Thoreau met an Irish immigrant named John Field, along with his wife and their children, and they sat and talked under the Fields’ leaky roof during a rainstorm. “An honest, hard-working, but shiftless man plainly was John Field,” Henry wrote, and he felt the Fields were making a bad bargain with life and told them so.
Field worked “bogging” for a landowner, “turning up a meadow with a spade or bog hoe at the rate of ten dollars an acre and the use of the land with manure for one year….”
Henry told the Fields that “I lived in a tight, light, and clean house, which hardly cost more than the annual rent of such a ruin as his commonly amounts to; and how, if he chose, he might in a month or two build himself a palace of his own; that I did not use tea, nor coffee, nor butter, nor milk, nor fresh meat, and so did not have to work to get them; again, as I did not work hard, I did not have to eat hard….”
He explained how the family could cut costs and live simply and not have to work so hard. I wonder what they made of this well-meaning stranger. “John heaved a sigh at this, and his wife stared with arms a-kimbo…” Henry wrote.
I can see both sides of it. On the one hand, we all know people who are barely scraping by, living hand to mouth, but who make foolish purchases or neglect obvious (so it seems to us) ways to economize. They go to the check cashing places, get tattoos, and buy cigarettes and lottery tickets. They work long hours at crappy jobs and buy car stereos instead of health insurance. They get ripped off by auto dealers and fall for TV ads and Internet scams, not having the skills (or the will?) to see through any of it. You want to help them. You want to scold them. You want to show them a better way.
On the other hand, here you are living your life as best you can, enjoying those few little luxuries you can afford because life is short, and then some condescending stranger comes into your house and tells you how to change your life….
“I purposely talked to him as if he were a philosopher, or desired to be one,” Henry wrote. And he proposed a radical, unconventional way of looking at life and wealth — as we’ve seen, it often involved an inversion of conventional values. Could his hosts even comprehend what he was saying? To them, life was probably so much better than it had been back in Ireland that they saw no need to question it. They could get tea, coffee, and meat every day! What a blessing! And here comes this local weirdo who tells them to give it all up so they can have more time to wander the woods and think deep thoughts.
One of the funny things about radical ideologies meant to help the poor is that their strongest adherents and best spokesmen tend to be people who come from relatively privileged backgrounds. Why is that? Is it just the education and the opportunity to learn the skills of abstract thinking? Or is it that it takes a certain amount of wealth to become jaded by luxury and want something more?
(About “A Year in Walden”)