In praise of poverty? (Walden 142)

Last time Thoreau was complaining about Flint, the farmer whose name was undeservedly (in his opinion) attached to a beautiful pond on his property. Henry’s stinging indictment of Flint culminates with, “I respect not his labors, his farm where everything has its price, who would carry the landscape, who would carry his God, to market, if he could get anything for him….”

Ouch. And any of us who are opposed to the persistent idea that value can be measured only (primarily) in dollars, who are alarmed at the intrusion of commerce into every possible facet of life and culture, can cheer this rant.

But then Henry goes on to say something naive and I think rather callous.

“Give me the poverty that enjoys true wealth. Farmers are respectable and interesting to me in proportion as they are poor — poor farmers.”

Maybe if Henry had grown up the son of a poor farmer he would think differently. He seems to think of poverty as simplicity, but more likely it meant living hand-to-mouth, one bad harvest or one market crash away from hunger, under the constant threat of losing your land — for even if a farmer owned his land outright (which Henry said was rare in Concord), being poor meant being always vulnerable to being forced to mortgage one’s land — which under the laws of those days made you a tenant farmer.

And is that poor farmer any less obsessed with profit than the greedy Flint? If you’re scraping to get by, it seems to me that you don’t have the luxury of viewing the world as Thoreau does. You’re probably too busy thinking about how you’re going to afford shoes for the children before the weather turns cold. There’s a big difference between poverty and voluntary simplicity, and Henry, I’m afraid, doesn’t do enough to acknowledge that.

(About  “A Year in Walden”)

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2 thoughts on “In praise of poverty? (Walden 142)

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