of context: Henry’s stay at Walden Pond overlapped with the Mexican-American War, a shameless land grab in which the U.S. invented a pretext for stealing a huge portion of Mexico. (That, by the way, is not just my interpretation. It’s also Abraham Lincoln’s. Henry himself despised American imperialism; his famous essay “Civil Disobedience” was written partly in response to the war (and to slavery). He had ample reason to disapprove of militarism and the glorification of war. He writes:

“On gala days the town fires its great guns, which echo like popguns to these woods, and some waifs of martial music occasionally penetrate thus far. To me, away there in my bean-field at the other end of the town, the big guns sounded as if a puffball had burst; and when there was a military turnout of which I was ignorant, I have sometimes had a vague sense all the day of some sort of itching and disease in the horizon, as if some eruption would break out there soon, either scarlatina or canker-rash, until at length some more favorable puff of wind, making haste over the fields and up the Wayland road, brought me information of the “trainers.” It seemed by the distant hum as if somebody’s bees had swarmed, and that the neighbors, according to Virgil’s advice, by a faint tintinnabulum upon the most sonorous of their domestic utensils, were endeavoring to call them down into the hive again. And when the sound died quite away, and the hum had ceased, and the most favorable breezes told no tale, I knew that they had got the last drone of them all safely into the Middlesex hive, and that now their minds were bent on the honey with which it was smeared.

“I felt proud to know that the liberties of Massachusetts and of our fatherland were in such safe keeping; and as I turned to my hoeing again I was filled with an inexpressible confidence, and pursued my labor cheerfully with a calm trust in the future.”

True to form, Henry mocks what his neighbors take seriously. He writes of hearing “the trumpet that sings of fame, and I felt as if I could spit a Mexican with a good relish — for why should we always stand for trifles? — and looked round for a woodchuck or a skunk to exercise my chivalry upon.”

In “Civil Disobedience” Henry explains how people can take action against injustice by noncooperation, and later on he went further than that by supporting radical abolitionist John Brown (discussed here).

Here he demonstrates another powerful weapon: ridicule.

(About  “A Year in Walden”)

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